World Water Day focus on Water and Energy: Behind the “Clean, Green, Sustainable” jingle of Hydropower

The theme of this World Water Day, 2014 is Water and Energy. The occasion gives us an opportunity to take a look at the hydropower rush going on in the country at this moment.

Hydropower projects are being incessantly pushed from the highest quarters ( including the Prime Minister’s Office, through the formulation of Cabinet Committee on Investment, Ministries like Power, Private dam lobbies, etc.,) . Some environmentalists do not seem to bat an eyelid while labelling ALL hydropower as “Green”. (Director General of CSE was a part of the Kasturirangan Committee report which certified all hydro as green, did not object to two of the most destructive projects:  Gundia and Athirappilly, did not stress that mini hydel projects should be appraised for their impacts)

Satluj, downstream Nathpa Jhakri Dam Photo: SANDRP partners
Satluj, downstream Nathpa Jhakri Dam Photo: SANDRP partners

Despite its far reaching impacts, the general perception about hydropower, consciously pushed by developers, funders like World Bank [1]and ADB and also institutions is that they are ‘clean, green and sustainable’. ( The overall understanding of institutions like World Bank on the water-energy nexus is itself limited, as is highlighted by this critique by Shripad Dharmadhikary.[2])

With impacts of HEPs and protests from local communities increasing, we need to check these premises which blindly give a “Green and Clean” certificate to all hydropower, without qualification. On the occasion of the World Water Day, we attempt to look at some impacts of HEPs planned across India on ecosystems and local communities, the existing environmental governance and the justification behind pushing these projects.

Whither River? A typical HEP impounds water behind a dam, transfers it through a Head Race Tunnel (HRT) to the powerhouse where electricity is generated and transfers water back into the river through a Tail Race Tunnel (TRT). Prima facie, supporters of hydropower claim that water is returned to the river and hence hydropower is a renewable and green. However, the tunnels that carry water from dam to the powerhouse and back tend to be kilometers long, effectively drying the river between. Even for one project, this can be a long stretch. 588 MW Luhri HEP in Himachal Pradesh, on Sutlej will have Asia’s longest tunnel of 38.14 kms bypassing the river for 50 kms. Upstream Luhri, there are 3 dams bumper to bumper: 412 MW Rampur, 1500 MW Nathpa Jhakri and 1000 MW Karcham Wangtoo. Effectively, the entire river will flow through tunnels made by blasting fragile Himalayan Mountains or through stagnant waters behind dams.  Same is the case of the Teesta basin in Sikkim and many other rivers.


Along with rivers, the aquatic biodiversity, specialist riparian forests, forests in submergence zones, groundwater recharge zones, habitats to numerous wild animals, watering holes of wildlife and communities too are being destroyed.[3] Seventy hydroelectric Projects in Uttarakhand will submerge more than 3,600 hectares of forests. Dibang Multipurpose HEP in Arunachal alone can submerge 5,056 hectares of forest while the Tipaimukh HEP in Manipur can submerge an unbelievable 25, 822 hectares of forest, providing 1 MW installed capacity for 16 hectares of forest submerged.

Teesta 150411

Diurnal fluctuations and impacts of peaking When the releases from power houses eventually meet the rivers, there is a huge fluctuation on a daily basis in the water level in the downstream. For example, in case of the 1,750 MW Demwe Lower HEP on the Lohit in Arunachal Pradesh, the water level fluctuations 100 kilometers downstream in the Lohit River at Dibru Saikhowa National Park will range from 70 cumecs to 1920 cumecs, each day in the lean season. This is a level fluctuation of 3-5 feet every day in the plains![4] In case of the Siang River, if all dams on the main stem and tribuataries are constructed, water level in the downstream DErring National Park will flucatute beween 23 feet everyday in the lean season![5]

Run ‘with’ the River Projects? Project Proponents, industry and even official committees are claiming that Run of the River (ROR) Projects are green as they do not involve major storage and do not alter the rivers flow over a 10 day period. ROR thus get an official tag of sustainability. In reality, most of the ROR Projects involve massive dams and massive storages behind these dams. They involve reservoirs which run upto ten or more kilometers. For example, the reservoir og Luhri will be 6.8 km long; Kotli Bhel IB will be 27.5 km, Kotli Bhel 2 will be 31.21 km and Lower Demwe will be 23 kms long.


