I’ve only been here for a week, but every time the power comes back on I have a visceral reaction of excitement and happiness (written in early January). Each time I know the power is going on/off, I have a mental checklist of the current charging status of all my electronic devices. I thought maybe it was just because I’m new, but even in my office there’s an audible reaction when the lights come on… printers are used, devices are plugged in, and – most importantly – some electric heaters flicker to life!
But why all this drama? Nepal gets most of it’s power from hydro, and since the country experiences times of year with high and low water-flow (like the monsoons, and the dry winter), there is a shortage of electricity during different times of year. Therefore, their solution is to have rolling power across the country. This means that no area should be without power for a whole day (unless a transformer blows or something), but also no area will have power for an entire day. We call this load shedding! Load shedding happens in many countries around the world (you can read about my experience with it in Ghana here). Every place deals with it differently. For example, in Ghana the schedule was 12 hours off and 24 hours on. Even though we had light more of the time, it was still worse because no computer will last 12 hours (even with a back-up), but my laptop can last 7 hours at work with my back-up power charger and not watching videos or using the internet. Thankfully Nepal has divided each city into “groups”, and as long as you have the schedule and know your group you can figure out the electricity situation for that day. I have a handy app on my phone that I couldn’t function without! In fact, one of the first questions you might ask when you enter an office or house might be to ask which “group” they’re in… before asking for the WiFi code! 😛
This amazing app allows you to see the complete schedule, countdown to the next load-shedding period, and also give you notifications before the switch is about to happen.
Load shedding can impact almost every aspect of your life. It changes how and what you eat, how much work you can get done, and especially your mood (I don’t know about you, but sitting in the dark alone and hungry is not great at creating a positive mood). Learn about how we deal with some of those issues on a daily basis in Nepal:
Light – Of course you need electricity for light! Thankfully, our house has back-up solar, but this is only attached to certain lights, and only works for a short time (depending on how cloudy it was that day, and which hours the power is off). Therefore, in Dhaka I bought a pretty powerful (but cheap) little “LED emergency lamp”. It’s rechargeable and lights up my room enough to not feel like I’m completely in the dark. It comes in handy when the back-up solar system is beeping at me that the power is out, and we’re all forced to turn our room lights off. Thankfully, the WiFi is always working on back-up (so we’re able to feel connected to the outside world!). Don’t be surprised if you’re at the gym or a restaurant and the power goes out. Sometimes it comes back on shortly, other times – they bring out the candles! Quite romantic 😉
Hot Water – Some houses have no hot water, which SUCKS! The water here is arctic cold, and if you’re already cold (and not going to be able to warm up), having a shower is a scary and unpleasant idea. Fortunately, in our house we do have hot water. However, you need to turn the switch on. It takes about 2 hours for the water to heat up after you turn the switch on. You also have to remember to turn the switch on when the power comes on, and turn it off when the power goes off (or it will drain the back-up solar). Since you can only do this when the power is on, and the power might only be on for 3-4 hours at a time, you have to be a scheduling wizard to get hot water in a house with 5 girls living in it!
Running Water – Water just comes from pipes supplied by the city right? WRONG! Most houses in Kathmandu are either supplied by trucks (most international hotels need to truck water in, for example), or by underground water supplies (like wells). At my house, the water is fed into the pipes by gravity, which means you need to pump the water up to the roof. There’s a tank on the roof, but the pump only works when the power is on and you remember to turn it on. Running out of water when it’s dark really sucks – especially if you’re still soapy in the shower! Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often.
Left and middle: The outfit that I wear to work every day. Right: How I look when I’m cooking (thank goodness for headlamps!) 😛
Staying Warm – Nepal does not have central heating. Even if you go to a house of someone who is wealthy they likely don’t have any heat. If you’re lucky, some places have electric heaters that you plug in (like a fan, but heat instead), or gas heaters, that you need fuel to use. Therefore, you can only really use them at certain times of day, and you have to be careful, because they’re a bit of a fire hazard. Also, if you have the heater plugged in during the night while you’re sleeping and then the power goes off, you need to make sure you unplug it in the morning – because safety! Basically, you need to wear lots of layers, keep your jacket on in the office, and invest in some good, thick blankets!
Food – In North America, we take refrigeration for granted. Of course you can buy groceries for a week or two in advance, it will be fine as long as you remember to put the chicken in the freezer and the milk in the fridge. In a country with constant power outages, the “cold” section of the grocery store is always a debate. “Hmm, how much milk can I drink before tomorrow morning?”, “How long will that meat stay frozen after the power goes out?”, and “How fast can I eat a block of cheese?”. I guess we’re lucky because it’s now winter in Nepal, which means it never really goes above 16 degrees during the day, and it’s about 5 degrees at night. Houses are not heated, so the fridge (and house) probably stay around 10 degrees even if the power isn’t on. Thankfully, some things last even if they’re not perfectly refrigerated. Most veggies, butter, cheese, juice, etc. are fine. I’ve also taken to buying some things a little differently – like buying small “juice boxes” of soy milk, and just using one at a time – they don’t need to be refrigerated until they’re open. Most restaurants also have a reduced menu now, to account for the fuel shortages, power outages, and lack of raw materials getting across the border.
Left: A photo of the schedule I was given when I first arrived. Right: An excel version of the same schedule so that you can better understand the periods of dark and light. You can see that the power is off about 13 hours a day.
Getting Work Done – So this really depends on what type of work you happen to be doing. If you do outdoor manual labour in the daytime, it’s totally fine. However, if you work in an office environment where you need computers, it becomes a bit more difficult. If you have a laptop, it’s a bit easier. At least you have a few hours of work you can do before the power comes back. With some luck, you can work on your computer from 10 to 1, have lunch until 2, and then the power will be back and you can charge it for the afternoon. This only happens some days. Many offices have some sort of back-up power, but it’s not always consistent or reliable. If you’re using a desktop computer you’re out of luck, no power = no computer.
The first project I’m working on at Sana Hastakala is helping to improve their catalogue and sales to buyers. Therefore, we’re taking lots of product photos – easy right? Not so easy when you don’t have any power. Even if we did have power, there’s no lamp, just florescent tube lighting sporadically located around the rooms. Oh, did I mention the camera also has a broken flash? Hence, we have chosen the room with the most natural light coming in from the window, and we’re trying to take great photos with just that. Thank goodness for photo editing software!
Load shedding takes a bit of getting used to. When living in a “developing country” you must be really good at being flexible and going with the flow. No matter how much you whine or complain, the electricity is not coming back on until the schedule says so. Thankfully, the schedule usually includes some power during the day, and some at night. Unfortunately, a new schedule just came out this week which has 7 hours less power per week, with only 3 hours of lights on during the day (instead of 4). But that’s life right? Well… that’s life in Kathmandu anyway! If you’re going to live here, you better learn to cope!
If you’re thinking about moving to Nepal (or another country with load shedding), stayed tuned for my next blog about some handy devices that will make life easier in a cold country with no power.