To meet the demand, India?s considerable legacy of building dams will turn into the stuff of legend: The country plans a new dam-building effort that could see as many as nearly 300 new dams near the majestic Himalayan mountain range in the next two decades. It?s an enormous infrastructure endeavor that has plenty of observers asking just how many dams is too many.
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., says the energy crisis "has gotten to the point where the officials in India are willing to look beyond the resistance to building dams and push forward given how urgent the situation is on the ground." While exact estimates are fuzzy, Kugelman says the best guess is that the Indian government plans about 290 dams in the Himalayas, which would produce enough electricity to double the country?s hydropower capacity by 2030. The increase of about 100,000 megawatts may provide only about 6 percent of the country?s energy needs, but it could play a major role is stabilizing India?s power supply, Kugelman says.
Samir Mehta, International Rivers? India program coordinator, says there?s no way to know just how wide the impact of so many dams would be, especially considering the fact that the majority of them will be "large," higher than about 50 feet, under the International Commission on Large Dam standards. One thing is for sure, though. Adding 300 dams in the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river basins means there will be a dam roughly every 20 miles, which represents 62 percent more density than the global average. And Mehta says there could be hundreds more dams coming even after the first 300.
"That?s a lot," Kugelman says. "Given how intensive this construction is supposed to be, I worry about an oversatiation point."
The Indian government says something needs to be done to grow power resources in the country. Along with hydro, India is expanding its coal production, but the hydro option appears to be less dirty. "Hydro, from a polluting and global warming perspective, is a clean energy relative to coal, and you do hear that argument being made by government folks," Kugelman says. "It is a good argument to make, but hydro power is still an environmental risk. It can cause damage to forests and soils."
But Maharaj Pandit, a University of Delhi environmental studies professor who authored a recent study on Indian dams, says the environmental process is lax and that environmental concerns are being brushed aside. For example, Mehta claims that Indian officials are skipping siltation studies, which can quantify the possible adverse effects on not only the environment, but also power generation when river and silt conditions change?such as when sediment builds up behind a dam and reduces the flow of water. That means the official estimates for power-generation potential might be too optimistic.
Then there are the untold impacts of climate change, downstream impacts, changes to livelihoods, and environmental and ecological impacts, Mehta says. Even though the majority of dams constructed in the upper Himalayan region will be run-of-river, meaning water gets diverted via tunnels through power-generating turbines and then returned to the river without a major buildup of reservoirs, that still has an effect on fish, wildlife, and river flows.
And that doesn?t even take into account the impact on the villages located in the vicinity of the dams. Hydropower projects have displaced somewhere between 16 and 40 million Indians, Pandit says?only neighboring China, which has built more dams than any other nation and owns more than half of the world?s large dams, has displaced more people.
But India, the only other billion-person nation in the world, wants in. Although dams are massive construction projects, they are cheaper to build and maintain than coal or nuclear power plants, and create less concern for large-scale failure. China built the bulk of its dams in the past 60 to 70 years, including the world?s largest, the $59 billion Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, complete with 32 main turbines. India, then, is simply following its fellow burgeoning power in a dam-building craze.
Rather than playing catch-up with China, Pandit says that a less expensive and less controversial way to find immediate energy help in India could simply involve improving grid transmission and reducing power theft, eliminating the loss of nearly 30 percent of all the power the country creates. But India now seems set on a dam-building binge.
While small communities worry about dams ruining their way of life, the boom in dam-building also raises political tensions. "China is building its own dams that keep river water from flowing to India, and India?s dams raise concerns in Pakistan and Bangladesh, preventing water from flowing into those countries," Kugelman says, noting that even run-of-river dams have the potential to interrupt and impact water flows. Legal complaints by the Pakistani government have already suspended at least a few dam projects in India.
Yet India?s enormous power needs are real and worsening. "For a number of years, I would have said no [to building dams]," Kugelman says. "What I?m realizing now, given the sheer and immediate need for energy, is that I think these dams, unfortunately, should be pursued. If done right, they can produce a lot of supply. If these large dams are generated, there needs to be an effort to limit the risks by having better laws on the table and to ease displacement so that these projects don?t have the bad social and environmental impacts they have had before."
"From a sheer supply?demand perspective, it is the right decision," he says, "but I still worry from a social perspective."
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.