Mon, Feb 20, 2017 - Page 4 News List

One man carries the burden of Nepal’s power supply

AFP, KATHMANDU

The Kathmandu Valley is pictured in the early evening of Jan. 19.

Photo: AFP

The continuous whirl of hair dryers is a novel sound at the Blush Beauty Point parlor in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which until just five months ago had to close at regular intervals because of power cuts.

Scheduled power cuts — known as load-shedding — have been a part of daily life in the impoverished landlocked country for decades, forcing small businesses to rely on expensive generators or simply close when the lights went out.

“We had to run our business according to the load-shedding schedule. Clients would call and check if there was light,” the salon’s owner Anita Shrestha said.

However, that has all changed since Kulman Ghising was appointed head of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) in September last year.

Load-shedding — previously up to 16 hours a day in the winter dry season — has all but ended in the country’s three largest cities and in other major towns been reduced to about two hours on alternate days.

“When I was appointed I set the goal that I would at least make Kathmandu load-shedding-free, but at that time I felt that whatever I said I could manage more than that,” Ghising said.

Demand for electricity has long outstripped supply in Nepal, with energy production severely depressed by chronic under-investment and inefficiencies in the power network.

The result has been crippling for domestic industry and deterred foreign investment, while crucial infrastructure development has flagged in the years of political paralysis that followed the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2006 and the overthrow of the monarchy two years later.

Ghising’s formula to end the power cuts involved tackling some basic inefficiencies.

He overhauled the hydropower generation system — storing water at times of low demand so more could be generated at peak hours. He also ended a policy that provided electricity round the clock to certain industries.

The policy was meant to give 24-hour power to around 20 big employers, but had expanded after decades of mission creep — and backhanders.

“Before there was some mismanagement that some industries get 24 hours [of power], some industries get 12 hours, some industries get only eight hours. There was unequal distribution of electricity that was not as per the rules of NEA,” Ghising said.

In addition, he brought online some power plants that had been sitting idle due to poor maintenance and launched a public awareness campaign to encourage people to avoid electricity-guzzling activities — like ironing and pumping water — in the evenings when demand for power is at its highest.

However, arguably the single greatest weapon Ghising has is the backing of the Nepali prime minister and the energy and finance ministers. For one of the first times in Nepal’s short history as a parliamentary democracy, all four are members of the Maoist party and that political alignment is bearing fruit.

The country is due to hold its first local elections in nearly two decades later this year and the Maoists need to show results to boost their chances at the polls.

However, while Ghising might have turned on the lights for much of Nepal, the country will need to harness its huge hydropower potential to keep the electricity flowing.

“It’s cautious optimism, because we are known to squander opportunities,” said Sujeev Shakya, founder of the Kathmandu-based Nepal Economic Forum, of the recent drop in load-shedding.

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