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How water power is electrifying remote Himalayan villages

A small town in India put its Indigenous farming and irrigation knowledge to use -- and its breakthrough has brought electrical power to dozens of other communities.

By Anuradha Varanasi

Along India’s border with Myanmar, an obscure Himalayan village called Kingjung is connected to the rest of India by a narrow, cliff-hugging road. From above, Kingjung looks like many remote villages in South Asia, with terraced fields carved into steep slopes. There, the tribal community practices its centuries-old traditional farming techniques year-round.

But Kingjung is a pioneer. Its residents receive almost all their electricity from a small, water-powered generator that the community installed in 2012, after decades of stops, starts, and frustrations. 

The generator, known as a hydroger, made Kingjung the first rural community in the Indian Himalayas to use small-scale hydropower production as a long-term electrical source. Since then, the village of about 1,000 people has become a clean-energy model. It has lent its technical expertise to more than 48 other remote mountain villages. 

Kingjung is in Nagaland, one of India’s poorest states, where the landscape long made connecting to an electrical grid astronomically expensive and challenging. The village’s Indigenous tribe, the Khiamniungan clan, spent decades trying to electrify, bringing in technologies from faraway locations, in attempts that ended in futility and despair.

Their solution came when they stopped trying to replicate electrification efforts from other places and instead used natural resources of their own: water diverted from a nearby river and generations of farming knowledge that gave them a deep understanding of the landscape. “We were confident that our experiences, skills, and abilities could help other villages, too,” says Samuthong Muthong Thongo, president of the Khiamniungan Tribal Council. 

The hydroger is an example of what scholars of the developing world call a “frugal innovation”: a low-tech solution, based on local resources, that can give communities agency in improving their own standards of living.

“Some solutions come from high-power technological progress, which has largely taken place in industrialized countries,” says Auroop Ganguly, an engineering professor at Northeastern University and co-director of its Global Resilience Institute. “But in a low-resources country, frugal innovations can also work exceptionally well — like what has happened in Nagaland.”

Until a decade ago, Kingjung’s residents had to turn to the local forest for energy. Villagers cut down trees every day from a pine forest a two-hour walk away. After sunset, they had to abandon their fieldwork and return home as darkness engulfed them. They burned wood for cooking indoors and for basic lighting at night. Because candles were not always available in the village, they also collected pine cones and dry pine needles from the forest floor to use as makeshift wicks. Over time, their reliance on wood depleted their forest cover, making their existence feel even more precarious.

“We were living like animals,” says Samuthong Muthong Ongchei, 29, Thongo’s son. “Every single day was a struggle.”

In the 1980s, when Kingjung (formerly Kenjong) was not connected to other towns and villages by road, residents carried a transformer and electric poles by hand from a nearby village — only to find that the transformer didn’t work.

A decade later, villagers pooled money to buy solar panels and a lead-acid battery storage system. That worked for only three years, until the batteries reached the end of their life cycle and the villagers couldn’t afford replacements.

“Frugal innovations are designed specifically to overcome the challenges of a region and can work under severe resource constraints.”

Auroop Ganguly, an engineering professor at Northeastern University and co-director of its Global Resilience Institute

Then, in 2005, Kingjung took a leap toward sustainability with a massive engineering project: The tribe diverted part of a nearby river to create a stream through the village. Using its knowledge of the region’s intricate waterways — and the irrigation skills that have kept its farms productive and self-sufficient for centuries — the tribe dug trenches and created a robust channel for a perennial stream. “We were able to accomplish this feat all thanks to our traditional Indigenous knowledge of bringing clean water into terraced fields,” says Thongo. 

Each household contributed $5 toward buying a small hydroelectric device from Myanmar called a pico-generator, which uses gravity to draw power from the stream. Members of the tribal community moonlighted as engineers to install the pico-generator in Kingjung without any external help. 

After a year of trial and error, they succeeded in generating one kilowatt of energy in 2007. But that was only enough to provide electricity to 25 of the village’s 120 households. And the machine kept breaking down — its parts were no match for the unforgiving terrain. 

Then, Thongo learned about a state-run organization called Nagaland Empowerment of People Through Energy Development (NEPeD) that was working to bring power to rural areas. After frequent visits to Kingjung, NePeD engineers collaborated with the tribe to develop prototypes of a far more durable pico-generator. In 2009, they came up with a frugal innovation, which they named a “hydroger,” an amalgamation of the words “hydro” and “generator.”

