Hazardous ideas for Himalayas

Hazardous Ideas

Context: China’s major hydropower project as a part of its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), on the Yarlung Zangbo River, in Mêdog County in Tibet.

More on news:

  • The hydropower generation station is expected to provide 300 billion kWh of electricity annually. The Chinese authorities say the project will help the country realise its goal of reaching a carbon emission peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060.
  • Indian counterparts were quick to restate their plans to dam the Himalayas on this side of the border. India is reportedly considering a 10-GW hydropower project in an eastern State.

What are the various misadventures that can happen due to the building of hydropower dams?

  • Unavailability of dams: Both countries ignore how unviable such ‘super’ dams projects are, given that they are being planned in an area that is geologically unstable.
  • Competing dams: Over the past 20 years, both China and India have been competing with each other to build hydroelectric dams in this ecologically fragile and seismically vulnerable area.
    • There are two hydropower projects in the works in Arunachal Pradesh on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra: the 600 MW Kameng project on the Bichom and Tenga Rivers and the 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectricity Project.
    • China has already completed 11 out of 55 projects that are planned for the Tibetan region.
  • Overestimating economic potential: In executing these hydroelectric projects, the two countries have overestimated their economic potential and grossly underestimated the earthquake vulnerability of the region.
  • Earthquakes in the region: High seismic zones coincide with areas of high population concentration in the Himalayan region where landslides and glacial lake outburst floods are common.
    • About 15% of the great earthquakes of the 20th century occurred in the Himalayan region. The northeast Himalayan bend has experienced several large earthquakes of magnitude 7 and above in the last 100 years, more than the share from other parts of the Himalayas.
    • The 2015 Gorkha earthquake of magnitude 7.8 in central Nepal resulted in huge losses in the hydropower sector. Nepal lost about 20% of its hydropower capacity consequent to the earthquake.
  • Landslides: The main mechanisms that contributed to the vulnerability of hydropower projects were found to be landslides, which depend on the intensity of seismic ground shaking and slope gradients.
    • Heavy siltation from giant landslides expected in the project sites will severely reduce the water-holding capacity and life expectancy of such dams.
    • Even without earthquakes, the steep slopes made of soft rocks are bound to slide due to deforestation and road-building.

What can be done?

  • Nature reserve: In recent years, the Himalayas have seen the highest rate of deforestation and land use changes. The upper Himalayas should be converted into a nature reserve by an international agreement.
  • Himalayan river commission: The possibility of a Himalayan River Commission involving all the headwater and downstream countries needs to be explored.

Way forward

  • India and China, the major players in the region, would be well advised to disengage from military adventurism and seek ways of transforming this ‘roof of the world’ into a natural reserve for the sake of humanity. Carbon neutrality should not be at the expense of the environment.
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