By Udisha Saklani

On the morning of 7th February 2021, India’s Dhauliganga Valley in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand witnessed a tragic flash flood, which was set off by a breach in the Nanda Devi glacier. As a large chunk of snow, fresh water and rocks came tumbling down the river valley, it wreaked havoc on the Rishi Ganga hydropower plant and the under-construction Tapovan-Vishnugad plant, and destroyed lives, houses, precarious roads and bridges that came along the way. More than a week after the incident, the number of casualties near 60 and close to 150 people are still reportedly missing while intense search and rescue operations are ongoing.

For many people residing in the region, the visuals of this latest flooding event brought back painful memories of the 2013 Uttarakhand flash floods, where nearly 6000 lives were lost due to a sudden cloudburst, besides causing extensive damage to the state’s hydropower infrastructure. With news of the Himalayan glaciers melting twice as fast in the 21st century as they were between 1975 and 2000, locals are worried about the increasing incidents of natural disasters which accentuate vulnerabilities of already-marginalized rural communities and those residing in downstream areas. As the local administration deliberates on the recent events, the spotlight has returned on the slew of hydropower projects that are being planned or are currently under construction in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, one of the world’s most geo-tectonically active and ecologically sensitive zones in the world.

The HKH region includes mountain ranges of the Tien Shan, Kun Lun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Himalayas, and Hengduan and the Tibetan Plateau. It is extremely susceptible to rising temperatures and flash floods caused by intense rainfall events, landslide dam and glacial lake outbursts, rapid melting of snow and ice, and failure of dams and levees. Time and again, scientists have warned about growing variations in water availability, significant losses in glacier volumes, and increased incidents of floods, avalanches and landslides in this region. However, governments in the Himalayan countries have continued to nurture animate dreams and ambitions of building sovereign hydropower wealth with renewed commitments of energy, water and food security, revenue generation through cross-border sale of electricity, and other associated benefits such as development of roads and flood defences.

The new wave of dam building initiatives is concentrated in countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, which are home to abundant ‘untapped’ water resources and face chronic energy shortages and demand for faster economic growth. Bhutan is building a cascade of big dams with the help of Indian assistance. Similarly, Nepal has signed deals with India to build two 900 MW hydropower projects in its remote and inaccessible valleys, primarily for exporting energy to India and Bangladesh, with additional plans of building 10,000 MW within the next ten years. Both China and India have also redoubled their efforts to support rapid hydropower development and are recognized for building the greatest number of new dams since the 1990s than any other country.

The steady proliferation of big and small dams is expected to have profound impacts on the geography, culture and ecology of the region. Research shows that a large number of the existing and planned dam projects in the Himalayas are at high risk of severe damage from future earthquakes, which will trigger million-dollar losses to the hydropower industry and the economy. Yet, risks and safety considerations are often brushed aside for short-term tangible and intangible gains.

Many environmentalists and scientists term disaster events such as the recent glacial break in Uttarakhand as ‘man-made’ for a number of reasons:

  • First, the intensity and magnitude of the damage often stem from haphazard development and blatant violation of construction and environmental norms and procedures, without giving due recognition to the inherent risks and vulnerabilities of mountain communities and downstream areas.
  • Second, policymakers and scientists seldom work together to develop hydroelectric power projects in safer locations, using techniques and methods that rely on thorough individual or cumulative risk and impact assessments, and with careful examination of alternatives – a prominent recommendation of the World Commission on Dams. Many hydropower projects in the Himalayas continue to be built in the absence of sufficient scientific-experimental data, which exposes communities to multiple environmental and technological risks.
  • Third, the installation of early warning systems, dam maintenance and safety procedures, robust inspection and monitoring systems, and community-based contingency planning that enhances disaster preparedness and resilience remain an elusive dream.

In addition, there are serious questions about the future prospects of hydroelectric dams, given the reduced amount of electricity that dams can generate. This is largely because of drastic changes in water availability and sediment build-up which impacts water storage capacity and electricity generation. Many Himalayan rivers such as the Teesta river in north-eastern Indian Himalayas (the region is termed as the ‘future powerhouse’ of India) carry large sediment loads which reduce reservoir space and increase stress on the dam and ecosystem. Many critics argue that dams are not even financially viable and are likely to be seen as under-performing assets in the future, given the steep decline in the pricing of solar energy and the possibility of hybrid solutions which could address peak demand.

Despite its multiple risks, the allure of dams may continue to guide development policy thinking in countries such as India, driven by the growing global interest in renewables and the entry of ‘new’ financiers and dam-builders from the Global South. In an intensifying landscape of hazard occurrences, there is a need for governments to take concrete steps towards boosting the safety of dams and reservoirs to minimize the frequency and intensity of destruction caused. Given the precarious topography and changing environmental conditions, other deadly catastrophes are likely to occur in the future, possibly precipitating a dam failure or collapse. Measures such as setting up early warning systems, undertaking high-level assessments of risks associated with dams and reservoirs, development of robust dam safety policy framework and guidelines, and incentivizing long term resilience to disasters must be carefully integrated in dam construction and management plans to reduce the impact on the highly vulnerable infrastructure projects and communities residing in their proximity.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.

Photo by AFP PHOTO / INDIAN ARMY on Flickr (CC2.0)

Udisha Saklani

Udisha has undertaken primary research in India, Nepal and Bhutan to understand India’s dam building in the Himalaya in comparative perspective. Her upcoming FutureDAMS working paper examines the Arun-III dam in Nepal, the events that led to its suspension and subsequent resurrection and the importance of India-Nepali relations to Himalayan dam building.

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