At the same time, for the riverine ecosystem and downstream population, the daily fluctuations in the river levels is devastating. Over a hundred people have died in India due to sudden release of water from upstream hydro projects in non-monsoon months.

Impacts on the aquatic ecosystem: HEPs alter the master variable which governs major riverine processes: its flow.[6] Dams physically block upstream and downstream migration of fish species crucial for their spawning. Fragmentation of rivers, water fluctuation, dry river stretches and passage through turbines have a disastrous impact on fisheries and fish diversity which has been collapsing in all major rivers in country, mainly due to dams.[7]

Himachal Pradesh Fisheries Department has a ‘Negative list’ of rivers and streams rich in biodiversity where in situ protection of fisheries should take place[8]. Ironically, even in this region, hydropower plants are being sanctioned and set up, sometimes in cascades.

Dried Baspa River downstream Baspa Dam. Baspa River supported rich fisheries and fish diversity Photo: SANDRP Partners
Dried Baspa River downstream Baspa Dam. Baspa River supported rich fisheries and fish diversity Photo: SANDRP Partners

There are no provisions for fish migration like fish passages and ladders, eflows. For example the 300 MW Baspa II HEP on Baspa River, in the negative list for fisheries does not have a fish ladder, and has been drying the river without e-flows. Fisheries Departments in Himalayan as well as Western Ghat States have become rubber stamps for providing No Objection Certificates to HEPs while taking monitory compensation. Himachal Fisheries department charges Rs 50,000 per kilometer and additionally, Rs 50,000 Per MW electricity generated as compensation. This means windfall profits to Fisheries departments and nothing to actual fish diversity that is being destroyed.

Hydel Power Dams coming up in the Western Ghats like the 163 MW Athirappilly and 200 MW Gundia will affect endemic and endangered fish diversity in the region, which is not mentioned in the cut paste EIAs of these projects. While WGEEP report categorically rejected both these projects, the HLWG headed by Dr Kasturirangan did not reject them. Instead it simply asked for a revaluation.

The 780 MW Nyamjangchu Project to come up in Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh threatens one of the last remaining wintering sites of the Black Necked Crane and habitat of Red Panda, though the EIA of the project did not mention this fact. While the Cumulative Impact Assessment report on Upper Ganga HEPs submitted by Wildlife Institute of India recommended dropping 24 HEPs for their irreversible impacts on ecology, but the report of the IMG on Ganga Projects headed by B K Chaturvedi rejected this without giving any reasons.

Disaster potential [9] A critical issue left unaddressed in the environmental clearance, forest clearance and even report of committees like IMG on Ganga and HLWG on Western Ghats is the assessment of disaster potential of hydropower projects. Deforestation, building activities, boulder mining, tunneling and blasting, integral with hydropower projects in the Himalayas make the young mountain more prone to landslides and rivers more flood prone. Impoundment and water level fluctuations play a major role in landslides.

EIAs of mega projects like Luhri, which plans to have world’s longest tunnel does not even include impacts of this tunnel in EIA Report submitted by CISHME team. In the recent Uttarakhand disaster, projects like 400 MW VishnuPrayag, 330 MW Srinagar, 76 MW Phata Byung, 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari, 304 and 90 MW Maneri Bhali I and II & 280 MW Dhauli Ganga hugely increased the damages and loss of lives. If more projects on Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, cleared by MoEF and IMG, were present, losses would have been higher. However, there are studies after studies which do not mention the disaster potential of projects, like the recent Siang Basin Study.[10]

Muck disposal – an example of impacts of non-compliance Throughout the Himalayan states, rivers are littered and changing courses due to millions of tonnes of muck illegally dumped by the HEPs in the riverbed itself. This muck dumped by 330 MW Srinagar Project in Alaknanda bed hugely increased the disaster in Srinagar Town. Muck disposal plans of HEPs remain resolutely on paper, whereas on ground, muck is dumped at the most convenient sites: the riverbed. MoEF has refused to take action even when presented with evidence. The IMG report missed most of these ground realities.

