Hydropower development is often presented as an unequivocal boon for Nepal. But its impact on people who live in hydro project areas has received little attention. Most large hydro projects in Nepal are located in the ancestral territories of marginalized communities. Many people in hydro project sites have lost their land and livelihoods, and become more vulnerable to disasters. The Upper Trishuli-1 project in Rasuwa is just one example.

The 216 MW Upper Trishuli-1 (UT-1) is a run-of-river scheme that is being developed by Nepal Water and Energy Development Company. It is a joint venture of three Korean companies, the International Finance Corporation (a sister organization of the World Bank), and a Nepali investor.  The project area covers Haku (which now falls in Uttargaya and Ama Chhodingmo rural municipalities), Ramche (Kalika rural municipality), and Dhunche (Gosainkunda rural municipality) in Rasuwa district. The local population is predominantly Tamang. At the time of the study the project had acquired land and was building an access road, though it is still negotiating with the Nepal Electricity Authority to sign a power purchase agreement.

Areas affected by the hydro project.

Project baselines suggested that the project would have serious impact on the local communities and environment. Forty Tamang households would lose their means of livelihood and several others would be displaced from their land. The project would dewater an 11-km stretch of the Trishuli and affect natural riparian and aquatic life. It would take over several community forests on which the locals depend for daily needs, and have significant environmental and social impacts associated with the influx of the temporary construction workforce and heavy construction work.

Land and forest areas acquired for the project mostly lie in Haku, one of the poorest areas in the district. The vast majority of project-affected families speak Tamang, their mother tongue. Many, especially women, either do not understand Nepali or have difficulty expressing themselves in Nepali. (This was also evident during our study, where we couldn’t have communicated with many of the women without an interpreter.) But we found that all project-related communication had been carried out in Nepali. Most of the project-affected families were ill informed about the project and their rights and entitlements.

Consultations had been carried out as a formality; the views of affected people had no bearing on project decisions. For example, project representatives had told the locals that they would be given jobs in the project. But later most of the construction workers were brought from outside Rasuwa district. A resident of ward 8, Haku said, “The project wants cheap labour that they can exploit. They don’t want affected communities to get information about the project through their involvement in the project.”

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Displaced families said that project representatives started off by saying that their land fell in the project area and that the project would have to acquire it. Right from the start, land acquisition was portrayed as something inevitable – a situation over which affected families had little or no control. For poor locals, the cash compensation the project offered in return for their land (NPR 5 lakh per ropani) was a huge sum. In addition, they were told the project would build houses for families that would lose their homes. Project representatives also promised to give people jobs and build roads, schools, and health facilities in the area.

Thus three things created a favourable environment for the appropriation of land and resources: the local population’s poverty and historical marginalization; their lack of information about their rights and entitlements; and the state’s inability to provide them basic services. The project acquired lands, houses, and community forests without facing much resistance from the locals. To put things into perspective, it is unlikely that a well-to-do and socially secure family in Kathmandu would so easily agree to give up their land and house for national development and the common good.

More women than men in the project areas are engaged in agriculture. They hold indigenous knowledge and skills related to farming, seeds, medicinal plants and weaving. Loss of agricultural lands and community forests is deeply disempowering for women. But women’s concerns were neither identified properly during project consultations and baselines, nor reflected in the mitigation measures. Women interviewed during the study expressed a greater sense of loss for their ancestral lands and livelihoods. They said the compensation money was handled and managed by male members of the household. Some said they regretted selling their land and have finally realized the consequences. Bhuti Tamang (name changed), 28, was displaced from Haku Besi (ward 3 of Haku) after the project took her family’s land. Her family moved to Dhunche and eventually managed to buy a small house. “These days we have a hard time even managing a square meal,” she said. “We have four children to look after. My husband works as a porter now. Everything is so expensive in Dhunche, and we have to buy everything.”

File photo from 2016 of women from Haku at a temporary shelter in Rasuwa. Photo: Shradha Ghale.

Although the livelihood of all the affected families was land-based, i.e., agriculture, the project did not offer land-based compensation as an alternative. According to Performance Standard 7 of the International Finance Corporation, a project that is being built on land that is traditionally owned by indigenous communities or under customary use is obliged to provide land-based compensation or compensation-in-kind where feasible. If the project is unable to offer suitable land, it must provide verification that such is the case, and then provide income-earning opportunities over and above cash compensation. But not a single person interviewed during the study knew that such a provision existed. Several displaced families said they were not provided compensation for their standing crop, trees, and medicinal plants.

