India’s push for 24/7 clean energy from dams is disrupting lives


April 5, 2023 GMT

KINNAUR, India (AP) — The van pulled away from the roaring Sutlej River and up the steep mountain trail flanked by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, nearly 7,000 meters (22,965 feet) high. . The nine passengers, farmers-turned-activists campaigning to prevent the construction of new dams, were traveling to the remote hamlet of Kandar in India’s Kinnaur district.

The few dozen indigenous residents were forced to relocate after rockfall destroyed most of their old homes in 2005. And villagers believe tunneling for the dams was to blame, although authorities deny it .

Indigenous activists like Buddha Sain Negi, 30, have traveled there to learn about the ongoing struggles facing Kandar. Sitting atop a steep slope overlooking a 19-year-old dam, activists heard from locals about how India’s hydropower surge had upended their lives and led to nearly two decades of protests. Some families took shelter in sheds and other lives were lost to falling rocks before they got compensation to build new houses, although this was not enough to improve their livelihoods.

For villagers like Raj Kumari, 48, the fear of that night remains. The farmer’s wife said her husband was out when the rocks started falling. “My daughter said we were going to be left behind and die, and only her father would survive,” she said.

A favorite initiative of Indian governments, push for the dams has skyrocketed as the nation seeks round-the-clock energy that does not produce planet-warming emissions. Hydroelectricity is usually produced when fast moving water spins turbines to generate electricity.

But natural water supply systems have been altered by dams in this region which receives little rainfall, and farmers are struggling to irrigate their orchards. The spring waters of melting glaciers that they have always relied on are also drying up with climate change.

Farmers have found themselves transformed into activists fighting against more dams, with thousands protesting last August after a deadly landslide in the district. Carving mountains to build tunnels that channel water from rivers has made fatal landslides more common – a risk scientists and locals have reported, though authorities say they are taking precautions.

India’s federal ministries of renewable energy and environment did not respond to an email request for comment.

“It’s a fight for our survival,” said Buddha Sain Negi, the activist-farmer.

Opponents of the dam point to other impacts: thousands of trees, including the rare Chilgoza pine whose nuts are prized and provide valuable income to local communities, are cut down to make way for construction. The Sutlej River is now dry in places, meaning some families are struggling to submerge the ashes of cremated loved ones. And some residents fear that thousands of migrant workers, who have come to work on the dam, will overwhelm them.

The district, home to about 100,000 people, already produces 4,000 megawatts of clean energy, the equivalent of four nuclear power plants, said Jiya Lal, a farmer who is part of an environmental justice advocacy group in the mountains. He said residents here have been asked in the “national interest” to reconsider their objection to the blockades. He posed a question that echoed throughout the Himalayas: “How much more can we be expected to do?”

The federal government aims to increase India’s dam power generation to 70,000 megawatts by 2030, a 50% increase that could account for 8.5% of India’s total capacity. He also wants to add 18,800 megawatts of pumped storage dams, which act like giant batteries which store energy by pumping water from one reservoir to an elevated one and then releasing it through turbines to generate electricity.

Only China and the United States have more dams than India, which has more than 4,400. The country hopes the dams can help solve the clean energy puzzle: how to make the grid work with renewable energy when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said electricity generated by dams in the state of Himachal Pradesh would generate profits and jobs. “The wealth of water and forest in the tribal areas is priceless,” he said in October.

But recent disasters, including the sinking of a holy city in January, led to “question marks” over the focus on dams as a way to ensure clean power around the clock, said Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist at the Institute of Economics. energy and financial analysis.

About a tenth of India’s electricity comes from the sun or the wind, and large dams provide the “backbone” by allowing it to balance the grid in the event of sudden changes in demand, said Ammu Susana Jacob , scientist at the Center of Study think tank. of science, technology and politics.

To wean itself off dirty fuels and meet its 2030 targets, India needs to increase its energy storage capacity to 41 gigawatts, according to government estimates.

Bhanu Pratap Singh, director of the hydroelectric company Shree Bhavani Power Project, regretted that the dams had not received the same kind of government support as solar or wind power, but said that was changing.

Delays due to legal challenges to obtaining land made private companies less inclined to build large dams, Singh said. And with growing concerns about the risks of building dams in fragile mountains, he said those who oppose dams and those who build dams must be in “coherent and transparent dialogue”.

Although dams, unlike battery storage, do not rely on expensive imports, they are still expensive. The land needed to build them is scarce and communities are often displaced. Cascading environmental impacts trigger local protests, like the one in Kinnaur, that drive up costs. This helps to make hydropower more expensive than solar or wind power in India.

As global battery prices fall since 2017 and risk getting cheaper, India faces the ‘thorny’ question of whether it makes sense to lock billions of dollars into new dams while others technologies are becoming more viable, said Rahul Walawalkar, who heads the India Energy Storage Alliance, an industry group.

The scale of India’s energy transition – demand for electricity will grow more than anywhere else over the next 20 years – means options are limited if the country wishes to restrict imports. “It’s a necessary risk,” Walawalkar said.

In Kinnaur, the costs of India’s response to this issue are significant for Shanta Kumar Negi, a local politician who says people in the highlands of the mountains are buying water to irrigate fields, with dams exacerbating the crisis. water triggered by global warming.

“If I don’t fight to stop the harm being done to us, how am I going to respond to my children?” He asked.

Experts say ongoing protests in Kinnaur and elsewhere underscore the risks of pushing dams without thinking about the potential environmental impacts and resulting financial costs. In 2019, at least 37 dams were delayed and there were 41 others whose construction had not started for reasons ranging from financial problems to protests, according to a parliamentary report.

Signs of tensions around dam construction can be seen on the trunk road in Kinnaur: there are warnings about loose rocks on the mountain walls, and ancient trees are painted with red crosses marking them for the slaughter.

The situation reflects India’s “siloed approach” to building large projects, such as dams, that ignore climate realities, said Abinash Mohanty, who leads climate change and sustainability at the organization. world development IPE Global. The Himalayas are a more fragile ecosystem than others, disturbed by climatic extremes and intense human activities – but the fact that the environment has reached its tipping point has not been taken into account.

Mohanty compared it to people trying to lift heavier weights than they can handle. “You’re either going to hurt yourself or drop it,” he said.

Climate change is exacerbating the threats. According to a 2016 study, more than a fifth of 177 dams built near Himalayan glaciers could be flooded if glacial lakes burst.. Five years later, flooding worsened by melting glaciers destroyed two dams, killing at least 31 people.

Even some dams listed in government documents as being designed to pump water to help store energy actually don’t. A 25-year-old dam in Gujarat is not pumping water due to an engineering problem, while a second reservoir is still under construction for another 17-year-old dam, according to the India Energy Storage Alliance.

India has drafted guidelines to boost the use of pumped storage dams that suggest scrapping environmental assessments and public hearings for some projects.

But the industry alliance’s Walawalkar said governments must be careful about choosing the right locations to build dams. “General environmental permits could be a double-edged sword,” he said.


Ghosal reported from New Delhi. Follow Aniruddha Ghosal on @aniruddhg1


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