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The Joshimath crisis in Uttarakhand has led to large scale displacement of the local population. The Government has halted all construction activity in the region. The reason for the crisis is being attributed to development projects being undertaken in the region. This has brought attention to the large-scale hydroelectric projects being built in the region. Environmental experts argue that such large hydropower projects are not conducive to local ecology and end up doing more harm than good. Hydropower projects have several benefits and can help meet India’s energy needs while meeting climate targets. However, due attention must be paid to their environmental impacts before undertaking such large projects.
What is the status of hydroelectric projects in India?
In 2022, hydropower capacity of 46,512 MW (megawatts) accounted for ~12% of total capacity. In the last two decades the most significant policy push for hydropower was the 2003 plan for developing 50,000 MW of hydropower capacity. Under the plan, 162 new hydro-electric projects were identified. Out of these, more than half the capacity identified was in Arunachal Pradesh and about a third was in the Himalayan and North-eastern states.
As of 2021, only one project of capacity of 100MW in Sikkim has been commissioned and about 4,345 MW capacity is under construction. 12 projects of total capacity of over 3,500 MW have either been terminated or held up due to local environmental concerns. 40 projects of capacity 13,633MW have either been abandoned or delayed due to local opposition to the projects.
Only 37 projects got their detailed project reports (DPR) prepared with a decreased capacity of 18,487 MW.
In the last few years, many of India’s newer hydro-power projects on the Himalayan rivers (commissioned or under construction) have been damaged by floods and In some cases, people trapped in project sites have lost their lives or severely injured.
What are the benefits of hydroelectric projects?
Low Carbon Emissions: Unlike the traditional fossil fuel sources of energy, using hydropower to produce electricity does not release any pollutants in the air or dirty water.
Renewable Energy: Hydropower is a renewable source of energy. The energy generated through hydropower relies on the water cycle, which is driven by the sun, making it renewable. Unlike fossil fuels, it needs no extraction of resource. It requires flow of water. It also complements other renewable energy sources. Technologies like Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH) store energy to use in tandem with renewables such as wind and solar power when demand is high.
Source: energy.gov. Pumped Storage Hydropower. Excess energy from grid (during day) is used to pump water uphill. When demand rises, the water is released downhill generating energy.
Economic Benefits: Hydroelectric projects provide economical and reliable power over long time. They have high initial construction costs, but the long duration of projects and relatively low maintenance costs make them more viable in the long term.
Irrigation and Drinking Water: Hydropower projects have large associated benefits like provision of irrigation and drinking water.
Other Benefits: Reservoirs/Storage-based hydropower projects aid in flood control. Local communities can benefit from fisheries and other activities in the reservoirs. Large hydropower projects also support tourism and recreational activities.
Employment Generation: Hydroelectric projects support lot of economic activities and generate additional employment including in manufacturing, utilities, business services, construction, transportation, energy systems, water management, tourism etc.
Reduce Dependence on Fossil Fuel: India has large hydroelectric potential. Harnessing the potential can reduce dependence on fossil fuels (electricity mix) and save foreign exchange reserves.
What are the concerns associated with hydropower projects?
Environmental Impact: Although hydroelectric projects have little or no emissions, they have several negative environmental impacts. The storage/reservoir based dams can disrupt the flow of rivers, and impact its temperature and chemistry. It can reduce the flow of useful sediments downstream. It can also cause erosion, landslides and sedimentation that have a negative impact on the local environment. Critics have attributed the recent crisis in Joshimath and other parts of Uttarakhand on construction of large-scale hydropower electric projects among other other infrastructure products.
Land Use and Social Impact: Large hydroelectric power plants take up a large expanse of land. Submergence of land under reservoirs leads to loss of people’s homes and livelihoods, important natural areas, agricultural land, or historical landmarks. Submergence can impact local wildlife and ecology.
Flooding: Dams help in flood control by acting as buffer and taking up excess water during heavy rainfall. However, in extreme weather conditions/breach of dams, the severity of floods may get worsened. This was evident in the Rishiganga tragedy in Uttarakhand in 2021.
