Nepal's ninth five year plan (1997-2002) aimed to provide electricity to 20 percent of all households. Imagine the surprise when the 2001 Census showed that 39.4 percent of families claimed they already had electricity.
Even the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) had until then thought it provided electricity connections to 18 percent of the population. When the new figures came out, the NEA grudgingly accepted that it could be serving 32 percent of the population and the remaining seven percent was getting lights from village micro-hydro and solar PV.
An explanation for how the NEA has been unwittingly providing electricity to many more households than its Annual Reports even today continue to suggest was put forward by the research group Community Development Awareness Centre (CADEC) earlier this year as part of its report Renewable Energy Data of Nepal 2003 (with access-to-electricity data).
CADEC has tried to explain the difference between what NEA considers connected households and the number of families that have access to electricity. NEA counts the number of energy meters it has installed in houses and multiplies that by the average national family size of 5.6 individuals to calculate the percentage of the population it has reached. The Census on the other hand went door to door and asked if the family had access to electricity.
So how come those that were not connected (did not have a meter installed) as per NEA's records have access to electricity? CADEC demonstrates that there are many families that share meters. This happens most commonly in urban areas where families rent rooms from landlords. The single NEA connection in reality serves many families. In rural areas as in urban slums it is also common to see a number of houses running a wire from the neighbour's house and paying a monthly fee per light bulb.
Then there are many illegal connections in which people hook on to the nearby distribution lines for which they do not pay the utility. For all these reasons more people than in the official NEA records actually have electricity in their homes.
The records for decentralised energy supply are relatively easier to decipher than NEA's statistics. CADEC has computed that Micro-hydropower and solar home systems are providing electricity to a relatively small number of households, 1.9 from micro-hydro and one percent the population respectively at present. But both sectors are growing rapidly and can be expected to play an increasingly important role.
One thing the new numbers do is make Nepal's electricity coverage now comparable to other countries in South Asia. It is still lower than India (46 percent), Pakistan (55 percent), Sri Lanka (62 percent) and Maldives (62 percent), but slightly above the coverage in Bangladesh (38 percent) and Bhutan (35 percent). The fact that almost 40 percent of Nepali families have access to electricity for lighting and other worthy purposes like income generation, tv and radio is a major accomplishment, even if it is inadvertent.
As a first step, the 20 percent figure needs to be revised in the popular press and corrected in NEA and government reports and UN documents. A second number that needs revision is that it is not five but rather 30 percent of the rural population that has access to electricity. This more accurate understanding of electricity access has important implications for planners and policy makers. It indicates, for example, that many more Nepalis are watching television that was previously thought! Another lesson is that NEA needs to make it easier for people to have access to legal connections by making meters less expensive and connection procedures less cumbersome. A recent NEA initiative that could significantly reduce 'hooking' and could also enforce the one-house-one-meter rule is the execution of its 2003 Community Electrification Distribution Bye Laws.
These new regulations encourage organised rural communities, cooperatives, and NGOs to purchase energy from the NEA in bulk and distribute to their members. Early experience in 18 communities that have taken over their own distribution systems has shown dramatic reduction in pilferage of electricity.
Clearly, electricity is a high priority for Nepalis particularly to rural communities not connected to the national grid or have not been able to build their own micro-hydropower systems or purchase solar home systems. The government's promise to provide 80 percent subsidy for communities themselves to build new systems or expand existing networks has further energised local communities. Over 200 groups have applied to take over or construct and manage their own electricity distribution systems. Once this energy is unleashed, and if it is properly managed, the tenth five year plan (2002-07) target of access to the grid to 43 percent of the population and the 15-year goal of getting grid electricity to 63 percent of all Nepalis, are both likely to be exceeded.
Lighting up Humla
It all started as a crazy idea. Journalist and environmentalist Bhairab Risal was talking to Jivan Shahi, the ex-DDC chairman of Humla and they dreamt up a scheme to bring solar-powered lights to each household of this remote northwestern district.
They did their calculations and found it wouldn't cost more than Rs 200,000 to supply the solar panels and batteries to 50 households. So, each family would need Rs 4,000 to make that happen. But in Humla no one can afford that kind of money. So who was going to fund it?
Bhairab and Jivan decided to fundraise from their friends in Kathmandu, and the 'Bright Humla Campaign' was born.
Whenever Risal went to wedding parties and receptions, he told other guests about Bright Humla. "Everyone was positive, some gave me four thousand rupees on the spot," Bhairab recalls. Chartered accountants, businessmen, writers, civil servants even politicians all became instant donors.
Before too long, they had reached their target of Rs 200,000 which was enough for 2004. On 15 June, the first neon light flickered on in Dhanrup Kami's house in Simikot. The other households will all be fitted by the end of the year.
Even after this year's target was met, Bhairab and Jivan were getting donations. So they decided to extend the programme. Now, they aim to collect Rs 2 million to provide lighting for 500 families in Humla in the next two years. Bhairab is already thinking ahead about training local households on taking care of batteries and disposing of old ones, and how the light can make a difference in their lives.
Some 85 individual Nepali donors have contributed to Risal's campaign and he is optimistic about reaching his next target. He is also going further afield to tap funds: the Nepali diaspora who can bring the light of development to homes in a remote corner of Nepal for just $60. "This campaign has proved to me that Nepalis are willing to help each other," says Bhairab Risal.
Jivan Shahi is equally ecstatic. "This is reaffirmed my hope for the future of Nepal."
(Bright Humla Campaign: 01-4232052)