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Mountains of concrete?

The effects of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers pose unprecedented challenges to hydropower development in the region, writes Ann-Kathrin Schneider.

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The warming climate is changing the environment in the Himalayas faster than any other region of the world. The mighty glaciers of the world’s highest mountains – the source of most large Asian rivers, including the Indus, the Ganges and the Nu (Salween) – are melting.

Against these dramatic changes, the governments of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan are planning to transform the Himalayan rivers into the powerhouse of south Asia. They want to build hundreds of mega-dams to generate electricity from the wild waters of the Himalayas. With over 150,000 megawatts (MW) of additional hydropower capacity proposed in the next 20 years across the four countries, the Himalayan region could potentially have the highest concentration of dams in the world.

While a high concentration of large dams will challenge the integrity of river basins and the livelihoods that depend on them, a dam building boom in the Himalayas could have a range of unforeseen consequences due to climate change.

Global warming will cause glaciers to melt, river waters to rise and increase the risks of storms and floods. The water situation in the Himalayas will change drastically: past seasonal and regional trends will no longer be a good measure to predict future water flows; these flows will change in each and every Himalayan river.

What does this mean for dam building in the region? When planning hydropower projects, some of the most crucial data is about river flow. However, with melting glaciers in the Himalayas, historical river flows are no longer a good measure for future flows. Climate change has destroyed the certainty that future river flows will be similar to past flows.

This uncertainty makes it incredibly risky to build dams. The extent of the predicted storms is not known, the seasonal distribution of waters is no longer certain. Nobody can predict when the waters in the rivers will rise, how much they will rise and for how long. Moreover, no one knows when the glaciers will eventually have melted – and no longer can provide any water to the rivers at all. We only know that the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas will result in an initial increase and then a decline of water flows in the Himalayan rivers.

The data needed to build hydropower projects in the Himalayas is not available. It is not clear how often the dam gates of any planned dam in the Himalayas will have to be left open in order to allow for extremely high floods to rush through its gates (all the while not generating any power). Storms, strong rains and floods, which are predicted to increase with the warming climate, can also threaten the very existence of dam walls and can destroy even the most robust mountains of concrete planned in the Himalayas.

Shripad Dharmadhikary, in his report “Mountains of Concrete: Dam Building in the Himalayas”, has shown that the plans for most dams in the Himalayan region do not take the likely impacts of climate change on the Himalayan rivers into account. Dharmadhikary says: “Unfortunately, none of these risks are being considered in the dams planned for the Himalayas – neither for individual dams, nor cumulatively”.

The governments of the region, eager to make the dam-building boom happen, focus on the expected benefits while turning a blind eye to the uncertainties of global warming. “Hydro-dollars” are on the minds of the governments of Nepal and Bhutan, who want to build the large dams to earn revenues from the sale of electricity to India. India itself is eager not only to buy hydropower from its neighbours, but also to generate it in the mountainous regions of the country.  

Nepal currently finds itself in a severe energy crisis, with a shortage of petroleum fuels and only 40% of the rural population with access to electricity. However, most of the large dams in the country are planned for the export of electricity to India. Among the big projects planned for the immediate future, West Seti, Upper Karnali and Arun III are all meant to sell electricity to India, with only a small percentage of that power being set aside for Nepal.

It comes as no surprise that these large dams face opposition from the residents they will displace. But some in Nepal also explain that the country will not even gain “hydro-dollars” from projects such as West Seti. Ratna Sansar Shresthar, a Nepali lawyer and financial analyst, explained that since the project is being built by foreign corporations, Nepal will not see much of the expected profits. “Since most of the project's equity comes from overseas – except  for the government's 15% share – only 15% of the dividend will come to Nepal,” said Shresthar. “Another major outlay is the repayment of a part of the principal and interest. As the project is borrowing from foreign agencies, these payments will never enter Nepal.” The promises of high revenues for Nepal are therefore likely to remain unfulfilled.

In India, the basic driver for hydropower is the demand for electricity. The country continues to be plagued by power and energy shortages. Overall, peak power demand over 2007 was 108,886 MW, of which only 90,793 MW were met – a shortfall of over 16%.

Moreover, a large portion of the Indian society does still not have access to electricity. The government says that in 2006, one in four Indian villages was still without access to electricity.

However, it is not clear that a lack of access to electricity can be blamed solely on the country’s lack of generation capacity. India’s electricity grid is known for its huge transmission and distribution losses of between 35% and 45%. Recent increases in electricity costs for private consumers, as well as the reduction of subsidies, have further reduced poor people’s access to the grid.

More hydropower capacity will not necessarily increase people’s access to electricity. Since most of the projects are planned at high altitudes, they will be costly and so will the electricity that they generate.