For a family that has long lived off the land, cash compensation is not only insufficient, it can sometimes prove counterproductive. Past studies on the impact of hydro projects such as Kulekhani, Kali Gandaki, and Mid-Marsyangdi have shown that lack of knowledge about cash management can worsen the situation of displaced families. Most families who lost their land to the UT-1 project lacked information, skills and networks required to make smart, long-term investments. Moreover, their immediate needs took precedence over future goals. Many of those interviewed had already spent the money on their children’s education, loan repayment, and daily necessities. In a few cases, the money had led to family feuds, as it had to be divided among members of the household. Also the cash amount may seem large by village standards, but it was hardly enough for them to buy adequate land for resettlement in a new location. They gave up land they had lived off for generations but lacked the means to find their footing in a new place.

After the project offered to buy their land, people who lived on Guthi land in Haku realized they would need land ownership certificates to sell the land. A local promised to prepare their land certificates and took a total of NPR 1 million and 5 hundred thousand rupees from 16 families. But he disappeared after taking the money. The families endured a lot of physical and mental hardship trying to track him down, to no avail. The person who cheated them was later jailed but the families could not retrieve the money they lost. Some of them remain deeply distressed by their loss.

The project took over six community forests that the communities had long nurtured, held sacred and depended on for their daily needs such as fuelwood, fodder, timber, medicinal plants and livestock grazing. Once it comes into operation, the project will dewater the stretch of the river that people have been using for various purposes like drinking, cattle feeding, bathing, washing, traditional water mill, irrigation, fishing, and recreation. Eight Dalit households (50 people) have traditionally used the riverbank for cremation for generations. The project will deprive them of access to these sites and alter their way of life.

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Run-of-river hydropower is promoted as a “low carbon” solution to the energy crisis, but studies have shown they are not as “green” as their proponents claim. Tunnels are dug into mountains to divert the river flow and long stretches of the river get dewatered as a result. This not only fragments the river but also threatens to destroy aquatic life. As run-of-river projects depend on snowmelt and steady river flows, they are particularly vulnerable to climate-induced changes in rainfall patterns. In Nepal such projects are mostly located in remote mountainous areas with fragile geological conditions and high seismic activity. The terrain is vulnerable to geo-hazards like landslides, flash floods, and glacial lake outburst floods.

The scale of devastation caused by the April 2015 earthquake should serve as a caution for development projects that involve high-intensity resource extraction. The quake damaged hydropower facilities at 19 sites. Rasuwa was one of the worst-hit districts. Workers at three hydro project sites in the district – Upper Trishuli 3A, Mailung and Rasuwagadhi – lost their lives. At the UT-1 project site, settlements situated near the project’s access road suffered the most damage. Many locals believe that blasting and drilling operations had made the mountainsides unstable and more vulnerable to the earthquake, though project staff dismiss this claim as far-fetched and blame the villagers’ “lack of awareness.” An environmental assessment conducted by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Energy in the aftermath of the earthquake highlighted the need for additional safety assessments at all major hydropower sites in the quake-affected areas. But most projects have resumed construction or operation without such assessments.

Hydropower is seen as the solution to the energy shortage in Nepal and a means to lift the country out of poverty. The hydropower sector therefore remains largely insulated from criticism. Criticism of the sector is limited to complaints about the technical, political and bureaucratic challenges faced by project developers. Losses suffered by local and indigenous communities are often viewed as inevitable collateral damage. Affected communities are seen as an obstacle to be managed skillfully or coerced into submission. (For example, in 2016 the government deployed armed police force against the affected communities of Sindhuli who were protesting against the Khimti-Dhalkebar transmission line.)

Many poor and marginalized communities across the country are bearing the brunt of large development projects aimed at bringing roads, irrigation and electricity. To ensure just and inclusive development, debates on development must move beyond techno-bureaucratic concerns. How can marginalized affected communities get a fair deal when powerful players like multilateral organizations, business people, politicians and the state are on the other side of the negotiating table? How can we ensure that development projects do not benefit some at the cost of others? There are no simple answers to these questions, but avoiding them and running roughshod over the poor and weak is hardly a solution.

This essay is based on a study on the impact of Upper Trishuli-1 hydro project carried out by the authors for Lahurnip.

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