Building Bridges

Dipti Vaghela


Building Bridges:  Community-Based Renewable Energy

Dense forest, bauxite red earth, and clear streams.
A pre-sunrise orchestra of invisible birds and whispering leaves.  
The cool and fading twilight air, gently warmed with breaking day. 
Craftily built homes of red mud, amidst green paddy and laborious hills of pulses.  
The Dongria Kondh people. Grace in their gait. Harmony in speech. Wisdom in their smiles.
Mindful of my presence. The eager rustle of my footsteps; the silence in between each.
Heart full of the privilege and responsibility that comes with piercing into, nearly interfering with, a culture living in tandem with Nature.

Kalahandi District, Odisha.
Credit: Dipti Vaghela

These lines reflect typical mornings not long ago, when I lived in rural India building community energy solutions. Raised in the US as an Indian American, I knew little about India at the start of this rural journey. Certainly, I knew nothing about the on-the-ground realities of marginalized indigenous communities. I had never taken a course on international development. The phrase "poverty alleviation" was limited to my images of homeless families during our visits to India every few years. All I had was a degree in mechanical engineering, savings from a few years of working in Silicon Valley, and mediocre Indian language skills. But thankfully, I had brought with me a time space free of deadlines, emails and concerns about my future.

Eventually, this flow took me to Kalahandi, Odisha, in the central-east part of India. I worked for a long-established NGO to coordinate their rural energy program. The work involved implementing and sustaining bio gasification, mud cook stoves, microhydro electrification, solar PV, and solar thermal systems. After a couple of years working with all of these technologies, my passion grew more toward community-based microhydro.

Microhydro uses the head and flow of streams to generate 1kW-100kW of electricity. (The range differs based on definitions of pico, micro and mini hydro.) This may not sound like much electricity, but for villages of 10-100 households that use kerosene lamps for lighting, 30 watts of light per household gives new meaning to fiat lux!

Micro-hydro components.
Credit: US Dept of Energy

Micro-hydro can be an ideal rural intervention that takes into account the 3 Es of sustainable development – environment, equity and economy. Electricity generation from a microhydro system does not emit greenhouse gases or displace people. In fact, it requires sustainable management of local watersheds and forest. Microhydro can be cost effective in bringing a modern basic need – electricity – to un-electrified populations that are too remote to access with the central grid. In countries where the central grid hardly works, micro-hydro electricity is actually more reliable! When a microhydro system is designed, installed, and maintained properly, it can power local livelihood activities that reduce drudgery and increase household productivity and community income.    

Although I studied engineering, the nuts and bolts of micro-hydro do not drive my passion. My commitment to community microhydro is rooted in the diverse and multi-dimensional experiences of being a practitioner on the ground, where I interfaced with streams and forests to create light but also coordinated action among village communities, technicians, local fabricators, development workers, government officials, and funding agency reps. It has been difficult to step back and decompress the intense adventures using just a keyboard. Nonetheless, with you as the patient reader, I can begin to examine one layer at a time:

Ironies and Hope

Dongria Kondh village's place of workship.
Dongria Kondh place of workship.
Credit: Dipti Vaghela

There is now a movement in modern society intent on going back to the basics – local and organic food, clean and sustainable water systems, decentralized energy, connection to nature, and inner balance. The movement seeks to shift values from "consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, isolation to community," and "ego-system to eco-system."  While the progressive modern world still seeks solutions, many rural and indigenous communities live them and have done so for generations. Ironically, at times international aid aimed to develop impoverished rural areas with short-term solutions (e.g. importing subsidized, low-quality rice into rice-growing regions) unravel the socio-ecological fabric of indigenous value systems – the same fabric that we're working so hard to create in our communities in the developed world. (Here is a friend's recent learning journey that relates and is worth reading.) 

A more serious paradox is that while these communities have invaluable answers for sustainable living, the extraction of natural resources required to keep alive the Western modern lifestyle weakens the well-being of self-sustained communities. Now while living in a metropolitan area, I find it difficult to know where the stuff I use comes from and at whose cost – whether it’s running water, energy, building materials, food, clothing, my smart phone, or the roll of aluminum foil in my kitchen.

Community micro-hydro construction.
Credit: Dipti Vaghela

Yet, I remember how every time I returned to the nearest town after being in a marginalized village for long periods, I marveled at how easier life was where daily living did not involve physical labor, e.g. daily head loading of drinking water and firewood. Certainly, the challenge is in finding a mindful balance between infrastructure that reduces drudgery, yet does not take environment and human relationships for granted. I see hope in community-based, decentralized energy solutions, such as microhydro, which offer modern services but remind me, as I flip the light switch to ON, exactly which watershed gifted me the electricity and who was involved in getting it to my home.

Iterative Co-Learning

Because each community is unique, the process used to implement rural energy projects is just as important as the end result. Finding the right process for each community is an iterative journey of building trust, identifying strengths, and addressing weaknesses as opportunities for growth and learning. My first two years in the field were spent fire-fighting the aftermath of poorly implemented microhydro projects. No one intentionally made mistakes, they just happened. Yet, in hindsight with cycles of reflection, action and observation, we saw what could be improved and how. In the following four years, I iteratively identified root causes and discovered solutions, establishing a learning-process approach to microhydro.

Local experts teach turbine installation.
Credit: Dipti Vaghela

During this period, because the NGO I worked for had limited human resources, I was forced to take on multiple roles – managing grants, financial accounts, hardware supply, technical decisions, quality assurance, community organizing, government liaison, transport logistics, etc. While those days were stressful, I’m grateful that they positioned me to interact with diverse stakeholders and understand how each was needed to bring projects to light. I also realized an unintentional but distinct hierarchy of power: the farther the actor was from the village, the greater his decision-making power. Yet, the closer the actor was to the village, the greater the knowledge he had, yet no institutional authority. For instance, the funding agency rep based in New Delhi and the NGO's globe-trotting executive director had more authority over project development than the local turbine fabricator and generator repairman, both of whom we had trained and learned from to ensure each village project ran successfully.  