The 4,500-MW Diamer-Bhasha Dam on the Indus in Pakistan, with a price tag of US$12.6 billion, is the most costly dam planned for the Himalayan region. While the government of Pakistan has been working for more than two years to find funders for the project, its finances are still on shaky grounds. In November 2008, Pakistan’s National Economic Council approved US$1.5 billion toward the construction of the dam, and Pakistan’s minister for water and power declared that Chinese companies would build the dam and “some Arab countries” would provide part of the financing. Around the same time, the World Bank refused to provide any funding for the project, dealing a severe blow to the government’s attempts to find foreign backers. In response to this decision, the minister was quoted as saying that several alternative avenues for funding the project would have to be sought, including private sector loans and a surcharge on electricity. 

The Diamer-Bhasha Dam is not the only project that lacks clear funding commitments and forces the government to try to find alternatives to traditional funders that used to provide the bulk of the funds for hydropower.

In India, traditional funders are also taking a back seat and Indian financial institutions, as well as Indian public sources, are playing larger roles. But the financial gap is still huge; with the current global financial crisis, the appetite for funding large dams might be further diminished. Dharmadhikary shows in his report that over 40% of the funds needed for the Indian government’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan for the power sector are still lacking.

Global warming might be the most serious challenge to the safety and efficiency of the proposed dams in the Himalayan region, but the funding gap appears to be hampering India and Pakistan moving ahead with the largest planned dams for the region, including the Diamer-Bhasha project. It also appears that strong local opposition to some of the major projects, including the West Seti project and the 3,000-MW Dibang project in Arunachal Pradesh, India, constitute larger obstacles for the project planners than anticipated. Planned public hearings for the Dibang project have had to be cancelled several times due to strong opposition, and the government of Sikkim has announced it will scrap four planned projects on the Teesta River, in response to local opposition.

Opposition to the projects testifies the low degree of participation of affected people in the relevant decision-making processes – and the lack of consideration for the social and environmental impacts of the planned dams. Dharmadhikary’s analysis also testifies to the lack of consideration for climate-change issues in the planning processes. He writes: “Pushing ahead such a massive dam-building program in the fragile Himalayan region without proper social and environmental assessments and safeguards, and ignoring the likely impacts of climate change, can have severe consequences.

“All of these things point to the need for a comprehensive review of the dam building program in each of the river basins in the Himalayas.”

Ann-Kathrin Schneider is South Asia programme director and policy analyst at International Rivers. Schneider holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her work focuses on monitoring and challenging the activities of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and private banks.  

Homepage photo by International Rivers/Yuki Tanabe

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

水电

我曾带着疑问参观过这个地区。如果建造的大坝会毁了这里,那就太糟了。我们能对此做些什么呢?
(Translated by Jing Jiang)

hydropower

I have been to the areas in question, and I think it would be so awful if they were destroyed by dams. What can we do to help?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

from wxai

西方人的观点总是有失偏颇。南亚的发展动力和能源在哪里?靠的是阿拉伯世界的石油还是西方能源利用率最好的科技?阿拉伯靠不住,西方人更靠不住。你指责南亚人的行为,为什么不指责西方人的不靠谱?我觉得水电项目有一定的可行性,但建多大和该建多大?可以做技术的考量。
对于一味指责发展中国家的报道,而不给于实际性帮助的组织和人,他们应该受到指责。

from wxai

Western countries' opinions are usually one-sided. Where is Southern Asia's motivation to develop supposed to come from? Where are its energy sources supposed to come from? Is it the oil of the Arab world or the energy-efficient technology from western countries? The Arabs are unreliable, and the Western countries are as well. South Asia is being criticized, but why don't people point out the dishonest behavior of Western people? In my opinion, a hydro power project is feasible to a certain extent, but what size the project is supposed to be has to be decided by doing technical research. As for those organizations and people who blame developing countries, but offer little help, they should be criticized.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

屁股决定脑袋!

发展中国家一心想要把经济搞上去,不惜牺牲环境以求尽快实现现代化,而发达国家对这种贪图眼前利益的做法十分不满,认为这些穷国破坏了作为全人类共同家园的地球——这就是贫富“剪刀差”的后果,如果任其继续发展,那么,最终大家都得完蛋!

The Bottom decides !

