Dipti Vaghela

While our work at International Rivers focuses on fighting mega dams and destructive hydropower, we know that not all hydropower is the same nor bad for the environment.  In fact, community-based hydropower — such as pico, micro, and mini hydro — has provided socio-economic and environmental benefits to thousands of off-grid communities in the Asia Pacific, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, long before central grids have reached.  

Recently, International Rivers’ Nalori Chakma and the Hydro Empowerment Network’s Dipti Vaghela had an insightful conversation on key aspects of community-scale micro hydropower (MHP). 

Part 1:  MHP Sizes, Pros / Cons, Inclusive Governance, and Sustainable Approaches

Nalori Chakma: Dipti, how did you arrive at your current work with HPNET? And what or who inspired you to start working in this field? Why is it important to you?

Dipti Vaghela: I studied mechanical engineering and product design as an undergraduate. My first job post-undergrad was designing Palm Pilots.  Working in the fast-paced consumer electronics field made me realize how much resource goes into designing products. I began to observe the growing wealth gap and became interested in technology solutions for the marginalized.

Prior to grad school, I spent time in different corners of India to learn about rural renewable energy applications. It was in the Ladakhi village of Honupatta, a full day’s walk from the nearest motorable road (then), where I saw a pico hydro system come to life in about ten days, with all of the community leading the way. Since then I’ve been in love with micro-hydro!

I had the privilege to work with the late Sir Walt Ratterman, who taught me the importance of building local capacities to ensure systems are long-lived.  I applied his approach while working with communities in rural Odisha.  There I gained invaluable insight facilitating multi-stakeholders — government, NGO, private entrepreneurs, donors, academia, civil society, and most importantly rural communities.  

I also learned much from my mistakes in Odisha.  We succeeded in building the capacity of local fabrication workshops to manufacture turbines, in facilitating community-to-community mentorship to reduce reliance on the NGO, and in initiating productive end uses — all of which increased the reliability and sustainability of the community energy systems.  However, we didn’t succeed in making the program financially viable and scale up.

Searching for better approaches, I visited projects and practitioners in Southeast Asia, which made me realize the need for a knowledge exchange and advocacy network.  In 2013, with support from WISIONS, a group of us micro hydro practitioners established the Hydro Empowerment Network (HPNET), a knowledge exchange and advocacy platform to advance small-scale hydro.

Now, as the global community deals with multiple challenges — the climate crisis, the pandemic, the resulting economic downturns, and increasing fragility of democracies — community-scale hydro as a nature-based, people-enabling solution is more important than ever to me.  And local practitioners on the ground inspire me to keep advocating for solutions that can help to scale and accelerate their visions.

Nalori: How would you define micro hydro? What is the difference between micro, pico, mini and community-scale hydro?  For community-scale hydro, does it have to be less than a certain MW?

Dipti:  Micro hydro is where the energy of a flowing stream is converted to electricity.  Sustainable micro hydro not only produces electricity but also restores the watershed, invigorates the local economy, and enables the community to meet its aspirations.

The definitions for output capacity differ from institution to institution.  In HPNET we refer to pico hydro as < 5 kW, micro hydro as 5 to 100 kW, and mini hydro as above 100 to 1000 kW (or 1 MW).  

Depending on how remote the site is, pico hydro can be designed, manufactured, and installed within 3 months, micro hydro can be installed within 9 months, and mini hydro can be installed within 1-2 years.  The time consuming installation is of those components that require civil construction, i.e. weir, channel, forebay tank, penstock, and powerhouse.

The term community-scale hydro refers to capacities that can be managed by a community-based organization, such as a village electrification committee (VEC), a village cooperative, or a village-based private enterprise.  The manageable capacity threshold will be different for each community, depending on its inherent strengths and access to capacity building.  

