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The Implications of Load-Shedding

Homework by candle light. (Photo by PaperPK News)

Nepal faces a problem that also poses a challenge to several other countries in the developing world: the nation is literally in the dark.  This darkness stems from what is called “load-shedding.” The term “load-shedding” can also be called a “rolling blackout” or a “brownout,”which happens when electricity is selectively and continuously shut off in a region. In Kathmandu, for example, the power is off for several hours at a time, not in the whole city at once, but neighborhood by neighborhood. This means that if the power were to go out in your area, you could go to your roof top and see a section of buildings and houses in the distance that is lit up. When the power in your area is turned back on, the power in the other area might go off.

Load-shedding, aka rolling blackouts, is meant to save electricity. The problem can be attributed to two root causes: demand for electricity in an entire region is too large for the supply, or the infrastructure to distribute the electricity does not exist.  Several other South Asian countries suffer from load-shedding including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Load-shedding is both inconvenient and bad for productivity. On August 18, residents of Attock, Pakistan, became so fed up with the practice that they staged a protest, which culminated in police firing tear gas into the crowd. SAMAA News in Pakistan reports that “frequent and long electricity load shedding routines in Pakistan has irritated people; they have started to protest in every part of the country.”

Nepal generates some of its own power through hydropower plants, but also imports some from India. According to the Inter Press Service, “Nepal is second only to Brazil in terms of water resources,” but the country is still suffering from power outages that have at times reached 16 hours per day. The problem with Nepal is that the infrastructure to harness the water resources simply is not there. There’s an incredible amount of water in this country (Himalayan run-off), but very few plants to convert the water resources into electricity.

The Inter Press Service writes:

“Nepal’s total hydroelectricity potential is 83,000 megawatts, of which more than 40,000 mw is exploitable, experts say. But the country is nowhere close to generating half of the meager 860 mw, the present peak-hour requirement. As it is, only a third of the population of 27.5 million has access to electricity and demand for it is growing by 10 percent annually.”

In the monsoon season (June, July, August and some of October) power cuts are not as severe. Currently in mid-August, power is usually cut for around two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Once the monsoon is over and the dry season is running its course (February and March), power cuts have been 12, 14, or even 16 hours per day earlier this year.

In a wired world, lack of electricity is a major blow to productivity. Businesses can invest in generators, but generators require fuel, which is often not available due to shortages.  Electronics must be near a plug and ready to be charged when the power is on, or else little will get accomplished in terms of web-related or IT jobs.

When the electricity goes out in Kathmandu, it's time to light candles. (Photo by eichner on FlickNepal as well. Electronics must be near a plug and ready to be charged when the power is on, or else little will get accomplished in terms of web-related or IT jobs.

Besides jobs that require electricity, a lack of light is also difficult to deal with when trying to accomplish everyday chores and maintaining a household. When there is no power, candles are a necessary backup, but it seems that it is difficult to match candle-light productivity with electric-light productivity. When the electricity goes out at my home in Kathmandu, I light a candle and put on my headlamp. After a bit of writing or reading in the dim light, I find myself getting tired earlier and calling it a night around 10 p.m.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who regularly travels to some of the poorest countries in the world, lamented on the same issue in March, 2010, when a storm knocked out the power to his New York home. He said in his column ‘What I Think About As I Huddle in the Dark‘ that he feels less productive when the electric light bulbs aren’t on to keep him up.

He writes:

“So that makes me wonder about the productivity gains from bringing electricity to more households. In poor parts of the world, you often see kids doing their homework at night under streetlights, but most kids don’t have access to street lights. And even if they do, that requires far more effort and perhaps risk than just doing it at home under an electrical light…  I’ve always thought of home electrification mostly as a quality of life issue, but as I shiver in the dark this week I’m thinking it has huge educational and economic dimensions as well.”

Load-shedding poses a blow to productivity both in business and in the homes. But, are there any positives to these rolling blackouts? I’ve noticed that when the power is cut, especially in the evening, people tend to put down what they are doing and relax. They head to the local tea shop with friends, order rounds of sweet tea, sit, and just talk.  They mull over the happenings of the day and chat about friends, or politics, or future plans. The power cuts become almost like a “forced” break from work. In the American workoholic culture I am used to, a “forced break” due to a power cut would not be taken kindly to. But here, it seems that many people have become used to the erratic power situation. When the lights go out, work is put down and a pot of tea is put on the gas stove. Observing the load-shedding situation in Kathmandu makes me wonder about the cost-benefit trade off between lack of productivity and increased social connectedness.