Active, stable and cost-effective electrocatalysts are a key to water splitting for hydrogen production through electrolysis or photoelectrochemistry. Here we report nanoscale nickel oxide/nickel heterostructures formed on carbon nanotube sidewalls as highly effective electrocatalysts for hydrogen evolution reaction with activity similar to platinum. Partially reduced nickel interfaced with nickel oxide results from thermal decomposition of nickel hydroxide precursors bonded to carbon nanotube sidewalls. The metal ion-carbon nanotube interactions impede complete reduction and Ostwald ripening of nickel species into the less hydrogen evolution reaction active pure nickel phase. A water electrolyzer that achieves ~20 mA cm(-2) at a voltage of 1.5 V, and which may be operated by a single-cell alkaline battery, is fabricated using cheap, non-precious metal-based electrocatalysts.