PHARPING HYDROPOWER PROJECT : A Legacy of Challenges in Nepal’s Hydropower Sector Development

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 PHARPING HYDROPOWER PROJECT : A Legacy of Challenges in Nepal’s Hydropower Sector Development

Pharping Hydropower Project is the first hydropower project in Nepal and considered to be second in South Asia.

The project was inaugurated by the then King Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah on May 22, 1911.

Built by Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher JB Rana, the hydropower project was initially named after him: Chandra Jyoti. It had taken four years to commission the project. The project is estimated to have cost Rs 713,273 at that time.  

The water stored from local sources in Satmule and Sesh Narayan was channelized from a 200-meter high dam to generate 500 kilowatts of electricity.  The power produced from the hydropower project, which is located 12 kilometres south of Kathmandu, was used mostly to light houses and palaces of the elite Rana families.  

The Rana Prime Minister built the hydroelectricity with the help from British engineers and equipment and machineries as part of his plans to modernize Nepal. Senior members of the Rana regime were mobilized to implement this project. Padhma Shamsher Rana was the project chief while Mohan Shamsher and Keshav Shamsher undertook the responsibility to import machinery and equipment required to build the project. Kishor Narasingh Rana was the executive engineer while Kumar Narasingh Rana was working in the capacity of Superintending Engineer in the project. Similarly, Lieutenant Devi Bahadur and Subedar Harsha Bahadur were assigned the responsibilities related to the transmission line. By mobilising senior officials, the Rana regime has not only accorded the project a high priority but also took an approach to swiftly address any problems that the first hydropower project could face while bringing it into operation.  

It was not an easy task to build a hydropower project at that time when there were no roads, skilled manpower and other infrastructures.

Interestingly, over a century down the line, Nepal’s hydropower sector is reeling under similar challenges.

Transportation of equipment, transmission lines, technicians and human resources are some of the major challenges still facing the hydropower sector.

Even 110 years after the construction, this hydropower project can generate electricity.  However, the electricity generation has been halted as the water used to produce electricity in the project is being supplied to local residents due to rapid urbanization in and around the project site which has put pressure on the water supply.  

Though the government has made a plan to build a model museum for hydropower development as well as a research center to study wind and hydro energy, there has not been much progress toward this end.

Visit to the project site shows the extent of the government’s apathy towards the project that not only carries the history but also embodies the spirit of the development during the Rana oligarchy.

It is said that people used to come to Tundhikhel to see lights after electricity from Pharping Hydropower Project started to illuminated houses and palaces of Royal families. The electricity produced by the Pharping Hydropower Project became a status symbol for elite families during the Rana regime. Rana rulers did not have a plan to power industries and factories from the electricity. The electricity was used mostly for showoff and luxury purposes during the Rana era, indicating a misguided practice of electricity consumption in Nepal from the very beginning when the country started to generate electricity.

This practice continues to the present date when the country is on the way to generate surplus energy. Policymakers are yet to think beyond electricity as a consumable commodity. Though Nepal is bracing for surplus energy with some bigger hydropower projects coming online in the near future, there has not been much homework to utilize the electricity to boost production. The government has neither formulated policies to modernize various sectors of the economy including agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and transportation through the use of electricity nor carried out any study on absorptive capacity. What’s worse is that some policymakers believe that the surplus energy should be a reason to halt construction of new hydropower projects. These logics or nonactions can be blamed for the slow progress of the hydropower sector in Nepal even after a one and half centuries of the first hydrpower project coming into online.

Electricity can be traded in the international market. Not only is there a huge demand for electricity in the international market, Nepal’s neighbors are already charting plans of prosperity from the imports of clean energy from Nepal.  However, authorities and planners in Nepal have neither focused on increasing domestic consumption nor on exporting electricity. Independent power producers complain about the lack of rules, policies and infrastructure to produce electricity at cheaper or competitive prices in the international market. Stating that hydropower projects still face the problems of skilled technicians, access roads, transmission lines and other infrastructures that hydropower projects, transmission lines like in Rana era, government and power producers are still crying for help from foreigners for the development of hydropower sector.

Despite being the oldest, the Pharping Hydropower Project provides a case study of the impact of the infrastructure development and the hydropower sector in the country.  The project also reinforces that hydropower projects are investments that pay dividends or benefits for over a century just from simple or general maintenance of their structures. So, the government should carry out in-depth study while selecting projects so that they can have long-term benefits to the country. Financial evaluation, cost estimate and feasibility study should also take into consideration the project’s lifespan. This will not only reduce the project’s cost but also make electricity cheaper for consumers.

Infrastructure projects like Pharping Hydropower are precious assets of the country which should be treasured by the government.

If its production and services are utilised properly, it will not only benefit local communities but also to the country.

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