Photo Essay

Austin Lord: Making a ‘Hydropower Nation’: Subjectivity, Mobility, and Work in the Nepalese Hydroscape

Gonggar, Dolakha. November 2013.

Construction in the Powerhouse Tunnel of the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW)

Gonggar, Dolakha. November 2013.

The subterranean powerhouse of the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project is located almost a mile underground and is connected to the headworks dam site in Lamabagar, fourteen kilometers away and eight hundred meters above. The construction of this ‘national priority project’ was contracted out to the Chinese transnational SinoHydro, the world’s largest hydropower developer, which has over 1500 employees in the project area. Excavation and construction of the tunnel system proceeds twenty-four hours per day, so as to maintain the politically important project timeline. The UTKHP is the largest project currently being built in Nepal, with an installed generation capacity roughly equal to the total national electricity supply during the dry season. Thus as Kathmandu experiences worsening blackouts, hundreds of Nepali, Chinese, and Indian laborers are working within the tunnel system to deliver the hydropower future, logging twelve hour shifts in difficult conditions. Above the entrance to the tunnel, a sign in Chinese and English that reads: Safety Responsibility is the Most Important than Everything. When this photo was taken just after midnight, the temperature inside the tunnel was 30°C/86°F. When I asked a Nepali engineer about the causes of the heat, he responded: “This is hydropower brother. We’re making money down here.”

Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel, Kathmandu. August 2013.

High Level Discussion on Hydropower Finance at ‘Power Summit 2013: Hastening the Pace of Hydropower Development’

Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel, Kathmandu. August 2013.

This three-day international conference brought together over 500 hydropower developers, government officials, foreign investors, electrical engineers, water resource scholars, development professionals, legal experts, and political candidates to discuss the hydropower future of Nepal. Overtly focused on ‘hastening the pace of hydropower development in Nepal,’ the event was intended to build political and financial momentum for the hydropower sector and to market the promise of hydropower to transnational capital. Developers and financiers from India talked about the massive possibilities for electricity export and their vision of a South Asian grid; foreign delegates from China described their active interest in hydropower in Nepal as ‘a handshake over the Himalaya’; and the ambassador from Norway offered engineering expertise while simultaneously criticizing Nepal’s politicians for self-interested deal-making. One prominent Nepali project organizer proclaimed, “Not one drop of water should flow beyond Nepal’s borders without creating wealth.” In contrast, the CEO of the newly created Investment Board of Nepal reiterated that “Nepal is open for business.”

Lamabagar, Dolakha. December 2013.

Road Leading to the Headworks Dam Site of the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW)

Lamabagar, Dolakha. December 2013.

This photo shows the road to Lamabagar at night, a 68 kilometer track built for and by the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW), currently the largest project being built in Nepal. Trucks run throughout the night to resupply Lamabagar with construction materials and supplies to support over 2,000 laborers and residents. Just five years ago, Lamabagar was considered a very remote area, three days walk from the end of the existing road. Local people praise the convenience and connectivity that the road offers, but express concern about compensation, the tumult and dust of living in a construction zone, and the volumes of people who have arrived to start their own businesses in the area. Once this project is completed, the road will continue upriver to facilitate two other planned hydropower projects, eventually connecting overland to the Tibetan Autonomous Republic (China) through the remote border area of Lapche.

Mailung, Rasuwa. October 2013.

Local Bus Going Through the Dam Site of the Trishuli 3A Project (60 MW)

Mailung, Rasuwa. October 2013.

This road leads along the Trishuli River to Mailung, a small Tamang village that now hosts three different hydropower projects: the Upper Trishuli (216 MW), the Trishuli 3A (60 MW), and the Mailung Khola (14 MW). At the time of this photo, the road led directly through the headworks of the dam site for the Trishuli 3A Project, being built by Chinese contractor CGGC, which was halted for several months in 2013 due to political disagreements, cost overruns, and local protests following landslides triggered by tunnel blasting. Initially built for the smallest of the three projects, this road has been expanded significantly to facilitate project construction, resulting in boom towns and labor camps. Eventually, two more hydropower projects will bring this road to Syaphrubesi, where it will meet with the newly completed Keyrong Road, creating a major transit corridor along the Trishuli River linking Kathmandu to the Tibetan Plateau and China.

