I dedicate this article to my friend Bir.
This is a story about development, this is a story about human lives, this is the story of Ghodasin, a little village in the remote Mid-Western Nepal.
The Development Context
Nepal is this little country located between two future leading world powers that are China and India, famous outside its boundaries for trekking, observing the highest Himalayas mounts and beautiful landscapes, with a magnificent population and a rich culture. It is simply the country where we can observe both the top of the world, the Everest, as well as an extreme poverty and misery. Indeed, Nepal is the second poorest country in Asia, after Afghanistan, with only $700 GDP per Capita, which is equivalent to an average of $1.91 daily wealth per capita. In 2010, the quarter of the population was below the $1.25 poverty line, most of them located in the remote areas.(1)
The abolition of the 240-year-old Monarchy in 2007-2008 didn’t have significant effect on the economic situation and Nepal development is unfortunately still slowed down by the political instability and several civil conflicts.
In January 2015, Nepalese political parties had to find an agreement for the Constitution Establishment, but selfish behaviors from the parties blocked any potential agreement. Many strikes were organized by the Maoist party in Kathmandu that issued on “zero-activity” situations. Many roads were blocked, stores, shops and restaurants of the Nepali Capitol had to undergo several threats in case they decided to open during these days. The economic activity was simply stopped by the Maoists to demonstrate their disagreement and their conviction in this “Constitution Battle”, leading to several injured people in conjunction with drastic reduction of government income during these protest days.
Moreover, the economic development of Nepal faces other important issues such as a rising inflation, an economic downturn since 2012 (see Figure 1) as well as a high uncertainty for direct foreign investment, which is mainly due to the political instability and the insecurity.
Nonetheless, several international and national NGOs or companies are daily developing social and environmental projects in Nepal so that the living conditions of the population in remote areas have seen important improvements during the last fifteen years. For example, KAPEG, Kathmandu Alternative Power and Electricity Group, is one of the companies that has been contributing for the development of Ghodasin and they invited me to follow them this winter for an electrification experience as well as a social and energy assessment in Jumla district (See Figure 2).
The Ghodasin Village
The story starts fifteen years ago, when Ghodasin villagers lived without neither electricity nor facility at 2500 meters in the middle of Nepali mountains. Bir, a little 6-year-old boy, is playing with some friends. They play with this particular game that looks like a billiard except that there is no ball or billiard cue but they play with little wood discs that they bang together. Around them, you can see some dogs, cats, cows, goats, chicken and cocks that are strolling in the village.
Night falls as though by magic when Bir’s mother is in the kitchen preparing the diner, hardly breathing in this dense and dark smoke. It’s also becoming dark outside and Bir’s father is looking at the brilliant stars while he is walking on his way back from the nearest village, Urthu, the place where he is working as a teacher. The path from Urthu to Ghodasin is very steep and sloping, especially hard to take when the surface is slippery and covered with snow and ice. Even so, he is wearing classic flip-flop shoes, almost bare foot, to climb this hard path thinking about warming up his feet close to the fire once he will arrive at home.
Bir’s father is a lucky man, most of his friends are farmers in the village and they are seeking other jobs or activities whereas lands are not farmable during the winter. Some of them are doing these wool balls continuously during the day, everyday, like if it was their favorite hobby… or maybe their only one while they are waiting for a paid activity. Others are knitting different kinds of carpet with this same wool. A small part of those people living in the village spend some savings to go in Kathmandu trying to get a job there and earning some money. Only some farmer-breeders have the duty to stay in the village for managing their livestock and making sure that they will survive to the cold season.
Survive in this beautiful nature is not effortless and people need to adapt their lifestyle by developing several techniques and routines with very few resources. For example, nights are bloody cold during the winter. To be compatible with these extreme climate conditions, the houses were built with a mix of mood and stones, which are more fragile than cement houses but have these particular characteristics to charge the heat from the sunlight as well as from the kitchen fire during the daytime and to free slowly this accumulated heat inside the house during the night.
During the fall, every families try to gather as wood as they can for the fire. They have to climb the mountains around the village, cut some trees and bring down each heavy pieces of the trunk on their suffering back. It could happen that some “rich” families in the village pay directly someone ready to sell some wood pieces, but many trees are freely available on the nearby mountains and the common practice is to cut these trees and bring this wood fuel down to the house for covering the family wood consumption, which reaches a peak during the winter. In most situations, villagers don’t pay anything for energy except some kerosene for people using paraffin lights.
Concerning the other basic facilities, there is no piped water but the mother has to go down two or three times a day at the river to get sufficient water for cooking the rice, for drinking water, etc. to cover all the family needs. There is also no toilet but people have to walk until different empty lands close to the village. For the moment, people are building the future power house close to the river and electricity is not yet available. Bir must learn reading with his father by using the low fire light before or after the diner.
This situation was very common in the area when Bir was a child, but the time passed and the village has seen many changes during the last decade. Nowadays, the living conditions are in many instances completely different and the future perspectives are more encouraging for the new generations.