Major struggles From Lahaul Spiti in the glacial north, Singoli Bhatwari & Phata Byung in Uttarakhand, to Subansiri Lower and Tawang in the North east, to the Athirappilly in Western Ghats of Kerala, most of the large (and also small) HEPs are being opposed strongly by local communities. India is witnessing one of its largest anti dam stir against the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri HEP in Assam where construction on the project has been stalled for 20 months. Why are the communities resisting at this scale? Why are litigations surrounding HEPs increasing? Do the communities have any role while decisions are taken in Delhi and private proponent’s offices about destroying their rivers? The answer is no.

Climate Friendly façade of Large Hydro: Large Hydro promoters, government, funders like World Bank and ADB as well as research institutions are supporting HEPs because of the claimed climate friendly nature of the projects.

This is hugely misleading. World over, HEPs are being increasingly recognized as being ‘False Solutions to Climate Change’. Reservoirs of HEPs (including RORs) emit Methane which is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than Carbon dioxide. This emission is further boosted at each draw down of the dam.[11]

The trouble is, we have not conducted a single credible greenhouse gas emission study for any of India’s so-called ‘climate friendly’ hydros. The only project where this was a condition laid while granting a hasty environmental clearance was the 1000 MW Tipaimukh HEP. But here too, after 5 years of granting the EC the study has not been conducted. There is no logic behind labeling large hydro as climate friendly. On the other hand through deforestation, drying up of rivers, destruction of ecological services, instability, increased risks of landslides and flash floods, the adaptation and mitigation potential of local communities to Climate Change is hugely compromised.

With Climate change, Glaciers in Himalayas are receding faster than those at other mountains (ICIMOD). This is leaving moraine debris on the path of receding glacier, building up into moraine dams which can fail catastrophically, as was witnessed in Kedarnath disaster. In this scenario, hydropower dams, which depend largely on glacial melt are not only vulnerable to climate change, but have catastrophic impacts on the downstream population as was witnessed in Uttarakhand in case of 400 MW Vishnuprayag and 330 MW Srinagar Projects.     Hence, claiming that HEPs in India are important from climate change perspective is unscientific.

Environmental governance: As per SANDRPs analysis, the Expert Appraisal Committee granting environmental clearance to River valley projects has not rejected a single project of the 262 project considered in last six years ending in Dec 2012[12]. Even when local groups and organisations like SANDRP have raised concerns about impacts of HEPs on rivers, ecosystems and communities, these have been routinely sidelined. While sanctioning cascades of HEPs, no credible CIAs or basin studies or carrying capacity studies are being performed. IMG report on Upper Ganga Projects has also come across as a huge disappointment in this aspect.[13]

Destroyed 400 MW Vishnuprayag HEP on Alaknanda. Photo: Matu Jan Sangathan
Destroyed 400 MW Vishnuprayag HEP on Alaknanda. Photo: Matu Jan Sangathan

MoEF has openly stated that it does not have the capacity to ensure environmental compliance of clearance conditions and environment management plan. In the absence of any enforcement, violations have become a norm. Neither has the MoEF thought of stalling Environmental and Forest Clearances of HEPs unless streamlined compliance is enforced, like it did for the case of Goa Mines. The pressure of lobbies seems to have blinded precautionary principle or democratic governance at all levels.

Muck dumped from Karcham Wangtoo project into the Sutlej photo from :http://adrianomarzi.photoshelter.com/
Muck dumped from Karcham Wangtoo project into the Sutlej photo from :http://adrianomarzi.photoshelter.com/

It may be noted that 50% of our existing HEPs are generating at less than 50% of their designed 90% dependable generation[14], while nearly 89% projects generate at below the promised levels! Per MW generation has fallen by about 25% in last two decades. On the other hand, micro-hydel projects are making remote places like Anjaw in Arunachal power secure without major impacts.

Sustainable development cannot be achieved by poor environmental governance, by discouraging community participation, by excluding affected communities from decision-making while externalizing impacts on local communities, ecology and future generations. Energy security and access to energy to poor and disadvantaged sections of the society is a very real challenge and there are ways to address this challenge, which are not ecologically and socially destructive. Let us hope that the Water-Energy Nexus also upholds the rights of the rivers and its people.

-Parineeta Dandekar, parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com

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