Lapche, Dolakha. December 2013.

Powerlines at the Border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (China)

Lapche, Dolakha. December 2013.

This photograph, taken directly at the border of the Tibet Autonomous Republic (China), shows powerlines coming from the Tibetan Plateau that have already been built in anticipation of future border development and transboundary connection. Currently the road ends in Lamabagar, but in the coming years three permitted hydropower projects along the Upper Tamakoshi River and Lapche Khola (representing roughly 430 MW in total) the road will bring the road all the way to the Tibetan border, creating a new overland route and trade corridor. Curiously, the last pole is painted in camouflage.

Shanti Bajaar, Nuwakot. September 2013.

Local Boycott of the Public Hearing for the Trishuli 3B Hydropower Project (37 MW)

Shanti Bajaar, Nuwakot. September 2013.

Flanked by security forces and project planners, an elderly Tamang man watches a locally organized boycott of the official public hearing for the 37 MW Trishuli 3B Hydropower Project held in late September in Nuwakot. This hearing was particularly contentious due to local dissatisfaction with the preceding Trishuli 3A Project, where the Chinese contractor CGGC has not adequately responded to local concerns. Learning from past experience with the political processes of hydropower development, a local concern committee requested that a list of their formal demands be included in the public hearing. Since the Nepal Electricity Authority failed to include these demands, using re-prints of an outdated environmental impact assessment instead, a local boycott or bahiskaar was successfully organized. After lively debate between different ‘project-affected communities’ most of the over 300 people assembled walked out before the meeting formally commenced, and the program did not continue. Nonetheless, the media reported that the hearing was a success.

Nag Dahal, Dolakha. December 2013.

Local Man Fishing in the Tamakoshi River

Nag Dahal, Dolakha. December 2013.

This man and the settlement where he lives are both within the 'inundated area' of the pending Tamakoshi III Hydropower Project, a 650 MW ‘export project’ that will evacuate nearly 100% of electricity generated to India. Such projects are controversial in the current historical moment considering Nepal’s own demand for power, and an electricity deficit often described as a crisis. Such export projects are currently in the political spotlight, after the visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi and the signing of a Power Trade Agreement between Nepal and India that will facilitate international investment to exploit Nepal’s hydropower resources for mutual gain. This project is being pursued by SN Power, a Norwegian contractor which previously completed the nearby Khimti Project (60 MW)—the first private sector hydropower project in Nepal, considered successful in terms of social and environmental mitigation. This mega-project is a ‘peaking reservoir’ project which will periodically submerge roughly 12 kilometers of river and an estimate 88 homes, requiring the relocation and resettlement of roughly 400 people. The requisite environmental impact assessments, formal public hearings, and informal compensation negotiations have all been conducted—‘directly affected people’ are largely prepared to move from their homes, while the rest of the ‘indirectly affected people’ are hopeful of economic development. In 2013 the project was stalled due to political instability and corruption, but recent talks with India have made the future of the South Asian grid much more real.

Archale, Nuwakot. September 2013.

Old Man Reflecting on the History of Hydropower Development in the Trishuli Valley

Archale, Nuwakot. September 2013.