At HPNET we cap community-scale hydro at 1 MW because we know for certain this scale can be managed by the community or a group of communities, and the electro-mechanical equipment can be procured locally.  There may be projects up to 5 MW that could also be managed by the community.  However, the implementation required for those projects is typically not localized, i.e. technology is imported, and will have much larger civil structures that will have negative environmental impact, though not as detrimental as large hydro, i.e. above 30 MW, or mega dams which are in gigawatts.

Nalori: For a pico hydro, which is up to five kilowatts, how many households will it light?

Dipti: Let’s take the case of NEPeD’s pico hydro hydrogers in Nagaland.  Each of their units are 3 kW, which means that 3000 watts can be generated at any moment.  The key is to calculate the load per household, i.e. how much electricity will be allocated for each household.

The most basic load is lighting.  A rural home may need 3 light points.  You would decide how many watts would be used in each light point.  Let’s say it’s 5 W LEDs or CFL bulbs used at each light point.  If a television will be used the load will be 70 – 80 watts. If you want to cook something in a rice cooker, it will consume one kilowatt. 

So if the community has a 3 kilowatt (or 3000 watt) system, and the expected load will be only for lighting and cell phone charging, then the household load could be 50 watts per household for 60 households (dividing 3000 by 50).  Because there is a finite amount of electricity produced, the household allocation needs to be set for both peak and no-peak hours of the day.  So for example during the peak hours larger loads such as electric cooking or motorized loads would not be permitted because if everyone used them the system would become overloaded and shut-off.  

In addition during no-peak hours the community should be encouraged to fully utilize the available power, generating maximum revenue and strengthening the financial viability of the system.  This can include end uses of households, village enterprises, external enterprises, and social services (e.g. health clinics, community centers, etc.)  In such cases of diverse loads metered and dynamic tariff design is better than flat, monthly tariffs.  

Productive end use of community hydro can bring immense socio-economic benefits to a community.  Ultimately it depends on what the various stakeholders of the community want but first they need to understand the basics of load management and optimization.  The Community Energy Toolkit (COMET) is a great tool for this.

Nalori:  Hydropower can be devastating to the environment.  What factors are considered to ensure community-scale hydro has a positive impact on the environment?

Dipti: In terms of impact to the stream and ecological systems of below 1MW systems, the civil structure design is more indicative than the kW capacity.  For example, depending on the terrain, an 8 kW project with low head would likely need a wider weir than a high head project of the same capacity.  The design is site specific because the terrain is different for each site. Key socio-environmental impact factors to consider in run-of-the-river systems are:  

  • Land ownership for location of the civil works as well as the transmission and distribution lines, i.e. was permission taken, is there an agreement to lease or purchase
  • How much and which area will be submerged by the weir and how deep?  Weirs can be designed to be beneficial, e.g. waterholes for wildlife and livestock.
  • How much of the original flow is temporarily and permanently rerouted, and the impact of both on the local ecology and to the community?

We believe community-level ownership of systems leads to least negative socio-environmental impact.  This is because the community depends on the same water source for other things, and typically rural communities know the behavior of their water resources.  Pairing such local knowledge with external engineering knowledge results in systems that are positive for the environment. During the design and construction phase if the communities are closely involved and are provided decision making authority they will openly share their ideas and opinions.  This will also lead to a healthy collaboration between the project developer and the community, which otherwise can be tense.

Further, water and land are common pool resources belonging to the community. Also, without thriving forests in the water catchment area there can be no reliable water source to generate hydropower.  So there is a lot of social capital and environmental conservation ingrained into community-scale hydro.  Leveraging these inherent characteristics of pico, micro, and mini hydro, we can develop projects that not only do not harm the environment but are also climate resilient to droughts and floods. 

Nalori: How does hydropower compare to solar and wind? Do you think hybrid systems have more advantages?

Technology Differentiation Table developed by SKAT and HPNET. (Click here to access full table).

Dipti:  All sources of energy have trade-offs.  For decentralized renewables, the tradeoff is often based on the specific location, including natural resource availability and socio-economic conditions.  We have compiled pros and cons of each decentralized renewable energy (DRE) technology — including disadvantages of community hydro — here.