The short-sighted behavior that developing countries want is by no means aimed at slowing down the pace of their economic development. They are ready to sacrifice the environment to realize modernazation as quickly as possible. This behavior makes developed countries quite angry. They strongly believe that those poor countries are destroying our home (the earth). This situation is the consequence of the 'price scissors' between the rich and the poor. If we continue to ignore it,then, we will absolutely meet the end!
translated by diaoshuhuan

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

我们终将走向灭亡

因为所有参与其中的相关方都只知道不停的向对方索取,而不愿付出。

We are approaching the end

Because all those involved are only thinking about themselves and they can't stop demanding more from others while giving nothing out.
translated by diaoshuhuan

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

令人忧虑的趋势

喜马拉雅地区是世界上受气候变化影响最严重的地区之一,然而在不久的将来这里可能成为世界上水坝密集度最高的地区。这两个事实的走向看起来有点南辕北辙。 我还认为,鉴于印度,巴基斯坦,尼泊尔和不丹最关心的似乎是在开发该地区的河流时赶超对方,而不是彼此合作, 在这个意义上讲,喜马拉雅地区蒙受着"公用地悲剧"的问题。

disturbing trends

The Himalayas is one of the world's regions most affected by climate change, yet it is also a region that may soon have the highest concentration of dams in the world. There seems to be a massive disconnect between these two facts. It also seems to me that the Himalayas suffer from the "tragedy of the commons" problem - in the sense that India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan seem most concerned with outpacing each other in developing the region's rivers as opposed to cooperating with one another.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

西藏的水电计划

中国计划在位于西藏自治区南部的雅鲁藏布江上建一个大型的水电站,它将在亚洲能源的提供和增长中发挥重要作用;而就影响而言,喜玛拉雅地区的这个水电计划对于南亚来说也有很大的意义。-坦帕的RICH
translated by diaoshuhuan

Tibetan Hydro-Electric Project

China has proposed a major Hydro-Electric power plant on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, in the southern area of the TAR, and should be viewed as a major player in power production and growth in Asia; and, by affect, as in this project, in South Asia. RICH from Tampa.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

三峡好人

这消息让我想起贾章轲的三峡好人,
大家也一起把所有历史、自然拆卸、破坏,好像一切都没有存在过,存在过也没有价值了
为了经济、为了发展、为了糊口,连喜玛拉雅都要变大霸了。

Good Men along the Three Gorges

It reminds me of Jia Zhangke's "Good Men along the Three Gorges". Everyone has taken part in destroying history, natural places, to the point as if they never existed. Though they might once have been there once, now they are worth nothing. Now for the benefit of the economy, development, and livelihood, they even break down the Himalayan mountains into a dam.
translated by diaoshuhuan

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

水坝 - 不是解答吧!

内容充实的文章。 在尼泊尔正面对着一个能源危机的时候,不论发生什么事情人们都会团结起来支持大水坝。 告诉公众这些水坝不是这个能源危机的肇事者是非常重要的。就好像建这些水坝主要是为了对印度的出口一样。尼泊尔不应是那个由水坝所引起的环境和社会问题的责任的承担着, 尤其是在利益分配不均的情况下。

Dams- Not the answer!

Very informative article. At a time when Nepal is facing extreme energy crisis, and people are bound to support large dams come what may, it is important to inform the public that these dams are not an answer to energy crisis, as they are basically being built to export to India. Nepal shouldn't be the one to face all the environmental and social consequences caused by the dams when there is an unequal distribution of benefits. (Translated by Braden Latham-Jones)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

成功之处与不足

施耐德的文章有不少有建树的论点,但她却遗漏了一个重点。她所提出的潜台词是一旦冰川融化,大坝就没有了用处。然而,事实是:一,虽然喜马拉雅地带的冰川融化是事实,有关方面已揭示了人们对这一事实的夸大。二,她本人也表示了降雨量的提升可以靠水库型水坝来缓解,水库型水坝还能同时开发能源。重点是大坝的建设一定考虑安全因素。施耐德的文章并没有阐述成功的例子,如尼泊尔的库利克哈尼水电站和不丹的水电站。即使这些例子也涉及大规模人口迁移,但却也为千家万户送去光明。像尼泊尔这样的国家在多年的独立尝试下还是未能带给国民电力供应,这样的水电站能给一小部分国民送去光明,总比没有好。当你自己享受着无限的电力资源的时候,批评其他国家的电力发展就好比“站着说话不腰疼”。

Advantages and Disadvantages

While Schneider makes some good points, she misses one key element by insinuating that the dams will be useless if all the glaciers melt. First, the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayan region, while a fact, has been revealed to be overstated. Secondly, the increased rainfall in such a scenario, which she herself points out, can be harnessed by reservoir-style dams to generate power. The point is that the dams must be built with the corresponding margin of safety. The article fails to mention successes such as Kulekhani in Nepal as well as Bhutan's dams. While displacing hundreds, they have also quite literally turned the light on for thousands. Finally, countries such as Nepal attempted for years to "go it alone" only to be left in the dark. Even getting a small percentage of the electricity from built-to-export dams is better than nothing. It is easy to criticize development elsewhere when you have the luxury of electricity in your own house.