Over fifty years ago, this man worked for three rupees per day as an unskilled laborer during the construction of the 22 MW Trishuli Power Station, which was the largest hydropower project in Nepal when it was completed in 1968. The first Trishuli project was a spectacle at that time, bringing successive waves of foreigners and thousands of laborers from all over Nepal and South Asia, which led to significant changes in local land use and the deforestation of large parts of the watershed to support the construction effort. Some things have changed, and some have not. In the 1960s laborers dug canals and laid pipes to create hydraulic head; now men and machines are drilling massive tunnels into the Himalaya. The village of Archale is currently impacted by two large contemporary projects, as it is located directly above the main tunnel of the pending Trishuli 3B Project (37 MW) and just downstream from the controversial Trishuli 3A Project (60 MW). This man has lived in Archale for over eighty years. He has seen Italians, Germans, Indians, and Chinese come and go to build the hydropower future, and he has now been a ‘project affected person’ three times in his life.

Gonggar, Dolakha. November 2013.

Worker Identity Cards at the Entrance of the Powerhouse Tunnel for the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW)

Gonggar, Dolakha. November 2013.

These identity cards hang outside the main powerhouse access tunnel of the Upper Tamakoshi Project, where there are roughly 80 people working in the main cavern at any point in time – blasting, running excavation machinery, constructing the armature of the powerhouse, pouring concrete forms, and laying cable and conduit for the electrical infrastructure. Project contractor SinoHydro has over 1600 employees working in different facets of construction—the majority of these workers are Nepali laborers, both skilled and unskilled, but there are over 300 Chinese workers and engineers as well. Construction works are overseen by an army of engineers and consultants hailing from Nepal, China, India, Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Though the Upper Tamakoshi Project has an excellent safety record considering its scale, tunnel work raises particular risks and concerns about environmental health - several other projects in Nepal have had serious accidents in recent years. The UTKHP also pays a decent working wage, while several smaller projects do not. Yet due to widespread unemployment and the parallel risks of labor migration, local people across Nepal value the opportunity for any kind of project work.

Lamabagar, Dolakha. December 2013.

Construction of the Desanding Basin for the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW)

Lamabagar, Dolakha. December 2013.

This photograph shows both the massive scale of the 456 MW Upper Tamakoshi Project and the truth in Dipak Gyawali’s assertion that ‘hydropower development has as much to do with concrete as water’. Located below the dam itself, the ‘de-sanding basin’ protects the turbines and infrastructure from siltation by collecting and flushing silt from the intake channel after it is diverted from the river and before it passes into the headrace tunnel. Erosion and siltation can decrease the profitability and even the life of a hydropower project, which has major financial connotations. Adequate measures to deal with siltation are necessary in response to historically variable patterns of erosion in the Himalaya, a young, steep, and shifting mountain range exposed to monsoon precipitation. Climate change and greater climactic volatility bring even greater uncertainty, as monsoonal intensity and variation increases the risks and costs of siltation. Dams and silt management also change the downstream channel morphology – and as the sediment budget is disrupted, riparian soils and fertility can also change. Thus despite the master plans and narratives of hydropower development, the environmental effects are still unknown in the face of significant change – there is a new ‘uncertainty on a Himalayan scale.’

Champani, Nuwakot. October 2013.

Four Generations of Women in the ‘Project Affected Area’ of the Proposed Trishuli 3B Hydropower Project (37 MW)

Champani, Nuwakot. October 2013.

Gendered social exclusion is a major issue across Nepal – which reproduces itself in terms of hydropower development, driving problematic trends within the process of stakeholder engagement. Women often lack information about hydropower projects, and women are always under-represented at project-related meetings – they are told not to go, are unable to attend due to domestic or subsistence workloads, or do not feel comfortable at meetings. Ethnic, caste, and class divisions and exclusions often worsen the situation. Further, massive trends of outmigration have increased the pressures that keep women at home, leading to widely recognized patterns of the ‘feminization of labor’ and the intensification of household work, in the absence of male family members. Social mitigation and stakeholder engagement needs to make a greater effort to engage women in the process, to account for their views and promote their voice in decision making in a substantive way – yet this is rarely the case. At the time of this photograph, these women knew very little about the pending hydropower project, despite the fact that the tunnel will go directly beneath their home.

Nag Dahal, Dolakha. December 2013.

