Despite having over 6000 rivers and rivulets with abundant quantity of water flowing towards south, Nepal has gone through a severe water crisis everywhere in the country. In the remote areas, water sources are very scattered and people have to spend hours to get a bucket of water. In cities such as Kathmandu, getting a bucket of water in the morning is like getting a victory after fighting a big war. Quality of water does not come into discussion as quantity is yet a big deal. However, millions of people are suffering health problems not only because of insufficient supply but also having poor quality of water. Poor quality of water could be due to various reasons; however, the focus of this article is to highlight the water contamination due to batteries especially from solar photovoltaic home systems discharging in the vicinity of Silent Springs in rural Nepal.
Alternate energy development was supported in Nepal starting from Eighth Plan (1992-1997), and got continues focus in Ninth Plan (1997-2002), The Tenth Plan (2002-2007) and The Interim Plan (2007). Promotion of solar photovoltaic system was one of the priorities to enhance the rural livelihood in all of those plans. As a result, over 87000 solar home systems were installed by the end of 2007 through SHP and it is planned to install approximately 150,000 SHS by the month of March 2012 on a demand driven basis. Solar home systems have been even more popular recently as the country goes to load shading of approximately 18 hours a day in dry months where water level in hydro dams reduces substantially.
Lead-Acid battery is still the battery of choice for 99% of solar and backup power systems in Nepal and everywhere. As the name indicates, it contains lead and acids, usually sulfuric acid. According to WHO (1989), lead is a highly toxic metal that produces a range of adverse health effects. Lead exposure can cause brain damage; affect a child’s growth; damage kidneys; impair hearing among several other effects. Elevated lead levels can increase blood pressure, kidney damage, digestive problems, nerve disorders, sleep problems, muscle, joint pains etc. Infants and children including fetus are more vulnerable to lead exposure as the tissues of small children are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Acid is obviously a very caustic and toxic material as well. The haphazard disposal of batteries whether solar or car batteries has a high potential to contaminate water. USEPA has set 15 parts per billion (ppb) as the maximum level above which water system should be treated before consumption should it occur in drinking water.
The users of solar home systems in Rural Nepal have very minimum knowledge of the chemistry and operation of the batteries such as where to store safely, how long to charge, changing after its life cycle etc. The situation is severe in very remote districts such as Dolpa. Discharging the batteries in their backyards is a very common phenomenon in rural Nepal. In such cases, no safe methods of acid disposal are generally adopted such as neutralization, dilution, vegetation control, soil filtration etc. Over 180,000 batteries were imported for solar electricity generation purpose in Nepal from different countries. After their useful life, the batteries are usually disposed as garbage discharging the acids to land or water bodies and sell the remaining part to India.
Management of batteries poses a certain challenge from health and safety point of view. Most of the users of the solar home systems are not aware of the general know how, the storage of used batteries and acid disposal practices. It is reported that in many cases, the users have been changing the batteries without following the proper health and safety procedures. Users do not know the harmful effects about the acid and lead. Moreover, the allowance of transfer of batteries in neighboring India is against the Basal Convention principle which came into effect in 1992. The Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the transboundary movements of hazardous waste between nations. Being the signatory of Basal Convention, it is Nepal’s responsibility to safely manage the battery waste as it provides subsidy to solar home system installation. However, to date, Government of Nepal has neither drawn any policies nor taken any actions towards battery waste management. This situation has created serious concerns on lead contamination in soil and groundwater especially the springs in rural Nepal. Even though, lead can be emitted from other sources, solar home systems could be the most dominating source of lead emission into water bodies in Nepal. A recent study (China Daily, 2009) in China showed that over 121 children out of 287 tested were exposed to over 100 and 218 micrograms of lead per liter of blood and due to this reason the villagers of Huaqiang Battery Plant want to shut down the battery plan forever. Daniel Chiras (2006) wrote that even residents of Nepal which is a non- industrialized country have 10 times higher level of lead in their blood level than those estimated to be present before the widespread use of lead which attests the global distribution of lead into the atmosphere. It shows that lead emission is a global phenomenon, however, thousands of batteries used in solar home systems in rural Nepal aggravates the problem contaminating the water bodies threatening millions of lives.
Discussion on how to recycle the solar batteries is surfacing in Nepal recently. DANIDA indicated in their Review Report that there is a feasibility of lead acid battery recycling plant in Nepal. However, due to very diverse geography and the lack of proper physical infrastructures, collecting batteries to a recycling plant can be a big challenge. Moreover, there is no incentive and policy for the users to deposit used batteries. To make battery collection effective for example, the users should be allowed to buy a new battery only if they deposited the used one.
Even though solar home systems are promoted as ideal solutions for isolated and mountainous areas where grid connection is not feasible, its long-term environmental consequences outweigh its benefits. Moreover, most of the parts of solar home systems are all imported from abroad and money sent by donor agencies is diverted abroad to buy solar home system and their parts. From the strong sustainability point of view, as solar home system is neither good for environment in long-term nor stimulates Nepalese economy, SHS falls under weak sustainability in Nepalese perspective.
Until proper mechanism of batteries and acids collection and recycling/disposal are established, Nepal should reconsider its solar home system policy in favor of its alternatives such as micro hydro projects, biogas, improved cook stoves and biomass gasification systems. These alternatives are not only carbon neutral but do not have negative environmental impact from their life cycle operation. Based on the above mentioned facts, Nepal Government and Donor Agencies should promote micro/mini/small hydro, biogas, biomass combustion technologies such as improved cookstoves, gasifiers instead of solar home systems in Nepal in order to save the battery poisoning of Silent Springs of Nepal as well as stimulate the Nepalese economy.
Note: The author is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sustainable Energy Development in Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.