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Nepal: The cost of hydropower – dispossessing indigenous Magar communities of land and water

20 June 2023

Now in his late sixties, Til Bahadur Thapa is a local villager from the indigenous Magar community of Tanahu district in western Nepal. Gazing across a patch of wild vegetables on the banks of the Seti River in Badarkuna, Til Bahadur recalls when the fields would grow three harvests of paddy and wheat per year, plus enough lentils and vegetables to feed his large family, all of whom live in the local village situated a few hundred yards further uphill. The land before him now lies barren. The fields have been drying up for three years now. In 2020, a mining operation extracted sand and stone from the river, subsequently damaging the irrigation canals in Til Bahadur’s fields. Later that year, the same irrigation system was completely destroyed by a landslide.  

Til Bahadur and other Magar villagers have been opposing riverbed mining in Badarkuna, which is contracted and supported by the local government, on account of the irreparable destruction to ancestral lands and livelihoods. Like other members of this primarily farming community in western Nepal, Til Bahadur has given up on restoring the irrigation canals. He has been notified that, pending imminent inundation, the lands of the Magar are up for acquisition by the Tanahu Hydropower Project – a high concrete gravity dam scheduled for completion in 2026. 

The 140-megawatt storage-type project, which will cost US$505 million, is dubbed ‘the national pride of the Government of Nepal’. Besides generating electricity by erecting a 140-metre-high dam that will create a reservoir 25 kilometres long, covering an area of 7.26 square kilometres, the project will also feature a 220 kV double circuit transmission line 37 kilometres long. The Tanahu Hydropower Project is one of many such projects constructed or being planned in Nepal as part of a government-led effort to meet increasing hydropower development objectives. Most active hydropower plants in Nepal are run-of-river type, and therefore generate less electricity – if any – during the dry season, which is why the country still has to import electricity from India. 

‘In the name of development, we are losing our lands, and our families and forthcoming generations are being displaced for little to no compensation.’

As the government, international donors and the private sector push hydropower development in a supposed plan for Nepalese prosperity, the situation of indigenous peoples affected by hydropower projects, including the associated infrastructure, is often forgotten. Such development schemes continue to have direct impacts on local communities in and around the project sites. While mostly undertaken with little to no information-sharing and consultation with the affected communities, the people on the ground face disproportionate harms compared to the benefits of these projects. National legal protections for the rights of those communities are minimal, despite Nepal’s international human rights obligations.

Homes in the inundation area of Tanahu Hydropower Project. Credit: Tom Weerachat/International Accountability Project.

Leading the community’s struggle for rights

Many landowners in Badarkuna have accepted compensation at the arbitrary rates determined by the Nepal government. But not everyone in the village is prepared to accept the current scheme proposed by the authorities, even though additional payments have been promised for disruption of cultivation, in an effort to quell widespread opposition to the Tanahu Hydropower Project by affected families. Til Bahadur belongs to one of 30 other indigenous Magar families whose lands will be inundated but who have refused to accept compensation, arguing the compensation is ‘inadequate and unfair’.  

Magars are one of the officially recognized indigenous nationalities of Nepal. Their ancestral domain is in the hills of western Nepal. Magars are the largest indigenous people in the country in terms of numbers, with around 1.9 million self-identified Magars in Nepal, which accounts for more than 7 percent of the national population. Magars are a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group, with their own language, spoken in three dialects (Magar Dhut, Magar Kham and Magar Kaike). While there are currently both Hindu and Buddhist followers among Magars, they also perform animist rituals based on ancestral practices. Magars are believed to descend from powerful and influential groups that once ruled over the central regions of what is now Nepal. Despite their ancestral heritage, Magars have faced historical marginalization and exclusion in the process of building a modern nation-state dominated by Hindu caste groups.  

In addition to the threat of inundation, sand and rocks from the river are increasingly being extracted. This is affecting nearby grazing areas as well as cremation and ritual sites. These things would never have happened, according to Til Bahadur, if the dam had not been approved in the first place or, at the very least, if consent from local indigenous communities had been procured in an open and transparent way. 

‘When the Tanahu Hydropower Project representatives first came to see our lands, they simply said that we would be compensated for our lands in cash,’ says Til Bahadur, who has led the Magar families in their struggle against the project since 2016. He goes on:  

At the time, we thought that we would be compensated adequately so we can buy lands similar to our own, which will be inundated. We thought that we would be provided with grazing fields and forests like we now have in the area. However, it did not go that way – quite the opposite, actually. In the name of development, we are losing our lands, and our families and forthcoming generations are being displaced for little to no compensation. That is why we are not satisfied with the project. 

Until recently, those Magar farmlands that are expected to be inundated by the Tanahu Hydropower Project were under collective ownership. While Til Bahadur and others were able to register much of their lands under individual titles in line with Nepal’s laws, a significant proportion of their lands that were jointly owned or used were still untitled due to legal complications and bureaucratic hassles. They tried to obtain land titles to remain in these ancestral lands, but to no avail. Now, to make matters worse, the affected Magar communities were informed that they would not receive compensation for the value of the untitled lands lost to inundation, but that government compensation would only cover the loss of produce for certain years, provided official evidence of ownership is presented to the authorities. Further, members of the community were not even asked about compensation for, or rehabilitation of their grazing lands, forests and other communal properties, such as cremation and ritual sites, which are also set to be inundated.

Magars walk through their farmlands that will be inundated by the Tanahu Hydropower Project. Credit: Tom Weerachat/Inaternational Accountability Project.

From national to international advocacy

Over the years, Til Bahadur and other Magar families involved in this dispute have repeatedly petitioned Tanahu Hydropower Project representatives and the concerned authorities. Their demands have included land-for-land compensation, as well as respect for their right to free, prior and informed consent in the decision-making process in line with international legal standards on the rights of indigenous peoples. When the authorities did not effectively address these demands, Magar representatives filed a complaint against the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) – the two co-financiers of the project along with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Following this complaint, a dispute resolution process facilitated by the complaint mechanisms of the banks has been ongoing since late 2020.  

Independent studies undertaken as part of the dispute resolution process have supported the grievances of the affected Magar families regarding inadequate land compensation and socio-economic impacts, including loss of cultural rights due to the environmental destruction along the banks of the River Seti. Up to the time of writing this case study in March 2023, there has been little progress on the Magars’ core demand for land-for-land compensation.  

In addition to Magar people, other indigenous and minority communities living on the Seti River catchment, including Newar and Dalit families, have also submitted complaints to the ADB and the EIB, citing lack of information-sharing and consultation. Severe landslides in the area in recent years have raised concerns over the impact the reservoir will have on land stability and the environment as a whole. All complainants have requested the ADB, the EIB and the JICA to suspend the financing of the project until their grievances are addressed, to which the financiers have not yet responded. 

As Yaam Kumari Rana, another project-affected community member maintains: ‘[The] project should only be carried out after resolving all the issues at stake to ensure the survival of us, indigenous communities…. Until then, the construction works should be halted.’ 

Despite pressures from indigenous communities, the hydropower sector in Nepal remains largely insulated from criticism. In order to ensure justice, the debate on hydropower in Nepal must address critical questions related to the marginalization of indigenous and other locally affected populations. Unless projects such as Tanahu Hydropower Project address the rightful and legitimate claims of communities as a due priority, hydropower development in Nepal will continue to face communities determined to fight for their rights.

We are grateful to members of Community Empowerment & Social Justice Network for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Magars discuss the titles of their lands that will be inundated by the Tanahu Hydropower Project. Credit: Tom Weerachat/International Accountability Project.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Prabindra Shakya

Alessandro Ramazzotti