Flood Warning Siren in the Future Inundated Area of the 650 MW Tamakoshi III Project

Nag Dahal, Dolakha. December 2013.

Ten years ago, a flood warning siren system was installed in the Tamakoshi River valley to warn inhabitants in the case of a ‘glacial lake outburst flood’ (GLOF) from Tsho Rolpa, located some 60 kilometers upstream. Tsho Rolpa is a massive glacial lake that has been expanding as climate change causes glacial ablation in the Upper Rolwaling, and was considered very high-risk until extensive engineering efforts succeeded in lowering the water level. Ironically, some 12 kilometers of the Tamaokoshi valley will soon be flooded by the Tamakoshi III project. Yet the siren system still stands in the fields of Nag Dahal, a village that will be entirely underwater and relocated, as a testament to a different kind of risk calculation.

Lamabagar, Dolakha. December 2013.

New Employees Outside SinoHydro Project Headquarters at the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project Dam Site

Lamabagar, Dolakha. December 2013.

These men are migrants from other parts of Nepal who have arrived at the hydropower frontier in the hopes of finding work. This photo was taken just outside the field offices of SinoHydro, the Chinese contractor completing the civil engineering works for the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project. These men are holding their hiring paperwork in their hands, and wearing their newly issued safety gear. Work at the project site is intensive and often hazardous, especially within the tunnel system – though the UTKHP does have a good safety track record, which is monitored by a Norwegian engineering consultancy NorConsult. Employees generally work in 11-hour shifts, rotating to ensure 24-hour construction. For this project (perhaps due to government and third party oversight) the pay is considered good for the area, and hundreds of people have come into the area from outside – some are daily or task-specific wage labor, and some work on monthly contracts.

Shanti Bajaar, Nuwakot. October 2013.

Nepal Electricity Authority Offices Being Built Around Project Headquarters of the Trishuli 3A Project

Shanti Bajaar, Nuwakot. October 2013.

Built in the middle of rice fields along the floodplain, the project headquarters is an assemblage of different activities and institutions – an arrangement reflecting the larger pattern of hydropower development in Nepal. At the center of the complex are the field offices for the China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC), the contractor for the Trishuli 3A Project, surrounded by temporary housing for some eighty Chinese engineers and twenty Nepali employees (there is another labor camp further upriver at the dam site that houses the majority of informal laborers). The CGGC camp, in turn, is encircled by the half-finished shells of seven buildings that will serve as the field offices for the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) during the construction and commercial operation of the Trishuli 3B Hydropower Project and the Trishuli 3B Transmission Substation. Immediately outside the complex sits a station for the Nepal Armed Police Force (APF) who are tasked with securing the project area.

Syaphrubesi, Rasuwa. October 2013.

Turbine Room of the 22.1 MW Chilime Hydropower Project

Syaphrubesi, Rasuwa. October 2013.

Completed in 2003, the Chilime Hydropower Project is often considered an example of ‘best practices’ of hydropower development, and is sometimes even referred to as an ‘indigenous project’ due to the role of Nepali engineering and Nepali capital. In 2010, the Chilime Hydropower Company Ltd. completed an IPO on the Nepal Stock Exchange (NEPSE) and broke new ground by offering 10% of these publicly traded shares to local ‘project-affected people’ living in Rasuwa District. By providing a direct equity stake to local people, the Chilime Model has proven to be a pragmatic and effective model of benefit sharing—improving upon other models that are prone to corruption, elite capture, and politicization. Local people have benefited significantly as the value of Chilime’s stock continues to rise, and the company is now pursuing several other projects in the region with local support. This photo of the nerve center of a well-run medium-scale hydropower project is thus a unique kind of success story—can this be replicated?

Archale, Nuwakot District. September 2013.

Dalit Family Living Directly Above the Future Tunnel of the Trishuli 3B Hydropower Project (37 MW)

Archale, Nuwakot District. September 2013.

