Rivers of Caution: What Hydropower in the Himalayas Tells Us About Energy and Justice
By Arica Crootof
A Life of Science: A Series by New Scientists
As I lift a steaming cup of chai to my lips, I pause and inhale, taking in the fragrant spices. In this moment, I catch a glimpse of snow-capped peaks through the clouds—the Himalayas. This is my first trip to India, and I can’t help but stare in awe. But the moment doesn’t last. The clouds return, obstructing my view of the peaks that feed the river that supplies the water for the village I am visiting.
My attention returns to the farmers who have gathered to share their experiences regarding the recently constructed hydropower project. Unable to understand the local dialect, I watch expressions and body language and listen to the farmers’ intonation. Across the circle, I see an elderly woman’s face turn solemn as she speaks to my Indian collaborator, Riya. I can’t understand her words, but I can see and hear her frustration. Riya turns to me and translates the woman’s words: “The river, which once provided an abundant source of water, is now a trickle. The hydropower project has taken all the water. We must now work through the nights, taking turns in the field, and still, our rice production—our livelihood—remains diminished.” The stories our team of researchers hear from farmers in the village of Chani are similar to the stories we hear in other villages. These hydropower projects are diverting rivers, leaving little, if any, water in the natural channel.
A dense network of hydropower development is currently underway in the Himalayas. Hundreds of new projects are proposed and under construction. The mountain “run-of-the-river” projects are entirely different from large dam projects, such as Three Gorges Dam in China and Hoover Dam in Nevada, these. Dams are typically small (less than 30 feet high) and instead of a reservoir, the water is diverted off the river channel for energy production. By avoiding the large dam that blockades the river, as well as the reservoir that can displace whole communities, run-of-the-river hydropower is often promoted as a rural development tool that is socially and environmentally benign. However, as hydropower development rapidly spreads, so do protests, even when projects are “small” and run-of-the-river. These protests are part of the reason we are here. We heard stories of hunger strikes, road blocks, and sit-ins and are curious to learn how hydropower is affecting the people who live in these mountain river basins.
I am traveling to villages affected by several small hydropower facilities in the Bhilangana Basin. This river basin has three hydropower facilities, each diverting river water for several miles. Two more hydropower projects are planned for development. We chose this basin because the transformations here are representative of the development throughout the state of Uttarakhand, India. The state, which is smaller than West Virginia, has 150 run-of-the-river hydropower projects currently in operation or under construction plus another 300 in the planning phase. This boom in run-of-the-river hydropower is not limited to India, or the Himalayas—international financing is helping to fuel this growth in mountainous regions across the globe.
With growing recognition for the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions there is increasingly more funding available for renewable, low-carbon energy sources. Hydropower is a major beneficiary of climate-related funding opportunities, such as the Green Climate Fund and clean development mechanisms, and is poised to dramatically expand in coming years as more funding becomes available for renewable energy. As hydropower expands, mountain landscapes are transformed. Just how this transition to renewable energy occurs in mountain regions is critical for the people who live with these projects.
The mountains in the Bhilanaga Basin are so steep that the rooftops act like bleachers. From my seat I can see the small dam that funnels the river’s flow into an underground tunnel. The tunnel runs beneath the mountain and beneath the village. Parallel to the river, but at a much lower slope, the tunnel transports the water over three miles several hundred feet above the natural river channel. The further the water falls, the more energy that can be captured. To capture this energy the water runs down the hillslope, through a pipeline, also called a penstock, to the powerhouse.
Although I can’t see the powerhouse from where I sit, I can see miles of rice paddies blanketing the mountains. Water flows through irrigation canals, from one terrace to the next, defining this agricultural landscape. Looking across the river basin it’s hard to imagine how this hydropower project, which is diverting 90 percent of the river, could possibly have “no impact to the villagers or the environment.”
