03 June 2019

Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

A recent book chapter analysing sustainable energy transitions in the Hindu Kush Himalayas - co-authored by Pallav Purohit, researcher with IIASA’s Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases (AIR) Program - found that this region remains energy-poor despite its huge hydro-power potential of around 500 GW. Measures to enhance energy supply have had unsatisfactory results because of low prioritization and a failure to address the challenges of remoteness and fragility. Inadequate data and analyses are major barriers to designing context-specific interventions.

© P. Purohit

© P. Purohit

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is one of the greatest mountain systems in the world, covering 4.2 million km2 across eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The region is home to the world’s highest peaks, unique cultures, diverse flora and fauna, and a vast reserve of natural resources. It is the source of 10 major river basins, and provides ecosystem services (including water, food, and energy) that directly sustain the livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountain and hills of the HKH. Nearly 1.65 billion people living in downstream areas of these river basins also benefit directly and indirectly from its resources and more than three billion people rely on food produced in its river basins.

Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all - the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 - however, has been especially elusive for the HKH region, where energy poverty is shockingly high. About 80% of the population do not have access to clean energy and depend on biomass - mostly fuelwood - for both cooking and heating. Over 300 million people in HKH countries still lack basic access to electricity while vast hydro-power potentials (≈500 GW) remain largely untapped. Although a large percentage of these energy-deprived populations live in rural mountain areas – falling far behind the national access rates – mountain-specific energy access data that reflect the realities of mountain energy poverty barely exist.

The challenge for the region is to simultaneously address the issues of energy poverty, energy security, and climate change while attaining multiple SDGs. The growing sectoral interdependencies in energy, climate, water, and food make it crucial for policy makers to understand the cross-sectoral policy linkages, and their effects at multiple scales. A critical examination of the energy outlook of the HKH in its diverse aspects was undertaken, including demand-and-supply patterns; national policies, programmes, and institutions; emerging challenges and opportunities; and possible transformational pathways for sustainable energy.

The results, published in Dhakal et al. (2019), indicate that the HKH region can attain energy security by tapping into the full potential of hydro-power and other renewable energy sources. Success, however, will critically depend on removing policy, institutional, financial, and capacity barriers that now perpetuate energy poverty and vulnerability in mountain communities. Measures to enhance energy supply have had unsatisfactory results because of low prioritization and a failure to address challenges of remoteness and fragility. Inadequate data and analyses are major barriers to designing context-specific interventions.

In most HKH countries, existing national policy frameworks focus primarily on electrification (power sector) for household lighting, with limited attention paid to energy for clean cooking and heating, while productive energy use promotion has remained a neglected area in historical development practice. As a result, there has been limited progress in access to energy for clean cooking compared to the progress in electricity access. Therefore, a coherent mountain-specific policy framework needs to be well integrated in the national development strategy and translated into action.

Some HKH countries have scaled up off-grid initiatives that are globally recognized as successful. However, the special challenges faced by mountain communities – in terms of scale economics, inaccessibility, fragility, marginality, access to infrastructure and resources, poverty levels, and capability gaps – thwart large-scale replication of several best practice innovative business models and off-grid renewable energy solutions that are making inroads elsewhere.

A transition towards sustainable energy sources and more efficient energy use is essential in the HKH region. It is key to achieving the climate mitigation promises and sustainable energy development objectives of HKH countries. There is a strong demand for decentralized sustainable energy solutions in the HKH due to its distinct topographic features, dispersed settlement patterns, grossly underdeveloped markets, low capabilities, and poor economies of scale. Yet, a broad range of barriers, including policy and regulatory obstacles, outdated technology, and a lack of capacity and of finance have prevented the region from taking full advantage of existing and potential renewable energy sources for decentralized sustainable energy solutions in off-grid mountain areas. This highlights an urgent need to establish supportive policy, legal, and institutional frameworks and innovations in mountain-specific technology and financing, and enhanced multi-stakeholder capacity building at all levels, for upscaling of successful energy programmes in off-grid mountain areas.

Improving energy efficiency is a cost-competitive measure that can address increasing demand for energy services. The massive amounts of biomass traditionally required to provide fuel for cooking and space heating results in deforestation in the HKH mountains. Biomass use can be made more sustainable or substituted completely by moving away from the highly inefficient combustion of biomass fuels primarily used in this sector.

Print this page

Last edited: 03 June 2019


Pallav Purohit

Research Scholar

Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases

T +43(0) 2236 807 336


Dhakal S, Srivastava L, Sharma B, Palit D, Mainali B, Nepal R, Purohit P , Goswami A, et al. (2019). Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In: The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. pp. 167-207 Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-410.1007/978-3-319-92288-1_6.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313