Alternatives to Large Dams in India: Easy and Cheap Options

Rainwater harvesting has improved harvests for this Indian family.
Rainwater harvesting has improved harvests for this Indian family.
Credit: Patrick McCully
The bulk of the aid and investment money for water and energy development in India is spent on building large new generating plants and industrial-scale irrigation projects. This generally does nothing to improve poor people’s access to modern energy services, safe water and basic sanitation. It is also not the most sustainable or affordable way to address the growing demand for electricity and water services in the country. The construction of more large generating plants to feed the centralized grid cannot benefit the many poor people who are not connected to the electricity grid. Feeding the Indian centralized grid and its transmission lines with more energy is also extremely wasteful since India has some of the highest energy transmission and distribution losses of the world.

There exist, however, many projects and initiatives in India that promote and build environmentally sustainable, small-scale, cost-effective and decentralized water and power systems that deliver to the poor. Bigger-scale renewables initiatives are also beginning to take off in India. In 2006, India became the fourth largest wind power producer, with wind energy contributing slightly over 5,000 MW to the country’s annual power production.

India is also at the forefront of the growing global movement to revive traditional systems of water harvesting and introduce modern ways to catch and store rainwater. Rajendra Singh and his organization Tarun Bharat Sangh have set off a rainwater harvesting movement in the most drought-prone areas of the country that is changing the lives of thousands. The New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment is spreading the wisdom of traditional water harvesting techniques and is working with cities and towns to install rainwater harvesting structures on rooftops all over India.