Nepal’s Alarming and Unsustainable Fossil Fuel Addiction

Aago taapnu muda ko,kura sunnu buda ko. {“Warm yourself on a log fire, listen to wisdom of the Old Ones”} - traditional Nepali proverb

April 14, 2013, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 06 No. -20 Apr.12- 2013 (Chitra 30, 2069)

Continuing the tradition of Pani Satsangs, following the earlier one that discussed transmission bottlenecks to hydro power development, the 34th Pani Satsang focused on Nepal’s addiction to fossil fuel and how the transportation sector could be weaned away from it. Organized jointly by the Switzerland’s Toni Hagen Foundation and Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, it exposed the staggering and unsustainable levels of current fossil fuel consumption in Nepal. Beyond the alarm, the presentations and discussions at the Satsang also showed us the options of moving onto a more environment and village friendly transportation future. Moreover this Pani Satsang was also to honor a genuine friend of Nepal, Toni Hagen, who had dedicated the working years of his life to Nepal. He believed that Nepal, like mountainous Switzerland, should go for ropeways development, powered by indigenous hydropower, to complement trunk-route highways, rather than devastating fragile hillsides with unsustainable and landslide-inducing roads. The last essay he wrote before he passed away in 2003 was in the book Ropeways in Nepal (Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, 2004), which compared the path taken by Switzerland that was climate-, economy- and environment-friendly versus the fossil fuel addicted one pursued by Nepal since the last half-century.

With geology as his professional background, Toni Hagen arrived in Nepal in 1950 to map the Nepal Himalaya, a task that required him to trek the entire length of Nepal from the Tarai to the high Himalayas, in search of precious mines and mineral which could benefit this country. Along the way, he was moved into proposing solutions to the extraordinary challenges faced by the rich mosaic of communities in Nepal. Thus began his pursuit of happiness to bring the solace of development to Nepalis, cut off from global happenings and lacking basic necessities to sustain their livelihoods. He understood the political economy of development this country faced and he sought to provide the best available options, often against the grain of official foreign aid fads, to move this country to a more sustainable future. Speakers at the Pani Satsang shared their research findings, others who shared their deep admiration of Toni Hagen's work. Those present, especially among the younger generation who had not heard of Toni Hagen or his work were moved to looking for answers to same questions he had asked years earlier.

The Satsang was inaugurated by Katrin Hagen, Toni Hagen's daughter who is a doctor and had come to Nepal this time to run a medical camp in Taplejung.  She described how Toni had arrived in Nepal on the invitation of King Mahendra, to explore the development needs required by the country in whose heart Nepal’s villages occupied a special place. She highlighted Toni Hagen's belief that a nation can make peaceful progress only by sustainable projects that promote decentralization, local participation and provide cash to villagers. Today with “Dozer Aatanka or bulldozer terrorism” of roads being indiscriminately gouged out in every VDC’s hillslopes, one must wonder why well-known sane alternatives were not chosen by Nepal’s development leadership – that of gaon-besi ropeways which would have been economically far more beneficial to Nepal because, by using indigenous hydropower, it would also be conserving the rural environment with pollution free and low maintenance.

Toni's understanding of Nepal and how much he wanted to assist the nation in meeting its goals was further highlighted by the former Nepalese ambassador to Switzerland. Mr Shamburam Simkhada appreciated the how Toni loved not just the geography of the country but even more the amazing resilience and adaptation capabilities of the Nepali people. Even with great social, economic, environment adversities on their path, they somehow managed to create solutions befitting the communities and the environment they lived in. Such was his admiration for the people and country, and so effective an unofficial ambassador of Nepal that he came to to visit the country a day after his beloved wife passed away. Toni Hagen’s inspiration was not just limited to Nepal: his books have served to inspire those abroad as well. This point was further expanded by His Excellency Dr Thomas Gaas, the Swiss Ambassador to Nepal, who, while traveling to Cameroon, had Toni Hagen’s book in German, which translates roughly to “The Ways and Errors of Development Corporation”.

This Pani Satsang also presented us with alarming numbers, highlighted by Professor Amrit Nakarni from the Center for Renewable Energy of the Institute of Engineering, which show how the country is hurtling headlong into economic bankruptcy. Currently Nepal spends 126 percent of its foreign exchange earnings for importing fossil fuels, mostly for transport and private captive diesel plants due to the massive power cuts in the national grid. This has led to an oil addiction such that if there were any international increase in oil prices, Nepal will face an economic catastrophe over and above the political mess she is already in. With load shedding hours increasing, it was shown that 40 percent of the fossil fuel imported is utilized for running private generators. Umesh Shrestha described how Nepal Oil Corporation is already into undeclared bankruptcy, and the only sane alternative is to “go electric”. Today more than 600 electric three wheelers transport more than 125 thousand passengers daily, and that needs to be promoted on a war footing by the government if the country is not to become an economically failed state. Dipak Gyawali, Chair of Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, described how as minister and ex-officio chair of Nepal Electricity Authority, he had the NEA board pass in May 2003 electricity tariff restructuring with time-of-day metering that would have allowed electric vehicles cheap, off-peak Rs 2.10/kWh of electricity between 10PM and 5AM. Unfortunately, subsequent party governments failed to move in this direction.

We must start researching for local technology, materials, skills and ideas in order to progress. This is what the nations require today in order to take strides in economic and environment sustainable progress.  It is same point which Toni Hagen pointed out time and again for more than half a century, and repeated it a decade ago to Durga Nath Sharma on Nepal Television. He said, “…but all this has to start at the grassroots. The people have to participate in shaping their own destiny. No one can dictate to them, and you cannot have democracy without it only through violence and bloodshed.” After a decade of violence in name of democracy, equal rights and economic empowerment to all, the country is no better socially, economically and environmentally, than it was earlier. It is high time to follow the Nepali proverb and listen to the words of the Wise Ones.

Nirendra Basnet

He is studying in Asian Institute of Technology. He can be reached at nirendra1.basnett@gmail.com

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