Mon, Feb 27, 2012 - Page 5 News List

Nepal running on empty as energy crisis deepens

AFP, KATHMANDU

Deepesh Aryal and two of his restaurant staff set out in the dead of night and brave Kathmandu’s biting wintry chill to meet a carefully cultivated contact.

As they count their cash, they could be planning a drug deal or a cloak-and-dagger meeting of spies — but the truth is rather more prosaic: they are joining a 10-hour line for cooking gas.

Like thousands of traders in Kathmandu, 28-year-old Aryal will go to extraordinary lengths to secure the fuel he needs to run his business amid an energy crisis that is crippling life in the impoverished nation.

He is forced to line up for the best part of a day and, after his 4am start, he finally has three full cylinders of cooking gas.

However, they will run out and soon he will have to repeat the arduous trip.

“I had to wait until 2pm to get the cylinders filled,” Aryal said. “I was lucky because I knew the gas dealer. Imagine how hard it is for people without connections.”

A severe shortage of gas cylinders, essential for heating and cooking in a country with no mains supply, has increased the hardship for Nepalese already enduring seasonal daily power cuts of up to 14 hours.

Exacerbating the problem, a shortage of gas and diesel means people have to line up for many hours or turn to the black market to run cars and the generators that light their shops when the electricity goes out.

The crisis has led to angry criticism of the government and even civil unrest, with protests stopping traffic and citizens resorting to criminality to get hold of fuel.

Earlier this month a group of Nepalese stopped delivery trucks carrying gas on a busy highway and distributed the cylinders among themselves.

The deprivations and sacrifices of the fuel crisis can be seen in every corner of Kathmandu.

Students have raided gas depots, lines of cars and motorcycles snake back hundreds of meters from gas stations, fuel trucks require police escorts and restaurants have reduced menus in an effort to save on gas.

Taxi driver Jagaran Tamang, 22, says he is forced to spend half his day lining up for fuel and is even considering moving to South Korea for temporary work.

“These days, I drive to a gas station and wait in line for more than five hours. During that time, I could have ferried half a dozen passengers,” he said. “It has become hard to survive.”

The factors blamed for the crisis are complex, but years of political paralysis following the 1996 to 2006 Maoist insurgency have not helped.

Experts say Nepal’s huge mountain river system could be generating up to 83,000 megawatts of power, allowing it to sell surplus electricity to other countries.

However, development of infrastructure ground to a halt during the civil war and the nation currently produces just 688 megawatts a year.

As a result, it has to import petroleum products worth 80 billion rupees (US$1 billion) a year.

The government-run Nepal Oil Corp, which provides subsidized fuel to consumers, has fallen behind on its payments to India and last month the company raised gas and diesel prices, leading to angry protests.

Demonstrators blocked traffic and shut shops across the country, withdrawing only after Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai pledged to address their demands.

The government has since given the company 2 billion rupees (US$25.4 million) to pay off the Indian Oil Corporation, but the crisis continues unabated.

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