- The Himalayan landscape is the locus of numerous dams and hydropower projects. Hydropower, considered a clean energy source, accounts for about 14% of India’s power generation capacity as of 2023.
- However, experts say that dams and hydro projects significantly impact the sensitive ecology of the mountains and activists argue that rampant construction and deforestation due to hydro projects, increase disaster risks.
- The land subsidence in Joshimath and the recent glacial lake outburst floods, and intense rainfall and floods in the Indian Himalayan Region, raise concern about the carrying capacity of the mountains and the need for caution while developing infrastructure.
“There’s no light or water, but I stay here with my kids. All houses are like this; they are sinking,” says Anita, an agricultural labourer from Joshimath, Uttarakhand, pointing to the severe cracks in her house. This was the result of the rapid subsidence that took place in early 2023.
Thousands of houses in the hilly Himalayan town developed cracks and it became unsafe for the residents to live there. They had to be evacuated and relocated. However, some residents returned to their unsafe houses, as they found it challenging to earn a living from temporary shelters located far away.
In addition to land subsidence, several villages in the mountainous regions of Uttarakhand also witness other frequent disasters, including floods, cloudbursts, landslides and cold waves.
According to experts, the fragile mountainous region cannot bear the brunt of rampant development and construction. They have repeatedly raised concerns about the carrying capacity of the fragile Himalayan terrain and the need to caution while developing infrastructure. This Himalayan landscape is also the site of numerous dams or hydropower projects to produce electricity.
Energy infrastructure in the mountains
Hydropower, considered a clean energy source, accounts for about 14% of India’s installed power capacity as of 2023. Dams are also considered a reliable addition to solar and wind energy, which are variable by nature. Uttarakhand is the state with the highest number of dams in the country.
While the government denies any links between hydropower and the sinking situation in Joshimath, some experts and residents feel otherwise. They say that the crisis in Joshimath spotlights the threat of large-scale dams in the mountains of the Himalayas.
“In 2013, I was chairing the Supreme Court committee and we concluded that the presence of dams aggravates the impact of floods. If the dam wasn’t there, the river would keep moving. If a dam was there, it has to put a lot of energy and it releases destructive energy,” shares Ravi Chopra, a research scientist at People’s Science Institute.
Arun Kumar, a professor from IIT-Roorkee, who specialises in hydropower development, environmental management and energy economics, explains, “Food security, water security and energy security are all available with water storage projects. However, there is no energy without impacts. The question then is whether the impacts are more on the positive side or the negative side.”
Chopra argues that the impacts on the biodiversity of the region are huge. “Our engineers only see the water; they don’t see a river…The most sensitive ecology exists higher up in the mountains.”
An activist and the convenor of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, Atul Sati, says that the local people initially protested against the hydropower projects. While some were promised jobs, those jobs were mostly temporary and low-paying, he shares. Sati also opines that the people whose water, forests, land and resources are being used for the hydro projects are not at the centre of it.
While India pushes for more hydropower projects, especially in the Himalayan region, experts highlight the importance of including local communities in decision-making and the need for mountain-appropriate development pathways.
Banner image: Hydro project on Dikchu, a tributary of Teesta. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.