When Lonely Planet made Nepal one of the ten most memorable places to visit in 2013, the Nepali Times’ hilarious and sardonic “Backside” column came up with a slogan to attract tourists. “Visit Nepal, See Stars” it wrote, noting that there is no light pollution in Nepal because there is no electricity, and so Kathmandu is the only capital in the world where one can admire the Milky Way from the heart of downtown.
When I moved here in August, I thought this slogan was exaggerated, as electricity was cut for only two hours a day. But I was wrong. Most of Nepal’s electricity is generated using hydroelectric power plants, whose turbines are driven by the run of the river. That is great in the summer, during the monsoons when the Himalayan glaciers are melting and the rivers are overflowing with water. But it is terrible in the winter, when the glaciers freeze, the rivers stop flowing, and the turbines are turned off. There is far less power generated than there is demand and to make matters even more dire, 25% of electricity is either stolen or “lost” because of poor maintenance. And this is in a country where demand is increasing rapidly, as population grows and more people move to the urban areas, seeking urban conveniences.
This week, the new load-shedding schedule, officially issued by the Nepal Electricity Authority, is scheduling Kathmandu residents for 12+ hours a day, or 80 hours a week, without power. By next month, if past experience is any guide, the cuts will jump to 18 hours a day or more. Government-run industries are protected, getting only 9-hour-a-day cuts, while the private sector has to cope with 14 hours a day. The rains are still months away.
One survival lesson I have learned here in Kathmandu since our arrival is that, no matter what happens, you need to go with the flow. No decent milk in the stores? Find yourself a milk cow; there are certainly plenty of them wandering around every neighborhood. You can even learn to make your own yogurt. Traffic is hellish? When driving, imagine yourself as part of a school of fish, said a friend, sharing the fine art of vehicular movement when your car is swarmed by a moving cloud of bee-like honking motorcycles; try not to stop and never—never—give way, not if you are a duck, a chicken, a cow, a pedestrian, a motorcycle or a car. I can do that now. I feel Nepali. I belong. Watching me drive over the holidays, my visiting daughter, Mado, coined a Kathmandu bumper sticker: “No Room, No Problem.”
At first, the lack of electricity was aggravating, as it tended to happen early in the morning or at dinner time. Even though we are among the lucky few who can afford solar-powered batteries to run lights and electronics when the grid fails, a lot of what makes a house tick involves power hogs like irons and water pumps and washing machines, and with two six-hour stretches of powerlessness during the waking hours, the batteries just aren’t enough. This means no microwave, no iron, no toaster. No showers, as the water pump to the roof tank and the hot-water compressor, which gives us pressure, don’t work on batteries. No washing machine. The freezer stays closed. No stereo. No electric heat. But now, after a few days of frustration, I’ve begun to go with the flow. Toast is made on the stovetop, where food and milk are heated as well. Showers are cold and quick, under a trickle of water, or grabbed quickly when the power kicks in. Yelling in our house usually consists of one of us belting out: “Power is on!” And we rush to recharge, print a document, shower, or put in the wash.
Unfortunately, though, we still don’t have heat—or at least not from our two roll around electric heaters. I know that I shouldn’t complain, because no one has central heating in Nepal—no house or school or shop or office—even though it is now winter and temperatures dip to 0c (32F) at night in the Kathmandu valley. Those who can afford it warm rooms with 15kg propane heaters. This has its downsides: the smell, the potential danger of explosion and the fact that it only really heats a small area. I am writing in the warmest room in my house, with the sun on my back, wearing gloves and a down jacket—and a propane heater burning a few feet from my side. And I feel lucky. Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, where almost a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line, so propane-fueled heaters are only for the well-off.
Winter brings other problems aside from electricity shortages. Fuel shortages and by association massive hoarding are among Nepal’s biggest challenges. Fuel can disappear for weeks.
The country spends about 40 percent of its foreign currency reserve on the import of petroleum products. Diesel, petrol and propane are trucked in from India, a three-day drive from the border on narrow and treacherous mountain roads. The papers are full of pictures of truck and bus accidents. On a recent trip on the same road, we saw two trucks that had plummeted down terrifyingly steep precipices.
Hoarding is an art that I have learned to practice. I store over 100 litres of diesel in the garage for my car and generator, as well as eight 15kg containers of propane for cooking and heating. If you can afford it, it is the only way to live reasonably comfortably. Recently, diesel, which is used by larger cars and trucks and generators, was no longer for sale in Kathmandu. The government had announced an upcoming price hike (it now costs $4.15 a gallon) and so the gas stations sat on their stocks waiting for the price hike to take effect. After a massive outcry from Kathmandu residents threatening strikes, the government ultimately backed off the price hike and stations began selling again, but now press reports say petrol transporters are threatening a strike halting all petroleum product transportation starting this weekend. Recently angry consumers mobbed and detained a top official visiting their district to protest propane shortages.
At moments like these, you need to know someone who knows someone who has hoarded the precious liquid. You have to go with the flow. I now have that critical contact to get me my bootleg diesel. I can even experience and enjoy the particular Nepali hospitality that sometimes comes with it: “I’m sorry; I am out of diesel today, but can I get you some propane?”