Rethinking run-of-the-river hydro projects

We recognise hydropower is a low-emission energy source, but by design, these projects are not environmentally benign
I saw parallels of what I learned in Sikkim in Uttarakhand on Sunday. (PTI)
I saw parallels of what I learned in Sikkim in Uttarakhand on Sunday. (PTI)
Updated on Feb 11, 2021 06:32 AM IST
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ByAnjal Prakash

In 2012, I was part of a study investigating the impacts of National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC)’s hydropower projects on the lives and livelihoods of local communities in Sikkim. As part of the project, I spoke extensively to local people in the catchment areas of Teesta-V, a run-of-the-river (ROR) hydropower project just like the Tapovan Vishnugad Power Project in Uttarakhand.

ROR projects are seen as a “green” alternative to high-dam hydropower projects such as the Tehri Hydropower Project. This is because an ROR dam diverts the river flow in a controlled environment to generate electricity and sends the water back to the river, whereas a high-dam project stores river water in a reservoir.

After a few meetings with local people in Sikkim, I learned four things. One, ROR projects are not green. This is because river water is diverted for power generation, and this destroys the riverine ecology. The blasting and tunneling that happens while building a dam dry up mountain springs, which provide water for drinking and agriculture.

Second, due processes for clearance of the project were also not followed. People were under pressure to give their nod for the project, but it was not an informed choice since they did not have adequate information about its impact on the environment and their lives.

Third, they told me about the fragility of the Himalayas and how earthquakes and other climatic events impact the dam and the people. Such shoddy project clearances have also happened in other parts of the country, including in Uttarakhand. And finally, the company in Sikkim, NTPC, spent its corporate social responsibility funds to build schools, health facilities, and road infrastructure for the locals. But as one of the women told me: “These are our basic rights, and why should their availability be tied up with any project?”

I saw parallels of what I learned in Sikkim in Uttarakhand on Sunday.

There is no doubt that the glacial avalanche that destroyed everything in its wake was climate-induced. Over the years, numerous reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — including the latest one, Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate — point out the climate risks in high-mountain regions. I strongly feel that projects such as hydropower must be weighed against its benefits. IPCC assessed that the climate crisis has altered the frequency and magnitude of the natural hazards in high mountain regions of the world. We reported, with medium confidence, that globally, in some regions, snow avalanches involving wet snow have increased while the rain on snow floods have also increased at lower elevation in spring.

We recognise hydropower is a low-emission energy source, but by design, these projects are not environmentally benign.

With the growth of the Indian economy in the last few decades, electricity demand has increased. While coal makes the bulk of India’s energy generation, current policies to promote renewable resources are also growing. India’s renewable power potential is enormous and investing in this must take precedence over coal. This shift may not happen instantly, but coal can be retired earlier-than-previously thought, provided there is strong political will. Similarly, as we think of coal, we must think about hydropower.

Is development with a greener face possible? There are no straight answers. We need to take each sector and start conversations on its environmental impact. Nature-based solutions, which mean the use of nature to tackle socio-environmental challenges, can also fuel green growth, if proper strategies are in place. They can also be linked to the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. For example, the solar industry is dependent on China for photovoltaic cells. If more such cells are made in India at a lower price, with green audits to protect the environment base, it will boost the shift from fossil fuel-based electricity generation to solar power and also provide jobs.

Global warming has already reached 1°C above the pre-industrial level. There is overwhelming evidence that this is resulting in profound consequences for ecosystems and people. The ocean is warmer, more acidic, and less productive. In high mountains, glaciers and ice-sheets are melting and changing the water regimes in the rivers. India has the seventh longest coastline in Asia (7,500 km). The warming of oceans has increased climatic events such as cyclones, as we have experienced in recent times. The melting of glaciers and ice-sheets impacts the river regimes in the Hindu Kush Himalayas and changes the watercourses in major river basins such as the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra.

The green growth model of development as an adaptation option will also have mitigation as a co-benefit. We must pay heed to the voices emerging from scientific, policy, and practice communities to chart a course for green growth. Shifting to renewable and green energy sources is one of the many strategies that would chart a greener growth for India.

And hydropower is certainly not on my list of green energy sources.

Anjal Prakash is a research director and adjunct associate professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business. He is an IPCC author who was coordinating lead author of the special report on Oceans and Cryosphere, 2018, and lead author of the ongoing 6th Assessment report of IPCC

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, June 29, 2022