Nepal’s power lines are bird death traps amid hydropower boom

High-voltage power lines are emerging as one of the main killers of birds in Nepal, affecting common species such as crows all the way to critically endangered vultures.

Nepal is crisscrossed by power lines that bring electricity to towns and cities from the more than 100 hydropower projects nationwide. But planning of the lines is haphazard, and the required environmental impact assessments are shoddy and tend to ignore birds, conservationists say. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

When Suman Hamal was growing up in his hometown of Putalibazar in Nepal’s Nuwakot district, he saw birds of different species and sizes fly around in his neighbourhood.

He recalls being amazed by the beauty of the creatures and wondering how they could take to the skies. “But I would feel heart-wrenched when I would come across bird carcasses near electricity lines and poles,” Hamal told Mongabay. “There were times when I would see a bird resting on a powerline and suddenly drop to the ground.”

Hamal, who recently completed his master’s degree in zoology from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, is the co-author of a newly published study on the impacts of power lines on birds in Putalibazar. But birds are dying in large numbers all across Nepal due to power lines. Haphazardly laid lines that crisscross the country to distribute power from its 123 large hydropower projects (and numerous smaller ones) are proving to be death traps for birds, some of them already critically endangered species.

Nepal, gripped by an acute power shortage for more than a decade, has invested heavily in hydropower in the past few years. Today, its installed capacity stands at around 2,100 megawatts, enough to even allow it export electricity to India during the wet season. In six years’ time, the number is expected to increase to 18,000 MW during the monsoon and 11,000 MW in winter. While there’s been some attention paid to all these projects’ impacts on the fish and macroinvertebrates in the rivers, the fallout on birds has largely been ignored.

“Traditionally, it was believed that large birds of prey would be the ones affected by the power lines,” Hamal said. But the study found that smaller birds such as the house swift (Apus nipalensis), common myna (Acridotheres tristis), house crow (Corvus splendens) and rock pigeon (Columba livia) are also affected, Hamal said. He and his co-authors also recorded the electrocution of white-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis), a critically endangered species.

Until recently, we observed that the drug diclofenac ingested by vultures from carcasses of sick animals was the major killer of vultures. But now, it is the power lines. Our monitoring data shows a steady rise in the number of electrocution and collision deaths attributable to power lines.

hana Thapa, CEO, Bird Conservation Nepal

The study authors established 17 circular plots in diverse habitats, including farmland, forests, settlements and river basins, along a 30.6-kilometre (19-mile) distribution line. During observations from November 2021 to May 2022, they found that a bird collided with the power line every 2 km (1.2 mi), and around two birds were electrocuted for every 10 distribution poles.

Nepal had more than 5,300 km (3,300 mi) of high-voltage transmission lines as of the past fiscal year, according to the Nepal Electricity Authority, the country’s state-owned power monopoly. That’s a “drastic increase” of 2,700 km (nearly 1,700 mi) over the past seven years, the utility says, with another 3,100 km (1,900 mi) of lines in the works across the country.

And while the laying of new lines requires a prior environmental impact assessment, these assessments tend to be flawed, conservationists say. Nepal has a bad track record in conducting EIAs, Mongabay reported previously.

“And even the recommendations of the assessments have rarely been implemented fully,” said ornithologist Hem Bahadur Katwal, a co-author of the recent study.

Various studies have found that power lines are fast-emerging threats to raptors and other birds of prey, some of them, like the white-rumped vulture, critically endangered.

“Until recently, we observed that the drug diclofenac ingested by vultures from carcasses of sick animals was the major killer of vultures,” said Ishana Thapa, CEO of the NGO Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN). “But now, it is the power lines. Our monitoring data shows a steady rise in the number of electrocution and collision deaths attributable to power lines.”

According to a database maintained by BCN, most electrocution cases have been reported in Nepal’s Gandaki and Lumbini provinces, where hydropower and transmission lines are being built in different locations. Between February 2010 and March 2023, 122 vultures of seven species were reported to have been electrocuted across 17 districts in the country. A record 31 electrocutions were reported in 2022 alone.

A soon-to-be-published study led by ornithologist Tulsi Subedi based on surveys in five regions of Nepal between 2018 and 2021 found 54 electrocuted raptors of eight species. Additionally, residents of Bhorletar in Tanahun district informed researchers that 30 to 40 vultures were electrocuted in 2020 and 2022, in an area where power lines pass close to a cow rescue site, a favourite feeding spot for vultures.

“It is ironic that we spent thousands of dollars to hatch one vulture egg in captivity, but they are being allowed to die so easily because of the power lines,” Subedi said, referring to Nepal’s vulture captive-breeding program, which was shut down in April 2022 following reports that vulture populations had bounced back in the wake of the diclofenac crisis.

Nepal’s government recently came up with a directive on building and designing wildlife-friendly linear infrastructure, such as power lines and roads, but the problems of electrocution and collision aren’t been addressed in the document, Mongabay reported previously.

Ankit Joshi, program manager at BCN, said power lines are being laid haphazardly and in an uncoordinated manner.

“At times, we see several layers of powerlines and they are also not very far from each other,” he added. It’s effectively creating an electrocution cage for birds, he added.

Katwal said a first step toward addressing the problem is to ensure that EIAs consider the gravity of impact on birds.

“Bird abundance studies should be carried out thoroughly before we work on power lines,” he told Mongabay. “The best idea would be to avoid areas with high abundance of birds.”

A more involved measure would be to retrofit the existing wide network of power lines to at least reduce the possibility of bird deaths, Subedi said. Simple measures such as installing bird spikes and altering the position of the parts that have the potential to electrocute birds could go a long way toward reducing fatalities, he said.

“This doesn’t cost much compared to the thousands of dollars we spent on captive-breeding programs,” he added.

Thapa from BCN said more studies are needed in Nepal to assess which mitigation measures work. Different countries have tried various approaches to the same problem, such as installing reflectors and colourful balls to ward off birds from power lines; increasing the distance between the wires; and planning routes based on bird movements.

“We need to figure out what works in Nepal and then implement it at least for new projects,” Thapa said.

Gokarna Raj Pantha, spokesperson for the Electricity Regulatory Commission, said his office has no plans to do anything of the kind. “The issue of birds is to be addressed through EIA and the Ministry of Environment,” he told Mongabay. “Our office is relatively new and we are yet to start working in a full-fledged manner.”

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