Hydropower development brings a new landscape of risk and opportunity to watersheds, but one already shaped by longstanding inequalities. Abstract ideas of ‘affectedness’ and ‘project-affected persons’ are in fact a diverse array of lives shaped by longstanding patterns of inequality and social exclusion. Consequently, the rights and needs of Dalit communities are imperfectly recognized and often politically overlooked within the process of hydropower development. Despite the formal rejection of the caste system in Nepal, durable social prejudices and economic structural inequities limit the political voice and economic mobility of Dalit and other low-caste and marginalized people. This Dalit family lives directly above the intake tunnel for the Trishuli 3B Hydropower Project, soon to be built. They expect that their small plot of land will be acquired by the project and (unlike most Dalits who do not hold title to their land) and hope to receive fair compensation that will allow them greater mobility. The father of this family has been working inside the tunnel of the Trishuli 3A project further upstream, which he says is very dangerous. But despite low wages and safety concerns, this is undoubtedly the best work he can get in the area—most Dalit laborers work in the fields for high-caste landlords who pay in food and very limited wages. Most high-castes in this area do not want to work for the project, instead choosing more lucrative jobs in the Gulf States. But as a Dalit without social connections, this man cannot find good work abroad. So he and others with limited options work in the tunnel, while their needs are simultaneously crowded out or silenced in more processes of formal stakeholder engagement. Thus some have better access to the hydropower future than others.

Salleta, Rasuwa. October 2013.

Headworks Dam Site of the Trishuli 3A Hydropower Project (60 MW)

Salleta, Rasuwa. October 2013.

At the time this photo was taken, the Trishuli 3A project was stalled due to controversy on both the national and local scale. Firstly, the Chinese contractor CGGC was engaged in a political and legal battle with the government surrounding the scale and timeline of the project (CGGC wanted an upgrade to a 90 MW permit, based on unrealistic flow assumptions) that reached all the way to the Prime Minister. Secondly, locals in the ‘project-affected area’ had protested against the project, citing broken development promises, inadequate compensation, limited local hiring, and damages incurred from a series of landslides triggered by blasting of the headrace tunnel. Unfortunately, due to the governance structure of this particular project, the contractor has been assigned all responsibility for project delivery and project outcomes; there is very limited oversight. Thus CGGC has been able to benefit from crisis politics, brinksmanship, and systematic corruption to further its own aims (achieved through contractor’s ‘commission agents’) while the social and environmental impact assessment has proven meaningless. The Trishuli 3A Project was the first hydropower project I encountered in Nepal during September of 2012, and it remains one of the worst examples of social and environmental governance.

Kirtipur, Kathmandu. November 2013.

Prachanda's Final Campaign Speech in Kathmandu-10 on the Eve of the 2013 Constituent Assembly Elections

Kirtipur, Kathmandu. November 2013.

The need for hydropower looms large in political and economic discourse in Nepal—especially as Nepal emerges from the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, the latest stage in a complex process of political and democratic transition. The promise of the hydropower future ensures the coherence of the state and vice versa—the ‘hydropower nation’ and the citizens required for that project are being co-produced. In this photo, Maoist-UCPN leader Prachanda gives his final campaign speech in Kirtipur the night before the November 19th elections—making commitments to bring hydropower development and electricity infrastructure to Kathmandu residents now experiencing blackouts that extend up to sixteen hours a day. Halfway through this speech, the lights went out.

Lamabagar, Dolakha. November 2013.

In-Migrant Women Returning From Collecting Fuelwood and Fodder at the Upper Tamakoshi Project Site

Lamabagar, Dolakha. November 2013.

These women are walking back through the headworks site of the Upper Tamakoshi Project after collecting firewood in the area upstream. Neither woman is from the area, but they have moved here to find work near the project – one with her husband who is a laborer, and the other to open a small restaurant that serves laborers. There are roughly 800 laborers living near Lamabagar employed by the project and many more who work in the services industries or as drivers. This level of in-migration to the hydropower frontier can often put pressure on local resources, creating new scarcities, markets, and prices. Importantly, the collection of fuelwood in the shadow of Nepal’s largest hydropower project is important – as the majority of Nepal’s total energy supply still comes from fuelwood sources.