With this in mind, the first step to implementing energy access solutions needs to be resource assessment of all options — biomass, hydro, solar, and wind.  Unfortunately, most national government and donor policies do not mandate an assessment of all options, and instead rely only on the preference of the developer, which currently is often solar.  

The problem with this is that typically a solar mini-grid developer doesn’t have the skills to do feasibility for biomass and hydro, and vice versa.  In recent scenarios hydro and biomass resources have been footnoted as ‘too difficult to assess’.  However, prior to solar dominance of the mini-grid sector, 30-40 years ago donors invested in resources in scaled resource assessment (i.e. assessing an entire basin versus just one site) for community hydro. And now with GIS and other remote sensing tools, there will be fewer challenges and more accuracy to assessing community hydro resources.

Yes, hybrid systems have an increasing role to play in energy access since climate change impacts natural resources.  Load-specific systems, such as battery-less solar for water pumping, are also important solutions to energy access.

Nalori:  Are micro hydro systems more inclusive than other DRE solutions?

Dipti:  Any DRE solution can be done inclusively or not, depending on how the community is mobilized, how the community versus the developer benefits financially, what factions within the community are contributing and benefitting, who manages the project after implementation, and ultimately whether the existing inequitable power structures are being transformed, or whether existing equitable governance is strengthened, with the DRE solution.

Typically household-based solutions, such as solar home lighting systems, can be much faster to implement in terms of community engagement because major community-wide decisions are not needed. PV systems in general can be much easier in this sense because sunlight is a universal resource, not owned by anyone.  

Micro hydro, however, utilizes common-pool water sources and catchment areas that belong to the entire community.  In addition, the intense construction required for implementation requires as many persons as possible, i.e. all of the households.  So prior to moving forward with a project, the buy-in of all factions within the community must be obtained.  In this way, inclusion (like social capital as we discussed earlier) is built into micro hydro projects.  A community-based project will typically not be successful in the long run if it is not inclusively governed.

Nalori: Speaking of local governance, one thing comes to my mind with regards to micro hydro watershed management:  Most indigenous communities have their own community protocols — whether written or oral — they are living documents, so to speak, that regulate access to communal natural resources in their indigenous ways. Based on traditional knowledge, they are established mainly as internal rules for equal benefit sharing and sustainable management of their natural resources. I think advocating for micro hydro through Indigenous value systems can be strong in many aspects: equal participation of women, sustainable management of resources, and also introducing the elements of HPNET’s SEEED Accelerator

Dipti: Yes, we also see a strong alignment between Indigenous cultural practices for environmental stewardship and community hydro.  We have documented examples in our Earth Voices series of articles.  We are expanding this initiative towards collaboration with Indigenous People’s organizations and leaders, in order to continue valuing and applying local know-how, as well as promote nature-based, people-centric solutions to energy access.  

Nalori:  What examples are there of community hydro systems having a direct impact on women’s empowerment?

Dipti:  My favorite example is in Pakistan — the work of the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP).  Over the last few decades AKRSP and its partners have supported thousands of communities in remote areas of the Chitral region to establish micro and mini hydro systems.  Their mini hydro systems are multi-community utilities that serve entire valleys and are registered public limited companies.  The households are shareholders of their mini hydro utility, and women are especially encouraged to be owners and also establish productive end uses for income generation.  AKRSP provides local capacity building and finance to enable women to drive and shape the mini hydro utilities.  

In most micro hydro contexts women are not involved in technical implementation unless they are providing the unskilled labor for construction.  This is often due to safety and cultural norms because the powerhouse can be located a long, unlit walk from the village.

However, AKRSP trains community women to conduct feasibility studies, including topographic surveying, and how to operate and manage the system.  Also, some of the productive end-use training for women includes activities that are typically done by men, such as carpentry.  So really, AKRSP has very mindfully incorporated women’s empowerment into their community hydro programs.  We’ve helped to document their work here.

