Hydro Electricity: Potential & Challenges

J&K has indeed great potential to generate electricity, but the challenge is to balance project building opportunities with environmental and social responsibility more specifically in the present scenario when we are struggling to combat the visible climate changes owing to unplanned and undesired human activities.

Owing to multiple factors the demand for electrical energy is ever on rise. In fact electricity has become an indispensable need for the development.  In the present era electric energy is considered the back bone of development for every nation.  And when it is the story of any developing nation like India it has multi-dimensional significance and more special meanings. Non availability of it may plunge any nation into a deep crisis. Its availability in abundance turns a nation into a big power house and a country can turn to be an advanced industrialized country. Therefore, all possible efforts are to be made to avoid energy-crisis.

It is a stark reality that with rapid progress of science and technology, the demand for electricity and power has been increasing rapidly. To meet this ever increasing demand of power, all the available sources are being increasingly tapped and exploited.

Among all the available means and resources for generating this energy water constitutes the only resource for generating clean and cheap electrical energy besides solar energy, wind energy and Geo-thermal energy which have not been exploited fully as yet.

In this connection Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh have the privilege of having tremendous water resources. Unfortunately the optimum exploitation of this resource has never been thought of till recent past. Call it the lack of vision or the political expediencies of our leaders who could not think of it in time. Execution of certain projects at borrowed money or anything got in charity cannot be claimed as development in the real sense. It is a pity that our so called leaders were made to sing songs to the tunes composed somewhere else for their personal interests.

As a matter of fact mountain streams & rivers in the back drop of greater demand for the electric energy are increasingly exploited for the generation of hydropower. But unsustainable land management upstream during the execution of these projects has often led to resource degradation and elevated soil erosion rates. The available records & empirical evidences bear me out that hydropower plants are frequently reported having lost large percentages of their generating capacity owing to excessive sedimentation and siltation in dam reservoirs. Slal hydel power project (690MW) in the Jammu region can be taken as a spectacular example in this regard. Small investments in watershed restoration and for ensuring sustainable mountain development can offer economically cheaper, technically more sustainable and a viable longer-term solution than post siltation dredging.

Through impoundment, dams certainly modify hydrology, water quality, temperature, and sediment regimes, which surely affect primary productivity and morphology, which in turn cause changes at higher trophic levels. As reported in some places, these changes have even resulted in the considerable loss of natural resources and those processes and practices that significantly contributed to the livelihoods and well being of people. The visible and comprehensive impacts of the dams vary substantially from one geographical location to another and are mainly dependent on the exact design and the way of a dam is operated, as well as the ecological character of the riverine ecosystem and the socioeconomic context. Every dam is unique and has specific characteristics and, consequently, the magnitude and nature of environmental changes is highly site specific and often very difficult to predict accurately.

Rivers and their flood plain wet land ecosystems provide many services that contribute to peoples’ well being and poverty alleviation. Amongst others these include provision of food and fibre, water, building material and medicinal plants that help  to basic human needs, provision of earning cash through transport business, live stock rearing, drift wood collection, agriculture product and the most essential is fishing. The degradation of river and other wet land ecosystems due to dam construction can have profound economic and social implications.

Here I may quote the report of Baruah, D., et al; who studied critically the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report issued by the MoE&F in favour of Lower Subansiri 2000MW Hydel project being constructed at Gerukamukh village on the boarders of the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh & Assam. The project is expected to be completed in 2023-24.

This report which was published in quarterly published Journal of Environmental Science & Engineering Volume 53 No 4 October, 2011, one of the most reputed journals of India, has found beyond doubt that the EIA report was completely in contravention of the required norms and set parameters. They noted that no due consideration for the safeguard of the local ecosystems was considered. They have accused the issuing authority of EIA report for not having undertaken the complete survey of the required downstream length from the dam site and of having ignored the actual scenario and avoiding some most crucial ecological aspects. When such types of gross negligence occur in such a prestigious environmental assessing body at the national level, one can safely question the credibility of this authority.

We can also apprehend some dangerous repercussions (upstream/ downstream) in respect of the dams already built like that of Kishan-Ganga, 330MW, in Gurez Valley, Baglihar Hydel project (900MW) in Jammu region; where some voices have already start raising the issues of relevant nature and the ones to be constructed like Sawlakot (in Ramban area of Jammu region, Rattle, 624MW (Drabshalla Kishtwar, Jammu region), Kiru, 850MW (Doda Jammu region) etc.

In view of the importance of electrical energy we may go for construction of large scale hydro-electric schemes which are necessary to meet the growing urban, rural and industrial demands but as a matter of fact they often have significant environmental and social impacts especially in the fields of agriculture and forest where huge chunk of land is lost; inhabitants of flooded areas are forced to move, and as a direct consequence animals and plant species lose their habitats. The common observation is that the local people are often deprived of the expected benefits. they don’t even get proper compensation or even electricity despite of exporting large amounts of energy from the power stations located in their mountain areas.

As a technically viable solution, de-centralized small-scale electricity generation can be considered as more appropriate and cheaper than participation in large-scale schemes and networks given the difficult topography and scattered settlements of the mountain area especially in our UTs where availability of numerous water streams in these mountain areas is abundant. There is no doubt that solar and wind energy is more attractive and promising but not more than hydropower which is particularly more promising.

Small-scale schemes are preferred because they minimize social and environmental impacts and are often more reliable, and can have positive effects on the development of remote areas. They reduce dependence on a single large infrastructure and diffuse the risk of damage and power cuts. We can think of combating deforestation by replacing fire wood with such alternate energy sources especially in the remote and mountain areas where the practice of consuming fire wood is still rampant.

Massive quantities of waste, surface dumps and slag heaps are only the most visible consequences of execution of large hydro electric projects like what we have seen in the construction of Kishanganga hydel project. This leads to atmospheric pollution and the loss of biodiversity and vegetative cover, which in turn destabilizes mountain slopes.

The challenge is to balance project building opportunities with environmental and social responsibility more specifically in the present scenario when we are struggling to combat the visible climate changes owing to unplanned and undesired human activities. Our thrust should be to ensure that mountain ecosystems are protected and traditional mountain cultures are safeguarded. Policies and legislation should be reflective of this challenge and oblige companies/ agencies involved in building such electric projects not only to respect environmental and social standards but to have a certain percentage of the total project cost for the activities towards the development of the mountains and the mountain people under corporate social responsibility.

Let us not forget that we have a tourist dependent economy and sell the beautiful landscape, lush green high lands & snow capped mountains in the national and international tourist markets to attract more and more tourist to our UTs. It is therefore imperative that every developmental activity including building of hydro power projects in the mountain area should always be preceded by a careful assessment of local conditions accompanied by impact monitoring owing to the fragile mountain ecosystems. This is especially important when successful projects are scaled up to larger areas or applied in new settings with different characteristics.

The author is Chairman of Al’Sarwat Educational Foundation Anantnag