The 170-pound hydroger, made of cast iron, looks like a cross between a small hydrant and a gas cylinder. A thick plastic pipe inserted in the hydroger brings a steady supply of gushing water from the watershed above, powering the turbines that create electricity. An electronic load controller that resembles a household’s breaker panel keeps the device from overheating.

Installed in 2012, the machine can produce 3 to 5 kilowatts of electricity, enough to light up every household in Kingjung. 

Northeastern’s Ganguly says small hydropower projects like Kingjung’s help distribute energy more equitably. “Frugal innovations are designed specifically to overcome the challenges of a region and can work under severe resource constraints,” he says.

And while the hydroger might generate far less power overall than other technologies, “sometimes it is not just about the volume of electricity,” Ganguly adds. “Reaching out to people off-the-grid and making use of local resources like perennial streams, with Indigenous technologies, is something to be admired.”

The hydroger has become a part of daily life for Kingjung villagers. Every evening at 5 p.m., they turn on the machine and rely on it to power the LED bulbs in their farms and homes. Thanks to the light bulbs, they have more time to develop businesses in weaving textiles and baskets, which they now sell in nearby towns. 

In 2013, the villagers were finally able to use power tools for the first time, to build toilets for each household in Kingjung. (Prior to that, villagers relieved themselves outdoors.) Along with the NEPeD team, they also constructed a new pig sty that made their village clean and hygienic. 

“Most of the children in Kingjung, including me, now have better chances of graduating high school and going to college in cities, because we can study long hours without dreading the darkness,” says Ongchei. “Our social life has also improved.” During special occasions, the tribal community celebrates in their church with loudspeakers and a sound system.

In 2017, the Nagaland government finally connected Kingjung to the national electrical grid. At the same time, a private company set up a local mobile network. After that, the villagers started buying mobile phones. “They had never used a mobile phone until then,” Ongchei says. 

Yet Kingjung still relies on the hydroger for most of its energy. Paying a monthly electricity bill of $3 is far more expensive for a household than chipping in less than 20 cents for the hydroger’s maintenance work every month — something that every household in Kingjung is responsible for contributing. 

And now that they no longer need wood for lighting (though they still use it for cooking), the tribe has been watching the pine forest near their village re-grow and return to its former glory. 

Meanwhile, Nagaland’s rural electrification authority has been spreading the technology it helped develop in Kingjung. NEPeD has manufactured and sold 150 hydrogers and installed 100 in rural areas in Nagaland and neighboring states with $1,800 grants from India’s Ministry of New & Renewable Energy. During each installation, the team trains rural technicians and engineers on how to operate and maintain the pico-generators and small turbines.

Around 155 miles from Kingjung, another tribal community in a town called Kiphire quit burning pine wood in 2014, when NEPeD installed its hydroger. Like Kingjung’s residents, Kiphire tribe members still live a minimalist lifestyle without TVs or other gadgets — except for their mobile phones.

“We live in the middle of a pine forest, and the hydroger has made us feel a lot safer and live a comparatively more comfortable life,” says Chuba Amikioro, a farmer who lives in a small village next to Kiphire. 

In other Himalayan villages, farmers use electricity from the hydrogers to install lights in their farms to trap pests after dark and keep them away from their bananas, oranges, and other fruits. The farmers can now work into the night to sort their produce.

The future of the hydrogers in the Himalayas is still tenuous. Heavy rains can cause the equipment to break. Landslides and high transportation costs can make it difficult to access repairs. Also, climate change has made the volatility of the landscape even worse, says Imchen Imnayanger, a mechanical engineer at NEPeD. 

But a bigger challenge could be the hydrogers’ own success. While these villages are reaping the benefits of electricity, they are beginning to want more of it. As communities’ energy needs increase, NEPeD officials are seeking funding to develop prototypes of more efficient hydrogers, which could produce up to 15 kilowatts of electricity.

“Kingjung villagers keep discussing how they could never go back to living the way they did before they got their hydroger,” says Ongchei. “They cannot imagine going back to a life of perpetual darkness.”

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Anuradha Varanasi is a writer based in Mumbai, India.


Photo of a Himalayan village courtesy of the Nagaland Empowerment of People through Energy Development. 


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