Nepali Times
Wheels of change



Miller Durga Simha Mahat of Chalal, Panauti knew there was more grain in the village than he could really grind. So, the 74-year-old (right) decided to get help improving the water mill he inherited from his father.

Today, Mahat gets to work as early as 5AM, and everyday he grinds about 450kg of grain for an average of eight families. "Sometimes," he smiles, "there's no time even to blink." Now, his son does not have to till other people's fields to ensure the family has enough grain. Instead, he can drive a taxi in Kathmandu, which helps bring in more cash.

The women of Chalal are ecstatic, because the new mill has given them back their time. They're happy to pay Mahat one-fifteenth of the grain he grinds for them. "You have no idea how much time we used to spend at the traditional ghatta," says 49-year-old Subhadra Karki putting her doko full of grain next to the mill, telling of waiting all day for her turn and then having to return the next day anyway. Now, villagers just drop off their grain in the morning and pick it up on their way back home from the fields in the evening.

Since 2003, the Centre for Renewable Technology Nepal has helped improve over 2,400 water mills all over Nepal, close to 10 percent of all the ghattas in the country. As a direct result, about 100,000 rural Nepali households save time and earn more money. For its efforts, the organisation has been named one of the ten nominees this year for the prestigious Ashden Awards for sustainable energy.

The improved water mills grind grain at 20-50kg per hour-up from 10-20kg per hour, hull paddy, extract oil, function as sawmills, and generate up to 3kW electricity. Of CRTN's improved water mills, 237 can do all of this (barring electricity generation), and 31 successfully generate electricity.

In some places, polluting diesel engines are being replaced with clean electricity. It takes two improved water mills to replace a single diesel mill. CRTN estimates that one such switch reduces CO2 emissions by 4.8 tons per year.

A project like this could run into a number of problems in part because while ghattas perform a valuable community function, and often generate resources such as electricity that will be used communally, they are privately-owned. Improvements are made by individuals but are in the interest of the entire village.


In response, an integrated private-ngo-public partnership is emerging to help improve and manage the output of water mills. While CRTN designs and implements the changes, the millers must provide the raw materials themselves. They use local service centres, manufacturers, and financing institutions, and take advantage of the government subsidy available.

The simplest improvement-getting a mill to grind more and faster-costs Rs 15-20,000, and receives a Rs 9,000 subsidy while kitting a water mill out to do all but serve the tea costs about Rs 250,000. The government's Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) will subsidise this expense at the rate of Rs 40,000 per kW of electricity generation capacity-provided at least ten households are lit up.

"The government contributes cash, the mill owners and manufacturers are directly involved, CRTN supports and advises. The project remains sustainable because everyone has certain responsibilities." says Subarna Rai of the Dutch aid agency SNV, which advises, monitors, and evaluates the program activities. Rai believes these projects are perfect examples of public private partnerships.

Ensuring millers' rights is a key factor in making sure the system will work well in future years. Shiva Saran Shrestha, secretary of the Kabhre Ghatta Owners' Association, explains: "Mills are owned by poor families, they have no papers or certification, so technically it's not their property. And that means no insurance, no right over the water they use."

But supporting individual millers is cumbersome and costly and, CRTN believes, only half the battle. "What we have to do is build up local confidence, the owners' associations have been doing just that," says Ganesh Ram Shrestha, executive director of CRTN. The organisation supports eight Ghatta Owners Associations (GOA).

The other factor is keeping the money coming in-not all mill owners can even afford the subsidised cost of improvement. Govind Raj Pokharel, executive director of the AEPC, which provides financial, technical, and policy support to the program, says micro finance institutions, DDCs, and village cooperatives need to work together to find solutions.

CRTN plans to improve 5,000 ghattas by 2008. If they win the Ashden Award, they say the money will go to a pilot project to test a lower-cost improvement that allows a water mill to generate electricity, which can be stored in batteries for household lighting purposes.

In Kulchok in Sindhupalchok, 68-year-old Narayan Bharati can't contain his glee as he tells us about the "singing and dancing and laughing" that has followed the electrification of 40 households through water mill improvement. On the other edge of the ridge, there are houses still lit by sputtering lanterns. "We refused to live in darkness anymore, so we took the initiative and installed the system. If we can do it," says Bharati, "so can they. Anyone can."

Update: Energy award for Nepal

Related Article: Getting out of grinding poverty

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)