Gonggar, Dolakha. December 2013.

Temporary Camp for Bureau 6 SinoHydro Employees at the Powerhouse Site of the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW)

Gonggar, Dolakha. December 2013.

This man has come from Rasuwa to work as a laborer for the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project—a migrant from one ‘project-affected area’ to another. He works nights in the powerhouse tunnel and lives in this temporary labor camp for SinoHydro employees. Workers at the UTKHP site generally make more than workers at other hydropower projects, due to the political visibility and international oversight of this specific project—unskilled workers here can make NRs 600-800 per day, whereas other projects often pay less than NRs 500 per day, which is below the legal minimum wage. Many people in rural areas of Nepal are willing to work for low wages, due to widespread unemployment and underemployment. This man says the money here is pretty good, and that because he can make good money working in the tunnel here at the UTHKP he longer has to migrate abroad to support his family. His sons, however, are working abroad in furniture factories in Malaysia, but they have debts to pay. The majority of workers at hydropower project sites live in temporary housing like this, which resembles the living quarters of laborers elsewhere around the globe

Syaphrubesi, Rasuwa. October 2013.

Technician and Custodian in the Chilime Hydropower Project Powerhouse Tunnel Complex

Syaphrubesi, Rasuwa. October 2013.

These two men are Chilime employees, hired from the project-affected area to help with the maintenance of the physical plant, which was completed and began commercial generation in 2003. Despite being largely unskilled, their work is comparatively easier than the majority of construction jobs, and they are paid well in terms of alternative local livelihoods. Yet the reality is that there are few real employment opportunities in the hydropower future – hydropower is a capital intensive industry, not a labor intensive one. Once the tunnels are dug and the machines retreat, it only takes a handful of employees to manage a very large plant, and most of these employees are highly-trained engineers. Local economic development may occur, due to the road, new channels of commerce, entrepreneurial activity, and the agency of ‘project-affected people’ pursuing their own projects – but the existence of hydropower itself does not equate with ‘sustainable development’ per se. Thus to deflect the criticism of being a largely extractive industry (rechanneling resources and resource wealth from the hinterland to the metropole) hydropower projects must establish some form ‘benefit-sharing model’ that can provide local populations with resources. The Chilime Hydropower Company Ltd. has done a very good job in this regard, through direct investment in the community and through a preferential and discounted offering of public stock in the Company to ‘project-affected peoples.’ As a result there are more people in Rasuwa who hold shares in CHCL (these men are just two of more than 31,000 who bought shares in the IPO) than people who voted in the 2013 national elections. Such are the shifting subjectivities and agencies of the citizens of the emerging ‘hydropower nation.’

Gonggar, Dolakha. November 2013.

Laborers in the Powerhouse Tunnel of the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (456 MW)

Gonggar, Dolakha. November 2013.

This photo essay ends where it began: one mile underground at the leading edge of the rapidly expanding hydropower frontier, where Nepali and Chinese laborers are working 24-hours a day for SinoHydro, the largest water infrastructure contractor on the planet, doing the very material work required for the making of a hydropower nation. In this particular case, most of the workers are local men from the Tamakoshi watershed. Like the majority of young men in Nepal, many have worked abroad in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Malaysia in the pastengaged in intensive patterns of circular labor migration that are changing the social contours of Nepal. Importantly, they have all chosen this work, which compares favorably against the uncertainty of migrating abroad for many Nepalis, despite the hardships and risks it entails. Fatalities at hydropower sites are not uncommon, and several tunnels have collapsed during construction—in April 2014 a tunnel of the Madi Project in Kaskidistrict recently collapsed, killing two men and trapping thirteen workers for several days. At the Upper Tamakoshi project, health and safety evaluations are routine, yet the long-term health effects of underground work are unknown and other sites are perhaps not as stringent. Meanwhile thousands of Nepali migrant laborers are dying while working under exploitative conditions in other countries. Decisions about coming and going are central within the lived experience of hydropower development, and the tensionsand risks that frame these decisions are indicative of larger socioeconomic forces shaping Nepal. Caught between the hydropower future and the everyday reality of labor migration present, Nepal is again ‘a yam between two boulders.’

