February 23, 2012

Nepal running on empty as energy crisis deepens

Added At: 2012-02-22 1:09 PM
Last Updated At: 2012-02-22 1:13 PM
The Himalayan Times - Saved Articles(s)


Residents desperate for fuel unload cooking gas cylinders to a waiting crowd after stopping a distribution truck in Kathmandu on February 1, 2012. A severe shortage of gas cylinders, essential for heating and cooking in a country with no mains supply, has increased the hardship for Nepalis already enduring seasonal daily powercuts of up to 14 hours.

KATHMANDU: Deepesh Aryal and two of his restaurant staffs set out in the dead of night and brave Kathmandu's biting wintry chill to meet a carefully-cultivated contact.

As they count their cash, they could be planning a drug deal or a cloak-and-dagger meeting of spies -- but the truth is rather more prosaic: they are joining a 10-hour queue for cooking gas.

Like thousands of traders in Kathmandu, 28-year-old Aryal will go to extraordinary lengths to secure the fuel he needs to run his business amid an energy crisis which is crippling life in the impoverished nation.

He is forced to queue for the best part of a day and, after his 4:00 am start, he finally has three full cylinders of cooking gas.

But they will run out and soon he will have to repeat the arduous trip.

"I had to wait until 2:00 pm to get the cylinders filled," he told AFP. "I was lucky because I knew the gas dealer. Imagine how hard it is for people without connections."

A severe shortage of gas cylinders, essential for heating and cooking in a country with no mains supply, has increased the hardship for Nepalis already enduring seasonal daily power cuts of up to 14 hours.

Exacerbating the problem, a shortage of petrol and diesel means people have to queue for many hours or turn to the black market to run cars and the generators which light their shops when the electricity goes out.

The crisis has led to angry criticism of the government and even civil unrest, with protests stopping traffic and citizens resorting to criminality to get hold of fuel.

Earlier this month a group of Nepalis stopped delivery trucks carrying gas on a busy highway and distributed the cylinders among themselves.

The deprivations and sacrifices of the fuel crisis can be seen in every corner of Kathmandu.

Students have raided gas depots, queues of cars and motorcycles snake back hundreds of metres (yards) from petrol stations, fuel trucks require police escorts and restaurants have reduced menus in an effort to save on gas.

Taxi driver Jagaran Tamang, 22, says he is forced to spend half his day queuing for fuel and might even move to South Korea for temporary work.

"These days, I drive to a petrol station and wait in queue for more than five hours. During that time, I could have ferried half a dozen passengers," he told AFP. "It has become hard to survive."

The factors blamed for the crisis are complex but years of political paralysis following the 1996-2006 Maoist insurgency have not helped.

Experts say Nepal's huge mountain river system could be generating up to 83,000 megawatts of power, allowing it to sell surplus electricity to other countries.

But development of infrastructure ground to a halt during the civil war and the nation produces a paltry 688 megawatts a year.

As a result it has to import petroleum products worth 80 billion rupees ($1 billion) a year.

The government-run Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), which provides subsidised fuel to consumers, has fallen behind on its payments to India and in January the NOC hiked petrol, diesel and gas prices, leading to angry protests.

The demonstrators blocked traffic and shut shops across the country, withdrawing only after Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai pledged to address their demands.

The government has since given the NOC two billion rupees to pay off the Indian Oil Corporation, but the crisis continues unabated.

Energy analyst Amrit Nakarmi described the fuel shortages as an "artificially created crisis" caused by the government's failure to institute a pricing structure based on demand and world prices.

"The government has arbitrarily increased the price of petroleum products. It doesn't want to manage the (fuel supply) properly but neither does it want to privatise, which has exacerbated the problem," he said.

"Our dependence on fossil fuel is increasing each passing day with the increase in population and the development of small urban areas where consumers prefer cooking gas. The crisis will be more frequent in coming years."

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