Green Futures magazine
Issue 47 July/August


Ashden Awards-The Finalists

Water into Wires

No fewer than three of this year’s overseas finalists in the Ashden Awards are micro-hydro projects. From the Hindu Kush to the slopes of Mount Kenya, the hills are flowing with power – as evidenced by these Ashden Awards finalists.

Pakistan’s North West Frontier is hardly the place most people would go looking for a good news story – but that just goes to show how the narrow focus of the media shrinks a vast region into a single turbulent war zone. In the high valleys of the Hindu Kush, north of Peshawar, there’s a series of small revolutions underway, and they don’t involve Al Qaeda or warring tribesmen. These are a simpler, sweeter, more literal kind of revolution: the sort that happens when rushing water strikes a turbine and spins it round to create electricity. Micro-hydro power, in other words, which is transforming the lives of nearly 20,000 households in the hills of Chitral, up against the Afghan border.

By bringing light to the long mountain evenings, it’s opened up huge opportunities for impoverished villages. Instead of smoky, sputtering pine resin torches, and the odd pricey and cumbersome kerosene lamp, there’s the simplicity of electric light. That means children have more of a chance to study – one that is willingly seized by kids for whom education isn’t a tiresome drag, but a ticket out of poverty – and their schools have computers.

It means adults have time to earn desperately needed cash by making traditional clothes and handicrafts, like fine woollen capes and shawls, or intricate beadwork. Many have seen their income treble as a result – bringing huge improvements in their standard of living, and, incidentally, far more money than goes out in electricity bills.

“For the first time, I have eyes in the night.”

But there are more mundane benefits, too – like being able to avoid that deadly scorpion scuttling across your path on your way to the loo. As one old man told me: “For the first time, I have eyes in the night.”

For women in particular, it lifts a heavy weight of drudgery from some of the most tedious, time-consuming chores. Churning butter by hand may sound folksy and romantic, but if you’re exhausted by a day’s work in the fields, it’s another chunk of hard labour you can do without. Electric butter-churners, along with simple washing machines, have given women a freedom they didn’t dare imagine. TV, too, has fast taken hold, bringing everything from news and soaps to sports reports (even the Hindu Kush is prey to Pakistan’s cricket mania). “We women love the cooking programmes,” said one, “and now that our daughters have learnt to read, they can write down the recipes for us!”

But along with its undoubted benefits, won’t TV bring consumerism crashing into pristine valleys? Up to a point, perhaps – but keeping globalisation at bay through poverty and darkness is hardly a sustainable, let alone ethical, strategy. And while electricity may drag the outside world, warts and all, into the villagers’ homes, it also gives them the chance of improving their livelihoods to a point where they don’t have to face a choice between grinding poverty at home, and joining the flood of migrants seeking hazardous, menial work in faraway cities.

Unlike the huge dams which seal up a river and play havoc with the ecosystem downstream, micro-hydro is a technology which treads lightly down the valleys. Rather than dam the whole river, villagers simply dig a narrow channel which diverts a fraction of the water along the hillside, running along the side of the valley, down a much gentler incline than the stream below. Once the height difference is big enough, the water from the channel is sent rushing down a pipe and into the powerhouse beneath, with sufficient force to produce up to 50 kW of power – enough to light hundreds of homes. Then it’s simply released back into the river.

Over 180 micro-hydro plants have now been installed all across Chitral by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP). This NGO works not only with Ismaili communities (for whom the Aga Khan is spiritual leader), but with Sunni Muslims too, as well as the Kalash people – non-Muslims living in three valleys just east of the Afghan border, who proudly claim to be descended from the armies of Alexander the Great, passing through en route to India….

Villagers contribute around 40% of the costs of the plant (mostly in the form of labour), and choose committees who run the scheme on a day-to-day basis, setting and collecting payments, including special concessions for the poorest families. Where necessary, they ration more energy-hungry uses, such as washing machines, to avoid overloading the system. They’re also trained in basic maintenance, so they can ensure the plant’s running smoothly.

Longer term, AKRSP is looking to introduce heftier micro-hydro plants with enough power for cooking and heating – so easing a chronic firewood shortage which is threatening the future of all Chitral’s mountain communities. Meanwhile, the villagers’ enthusiasm shines from their faces. One old Kalash woman summed it up simply: “It’s brought us from darkness to light.”

From micro to minnow….

There’s micro, and then there’s seriously micro. On the slopes of Mount Kenya, a stream so small you could jump across has been tapped to bring power to a village far from the country’s ailing electricity grid. Compared to Chitral, this one’s a minnow, generating just 1.3 kW – still enough, however, to give Kathamba’s 50 homes a light and a power socket each [see also Small is Powerful supplement, GF37]. As in Pakistan, the community provides most of the labour, and a couple of villagers are trained in basic maintenance. Every household contributes to the cost, via an ‘installation fee’ of around £40, and a monthly bill of less than £1.

Along with two other so-called ‘pico-hydro’ projects, it’s the brainchild of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, which hopes to roll out similar schemes across Kenya, once the new government completes its promised reform of restrictive and cumbersome energy regulations.

Output may be tiny, but the benefits are huge. In the words of one villager: “I save money which I once spent on kerosene and batteries; I can listen to the radio for longer, and my children can carry on with their studies after dark.”

And there are less obvious uses too. One enterprising villager has set up a chicken farm (using the electricity for infra red lights). Others are providing charging points for mobile phones – a social and economic lifeline to health workers, family and markets elsewhere.

The millers’ tale

Mention watermills, and more than likely you’ll conjure up an image of Constable landscapes, or an estate agent’s blurb full of phrases like ‘tastefully restored’ and ‘fishing rights’. Among the fast-flowing streams of the Himalayas, though, there’s nothing antique about a watermill. Hundreds of thousands of people depend on them to turn grain into flour – renewable energy in one of its simplest forms. The technology might be as old as the hills, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. Over the years, many mills have either been abandoned as their owners seek easier ways to make a living in the cities on the plains, or gone out of business in the face of competition from newer, more efficient (but costly and polluting) diesel mills.

When engineers from IT Power India got together with the millers of Chamoli, some 50 miles south of Tibet, they found simple ways to upgrade the mills which massively boosted output. These include replacing some wooden components with steel and designing new grindstones (ironically based on drawings in a Victorian manual), which, along with other carefully thought out mechanical tweaks, have suddenly made the old mills competitive again. In terms of income, the differences are dramatic. While a traditional mill brought in barely £40 a year, the new ones can make up to £250, which in the low-income world of the high Himalayas, is a sizeable sum – enough to make mill-owning a viable career. Suddenly ambitious youths are getting interested in what was formerly just ‘old man’s work’. (Most millers have second jobs, such as teachers or food stallholders, while others own several mills each.)

And the real triumph is affordability. An upgrade costs around £180, meaning the work will pay for itself, in terms of increased income, in less than a year. With security like that, the Watermillers’ Association has been able to set up a revolving fund to finance new upgrades, and even local banks are now willing to back a sector they wouldn’t have dreamt of ‘wasting’ money on before.

IT Power’s also experimenting with using the mills to generate electricity – a more expensive process which, while not economically viable at present, holds out the prospect of an even more dramatic transformation down the line.

Meanwhile, the grindstone’s come full circle: the diesel mills are starting to close down for lack of custom. Not only are the watermills cheaper, say the locals, but their flour doesn’t taste of diesel any more.