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Hydropower is hot property again

By Shripad Dharmadhikary

Hydropower is riding the wave of climate change: it is touted to cut down the use of fossil fuels and sequester carbon in its reservoirs. The pace of implementation is being stepped up in India, with a planned 162 projects in 16 states by 2017. But claims of the climate benefits of hydropower seem to be running far ahead of the science of the matter. And even if hydropower does cut down on fossil fuel, it does so at the expense of other impacts on the ecosystem and communities. So it may be 'cleaner' in some respects, but 'dirtier' in others

"I am given to understand that a turnaround in hydropower project execution is in the offing." These words by then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the inauguration of the ambitious 50,000 MW Hydroelectric Initiative of the Government of India neatly capture the new excitement surrounding hydropower. The pace of implementation seems to have increased. While the last 20 years saw an addition of 13,666 MW of hydro capacity in India, the five years of the Tenth Plan period alone are expected to add about 11,000 MW. The World Bank, which had practically stopped funding large dams, has explicitly expressed its intention to do so again. The government is planning a series of sops to push hydropower. And there is an aggressive promotion of hydropower at conferences and seminars as well.

Hydropower has for long been the special headache of planners and implementers in the country. India is reportedly endowed with enormous economically exploitable hydro potential, assessed at about 84,000 MW at 60% load factor (148,700 MW installed capacity). Only around 18% of this had been harnessed till 2002. The sharply falling share of hydro in total capacity -- from 46% in the 1970s to about 25% today -- is also cited as a serious problem. Opposition to large dams has been identified as a key factor.

Opposition to large dams is not new. Among the first such organised struggles was the satyagraha against the Mulshi hydroelectric project of the Tatas led by Senapati Bapat in the early- and mid-1920s. In the last couple of decades, this opposition has been stepped up, both in breadth and depth, not just in India but globally.

The net result was a sharp fall in funding for large dams from the World Bank and other such institutions. Whereas the World Bank financed 3.5% of dams constructed in the 1970s, this fell to less than 1% in the 1990s. The number of dams being built worldwide every year also declined. This difficulty in proceeding with dam-building is what led to the initiation of, as well as industry support to, the World Commission on Dams (WCD).

The WCD with 12 members representing dam-builders, engineering companies, NGOs, affected people's movements, etc, was set up in 1998 and produced a unanimous report in November 2000. The WCD findings vindicated most of the major criticisms made by those challenging large dams.   

Post-WCD, there seems to have been a clear hardening of will and a newfound determination to push large dams. The old arguments are being reiterated, all serious concerns are being swept aside, regulatory mechanisms and social and environmental requirements are being diluted, and there's an increased use of force.

Will climate change make dams hot once again?

Climate change is a major global concern right now. The push for hydropower clearly attempts to ride this wave. For example, the International Hydropower Association, in one of its pamphlets, says that hydropower helps fight climate change. It is supposed to be doing this not only by substituting and hence cutting down the use of fossil fuels, but also by sequestering carbon in its reservoirs that would act as carbon sinks.

But the role of hydro in mitigating climate change is far from settled. This is what the WCD report says on the issue: "A first estimate suggests that the gross emissions from reservoirs may account for between 1% and 28% of the global warming potential of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. This challenges the conventional wisdom that hydropower produces only positive atmospheric effects... In some circumstances the gross emissions can be considerable, and possibly greater than the thermal alternatives."

A report prepared by an atmospheric scientist for the International Rivers Network also questions the carbon sequestering impact of reservoirs, saying that this may be a limited, sometimes temporary, benefit. In some cases the net impact of a reservoir could be negative when its own GHG emissions are more that its sequestering capacity. It also cautions that a "large amount of further research is needed to come up with any reliable estimates of the full climate impacts of reservoir construction". Thus, the claims of the climate change benefits of hydropower seem to be running far ahead of the science of the matter.

On the other hand, an increased dependence on large hydro projects could well mean increased vulnerability. Most dams are built on the assumption that the hydrology of the river will remain what it was in the past. Extreme events resulting from climate change could threaten dam safety (in case of extreme floods) and performance (drop in power output due to drought, a well-known problem even today). This would be even more of a concern in snow-melt-dependent river basins, where much of India's new hydropower potential is.

Another argument in favour of hydropower is that it saves precious fossil fuel, an issue all the more important in the context of galloping oil prices in the international market. Hydro also cuts down on the pollution associated with the burning of fuels. But if hydro cuts down on fossil fuels, it does so at the expense of other impacts on the ecosystem and on communities. So it may be 'cleaner' in some respects, but 'dirtier' in others.