Village operator troubleshoots controller.
Credit: Dipti Vaghela

Because these local stakeholders spoke the local dialect, were within a relatively short bus ride away from the villages, and were eager to learn about new technology, they wholeheartedly embraced the work. Further, because these local experts were part of creating the solution, they had the courage and commitment to immediately troubleshoot even the most complex technical and social issues, which in earlier scenarios killed the project while we waited for the outside exert to arrive. The confidence of the local experts was passed onto the community when they mentored the village youth to become responsible microhydro operators. The village community affectionately called the local experts Bhai-yna (Oriya for elder brother).To this day, these local experts – not the funding agency, the NGO, nor me – are the reason the microhydro projects are still running.

Thanks to the iterative field lessons on how to create project sustainability, I was able to facilitate co-learning within the power hierarchy, leading to decisions that impacted how well the projects worked. When the microhydro systems worked continuously and were sustained by local stakeholders, the work spoke for itself. These handful of pilot projects have inspired the local government to survey potential sites across rural and indigenous Odisha.

Bridging Gaps:  Practice, Policy, Research, and Advocacy

During my final year in Odisha, I found myself serving as a link between a spectrum of practitioners – ranging from local entrepreneurs like the turbine fabrication shops to focused experts like the suppliers of the electronic load controller, and to rural development NGO workers like myself. The work evolved into a formal, knowledge exchange network connecting microhydro practitioners across South and Southeast Asia, with support from WISIONS. In the midst of this effort, I became excited to apply for a Switzer Foundation Leadership Grant with International Rivers. I had begun feeling isolated focusing only on microhydro, when in fact a larger hydro story and our planet's changing climate were creating greater impacts on rural communities across the globe. I also started to notice other arenas that influenced how projects unfolded on the ground, namely international finance, policy and research.

If these areas were as integrated as the human body, practitioners could be seen as the hands, on the ground and in real time figuring out best-practices to project implementation. Policy makers could be seen as the feet, leading us to the scope of the work, e.g. how many projects, where and under what guidelines. Action-oriented research groups – such as the University of California's Energy and Resources Group, or policy-research groups like the Prayas Energy Group – could be seen as the mind, often consisting of former practitioners or policy thinkers who have stepped back to generate crucial, analytical perspectives for informing decision makers. For example, check out ERG's recent study on local alternatives to large hydro in Borneo.  

Yogic chakras.

With practitioners as the hands, policy makers as the feet, and researchers as the mind, the best metaphor for the work of advocacy groups – such as International Rivers – would be the heart. The heart space requires having a pulse on the hands, feet, and mind, all while engaging in questions that matter most to the people who will bear the outcomes of all decisions. So often the voices of these affected people are not brought into decision-making spaces. If an empty chair representing the many communities and eco-systems impacted by the Bank's approach to global development had been kept in the World Bank's recent close-door fund raising meeting, would the donors have thought twice about giving money to inequitable energy projects?

Extending the human body metaphor to the Bank and other financiers, the current international finance scene seems to be a chakra imbalance, where strong energy capable of doing good has been misplaced. Believe it or not, a few of the best-case programs of small-scale energy solutions, such as in Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, have actually been the work of powerful international financiers. These programs invested in long-term, local capacity building, and innovative financing of small-scale energy projects. And the results, in terms of bringing energy access to marginalized rural communities, have been impressive. So, why is it that such programs are still only a small percentage of the financiers' portfolios, which are instead prolific with irresponsible infrastructure projects?

Micro hydro family.
Credit: Dipti Vaghela

I don't know the answer, but flowing with the chakra metaphor I'd say it has to do with an imbalance of the Root chakra of desire – politics and profit have been prioritized over the well-being of the whole. Privileged populations and industries who have benefited from destructive projects may argue otherwise. But what about even that one family whose life was taken apart when their land was forcibly taken, or traded with a poorer alternative? What if that was my family or my eco-system that was uprooted in order to create benefits for another population – then would it still be OK? When viewed from all angles, these are not simple questions.  

What is evident is that the metaphoric hands, feet, mind, heart, and chakras are inherently interconnected yet independently learning. How can we constructively interface to develop equitable solutions? My few months at International Rivers' have provided great learning. Top-most on the list is the process that led to the World Commission on Dams (WCD), where diverse and even opposing stakeholders came together to create an equitable framework for dam building. (True, although not inspiring, is that the WCD is being ignored by the very resource that funded it – the Bank.) More recent is the Power for People campaign, sending a message to Bank donors to fund programs that will genuinely address energy access. Also, a new guide on integrated energy planning sheds light on optimizing energy demand and resources for long-term sustainability.  

International Rivers' inclusive, solutions-oriented advocacy work encourages me to ask, reflect and connect. As a practitioner interfacing with the policy, research and advocacy realms, I see an increasing space to build bridges between these knowledge bases. There is a dearth of information regarding successfully replicated small-scale solutions. Unless this information is readily accessible, it’s difficult to create effective advocacy for these solutions. Likewise, advocacy groups on the ground searching for tangible solutions are not connected to implementing practitioners. Busy and focused, practitioners are not tapped into the appropriate research and financing audiences that could greatly enhance their work.

The closing of 2013 gifted these ramblings on ironies and hope, iterative co-learning, and spaces to connect. As 2014 arrives, I look forward to bridging ahead.

Monday, December 23, 2013