As the locals tell it, the negative impacts of hydropower are profound. Through surveys, interviews, and focus groups, we hear how the road construction and tunnel blasting can cause destructive landslides. Valuable land—land for farming and grazing—is now gone. Changes in the location of springs and the amount of water flowing from them are attributed to this blasting, along with many cracks in house foundations. The water diversions themselves affect the amount of food farmers can grow. Without water, especially during planting season, crop production often plummets, causing devastating economic losses for these rural, small-scale farmers. Ensuring enough streamflow for cremation rituals and religious ceremonies is another challenge. Although the hydropower operators will generally open dam gates for religious purposes, one farmer explained, “In the lean period the water released for cremation is not enough.”
But what about positive impacts? I’ve been told that hydropower projects in the Himalayas improve road access, contribute to local economic development, create jobs, and generate much-needed electricity. In our meetings with the villagers, there appears to be a general consensus that hydropower development has improved road access, which is important for getting rice and other crops to larger markets and for improving transportation in and out of the mountains. The hydropower companies have also paid government-set compensation rates for loss of land as well as contributed to village funds for projects such as schools. However, contrary to my expectations, electricity outages in the villages remain. Large transmission lines link the powerhouse to the national energy grid. As for employment, although there are many jobs during construction, only a handful of people are hired on for hydropower operations. One villager whose livelihood was destroyed by the water diversion explained how when he lost his fish ponds, water mill, and orchards he was given 500,000 Indian rupees in compensation, which is approximately 17 months’ worth of his previous salary. He now has a job working at the hydropower facility, where he makes one-fifth of what he made before he lost his land.
It would seem that much of the electricity and wealth from hydropower flows from the mountains to the cities below. But the story we are investigating is much more complex. Hydropower developers are also frustrated. They struggle financially despite the many economic and regulatory incentives designed to spur growth. Challenging geology, government bureaucracy, and villager protests are all cited as delaying projects and running up costs. Additionally, the Himalayas are a young mountain range—restlessness and unpredictable. Earthquakes, landslides, floods, and droughts pose risks. Equipment costs, especially transporting equipment to these remote regions, are high and the transport is slow. Repairs can last months if not years. Even when the plant is operating smoothly, energy generation is dependent on river flows that drastically change with the seasons. During the monsoon, when river flows are high, the power plants are able to operate at maximum capacity. But for several months of the year the rivers are low and the facility can only operate at about 15 percent capacity. Given these challenges, there is a need to mitigate the negative impacts for both villagers and hydropower developers, especially if hydropower is indeed going to continue to boom.
Learning about the many risks and impacts, I couldn’t help but wonder if hydropower is a worthwhile option. On a tour of one of the powerhouses, however, I gained a new appreciation for the immense power of water—water flowing down a hillslope. The cacophony of water rushing through the pipes, spinning the turbines, and rotating the generators that convert mechanical energy into electricity was deafening. I had to plug my ears as I was guided through a maze of pressure valves, pipes, and electrical equipment. Floorboards shook and pipes rattled. Despite my excitement to see the hydropower equipment up close, I didn’t want to stay inside long as the building felt like it was preparing for “lift off.”
The enormity of that power of water flowing through this hydropower facility stays with me. As do the farmer’s words about working through the night to maintain the rice paddies. At the end of this research trip I realized that each of my convictions—the need to transition to low-carbon and renewable energy and the need to do so in a socially responsible manner— had grown stronger.
I look forward to returning for my doctoral dissertation research. I want to continue to work toward a future where villages surrounded by hydropower can tell a different story, a story that attributes part of their community success to their locally sourced, low-carbon renewable energy.
The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program — A Life of Science — with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.
The author would like to gratefully acknowledge funding from Water, Land, and Ecosystems Program of the CGIAR, specifically International Water Management Institute, and the University of Arizona’s Renewable Energy Network for this research project.
Arica Crootof is currently in Nepal researching challenges and opportunities at the intersection of hydropower and food security in the Gandaki River Basin. Her research is funded through a U.S. Borlaug Fellowship in Global Food Security. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona.
Header photo of agricultural lands in the Bhilangana Basin by Arica Crootof. Photo of Arica Crootof courtesy Arica Crootof.