Indeed, the comparison of fossil fuel sources and hydropower is a false choice. In the longer term, the only real choice is between high-impact sources (including large hydro, fossil fuels and nuclear energy), and low-impact sources like renewables. Unfortunately, in spite of all the debates, little more than lip service is paid to the development of renewable sources of energy.

Some other justifications

Some new, rather innovative reasons are also being advocated to push for hydropower. The World Bank in its recent report entitled Turbulent Waters on India's water sector says: "Whereas arid rich countries (such as the United States and Australia) have built over 5,000 cubic metres of water storage per capita, and middle-income countries like South Africa, Mexico, Morocco and China can store about 1,000 cubic metres per capita, India's dams can store only 200 cubic metres per person." This implication that somehow per capita storage capacity is a measure of development borders on the absurd. Take Ghana that had a capacity of 153 BCM from just the Akosombo dam in 1965. This worked out to a per capita storage of 18,000 cubic metres. Was Ghana in 1965 (or even today) so prosperous?

Optimum storage capacity is a function of a large number of diverse variables that change from river basin to river basin. Storage for its own sake has little meaning and can even be counter-productive. For example, the World Bank itself is talking about abandoning a large part of the hydraulic infrastructure in central Asia due to the huge impact of the dams on the Aral Sea and the diversion of major rivers.

The same report says that "the Himalayan hydropower sites are, from a social and environmental perspective, among the most benign in the world". As anyone who is following Himalayan dams like Tehri or Nathpa Jhakri, to name just two, would understand, this is a laughable assertion. But it is a cleverly made statement, as large numbers of new dams in the country are being planned in the Himalayas.

In fact, there are serious questions about the performance of hydro projects. A study by Himanshu Thakkar points out that while the installed hydro capacity in the country went up from 21,000 MW in 1994-95 to 31,000 MW in 2004-05, the electricity generated per installed megawatt has actually gone down sharply from 3.97 MU/MW to 2.74. And this is not due to rainfall deficiency. These and other serious performance issues are being ignored.

It's all about money

The Tenth Plan envisaged an outlay of Rs 43,000 crore for hydropower alone in the central sector. The ambitious 50,000 MW initiative proposes an installed capacity of about 50,000 MW through 162 projects in 16 states by 2017 (about half of this capacity is in Arunachal Pradesh). At Rs 6 crore per MW, this will involve around Rs 300,000 crore over the next 10 years. All this adds up to huge contracts, consultancies, commissions, and glorious visions of wealth through power generation. A recent cabinet note by the Arunachal Pradesh government paints a picture of "the state floating in hydro-dollars like the Arab countries are floating in petro-dollars".

It is not surprising then that all sorts of justifications based on half-truths are being made to push big dams and dilute the social and environmental impact of big dams.

Thus, mandatory environmental hearings have turned into farces. Environmental Impact Assessments are not worth the paper they are written on. People are just being pushed out without proper rehabilitation. Cash compensation is being forced on people instead of a land-for-land policy for resettlement. And sops are being planned to encourage the private sector to take up hydropower projects.

From Tehri and Allain Duhangan in the north to Athirapally in the south and Subansiri in the east, large dam projects continue to be at the centre of protests by affected people. The 1,000 MW Karcham Wangtoo Project in Himachal Pradesh has not been able to take off for years. Following a series of protests, the Arunachal Pradesh government has said it will not allow any storage hydro project in its state, throwing the entire 5,0000 MW initiative into jeopardy.

The fact is that there are many and serious problems with large dams, and they won't go away. Neither will the controversies and the protests. Attempts to browbeat people into submission and to manufacture consent and public opinion in favour of big dams are not likely to work. .

Who will drive development?

So what happens to India’s great leap forward? Where will the power come to drive the expected 8-9% growth in the economy? There are no easy answers. Indeed, the fundamental question here is whether it is ethical and possible that this 8-9% growth can be achieved at the cost of a section of society. That is exactly how the new resurgence in hydropower is being pushed. It promises to generate electricity but uproot communities, destroy livelihoods, devastate river ecosystems on which millions depend, and, of course, cost billions of rupees. This should be unacceptable in any civilised society, and it will be unacceptable in India.

The real solution to India’s energy needs can come only when we realise that 1) there are no unlimited sources of energy, so we will have to, at some time, consider limits on consumption; 2) any energy source will have an impact on the environment, so we need to actively develop low-impact sources; 3) no solution can work over the long term if it is at the cost of one section of society, so we need to make the decision-making process transparent and participatory and make sure that those affected have first claim on the benefits generated by projects and programmes.

That will be the real resurgence.

(Shripad Dharmadhikary is an activist, founder of the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, which researches and monitors water and energy issues, and lead researcher and author of a study on the Bhakra Nangal large dam project titled Unravelling Bhakra)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006