Democratising Micro-Hydel : Structures, Systems and Agents in adaptive technology in the Hills of Nepal

A. Regmi

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    Hydel technology inNepalis shaped by macro and micro power policy models. While the state-controlled grid system supplies energy nationally, micro-hydel have been romanticised and perceived as 'community-oriented' alternative system of rural electrification. The system has been designed with the premise that this is the 'appropriate' form of power supply, often overlooking the existing power bases and the 'adaptive' features of these hydraulic, transformative and evolutionary ensembles. Significant development of micro-hydel inNepalhas placed this technology in the forefront of these alternative forms of power supply. However, very little research has been done on the evolution of the micro-hydel sector or on the impact of this technology in the rural areas ofNepal. Out of the country's total population of 22 million, only 1.1 million rural people have access to electricity, the majority of them through the 'renewal energy'-based small capacity micro-hydel.

    This study documents micro-hydel technology realities and hydropower policy inNepalthrough an inter-disciplinary field study of four hydel systems in the Kabhre Palanchowk district, in the central hills ofNepal. Most of the plants were implemented under the Rural Energy Development Programme (REDP), supported by UNDP. Three of these systems are in the micro-hydel category for supplying electricity to local communities and one is in the medium category, which also feeds the national grid. The sites studied range from State-run to community-run 'decentralised' systems involving a number of institutions and a variety of institutional approaches. These sites also show interesting interface with irrigation and energy water users. Each of these four studies looks at how technology can be designed to transform and evolves, to provide the wanted output and accepted governance. These case studies reflect how and why different levels of technological adaptation have come into being beyond a 'hydraulic ensemble' and whether 'technological democracy' is achieved through these adaptations. The study focuses on 'community-oriented micro-hydel systems' to study the systems that not only generate electricity for a community but also are shaped by it. This research also addresses the interface between local power provision and water resource management within the sites of investigation.

    This thesis is divided into nine chapters. Chapter 1 sets the stage for the analytical framework of the arguments presented. Chapters 2 and 3, analysing at the societal level, provide broader historical and political policy perspectives and the social actions surrounding them. Chapter 3 particularly looks at the social changes and responses as the research area exploded into local action generated by the Maoist movement during the period of field research. This chapter shows how identity and violence become embedded and inter-linked with rural politics and hydel technology to reinforce the struggles for equity and development.

    Chapters 4 to 8 present the case studies and examine the different trajectories of micro-hydel technology choice, implementation and adaptation by studying the interactions of structures, systems and agents in the materialisation and functionality of designs. Chapter 4 shows how communities have innovated and adapted to maintain a 12 kW capacity cross-flow turbine, a design developed by a national manufacturer. Chapter 5 examines the interfaces of 8 kW capacity propeller turbine installed and implemented under an R and D initiative and the adaptation of the community around this design. Chapter 6 examines the various networks, agents and actions in the materialisation of the Pico Power Pack (PPP) of 4.2 kW capacity developed by a foreign designer but manufactured locally. By studying the historical shaping of the early intervention of State hydropower plant that uses Francis Wheels to generate2.4 MW electricity, designed and implemented by Russian technical assistance,chapter 7 provides insights on comparative design choices, both on grid versus non-grid intervention and on grid-system evolution. All these four case study sites are linked to theRoshiRiversystem. The structure-system-agent linkages in the case study chapters are scrutinised to show different coalitions and sequences of actions around and within the technology, to transform the original devices and establish working practices. By charting an interdisciplinary technography of hydel systems, these chapters examine how the sociotechnical knowledge systems have been built, embedded, adapted and shaped within the community by various design networks. In all these chapters, this research juxtaposes why and how things transform. Subsequently, Chapter 8 explores the extent to which hydraulic, transformative and evolutionary mechanisms interface, adhering to the basic levels of operational, socio-political and financial accountability. This chapter introduces the concept of constitutional accountability, one that is guided by moral and political responsibilities and shows that this level can be strengthened inNepal.

    The final chapter, Chapter 9, revisits the key concepts discussed in the preceding chapters, bearing in mind that democratic technology is shaped by society and humans where technological democracy adapts, transforms and evolves within the field of 'democracy'. This chapter discusses the key messages and contributions of this research to policy, practice and theory, and concludes with a suggested agenda for reform forNepal.

    This thesis is based on the central argument that design of technology is an outcome situated within the triadic interfaces of structures, systems and agents. The study shows that hydel technology inNepalillustrates significant characteristics of authoritarianism in design. Against a backdrop of myriad design networks influences by donors and private manufacturers, this thesis shows that the spread of democratic institutions does not necessarily signify the spread of democratic technology. This study suggests that 'democratising technology' require creation of required political spaces for discourse, recognising contestations and building and re-building of democratic institutions by adhering to the basic principles of accountability.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Vincent, Linden, Promotor
    Award date19 Apr 2004
    Place of PublicationWageningen
    Print ISBNs9789058089830
    Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2004


    • hydroelectric schemes
    • energy
    • electric power
    • democracy
    • nepal
    • government policy
    • technology transfer
    • community involvement


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