Hydroelectric Power Projects: Latest Threat to Himalayan Ecosystem

Energy Hungry Indian Economy

Today development means industrial development and that requires electricity and energy. The two most populous nations of the planet –China and India– are converting from a rather agrarian economy to industrial economy, so they need a lot of energy. Hence, both are trying to tap every possible source of energy. The large domestic populations also put significant pressure on power generation.

The demand for power has been increasing in India due to the rapid industrial growth in India. For last several years, Indian GDP has been growing annually in the range, 7 – 9 percent. Over the last 10 years, energy and peak demand shortage averaged around 8% and 12% respectively. For the Indian economy to grow at 9% annually, additional capacity of 60 GW must be added every five years. Government’s promise of 100% electricity to domestic users will also push up consumption.

Why India wants to Tap Hydro Power?

Hydro is the most well-established form of renewable electricity production. In 2010, hydro comprised about 80% of all of the renewable electricity capacity in the world, and accounted for about 20% of global electricity production capacity. Hydropower is also the most efficient means we know of to convert energy into electricity. Typically 85%-95% of the energy in water is converted to electricity, compared to 15%-20% for PV solar, 35%-45% for wind, and 30%-45% for coal. Various studies have established the ideal Hydro:Thermal power mix for India at to be at 60:40. The present mix of 75:25 is creating much problem in the Indian power system, particularly with peaking shortage. Hence, hydro power must be developed at much faster pace than rest of the other power sources.

Typical Advantages of Hydroelectric Power

Due to the following well known benefits, hydroelectric power has been historically the preferred option for power generation.

  • It is totally renewable and non-polluting (?) and can also provide a more stable price regime over a long period of time.
  • Long life – The first hydro project completed in 1897 is still in operation atDarjeeling.
  • It has remarkably higher efficiency (over 90%) compared to thermal (35%) and gas (around 50%).
  • It has inherent capability for quick starting, stopping, load variations, etc. and is thus ideally suited for meeting the peaking demand; thus, is useful for enhancing reliability and stability of the power supply system.
  • Generation cost is not only inflation free but it also reduces with time.
  • Development of hydro power projects is also in many cases associated with irrigation, drinking water, flood control, pisciculture, navigation, recreation and tourism benefits.
  • Being located in remote regions, hydro power installations lead to development of remote and backward areas.

India’s Hydro Power Potential

Indian government wants to tap the full identified potential of hydro power (about 150 GW) in the country by about 2025. In order to achieve that, a National Policy on Hydropower Development was launched in 1998. The initiative involved identifying potential locations for future hydro power projects throughout the country. In total, 399 potential projects (worth 148 GW) were identified which it aims to exploit by 2025. Most hydropower projects fall in the Himalayan region of North and North-East India in just a few Indian states – notably Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir.

Ground Reality of Hydro Power Projects

The impact of hydroelectric power plant on the environment is varied and depends upon the size and type of the project. Although hydropower generation does not burn any fuel to produce power and hence does not emit greenhouse gases, there are definite negative effects that arise from the creation of reservoir and alteration of natural water flow. It is a well known fact that dams, inter-basin transfers and diversion of water for irrigation purposes have resulted in the fragmentation of 60% of the world’s rivers.

The physical environment is affected rather significantly by the construction of a hydroelectric power station.  Both the river and ecosystem of the surrounding land area will be altered as soon as dam construction begins.

Displacement and people and damage to local ecology are two typical problems associated with hydropower projects. Lack of proper compensation and rehabilitation are the typical problems for people affected by such projects. Displaced people are invariably poor and have limited capacity to withstand the trauma of eviction. Corrupt official often deny them whatever compensation the government offers. As a result, they are forced to live in poverty with little survival skills in areas unfamiliar to them.

In India, 75% of people displaced by dams have not been rehabilitated. In China, almost half (46%) of those displaced are living in extreme poverty. Although indigenous people are just 8% of India’s population, they comprise 60% of those displaced by dams in their regions. Almost all of the large dams in the Philippines that have been built or proposed are on the land of indigenous people. In India and China alone, 26-58 million people have been displaced during 1950 – 1990 due to dam projects.

