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Nepal becomes land of the blackout

Tika and Suraj Thapa
More and more schoolchildren are doing their homework by candlelight

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

It's a Friday evening in the home of Chandra Bahadur Thapa, his wife and their three grown-up and teenage children.

As in many Nepalese homes there is a small Hindu shrine in the corner. There's also a picture of David Beckham, a panorama of the Annapurna mountains and some mathematical tables pinned on the wall.

In their cramped accommodation - just two rooms - television is good entertainment, and four of them huddle on the bed to watch.

Then, punctually at 2000 local time, the lights and the TV go out. There are groans and laughter. Fumbling for matches and candles follows - now a regular routine given the new, swingeing power cuts.

Low water

The Thapas, like everyone else, are this winter having to cope with severe and unprecedented electricity cuts of 14 or 16 hours a day, up from just six hours last year. It is the first winter under the new government led by the Maoist former rebels

Although only 40% of this rugged country's population is connected to the electricity grid, in urban areas people are used to having power on tap and much of life revolves around using it.

Nepal Electricity Authority Managing Director Uttar Kumar Shrestha
After five years, Nepal will not have any power cuts
Uttar Kumar Shrestha,
MD, Nepal Electricity Authority

Eighteen-year-old Tika and Suraj, 16, bring out their homework, which they tackle on a mattress on the floor. Tika says working by flickering candlelight is hard on the eyes.

"I am a computer student," she says. "I don't have a computer at my home so I have to work in college, but due to load-shedding [power theft] I couldn't do my practical. Last week was my exam, I had to study but I couldn't do well."

Dinner is cooked on a gas stove and eaten by candlelight.

There are many reasons for power scarcity in Nepal. One is starkly evident at a peaceful spot in the hills south of Kathmandu - Kulekhani.

Here lies Nepal's only hydroelectric reservoir, fed by more than 30 rivers and streams. The crispy fish served in a local cafe is delicious. But after insufficient rain in 2008 the water is very low, the earlier dry-season level looking like a kind of scar around the perimeter.

An hour's drive onwards is the linked power station, where schoolchildren are being given a tour of the works. But all is not well. One of the two turbines is out of order - its poor state the result of long-term neglect, I was told.

Internet woes

Amod Kumar Yadav, an engineer at the plant, says it is the same at many of the other, river-driven, hydro stations around Nepal - that their state "is not good because they are not overhauled in time", and that many are old and producing only half of what they should be.

Battery-operated tempos being re-charged
The shortages are also affecting Nepal's public transport

The electricity crisis has been worsened by 10 years of war, which ended in 2006 and put a damper on any new investment; corruption including electricity theft and a steep rise in demand.

The resulting cuts affect almost everyone - schools, private hospitals (government ones have special electricity provision), and businesses.

Small business owners are in despair.

Baleshwor Chaudhary has a modest internet centre in the capital. When I visit him there, he has only the colourful images of Hindu deities for company, along with a few people making phone calls. The six computer terminals are off.

When there was full power he provided internet, scanning and also typing services. Now he spends hours doing nothing; his earnings are less than half what they were.

"It is so hard to survive," he says. "It is hard to pay my rent to the landlord and I cannot pay even electricity bills and telephone bills."

I asked what he would do if it continued. "I have to close my shop. That's it."

'No planning'

Even transport is affected. Kathmandu has 700 battery-operated tempos or rickshaws, each of which carry about 10 passengers.

They have hugely cut down pollution. But with the power cuts, there is now insufficient time to recharge their batteries daily. So half the tempos have been taken off the road.

"This is affecting at least around 10,000 people: 700 vehicles, their owners, their drivers and their children," said Bijay Man Sherchan, chairman of the Electric Vehicles Association of Nepal during an angry protest by the tempo operators demanding special charging facilities.

Kulekhani reservoir
Kulekhani reservoir is running out of water

He said the owners and operators of the charging stations and the manufacturers of the tempos had all been hit.

The managing director of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), Uttar Kumar Shrestha, admits that the situation is dismal.

He said the war had played its part, while things had been brought to a head by the recent lack of rain and the destruction of import lines from India because of last August's flooding in southern Nepal. They are to be repaired soon.

But he also acknowledged that "there was a lack of proper planning" that the NEA was trying to rectify.

He said six new generation projects had been begun, and a private partner was being sought to develop a big new reservoir scheme.

There were also plans to spread the use of energy-saving bulbs by providing two free for every two bought. "After five years, Nepal will not have any power cuts," he promised.

Whether or not that is true, Nepal is currently a dark country - one where the rich are buying generators and the poor are having to re-plan the patterns of their lives.



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