The continuous whirl of hair dryers is a novel sound at the Blush Beauty Point parlour in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, which until just five months ago had to close at regular intervals because of power cuts.
Scheduled power cuts — known as load-shedding — have been a part of daily life in the impoverished landlocked country for decades, forcing small businesses to rely on expensive generators or simply close when the lights went out.
“We had to run our business according to the load-shedding schedule. Clients would call and check if there was light,” the salon’s owner Anita Shrestha told AFP.
But that has all changed since Kulman Ghising was appointed head of the Nepal Electricity Authority in September last year.
Load-shedding — previously up to 16 hours a day in the winter dry season — has all but ended in the country’s three largest cities and in other major towns been reduced to around two hours on alternate days.
“When I was appointed I set the goal that I would at least make Kathmandu load-shedding free,” Ghising told AFP.
“But at that time I felt that whatever I said I could manage more than that.”
Demand for electricity has long outstripped supply in Nepal, with energy production severely depressed by chronic under-investment and inefficiencies in the power network.
The result has been crippling for domestic industry and deterred foreign investment, while crucial infrastructure development has flagged in the years of political paralysis that followed the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2006 and the overthrow of the monarchy two years later.
– Political alignment –
Ghising’s formula to end the power cuts involved tackling some basic inefficiencies.
He overhauled the hydropower generation system — storing water at times of low demand so more could be generated at peak hours. He also ended a policy that provided electricity round the clock to certain industries.
The policy was meant to give 24-hour power to around 20 big employers, but had expanded after decades of mission creep — and backhanders.
“Before there was some mismanagement that some industries get 24 hours (of power), some industries get 12 hours, some industries get only 8 hours. There was unequal distribution of electricity that was not as per the rules of NEA,” said Ghising.
In addition, he brought online some power plants that had been sitting idle due to poor maintenance, and launched a public awareness campaign to encourage people to avoid electricity-guzzling activities — like ironing and pumping water — in the evenings when demand for power is at its highest.
But arguably the single greatest weapon Ghising has is the backing of the prime minister and the energy and finance ministers.
For one of the first times in Nepal’s short history as a parliamentary democracy, all four are members of the Maoist party and that political alignment is bearing fruit.
The country is due to hold its first local elections in nearly two decades later this year and the Maoists need to show results to boost their chances at the polls.
– Hydro potential –
But while Ghising might have turned on the lights for much of Nepal, the country will need to harness its huge hydropower potential to keep the electricity flowing.
“It’s cautious optimism because we are known to squander opportunities,” said Sujeev Shakya, founder of the Kathmandu-based Nepal Economic Forum, of the recent drop in load-shedding.
He added: “Now at (the) NEA you have a good guy and he may try to reform, but the system is designed to take care of the interests of few.”
Nepal with its mountain river system should be an energy-producing powerhouse.
Experts say it could be generating 83,000 megawatts of power, but its total installed generation capacity currently stands at less than two percent of that.
Construction on two long mooted projects is finally expected to begin later this year.
It will take around seven years before they come online, but even one would double Nepal’s current generation capacity, eventually transforming it into an energy exporter.
That would be a game changer for the Himalayan nation, which currently relies on India for electricity in the winter dry season.
But with the average tenure of governments in Nepal at around seven months, many are concerned that another change at the top could reverse the recent gains.
“Development of hydro energy infrastructure requires a long-term view. And with these short-term governments it’s very difficult to believe they can have a long-term view,” said Shakya.
And on the now lit streets of Kathmandu, suspicion darkens the mood.
“I don’t know the details, but I feel like Nepalis were kept in the dark for too long,” said Shrestha as she styled a client’s hair into cascading curls.
“There is a tension that there will be power cuts again if the government changes.”