Large hydro projects risk Himalayan communities
The Uttarakhand tragedy is a moment to review support for Himalayan dams and construction-based economy
The impact of the February 7 flash floods in Uttarakhand is still being estimated while rescue and relief operations remain challenged and the death toll rises. The tragedy has brought into sharp focus the environmental risks to the Himalayan people and to the region’s development. This is a moment for all our decision-makers in state governments, courts and Parliament to review their support for Himalayan dams.
In recent years, the central government’s unconditional push on renewable energy (RE) has motivated the Himalayan states to seek RE status for the hydropower sector. In March 2019, the Cabinet granted this status to all hydropower projects, effectively removing the earlier policy distinction between projects up to 25 MW and larger ones. This decision came after the standing committee of the ministry of power observed that Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions of hydropower stations “is even lesser than solar projects” and that the “net effect of hydro projects has always been positive for the surrounding”.
This position signals grave risks for all Himalayan communities, as it could make this ecologically sensitive region the densest hydropower zone in the world. As the committee report shows, the reassessment of large dams as RE has been done with the sole aim of attracting energy finance for hydropower development in the Himalayan region, stated to be “abundant” in water resources.
Globally, climate policy debates now take energy transition as a given. The spatial aspects of this ongoing global energy transition, especially the participation of state governments in electricity decarbonisation, are crucial to understand. Energy transition policies and projects are creating new “clean energy” geographies and new energy politics around RE.
India’s re-engagement with large hydro is one such regional dynamic. It has drawn small, border Himalayan states into global and national climate and energy discourses. As the representative of Uttarakhand stated to the parliamentary committee, “Solar energy, wind energy or any other form of renewable energy is always going to be smaller. For us, as a state in the Himalayas, hydro is our main stake.”
The ambitions of the Indian Himalayan states to seize the energy transition narrative illustrates what climate scholars identify as a shift from “burden-sharing to opportunity-sharing” in climate policies. The parliamentary committee report details several attempts by state representatives to persuade national policymakers to recognise that India’s energy transition pathways necessarily include the politically delegitimised and ecologically damaging large hydro.
Governments anticipate a number of developmental benefits of energy transition such as cheaper, reliable energy for economic development, revenues from export of “green” fuel, access to international development finance, and increased local business opportunities. These are referred to as “co-benefits” in climate policy discourses. Co-benefits are crucial to justify the exemptions, concessions and incentives given upfront by states to attract private investments for large-scale RE projects. These discourses have been applied to policymaking in the “Himachal model” of private hydro-development. The state’s policies guarantee purchase of power, easy and cheap land transfers and exemptions from local consent.
The hydro sector is still dominated by public sector units due to their access to long-term finance and State guarantees.
Despite several policy changes, the share of the private sector has remained low as compared to private investments in the coal power sector. The committee report shows the Himalayan state representatives and the hydropower bureaucracy stating unambiguously that the RE status and accompanied incentives are needed to attract private investments to the sector. The RE tag is a means to create new investment opportunities in the hydro sector for financial elites and energy capital.
The social and environmental risks of large dams are well-documented. Although the committee’s report records that “geological surprises” resulting from weak Himalayan geology, “lack of technology or expertise, natural calamities like landslides, floods, and cloud bursts etc cause severe setbacks in construction schedules”, the committee didn’t see these as problems that require in-depth examination. Instead, the report dedicates its attention to reducing the financial risk to existing and potential dam-builders.
In an effort to attract investments from the private sector that is reluctant to venture into “remote” Himalayan locations, government agencies are willing to undertake construction of “enabling infrastructure” at public cost. Himalayan road construction, that has a serious impact, should be seen as an integral part of incentivising private hydro-development in this region.
The standing committee report is an excellent example of the opportunistic use of RE and how the development of private hydro-finance overtakes the assessment of social and environmental risks of dams.
Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli are with the Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal