Are dams the only way to meet our energy needs?

Governments world over are fast and realizing that energy security is one of the most pressing concerns of our time. With consumption rates (individual as well as industrial) increasing globally, and with a booming economy and manufacturing sector, India realizes this need even more. With a GDP growth rate pegged at 7.6 % (2007-08, second quarter), energy production has only managed 5 per cent annual growth. India is the second fastest emerging economy, after China, and the 12th largest in the world. But to fuel this growth at a steady sustainable pace, the country needs to generate enough power.

An ever-increasing demand by a rapidly growing population adds to pressures on energy and resources, causing further stress on available sources. Moreover, traditional fuels like petroleum and coal are slowly proving to be unviable. Rising costs, the problem of scarcity of natural resources, coupled with environmental concerns, have forced us to look for alternative and renewable sources of energy; resources that can be exploited on a sustainable basis.

Amongst other such alternatives like solar and wind power, hydro-electric power remains the most viable source of power generation for the country. With a massive untapped potential in the river systems of India, power generated through such plants can possibly meet a major share of indigenous demand. In 2006-07, only 17 per cent (113359 million units) of the total power (662.5 billion units) was generated by hydro-electric power plants. This is far less than the projected potential of 148701 MWs of power, as underlined by the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC). Only 19.9 per cent of this has been harnessed so far.

But is hydro-electricity actually sustainable in the long run? The acute need for power generation is obvious, and as with any kind of production, there are always costs, hidden at times. The question is, how much is the cost, and who is paying it? Are the ones enjoying its fruits, paying back in the same proportion for it as well? Incidentally, dam-making is a very expensive proposition plainly in monetary terms. Most times, current expenditures will only get revenue after a minimum period of five years. It takes even longer for such ventures to turn profitable. There are also cost-overruns, which mean that final expenditure is more than what was initially allocated. Due to long-term returns, such investments became a prerogative of the government or the public sector. In India, the private sector has only very recently started showing interest in dam construction, but on a build-operate-transfer basis.

But there is even a bigger concern in the environmental costs that most large dams (any dam over 30 m in height) incur. Dams do not significantly impact gross or net irrigated area in their own district, because of submergence and degradation of land around the reservoir, but do increase irrigated area downstream by 1.1 per cent. Cultivated area also decreases substantially in the district and marginally in downstream districts, due to loss of land to submergence, canal building, water logging and salination. Large dams are estimated to have flooded around 37,500 square kms of land, a lot of which is very fertile but is now rendered useless.

Moreover, there are a large number of people displaced, especially those living in the catchment area, which gets submerged. These estimates vary from 21 to 40 million, but in the absence of proper records, could even be higher. The inequitable distribution of risks and riches that large dams bring, have thus forced people to look into the actual viability of such projects. For the benefit of the bigger cities and a growing industry, the upstream population, which is mostly rural, is paying. There is also a question of political representation; why are such projects carried on, sometimes even without the required environmental clearances and with such heavy opposition against it? Obviously our cities, even after being a minority, are more strongly represented, than the rural section of our country. But isn’t a democratic system supposed to reflect a majority opinion? Decision-makers do not even consider the range of non-monetised displacement and environmental effects of infrastructure projects.

Besides the Narmada Valley Development Project, the Indian government is already committed to a huge acceleration in dam construction in the country’s northern and north-eastern regions, and in neighboring countries. Most of the planned dams will be located in Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Assam, Sikkim and Mizoram, as well as in Nepal and Bhutan. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are ready to provide financial support for some of the planned dams.

On an international scenario, the construction of the 22 kms long South Laxmanpur barrage across the Rapti River by India is under dispute. Nepal has alleged a violation by India of international laws. Reports in Nepalese newspapers have claimed a loss of 1000 acres of arable land and displacement of about 200 families. More recently, Pakistan has said that it will seek compensation from India over the shortage of water due to the construction of the Baglihar dam on the Chenab River in Jammu and Kashmir. According to the Indus Water Treaty (1960), which regulates the use of the Indus river system by both countries, 55,000 cusecs of water should flow into Pakistan but it had only received 22,200 cusecs.

As it stands now, the negative repercussions of such dams far outweigh the advantages. While power generation and irrigation are the biggest rallying points for the government, the human cost of displacement and the degeneration of the environment cannot simply be measured in monetary terms. It has been argued that the government should concentrate more on middle and small dams, than large dams, which cause far more environmental damage.

Furthermore, even though the dams are useful to control floods, in normal times they tend to dry up the flow of water downstream, leading to various problems, including loss of habitat for various animals surviving along the river. On a long-term perspective, this will only deplete the water table, making the areas that are now fertile, arid. Also, when the capacity of such dams get full, the water released through barrages tend to flood areas downstream. Thus, the risks of such dams are many. One needs to recognize that altering the way of nature is not an easy task, and in the least, it should not be done in haste.
Roudra Bhattacharya

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