As the production of Nepal’s hydropower future continues to intensify, more Nepalis are becoming ayojaanale prabhabit manchhe or ‘project-affected people.’ Focused on projects under construction in the upper watersheds of the Trishuli and Tamakoshi rivers, this photo essay evaluates overlapping and uneven patterns of social and spatial change that characterize the lived experience of hydropower development in Nepal. Massive political and financial efforts are being made to secure the hydropower future for the well-being of Nepal’s citizens; in the name of economic security, energy sovereignty, political stability, and social justice; and in response to a discourse of permanent and interpenetrating crises – as one person explained to me, “To keep an entire generation from growing up in the dark.” Using visual ethnographic methods, this photographic essay highlights the ways that remaking Nepal into an imagined ‘hydropower nation’ is creating new landscapes of risk and opportunity, complicating patterns of work and mobility that are already in flux due to ubiquitous patterns of outmigration and foreign employment. This essay seeks to provide an aperture into how differently placed and differently implicated ‘project-affected people’ grapple with Nepal’s hydropower future.

Though Nepal does need hydropower development, it is important to recognize the ongoing dissonance between the massive financial and political mobilizations supporting hydropower projects and the continued conditions of scarcity and risk that characterize life in the ‘developing watershed.’ Nepal is an extremely unequal society, and the flows of international capital and political will that support hydropower development connect two very disparate worlds. Nepal’s hydroscapes are therefore a place of considerable contrast; the making of the hydropower future is a site of confluence. As hydropower development expands across the physical and human geographies of Nepal, it generates divergent patterns of empowerment and disempowerment, connectedness and fragmentation, and continuity and discontinuity. As the hydroscape and its territories are created, so too the lives of diverse project-affected people are at once expanded and limited.

One of the primary goals of this photo essay is to illustrate how hydropower development and labor migration are interrelated. They are connected by common economic urgencies and problems of social justice, interwoven across physical and cultural landscapes. Each hydropower project in Nepalis shaping and being shaped by specific localities as well as by concepts of belonging, citizenship, and ‘affectedness.’ These projects are more than infrastructural; they exemplify aspirations of individuals, communities, and the Nepali. As each project develops, opportunities and patterns for the deployment, exchange, and replacement of local and extra-local labor become increasingly intricate. Other projects follow, the road wends further upstream. Some people wish to go, others wish to stay. Flows of labor, capital, and imagination are coming and going, rushing into the watershed, churning and eddying for a while, then trickling or roaring away.

The images in this photo essay aim to increase the visibility of social and economic issues that arise along the frontiers of hydropower development in Nepal. Directly, these photographs depict the inescapable materiality of hydropower development: the men, machines, concrete and labor involved in this effort as well as the local conditions of labor and mobility at a variety of project sites. But just outside the frame are millions of Nepalis who labor outside the country under harsh conditions. As these migrants try to overcome the structural inequities that placed them in India, the Gulf States, Malaysia, they also remain connected to ‘project-affected areas’ and the concerns of the hydropower future. Given these dynamics, we might ask: what kind of hydropower future is Nepal developing, and for whom? The making of the hydropower nation has the capacity to serve citizens of Nepal by supporting economic development in ways that can reducesocioeconomic inequality. Or it can reproduce and exaggerate existing structural inequalities. Because it will likely do both, it is important to watch closely – to engage in a politics of seeing.

Twitter Feed