India urged to re-think huge dam projects

india dam
Spillway of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the River Narmada in India. credit:

India’s government has proposed building nearly 300 dams throughout the Himalayan range by 2030 to help meet its energy needs, which are under pressure from its booming population and rapid economic growth.

This will supplement India’s other energy sources such as nuclear, coal, solar and wind for power generation and energy supply, according to a  new study released by a group of scientists at National University of Singapore (NUS).

The government is proposing dams as the solution to attain energy-efficiency, economic growth and environmental protection, but Professor Maharaj K Pandit, who led the NUS study, argued that the enormous number of dams planned across Himalayan rivers could displace millions of people and destroy the natural resources there. “It is not only about the Himalayan valleys, but the downstream human population, their livelihoods and also likely dangers from unfortunate dam-breaks,” Pandit told Eco-Business in an e-mail interview. Some of the biggest river basins in the world such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra, have been identified.

“The Himalaya are a young mountain chain and are geologically very unstable, prone to earthquakes, therefore, we must be cautious about haphazard dam-building. There is a need for moderation which can come only through scientific studies,” explains Pandit. Using field data and modelling, his team which also involved researchers at the University of Delhi and the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, discovered that almost 90 per cent of the Himalayan valleys would be affected by dam building and that 27 per cent of these dams would affect dense forests with unique biodiversity.

The researchers projected that dam-related activities will submerge and destroy about 170,000 hectares of forests. They also predicted that the dam density in the Himalaya is likely to be about 62 times greater than the current global average, which would result in deforestation and the extinction of 22 flowering plants and  seven vertebrate species.

The study also found that water volume is the main driver of the richness of fish species in the rivers. Water withdrawals due to massive dam building activity would seriously undermine fish survival and diversity, fragment habitats and limit fish migration in these rivers, with long-term consequences for the livelihoods of fishermen.

Besides threatening biodiversity, the study also revealed the impact of dam-building activities on human lives and livelihoods. Due to high population density, dams have displaced Indian citizens for decades.

“The importance of the study lies in the issues that it raises. It is crucial for policy decisions to have robust scientific rationale behind taking sound economic decisions, mere raising conflicts and making noise won’t help any cause. Another is that there will be more countries embarking on haphazard dam building stand to gain from the consequences of such actions; decision-makers and policy advisers need to realize that informed decision-making would be better than merely pushing an agenda,” Pandit explained.

The findings from the study highlight the need for sustainable power development.

Pandit said the study made the following recommendations to the Indian government:

*The country may not need as many dams if there was proper maintenance and upkeep of existing power transmission and distribution infrastructure which is in a bad state;

* Reducing the number of dams would save loss of thousands of square kilometers of forests and loss of human property, resettlement issues that has traditionally plagued people in India;

* Less loss of precious forests would mean fewer species threatened with extinction.

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