Nalori:  Productive end use (PEU) is often discussed. What exactly is PEU? Can you give examples?  How does PEU add value to community hydro?  

Dipti:  PEU refers to the utilization of electricity. Analyzing what I saw on the ground in Myanmar, I now always categorize PEU into four areas:  externally-owned enterprises, villager-owned enterprises (community or private), social-services, and household uses.  You can see examples of each in our PEU snapshot below of an 80 kW system.  Others may define PEU only as those end uses that generate income (versus just social welfare).

When I started energy access work 20 years ago it was an important topic, and even now PEU continues to frequent energy access dialogue.  However, the context of its significance differs between then and now in some ways:  

  1. Development vs. Demand Stimulation.  Twenty years ago PEU centered on the socio-economic impact of energy access.  Over the years donors began to prioritize market-based actors and approaches for scale-up, shifting the focus to demand stimulation for financially sustaining the private developers who invest in the systems.  However, sustainable PEUs that empower the marginalized requires community buy-in. I’ve seen that communities more easily embrace the concept of meeting their own developmental aspirations, rather than generating benefits for the private developer.  This is why private developers that come from the local communities tend to be the most successful with PEU.  They know well the potential of their own communities, local markets, and how to build trust and local capacity, as well as how to achieve financial viability.
  1. Battery-based vs. Non-battery Mini-Grids.  Unlike some decades ago when hydro and biomass solutions were the primary solutions for energy access (which by the way continue to thrive in the tens of thousands of systems), today some funders assume PV-battery or PV-battery-diesel hybrids are the primary solution for energy access.  Because off-grid rural communities are predominantly farmers, they can use electricity to power agri-processing equipment to reduce drudgery and sell their produce at higher prices and in greater quantities. However, battery-based systems are challenged to run motorized loads (e.g. rice huller) because the starting current of a motor needs to be three times the rated – meaning more batteries and panels are needed.  Further, battery-based systems such as solar mini-grids generate electricity only when the sun is out, and these mini-grids aren’t usually designed to operate without batteries although they theoretically can during the day.  While solar panel costs have dropped, battery costs are still significant. Finally, batteries are a recurring expense, needing replacement every 5-8 years, requiring either more grants or substantial revenue (i.e. from higher tariffs) to replace.
  1. Untapped Opportunities for Hydro Mini-Grids.  Hydro mini-grids generate electricity 24-7, yet load factors (i.e. how much of the generated electricity is used) tend to be low for various reasons – including the system isn’t being run for 24 hours, the community cannot afford PEU, and/or being built with grants instead of loans (i.e. there is no pressure to achieve financial viability). However, hindsight lessons over the last few decades reveal inspiring solutions.  Community hydro has proven extremely effective at meeting agricultural loads, e.g. coffee processing units, rice mills, oil presses, etc.   Dynamic tariff systems, i.e. time of day tariff, and discounted connection fees have been used to incentivize productive end use, e.g. a bakery is run on a dedicated line during off peak hours.  Innovative but low cost load management has meant better utilization during off peak hours.  Revenue generated from greater enterprise end uses have been used to lower household tariffs, which has meant households using electric cooking and other appliances.  We’ve also seen that hydro mini-grid communities can generate revenue by feeding their excess electricity into the grid.

Finally, hydro mini-grids that serve as a nature-based solution have generated new livelihoods and therefore more PEU, e.g. additional agroecological livelihoods when watershed restoration activities are linked to food production and social equity. Often projects are located in beautiful and/or protected forests and hence the micro hydro is used for eco tourism, e.g. hotels and restaurants.  Communities are financially incentivized to conserve their forests through carbon trade. Water and therefore food security is also strengthened with watershed conservation. In general the climate resilience of eco-restored regions supports local economies to become robust and create improved social well-being.

I hope eventually donors are excited about the immense potential of community-driven PEU in non-battery mini-grids, such as community hydro, enabling more developers and communities to leverage such best practices.

Nalori: So, who helps with the enterprise side of productive end use? Who supports the communities in coming up with the business models?

Dipti: In mainstream mini-grid programs often external consultants and/or staff are hired by governments using donor funds.  In our approach, we rely on local entrepreneurial know-how, experience, and talent.  We are slowly rolling out the full aspects of our accelerator Social Enterprise for Energy, Ecological and Economic Development (SEEED), which provides customized local capacity building and strategic advocacy to tap the PEU opportunities for community hydro I explained earlier, among other aspects of community hydro implementation. 

Part 2:  Solutions for Scale Up

Nalori: Most remote places in northeast India have the government grid, but it is largely unreliable. For the last 15 years or more, the autonomous district council I come from, in Mizoram, distributes to different communities by the hour. At the same time, there is conflict among communities; it will be challenging to facilitate them to work together. It makes me wonder — how is Myanmar such a successful story in terms of leading community-led hydro mini-grids?

Dipti: I think the answer is that places where micro hydro scaled up without extensive donor funds for project implementation or capacity building, e.g. Myanmar, Afghanistan, or early times of Nepal, at that time didn’t have the central grid or government solar home lighting systems as options.  So communities were forced to find ways to develop their own solutions.  Also, rural minds are innately innovative; when they see a good idea that can benefit their society, they passionately keep at it until they’re successful.  Even then they continue to improve their technology.  We see this noble trait in our members who come from rural communities.

In this way contexts such as Myanmar have self-overcome the learning curve of local manufacturing and organically have created a local supply chain ecosystem of local actors who all benefit from reliable yet low-cost implementation.  In Myanmar, the ecosystem of local experts spans generations – grandfather, father, son/nephew.  So without government and donor support, communities in partnership with local entrepreneurs have built over 5000 community hydro systems.

Also, in current scenarios it’s not a matter of the central grid or off-grid — there’s great potential to create mini-grids that are also feeding into the main grid, which in turn can help the grid become more reliable in rural and remote regions.  Small-scale hydro is especially conducive for grid interconnection because it produces electricity 24/7. 

Nalori: To advance community-scale hydro, at least in India, the government can promote micro hydro to the people, just like it is doing it for solar. Every state has natural resource agencies like the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority (MBDA). Earlier in 2019, the Government of Meghalaya launched the Hydroger Mission under Decentralized Green Energy Project with total financial outlay of Rs. 11.55 crore with financial support from NABARD. The 220 pico hydro Hydroger projects being set up under Hydroger Mission covers the full state, which has a 75% power deficit.  If the program becomes successful, it could inspire similar efforts in other parts of the country.

Dipti: Yes, collecting data to provide all DRE options and their trade-offs to the community is important in any energy access initiative.  The process is known as integrated energy planning. GIS-based approaches make it easier to include all DRE solutions, however, there needs to be a mandate to include accurate analysis of community hydro potential because thus far it seems that most national energy planning efforts funded by donors and development partners often focus only on mapping solar potential.

Further, community hydro requires unified communities, and this can be the most difficult aspect to ensure in scaled, government-funded programs, if there isn’t technical and socio-economic due diligence.  When a project operates reliably and consistently, i.e. it is technically sound, and when local enterprises and all households benefit socio-economically, there are less obstacles to a unified community.

Effective governance is another key aspect.  In indigenous communities, there are existing governance systems in place for natural resources. When we introduce community hydro, experience-based best practices and pitfalls can be introduced, but in the end the community leadership and factions will be the ones to decide whether and how to incorporate them.  Such flexibility and nuance can impact the success of large scale programs.

However, very often in government-funded programs there is no or minimal budget for social mobilization and governance-building processes.  Strong mobilizing efforts mean many visits to the community throughout implementation and in the earlier phases of commissioning.  When communities are located so remotely expenses add up.  Small developers, such as local non-profits, cannot bear these costs on their own, although they are very well experienced in social mobilization.

Nalori: What do you think are the key opportunities and challenges to upscale or expand community-led micro hydro in the Ganga-Bhramaputra-Megha-Salween (GBMS) river basin regions?

Dipti: In terms of opportunities, community hydro implemented, using a holistic approach, can bring energy access, inclusive local economic development, and climate resilience – all which are needed in the GBMS.  In terms of challenges they are differ from region to region of the GBMS:

India:  The MNRE recognizes small-scale hydro as a solution, however, practitioners on the ground haven’t tapped into national and state support due to avoiding bureaucratic processes.

Nepal:  It is the pioneering context for the sector, having demonstrated scaled local manufacturing and project implementation.  However, in the last few decades, the sector became reliant on subsidies and grants, and as development partners left Nepal some practitioners had to close shop. However, before donors entered Nepal the ecosystem thrived on local finance, so the social capital for financially viable systems is definitely still there.  Programs such as the AEPC-UNDP Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods are now facilitating community-enterprise models, such as cooperatives and public limited companies, to rehabilitate projects and redirect the next generation of projects towards financial sustainability.  Such solutions have demonstrated increased longevity and impact of projects but require more resources to scale up. With Nepal’s recent constitutional changes towards federalism, local governments now have more authority but require capacity building to get up to speed quickly.

Myanmar:  The post-coup humanitarian situation is dismal, but because local practitioners achieved 5000+ systems during earlier periods of military rule, they are versed in partnering with communities to provide energy access in difficult situations.  In fact, at this point, the energy access sector relies on local practitioners, in spite of the many foreign developers that were funded by donors the last few years but are now challenged to work in Myanmar. 

Challenges across contexts:  In the ecosystem of stakeholders, there is an increasing blind bias for  PV-battery systems, as well as a lack of inclusion of very local actors in decision-making.  However, Nepal is the exception to this due to its long experience with community hydro and federalist policies.

Nalori: What message would you give to government renewable energy departments about why they need to prioritize community hydro? 

Dipti: I would encourage national and local governments to map and assess all DRE options — biomass, hydro, solar, wind — alongside each other and existing methods, i.e. diesel generators, solar home lighting systems, and the central grid on the follow metrics:

  • Comparison of resource availability throughout the year
  • Cost implementation throughout system lifetimes
  • Provision of electricity for livelihoods development i.e. Tier 4 and 5
  • Added benefits of local manufacturing, i.e. local job creation and skills building
  • Ease of and contributions to climate adaptation, e.g. eco-restoration
  • Environmental impact based on lifecycle analysis
  • Alignment with local governance conditions.

Based on such assessments, I would recommend facilitating the community to take stock and make their own decisions.  I would also advise to further innovate market-based approaches to more equitably involve communities, e.g. promote well-organized communities to establish social enterprises that develop and own mini-grids and productive end use enterprises.

In communities where productive end use is possible, I would recommend interest subsidies instead of capital subsidies.  It would also be great if government funding takes into account that a more remotely located project will cost more.

Lastly, I would be glad to see governments commission third-party assessments on the operations of solar-battery mini-grids after the 10-year mark.  I’m very curious to know if and how communities and developers raise funds to replace batteries, or whether more donor funds are required.  I would hope governments are as curious to understand the long-term impact of our tax dollars!

Nalori: Do you think the technology developed locally is ready for mass uptake for micro hydro, or does it need more innovation? Or does it need more innovation, local engineering and technology transfer between countries? 

Dipti: Yes, locally developed technology, such as in Indonesia, has enabled scaled programs to be successful.  We also have to remember the site-specific design aspects of DRE solutions, especially for community hydro, which depends on the specific head, flow, and terrain at the site.  While certain components, such as generators, can be purchased off-the-shelf, the core electro-mechanical system has to be custom-made.  Custom-made can be cost-effective only when it’s fabricated locally.  Local fabrication also increases technical reliability because it creates local skills that can later be used in maintenance, troubleshooting, repairs, and upgrading systems.

Yes, we promote technology transfer between countries to further build the skillsets of local manufacturers.  At the same time, we applaud local practitioners who are exporting their technology to developed contexts!

