Hydropower in Indian Himalayas: A Ticking Time Bomb
Photo by OPIS Zagreb via ShutterStock
11 October 2022 – by Heba Hashem
Developing hydropower in India comes with huge risks. The country’s Himalayan states, where most hydropower development activity is taking place, are inherently vulnerable to earthquakes, landslides and flash floods. Yet, this hasn’t deterred India’s government from giving the green light to new hydroelectric power plant projects.
Renewable Energy in India
India’s renewable electricity has grown phenomenally over the past decade, increasing at a faster rate than any other major economy in the world. In the last eight and a half years, the installed capacity of renewable energy in India increased by at least 396%, reaching 162.928 gigawatts (GW) in August 2022. This represents 40.2% of India’s total power capacity.
Solar energy and hydropower capacity account for the lion’s share, standing at 59.303 GW (14.6%) and 46,850 GW (11.5%), respectively.
Over the next eight years, or by 2030, India plans to increase its installed renewable energy capacity to 500 GW to generate 50% of its electricity requirements. These are big ambitions in a country where coal and oil have fuelled most of the industrial growth and energy needs.
Hydropower in India to Balance Wind and Solar Power
A big chunk of the planned renewable energy mix will be hydropower. As India’s Minister of Power and New and Renewable Energy Raj Kumar Singh said in November 2021, “To install such an amount of renewable energy capacity, we need a balancing source and that balancing source is hydro.”
According to Singh, 450 GW of the 2030 target will come from solar and wind, while 70 to 100 GW will come from hydropower plants,
The development of hydropower, however, comes with deadly risks. This is because most of the potential is centred in the Himalayas, one of the world’s most seismically active regions. Additionally, rising temperatures and precipitation could increase the occurrence of glacial lake outbursts, floods and landslides over this region.
Why Are Hydroelectric Power Plants in India Concentrated in the Himalayas?
The Himalayas are a vital freshwater source covering 2,400 kilometres in an area that includes the world’s highest peaks. The region has become a hydropower hotspot. However, only 20% of the estimated 500-GW potential is currently tapped.
The immense mountain range, which includes glaciers and large rivers, passes through India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, China and Bhutan. The Indian part of the Himalayas covers about 16.2% of the country’s area and forms its northern boundary.
Exploitable hydropower potential in India has been estimated at about 84 GW. The bulk of this potential lies in the fragile Indian Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh (26,756 MW), Himachal Pradesh (20,634 MW) and Jammu and Kashmir (7,487 MW), as well as the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (97,44 MW).
Himachal Pradesh has a potential for hydropower generation due to the thawing of glaciers and frozen lakes. The state is home to India’s highest installed hydropower capacity of over 10,500 MW.
The government plans to double this capacity, even though an estimated 97.42% of Himachal Pradesh’s geographical area is prone to landslides.
Risks of Developing Hydroelectric Power in India Outweigh Benefits
While hydropower offers benefits beyond electricity generation by providing flood control, irrigation support and clean drinking water, the risks associated with developing this energy source in the Himalayas outweigh the benefits.
Glaciers in the Himalayas are increasingly melting due to climate change and creating big glacier lakes. These lakes can burst and cause huge flash floods. A 2019 study found that more than 5,000 glacier lakes in the region were at risk of extensive flooding and could cause “catastrophic societal impacts” due to warming temperatures.
Another risk stems from the changing weather patterns in the region, leading to more extreme rainfall events such as cloudbursts. These short spells of heavy rainfall can ruin hydropower infrastructure and flood villages.
Additionally, the Himalayas are plagued by geological instability and are at serious risk from earthquakes. Such disasters can fracture dams and release sudden floods that ruin roads, homes and agricultural land.
Big infrastructure projects such as hydropower stations are also largely responsible for springs dying in the region. Government statistics show that half of the springs in the Indian Himalayas have dried up, resulting in acute water shortages across thousands of villages.
Growing Opposition to Hydro Power Generation in India
During the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, more than 30 hydropower projects underwent damage, mostly by landslides. This natural disaster caused the loss of 34% of the country’s installed hydropower capacity. Furthermore, it resulted in USD 200 million in estimated losses for its hydropower industry.
Similarly, in India, three hydropower projects in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand suffered damage from floods and landslides in 2013 and 2021.These are among seven under-construction hydropower projects that India’s government recently allowed to restart.
Following this approval, a group of more than 60 concerned scientists, politicians, environmentalists and other citizens wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In this letter, they requested his intervention in stopping any more hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas.
They highlighted that such projects, which lie right in the path of rivers, were “bound to be destroyed or extensively damaged”.
Central Electricity Authority Data Shows Pipeline of 98 Hydro Power Plants Projects
Hydropower infrastructure is not only at risk but also contributes to the intensification of disaster potential. For instance, the construction of hydropower stations entails mountain tunnelling and blasting operations. Such intense activity could trigger landslides and slope disturbances.
Clearly, hydro development in the Himalayan region does more harm than good. Despite the large quantity of research on the implications of hydropower expansion in the Himalayas, Minister Singh has directed the National Hydro Power Company (NHPC) to exploit more hydro resources in India.
According to India’s Central Electricity Authority, 98 hydroelectric projects with a total capacity of 58,196.5 MW are in the pipeline at various stages. Of these, 36 hydro projects totalling 12,663.5 MW, are under construction.
Furthermore, hydropower projects above 25 MW have remained eligible for financial incentives since 2019. This is when the government granted them renewable energy status.
Hydropower Projects in India Make Little Economic Sense
With all the risks associated with hydropower in the Himalayas, building more hydropower stations makes little economic sense. Meanwhile, India can obtain cheaper clean energy from solar and wind projects.
Installing 1 MW of hydroelectric capacity in India today costs more than 100 million rupees (around USD 1.22 million). This is nearly double the amount for the same amount of solar or wind-based capacity.
Instead of further hydropower developments in an unstable region, increasing solar and wind power’s share in India’s energy mix would ultimately be a safer, cheaper and more reliable option for a secure energy future.