By Stella Paul
KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a Sunday morning, dozens of police officers in combat gear stand guard at a petrol station in Kathmandu’s Lalitpur neighborhood. Outside, nearly a hundred cars, motorbikes and buses form a serpentine line, their drivers hoping to buy a few liters of fuel.
Disruption in supplies since October – the result of a strike at the Indian border - has caused an acute shortage of petrol, diesel and liquefied petroleum gas in Nepal.
There is no guarantee that every customer in the Lalitpur queue will be served, and the police are on alert in case frustration turns to outbursts of anger.
"For over two months now, this has been a common sight across Kathmandu,” said Mohan Singh, a journalist with state-owned Nepal Television.
The crisis has environmental experts hopeful that the government will see the crisis as an opportunity to increase investment in renewable energy sources, which would not be so vulnerable to such strikes.
In the meantime, they worry short-term measures to subsidize fuel wood will undo the country’s progress in protecting its forests.
STRIKE ON INDIAN BORDER
The problems began soon after Nepal adopted a new constitution on September 20. According to Singh, the constitution curbed some rights of people in Madhesh, a province in southern Nepal, bordering India.
To enforce their demands for an amendment, Madheshi political parties called for a strike and blocked incoming supplies of fuel and other goods from India.
With hundreds of trucks prevented from entering Nepal, most petrol stations, cooking gas refill hubs and kerosene stores have now run out of stock.
"The sentiment (of the protesters) is still too strong. This fight is definitely going to continue,” said Singh, who is also president of the pro-protest Madheshi Journalists Association.
According to the Nepal Oil Corporation, the South Asian nation currently consumes 1.2 million tonnes of fuel oil each year, all imported via India, and demand is increasing by 10 percent annually.
Nepal has storage facilities for about three weeks’ supply of fuel.
By early November, the fuel shortage had snowballed into an economic crisis, affecting transportation and tourism, among other industries.
Ironically, the government says the fuel blockade is also hurting efforts to built renewable energy capacity in Nepal.
At the 450 megawatt (MW) Tamakoshi hydropower project and the 30 MW Chameliya hydro plant, construction materials are no longer reaching the sites and engineers and construction workers have been “jobless” as a result, the government said in a report.
Despite the disruption, the government has reiterated its commitment to finding cleaner energy sources, including expediting construction of the 1,200 MW Budhi Andaki hydropower project and Nalsing Gad, a 410 MW hydro project.
Currently, only 1 percent of Nepal’s energy is produced from renewable sources, according to the Independent Power Producers Association Nepal.
Interviewed at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris this week, Krishna Chandra Paudel, Nepal’s environment secretary and chief negotiator at the climate conference, said that Nepal needed an “energy mix” to meet its needs.
"Diversified sources of such energy such as solar, hydro, biogas, wind and other renewables are being encouraged with full exploitation of hydro power potential,” Pokharel said. But he said it was very difficult to predict how soon they might be in place, and at what cost.
CHEAP WOOD A THREAT TO FORESTS
But even as the government promises to adopt more clean energy, it has also started to sell firewood at subsidized rates to tackle the shortage of cooking gas – a move that has been criticized by environmentalists.
For two weeks, each family has been able to buy 100 kilograms of firewood at 15 Nepali rupees a kilo ($0.15), while business owners can buy up to 500 kg of wood at a rate of 17 rupees a kilo. Government-owned timber depots had sold 110 tonnes of wood, sourced from forests in the Terai region, by early December.
Environmentalists fear that this will undo Nepal’s achievements as a global leader in community-managed forestry.
Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, a plant ecologist in Kathmandu, warned that unless there is strict monitoring, promoting firewood as cooking fuel could cause large-scale damage.
"This can increase deforestation and illegal logging,” he said.
A better approach, say some, is to subsidize electrical appliances such as induction stoves and at the same time encourage the production of solar power, biogas and micro hydro-electric projects.
Krishna Pun, a resident of Nangi, one of the first villages in the country to install a mini-hydro project, said the country’s experience in community-run forestry could now be put to building renewable energy capacity.
"We can promote community participation in alternative power and build a new energy movement,” Pun said.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, agreed that Nepal faces serious energy challenges.
"The most important thing for Nepal is to bring electricity to its people,” said Birol in an interview at the Paris climate conference.
"In my view, the best action for Nepal right now would be to take the cheapest option – renewable energy.”
(Reporting by Stella Paul; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)