Impact on Aquatic Life: Constructing large hydropower plants usually involves manipulating the natural course of river systems. It often blocks a river’s natural flow and obstructs fish migration routes. Consequently, inhibited fish migration will deplete fish populations over time especially downstream the reservoir. A reduced fish population has drastic consequences for both human food supply and marine ecosystem stability.
Disruption of River System: Hydropower projects change the concentration of nutrients, water temperature, and the river’s flow. Downstream river flow suffers a loss of water and silt loads, reducing water quality. These changes directly affect the ecological characteristics of the rivers that harm native plants and fish species. Dams affect the productivity and stability of estuaries . This led to a loss of habitat for aquatic life and a decline in biodiversity.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Hydroelectric generation is not 100% emission-free. Studies have shown that reservoirs created by dammed rivers emit greenhouse gases. Dead plants and other organic materials in the reservoir water decompose and release methane (a strong greenhouse gas) and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Emissions can also come from the heating and cooling systems used to maintain the hydroelectric equipment. The amount of greenhouse gas a hydropower reservoir emits may depend on regional factors and the specific location.
What are the benefits of Small Hydroelectric Projects ?
In India, hydro power plants with capacity of 25 MW or below are classified as small hydropower projects. Micro hydro systems can be classified into two main types: run-of-river and storage systems. Run-of-river systems use the natural flow of water in a stream or river to generate electricity. In contrast, storage systems use a reservoir to store water and release it as needed to generate electricity.
Electricity in Remote/Underserved areas: Micro-hydroelectric power generation system generates up to 100 kilowatts of electricity. The electricity generated by micro/small hydropower projects can be used for various applications, including powering homes, businesses, and small communities. They can provide electricity to remote underserved communities that are not connected to the grid.
Low Cost: Small hydro systems are typically less expensive to build and maintain than large hydroelectric dams and have a smaller environmental footprint. Their low cost makes them viable to support underserved areas (in terms of electrical connectivity).
Lesser Impact on Environment: Micro/Small hydro systems can address many environmental challenges posed by large hydroelectric projects. Being run-of-the-river, they have minimal impact on river ecology (upstream or downstream) and aquatic life. They do not disturb the fragile and unstable slopes of mountains.
Durable: They have low maintenance and operating costs. Small projects can last up to 50 years without major new investments.
What should be the approach going forward?
Ecological Sustainability: Ecological sustainability should be the topmost priority in fragile ecosystems like the Himalayas. Large hydroelectric projects should be avoided in Uttarakhand. In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in 2021, the Union Government had said that no new big project would be established in the upper reaches of Ganga.
Promote Small-Hydro Projects: In such fragile environments only small run-of-the-river projects should be allowed that have minimal impact on the ecosystem.
Accelerated Hydropower Development: In other areas, where ecology is not so fragile, the hydropower potential should be utilized. This is necessary to meet rising energy demand in India amidst the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels as primary energy resources.
Private Sector Participation: The involvement of the private sector and joint ventures with the neighbouring countries can go a long way towards achieving the goal of “power to all” in the coming years
Resolving Inter-State Conflicts: Inter-State issues regarding large projects and water sharing etc. could be solved by conducting dialogues, understanding core issues and addressing these issues through various modes of discussions, negotiations, arbitrations or at last legal proceedings.
Eco-sensitive Zones: Wild life areas and national parks or national reserves should be identified. Eco-sensitive zones should be well defined before handing over of the project to the project developer.
Infrastructure Development: Inadequate infrastructure like roads, bridges etc. particularly in Arunachal Pradesh and NE states results in longer construction periods, thereby increasing the project cost. Agencies like BRO, State PWD, implementing the road sector projects need to be provided adequate support to complete the projects expeditiously. National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF) (Coal cess) can be used for development of Roads, Bridges and Infrastructure common for many Hydro projects (especially small hydro projects).
Syllabus: GS III, Infrastructure: Energy; GS III, Conservation.