The New SMS
SMS ? Short Message Service ? No, we will not talk about text messages that are sent everyday on our cellphones. In Ghodasin, SMS firstly refers to Smokeless Metal Stoves that were progressively installed in each household during the last fifteen years. Nowadays for cooking, every household is using Smokeless Metal Stove (SMS) or Efficient Smokeless Metal Stove (ESMS) that are more valuable than the former classic fire on three main aspects.
- Health: These cooking systems produce less smoke inside the house and by the way reduce asthma and coughs, especially for children and mothers. Furthermore, these kinds of stove are safer than classic fire as they reduce the risk of skin burns.
- Environment: Firstly, SMS and ESMS are consuming less wood for the same heat, which is a good point for reducing deforestation. Secondly, the wood consumption reduction plays a very important role for reducing global warming since incomplete wood combustions create significant amounts of black carbon. In 2013, a report written by Bond et al. suggests that black carbon plays a much more important role in climate change than many scientists previously thought and that it is one of the main causes of faster glacial melt in the Himalayas. (2)
- Productivity: SMS utilization allows important time savings. By consuming less firewood and producing a constant heat, SMS, and particularly ESMS, save fuel gathering time, cooking time as well as clothes washing time for the women, which are assuming most of the tasks in the family.
However, people are still using too much wood with the classic SMS and there is still a wood overconsumption issue in the area. There is now a community and government forest that are managed and protected for long term resources management, but some isolated forests are not well managed and people are still cutting trees to get their wood for free. In the long run, people still might face wood scarcity and there is an urgent need to replace their SMS by ESMS. A project for replacing old SMS can be justified with the same arguments as previously. ESMS are really more efficient than SMS and can improve environmental and social living conditions.
The New Bulb
On the Figure 3, we can observe an important improvement in electrical lightning access in the Mid-Western Nepal. Solar lights and electricity represent more than 60% of the lightning systems used in 2011 whereas it represented only 15.69% ten years before when the kerosene was the main energy used for lightning with 71.02%.(3) This evolution can be explained economically as the price of lightning with electricity is in short, middle and long terms lower than lightning with kerosene, especially in Nepal that has important hydropower resources.
In 1999, a Micro Hydro Power system of 12 kW was installed for 86 households first and then for the remaining ones for providing electricity to the entire population (145 households) in Ghodasin. This first access to electricity has conducted considerable improvements for lightning. These improvements dragged diversified positive social effects along such as on the education since a good light availability would allow the children, like Bir was fifteen years back, to do their homework in good conditions with high luminosity, especially after dark, as well as on health as replacing kerosene lights by bulbs reduced household air pollution due to smoke and burns of kerosene. Lightning households with electricity made them more productive and mechanically improved their living conditions in both short run and long run. Lighting is a fundamental human need.
The New Road
To enter the village, we need to trek approximately two hours from the biggest city in the area, Jumla. Despite the airport, Jumla is what we can call a “locally built remote city”. The road to access Jumla was inaugurated only three years back, in 2012, connecting Jumla with the city of Nepalgunj close to the Indian border in the South of Mid-Western Nepal. Before, some goods were imported in the district by flight, a mean of transport that was of course too costly for the majority of the population, especially as the flight sector in the area is a kind of monopoly.
This new road has conducted important reductions in transportation costs for many goods and facilities in the area. Today, this road allows many trucks to transport facilities and materials for several NGOs projects. Now, it is also possible to import basic foods like rice or fruits at a reasonable price, even during the winter.
To conclude with the transport sector, bus companies have created new ride options from Jumla and people can travel today faster than by taking the old paths and at lower cost than buying one of these expensive and limited flight tickets.
Bir is now 21 years old and he is studying Law in Kathmandu. If all these projects had not been done in the area by NGOs or social companies like KAPEG, this opportunity to become graduate would maybe never happen. Bir has the project to become a politician and he is already involved on many projects like in Urthu, the nearest village from Ghodasin, to implement a new library for improving education access and facilities in the area. His parents and Ghodasin inhabitants are now benefiting from piped water and latrines. Some farmers are enjoying greenhouses that allow them to farm during the winter. Every house has at least one efficient compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), most of the houses have a radio, 70 households have a TV, etc. To resume, facilities are more and more common in the village and the demand is very intense. I will always remember this 75-year-old woman that explained me that her dream was to get a TV to see the world in color…
There is are still some projects to conduct and, for example in the near future, computers and internet would increase education level even more than the current improvements and facilities installations. There are 1.2 billions people in the world, maybe even more according to different estimations, that are leaving without any electricity access. Some of those people are simply waiting a bulb to light their houses or their stores. Furthermore, there are many potential productive uses of electricity that could be exploited to contribute in improving their living conditions. Electricity access has the opportunity to change many lives and can open up new horizons for millions of people on Earth, as it was the case for the family of Bir and Ghodasin villagers as well as thousands of people already in Nepal.
(1) World Bank – Nepal Statistics, http://data.worldbank.org/country/nepal
(2) Bond, T. C., et al. (2013), Bounding the role of black carbon in the climate system: A scientific assessment, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jgrd.50171/full
(3) Nepal Central Bureau of Statistics, http://cbs.gov.np/
Article also available on NewEconomist.fr.