Other Long Term Consequences

There is protest against all major hydro projects by the local groups. Apart from the cruel reality of being displaced from their lands they are also resentful due to other reasons.

  • The hydro power projects in Himalayan foothills can severely damage the fragile local ecosystem by causing felling of trees and change in landscape. It forces affected people to adopt a new lifestyle in other areas – in fact; it is a drastic blow to their peaceful lifestyle in harmony with nature.
  • The power generated on their land is transported to far off areas to promote industrial or other urban activities. They see it as highly unfair – someone else benefiting at the cost of their ancestral land and lifestyle.
  • They see long term adverse impact on their life nurturing rivers. Man made construction activities near the river origins, damage to fragile local ecosystem and diversion of water flow are all affecting Himalayan glaciers. They fear that their rivers would dry out within next 2-3 decades. This was a major concern of environmental activists against the Tehri dam project at the Bhagirathi river, which is a major tributary of Ganga river. Since the dam is still being filled by the water of the Bhagirathi river since 2005, as a result Ganga is receiving less water. This is another cause of resentment.

Another Mega Hydro Project; and Concerns

Now huge hydro project at the Indo-Nepal border, the 6480 MW Pancheshwar Dam is planned to be a huge 315 m high rock fill dam, which will be the world‟s second-tallest dam after the Rogun Dam in Russia at 335 m. In comparison,China’s Three Gorges Dam is only 101 m high which is the largest dam (2,335 m) in the world. Tehri Dam is 261 m high.

The proposed Pancheswar Dam would straddle the Kali River which forms a 230 km (193 mile) boundary between India and Nepal. The project is the largest hydropower project in South Asia. The dam will submerge an area of 134 sq km; in comparison, Tehri submerged 52 sq km. Of the 134 sq.km, 120sq.km is in Uttarakhand; only 14sq.km in Nepalese territory. Officially, 82 Indian villages and 33 Nepalese villages would be completely submerged and 11,361 families would be fully displaced. Tehri Dam submerged 33 villages.

Like the Tehri Dam, the Pancheshwar Dam lies in Zone 4 of Seismic Activity. Between 1992 and 2006, over 10 earthquakes with a magnitude exceeding 5 (on the Richter scale) have had their epicenter within a radius of 10 km around the site of the proposed Pancheshwar Dam, making the Pancheshwar Dam much more vulnerable to damage in an earthquake than the Tehri Dam.

Although identified since 1962, the project has been evolving slowly over time. Just recently, India and Nepal formed the Panchmeshwar Development Authority to complete the Detailed Project Report (DPR). However, Maoist influence in Nepalis threatening to delay or derail the project.


As long as the current model of economic development will continue, poor people living near water or other natural resources will continue to be the victims. One really fails to understand why there is no sense of natural justice in Indian economic policies. Why development should only mean promoting mega-town and setting up energy guzzling industries – all at the cost of poor people living in harmony with nature.

I wonder why they still talk of things like global warming or climate change at all, when all they intend to do is to live in concrete jungles of urban areas where trees only mean a few flower pots. What is sad it is happening in China too. After completing the world’s largest hydropower plant, the Three Gorges Dam, they are coming up mega hydropower schemes in Tibet which is rightly called the “water table of Asia”. Hydro Projects in Tibet: Thirsty Dragon, Restless Neighbors

Download a detailed PDF report: Hydro Power development in India

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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2 Responses to Hydroelectric Power Projects: Latest Threat to Himalayan Ecosystem

  1. Susanne Garcia says:

    The World Bank estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.

    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 10 million people have been displaced by development each year.

    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.

  2. Goodpal says:

    Thanks Susanne,

    There is a need to redefine “development”. Should it only mean exploitation of natural resources and/or people. Is there a natural law that says that people living in close harmony with nature should be kicked out whenever money makers eye the natural resources? “Development” has come to mean destruction of ecology and nature and displacement of peaceful people. It doesn’t make much sense.

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