The forgotten history of Nepal’s first hydropower project
Built over 100 years ago to light the Rana’s palaces, Nepal’s first hydropower project – and South Asia’s second – now lies abandoned along with the country’s grand dam ambitions.
On May 22, 1911, at around 6:30pm, the erstwhile King of Nepal, Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah, inaugurated Nepal’s first and South Asia’s second hydropower project in Kathmandu by turning on the lights in Tudikhel located at the centre of the city. The Chandra Jyoti Electric Power station, named after the then-Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana, had an installed capacity of 500 kilowatts and took about four years and nearly one million days of work to complete. Built to light the palaces of the autocratic Rana rulers, the power station used water from two spring sources 12 kilometres south of Kathmandu.
This was only 30 years after the installation of the world’s first hydropower plant on Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882, and a year before China built its first hydropower plant in 1912 in Yunnan province.
Despite this early start, Nepal failed to build its second hydropower project only 28 years later. In 1939, a second hydropower project of 640 kilowatts was built northeast of Kathmandu to allow the Rana rulers to live in luxury, rather than to provide electricity for the general population. The country only produced one megawatt of electricity in the first 50 years.
Over the past century, Nepal's hydropower development has been sluggish, with current power production only at 1,400 megawatts. Nearly one-third of the country’s power is met by importing energy from India — its southern neighbour.
Sadly, the history of Nepal's oldest hydropower project has been almost forgotten. It now only delivers water to residents of the southern Kathmandu valley. In 2011, the government of Nepal declared the plant a living heritage site but not much has been done to preserve the area around it. The old palace and guest houses have cracked or crumbled into pieces. The power station has been poorly maintained and the road to the site is yet to be completed. Rusted old metal pipes are scattered near the water storage pond. As one local said, “We Nepalis don’t understand the value of precious things.”
Banner image: The Chandra Jyoti Hydropower station is located a few hundred metres from the Bagmati River that flows through Kathmandu city / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal