As Nepal continues laying to rest her thousands of dead, many westerners like myself who have spent time there are feeling helpless, wanting to do more than sending prayers and financial support in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. This is not to say financial aid and humanitarian relief efforts aren’t essential during the immediate, and ongoing recovery. They are critical.
Simply put, healing and rebuilding this magnificent country full of wonderful people, many of whom struggled to survive against the elements below the Himalayas prior to the earthquake, will take years. It’s currently estimated that 75% of the buildings in Kathmandu alone have been destroyed or are uninhabitable.
As Nepal recovers, people, countries and companies that can contribute to this base infrastructure redevelopment should begin planning now to implement and lead a concentrated charge to place renewable energy on the ground.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of the quake, in addition to rescue, cell phone charging was one of the most urgent needs, especially for first responders and families trying to locate one another. While the cell phone networks was fairly resilient, the main grid was not and this made recharging phones nearly impossible.
Solar charging stations would have been, and would still be a viable solution in this kind of crisis. Cleantech and renewable energy options like these not only provide immediate access to clean affordable energy, but also build up resilience and preparedness for future disasters.
In the mid 1990s, when I was in my twenties, I spent nearly two years living in Nepal as part of a college requirement. My field of study was international development, with a focus on rural energy delivery. I saw first hand the vast difference in wealth between villages powered by renewable energy, such as a small micro grid hydro or solar panels – and those that weren’t.
At one point I lived for several months in the tiny village of Thulo Besi in Lamjung district. The village was just over the hill from a well traveled trekking route, about a half day walk from the nearest road head. It was a village of subsistence farmers, working from dawn until dusk to grow their crops like millet, rice and a few vegetables. They also raised chickens and goats for meat and a few families had water buffalo for plowing the fields and milk.
The women worked hardest of all. They made the meals, cleaned their homes, did the laundry (by hand of course) and raised the children, until they were able to take care of themselves and help with the little ones. They cooked the family meals over fires inside the house, without any kind of chimney, the smoke burning their eyes and filling their lungs. All this, in addition to hours spent in the fields, bent over, with a child on the back, doing the backbreaking work of planting, weeding or harvesting by hand.
Women are also responsible for collecting all the fuel for their families, which consisted of firewood, and sometimes dung. In addition to wood for the fires, the villagers used batteries for flashlights and radios and some kerosene for lights.
The total ‘cost’ of their energy was staggering. Kerosene and batteries had to be bought and were incredibly expensive. Wood fuel took huge amounts of time to gather every day.
In comparison, a village not too distant from Thulo Besi had access to electric energy from a micro hydro power station. The difference in wealth was instantly evident. They had modern electric lights in their homes, which were much better built and had improved cook stoves that did not fill their homes with smoke. In addition they were able to use electricity to run a grist mill to process their grains, giving them the ability to earn extra income.
Other homes in the area used solar panels to charge a few batteries used to run lights, a radio and possibly even a TV.
It was my first introduction to renewable energy and what people can do to lift themselves out of poverty given access to low cost, reliable energy. It made a powerful impact on me. Abundant, clean, reliable and affordable energy is the foundation of a sustainable and resilient society.
As Nepal begins to rebuild I sincerely hope that people dedicated to solving humanity’s myriad of problems with sustainable solutions, will be at the forefront of lending a hand. CleanTech solutions like solar, small hydro and energy efficiency can and should be a key component in rebuilding after disasters.
Every village not currently connected to the grid, every police station, school, hospital, fire station needs a solar system for lights, battery charging and more in order to be prepared for the next disaster, and also to simply have access to this abundant energy in everyday life.