- GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation
- GS-3: Infrastructure; Developmental Challenges
Hydropower Projects in the Himalayas
Context: The Environment Ministry, in an affidavit placed in the Supreme Court recently, has disclosed that it has permitted seven hydroelectric power projects, which are reportedly in advanced stages of construction, to go ahead.
- Feb 2021 Uttarakhand floods washed away at least two hydroelectric power projects — the13.2 MW Rishiganga hydroelectric power project and the Tapovan project on the Dhauliganga river, a tributary of the Alakananda. This was due to the break in the Raunthi glacier that triggered floods in the Rishiganga river.
What’s the history of hydropower projects in the Himalayas?
- In the aftermath of the Kedarnath floods of 2013 that killed at least 5,000 people, the Supreme Court had halted the development of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand pending a review by the Environment Ministry on the role such projects had played in amplifying the disaster.
- A 17-member expert committee, led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, was set up by the Ministry to examine the role of 24 such proposed hydroelectric projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin, which contains the Ganga and several tributaries.
- The Chopra committee concluded that 23 projects would have an “irreversible impact” on the ecology of the region.
- Following this, six private project developers, whose projects were among those recommended to be stopped, said that they should be allowed to continue since their projects had already been cleared for construction before the Kedarnath tragedy.
- The SC directed a new committee to be set up to examine their case. This committee led by Vinod Tare of IIT Kanpur, concluded that these projects could have a significant environmental impact.
- The Environment Ministry in 2015 set up yet another committee led by B.P. Das, that recommended all six projects with design modifications to some, and this gives way to the Environment Ministry’s current stance (permitting these projects)w. The Power Ministry seconded the Environment Ministry’s stance.
What are the challenges such projects face?
- Impact on Cleanliness of Ganga
- The Water Ministry has maintained that the cleanliness of the river was premised on minimum levels of water flow in all seasons and the proposed projects could hinder this
- Climate Change increases the risk of such projects
- Glacier melt and permafrost thaw are projected to decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number and area of glacier lakes. This increases the chances of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods.
- Environmental experts have attributed the glacial melt to global warming.
- The thermal profile of ice is increasing, which means that the temperature of ice that used to range from -6 to -20oC, was now -2oC, making it more susceptible to melting.
- It was these changing phenomena that made infrastructure projects in the Himalayan regions risky.
- Moreover, with increased instances of cloudbursts, and intense spells of rainfall and avalanches, residents of the region were also placed at increased risk of loss of lives and livelihood.
What are the conflicts/dilemmas involved with hydropower projects in Himalayas?
- Developmental Obligations: The Uttarakhand government has said that it’s paying over ₹1,000 crores annually to purchase electricity and therefore, the more such projects are cancelled, the harder for them to meet their development obligations.
- Disproportionate risk borne by residents: Several environmentalists, residents of the region, say that the proposed projects being built by private companies allot only a limited percentage of their produced power for the State of Uttarakhand itself. Thus the State, on its own, takes on massive environmental risk without being adequately compensated for it.
- Renewable Source of Energy: The Centre is committed to hydropower projects because it’s a renewable source of power and helps achieve the target set forth in Paris Climate Accords. Several environmental activists say that the government push to such projects often ignores the heavy environmental & ecological cost associated with it
- Government should adhere to the recommendation made by the expert committees that there should be no hydropower development beyond an elevation of 2,200 metre in the Himalayan region.
- The ecological damage of hydropower projects in Himalayan region (especially in Uttarakhand) combined with the reduced cost of solar power means that government should not favour any further greenfield hydropower projects in the region.
Connecting the dots:
- Institutional Structure for Disaster Management
- On Himachal Pradesh Landslide Tragedy
- Floods in Europe