With the greater impact of climate change on streams, innovation is needed on water resource forecasting, civil structure design, as well as the electro-mechanical system design.

Nalori: During the exchange, I observed that knowledge and capacity building are the key areas identified or rather a lack of it in the micro hydro sector. A lot of people have raised this during the exchange that communities need capacity building. How do we capacitate them, and how do we popularize energy access and its importance? So, I think we need to build “energy literacy” at many levels, from policy to consumers. What do you think?

Dipti: Each stakeholder in the energy access ecosystem has perspective limitations.  So each one can benefit from actively engaging with multi-actors, increasing their awareness on the challenges and incentives for each stakeholder in the ecosystem.  We have found that when we facilitate local actors to interface with high level actors, in the process we are raising the awareness of high level actors and also connecting them to one another.  Peer-to-peer exchange, as well as exchange among multi-actors, is not only important in creating inclusive opportunities, but it’s also important for high impact, resource efficient, accelerated collaboration – important for post-pandemic economies and preventing a full climate crisis.

Equitable stakeholder engagement expertise is something that national electrification programs can invest in to ensure inclusive processes.

Nalori: Do you think micro hydro will be more accepted by donors if we advocate it as a people-centered energy system, since it is more inclusive and equitable compared to the other technologies? 

Dipti:  I don’t quite understand why non-battery solutions, along with local practitioners, have become the underdogs of the mini-grid sector — when their efficacy has long been proven.

At times I’ve seen it as a lack of analysis on the part of donors and government decision-makers — which means we need to work harder in multi-actor perspective building.  However, the onus is on funders to question their impact metrics, i.e. households connected versus livelihoods enabled.  There is also a need to assess the level of inclusion in development programs.  For example, in Myanmar it took some noise-making to convince donors of the national electrification program to take responsibility and translate all program material into local language.

Other times I’ve concluded that local cultural values and/or the lack of mainstream communication skills prevent local practitioners from effectively lobbying for their work.  In some cases we have been able to help strengthen the voice of local actors, but it takes time when the playing field is so uneven.  I’ve experienced firsthand moments where aggressive foreign developers consciously publicly bad-mouthed the achievements of local actors, and the latter responded only with silence. 

In such cases we have to remember that a market-based, private-centric approach targeting accelerated socio-economic development of the marginalized may indeed be a paradox.  One way to re-calibrate could be to create metrics for equitable and inclusive processes and results.  I’m grateful for efforts such as IIED’s publication assessing investments going to homegrown vs. foreign companies.  We need more such ground truthing to address the issue.

Nalori: Is there anything you would like to share or ask that I haven’t asked yet?

Dipti: Thank you. I would like to elaborate on the need for a nuanced approach to environmental impact — especially for the environmentally-conscious International Rivers’ audience:

For all renewable solutions we need to understand the cradle-to-cradle impact on the environment — including the impact of extracting the raw material and energy resources required to manufacture the DRE hardware.  Without this, we unintentionally risk upscaling solutions that ironically cause more environmental destruction. For example, with the high demand of electric vehicles (EV) comes great demand for batteries. While EVs reduce emissions, we must also note that manufacturing batteries requires precious metals mined from forested and socially marginalized regions, e.g. the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as extensive water resources.  Without forests we will not be able to prevent a full climate crisis.  

In short: while transitioning from mega dams and fossil fuels to renewables, it’s important to question the specific life cycle environmental impact of each solution.

International Rivers’ South Asia program is part of the regional Transboundary Rivers of South Asia program. Supported by the Government of Sweden, TROSA is a collaboration with Oxfam, IUCN, ICIMOD and many local organizations that works on some of the more complex rivers in South and Southeast Asia: the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems, including their tributaries such as the Teesta, and Asia’s last  last free flowing river, the Salween. The program aims to contribute to poverty reduction and marginalization among vulnerable river basin communities through increased access to and control over riverine water resources on which their livelihoods depend.