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  • Simple and cheap: Nepal's application of science

Almost unnoticed, Nepal is developing simple and cheap technologies that make the best of local resources and don't damage the environment.

Down a narrow alley in Kathmandu's historic heart, through a low door, you enter Akal Man Nakarmi's workshop. Nakarmi's surname means 'metalsmith' and the soft-spoken craftsman's ancestors crafted copper utensils and forged statues of deities in bronze.

Today, Nakarmi makes small turbines called Peltric Sets for micro-hydro electric generation plants across the Himalaya. He can't keep up with demand.

Nepal's successes in scientific application in recent decades aren't about grandiose hydropower dams or major infrastructure projects.

The new technologies that have worked have been indigenously designed, based on traditional skills and knowledge, and are cheap and easy to use and maintain. In fact, to visit Nepal these days is to see the 'small is beautiful' concept of development economist E. F. Schumacher in action.

From Nakarmi's Peltric Sets to multi-purpose power units based on traditional water mills, from biogas plants to green road construction techniques in the mountains, Nepalis have shown that small is not just beautiful but also desirable and possible.

This is happening not just in technology but also in health, agriculture and forestry. It has gone almost unnoticed that Nepal's infant mortality rate has been reduced by half since 1990. How did that happen? Not because a lot of state-of-the-art hospitals were built. Fewer babies die in Nepal these days mainly because of the spread of awareness about safe drinking water. The message went out through radio, and made an impact because of higher literacy levels and better vaccination coverage.    

Another unsung success story is the regeneration of forests across the mid-Himalaya. Again, it wasn't new afforestation techniques or fencing off plantations that revived the vegetation. It was an act of parliament 17 years ago that devolved power to local communities who then had a vested interest in protecting the commons. 

Nepal is said to have one of the highest per capita hydropower generation potentials in the world, but it is the small-scale plants set up by villagers that have brought about a real revolution in rural energy. Multi-purpose microhydro plants are built on existing technology of traditional water mills, made more efficient.

Similarly, the number of village biogas plants now exceeds 180,000, one of the most dramatic spreads of methane generation from farm waste in any developing country. Once underground fermentation tanks were designed for affordability, the rest was just economics.

With both micro-hydro and biogas, it was the government subsidy, rural extension and training that made the technologies viable.

Nevertheless, appropriate and localised technology has a long way to go in Nepal.

There is a lot of vested interest in expensive mega-projects. Big projects often bring big kickbacks, which is why politicians prefer them. India's huge demand for water and energy means planners in both countries are looking at mammoth schemes like the high dams on the Kosi and Karnali rivers and a slew of medium-scale reservoir projects in the next six years with the aim of exporting power to India.

It will be difficult to stop these schemes. But we should also promote cheap, small, homegrown technologies. These are no longer in the realm of New Age romanticism. Nepal has shown they work better than costly outside intervention, they deliver, and although the world is slow to take notice, they are quietly improving people's lives.

This now needs to be reflected in media coverage of science and technology, and what we journalists define as news in our countries. Given the challenges of global warming and economic imbalances globally and within countries, locally-built and managed technologies have the best chance of addressing both economic and ecological concerns.

Schumacher showed that human beings could reduce their ecological footprint with the use of appropriate and benevolent technologies that did not waste the planet's finite resources. The path ahead for humankind is to do a lot with less, learning from practical examples like that set by Nepal.

Kunda Dixit

SciDev.Net Advisory Panel

This article is part of a Spotlight on Science in the Himalayas.