Himalaya, the "Mountains of Concrete": a review

 This blog entry appeared on http://tibetanplateau.blogspot.com in March 2009.

Mountains of Concrete: Dam Building in the Himalayas is a fine new report that looks at dam building trends in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first critical report of its scope and focus, definitely a welcome contribution to our debates over dam building issues in the region. The exclusion of Tibet and China from the scope of the report, however, renders an incomplete regional or Himalayan context, given the impact of these areas on the overall health of transboundary waters. Lack of information and resources, explains the report, are the reasons why Tibet and China have been left out of discussion. This is personally very disappointing as I believe the information and resources are out there, if only the author and the publisher had dug more deeply to find them.

The report, however, does dedicate a full-page story (Box #4, page 20): “China ‘Goes Out’ to Build Himalayan Dams.” It provides a brief overview of Chinese dam-building expertise and the politico-economic context under which it is ‘going out’ to build “hundreds of dams” in South Asia, Africa, South America, Central Asia and other regions of the world. In South Asia, the report says that “Chinese companies have built or are building at least 13 projects in Nepal and nine in Pakistan.” There is a quick mention of Chinese plans to build a dam on Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), an idea that is alarming to the downstream countries of India and Bangladesh. Since Tibet is the headwaters to many of the major rivers discussed in the report and there are innumerable dams built and planned on the Tibetan Plateau, we can only hope that International Rivers will take up this incomplete project and produce a sequel report about Tibet and China. Readers interested in getting a glimpse of Chinese dam-building trends on the Tibetan Plateau are encouraged to read this paper.

That said, I want to write a brief review/summary of the report to share some of the many excellent points that are discussed. This 48-page report is neatly divided into many different topical sections. The first half of the report presents an informative country-by-country discussion of dam-building trends, funding issues and the key players. I found the discussions about Nepal and Bhutan most informative since not much is known about dam issues in these two countries. I did not realize until today that hydropower development represents the biggest source of income for Nepal and Bhutan. According to the report, about half of Bhutan’s national income comes from hydropower development. Bhutan has an installed capacity of 1,448 MW and plans to increase it to 15,693 MW. Nepal is more ambitious, it plans to install a total capacity of 26,324 MW from its current installed capacity of 545 MW. India’s goal is 93,615 MW from 15,208 MW. And for Pakistan, it is 33,769 MW from the existing capacity of 6,385 MW.

The drivers of hydropower in Pakistan and India are different. Pakistan wants big dams for irrigation and agriculture. India wants more hydropower due to high demand for electricity, regional development and profits for power companies. A look at sources of funds is also interesting. The involvement of international financial institutions (IFI) such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank are common throughout the region. For Bhutan, the main source of funds is India. Nepal has a more diverse source of income, including domestic sources, private-public partnerships, India as well as China. China is also an important funder for Pakistan. Other sources of funds for Pakistan include internal government sources, foreign private banks and income from sale of power. India’s main funders are its government, domestic banks and financial institutions.

Funding is the biggest challenge to the developers. Even if all the available funds are added up, the report estimates that 40% of the funds still remain unsecured. Power sector reforms to raise necessary funds are essentially geared towards privatization. The availability of funding is largely dependent on the ability of the power sector to recover investments, which to me is doubtful because of factors such as climate change, poor performance track record of big dams in general, and the South Asian context of corruption and unstable political regimes. However, I imagine the greatest funding problem right now is the global economic crisis as energy demands and investments in many parts of the world decline.

The main argument of the first section is about the morality of the economics of big dams in the region. Who are the ultimate winners and who are the losers? While the paper does not question the role of state in hydropower development in the tradition of post-structuralist critics, it raises issues of equity and the plight of the poor and affected people. Like everywhere else in the world, the prospective winners are the banks and bureaucracies whose interests are directly proportional to the size of investment and prospective profits. The losers are the affected people, many of which are unique indigenous people (Adivasis), and the environment. In fact, the report is ultimately a warning that the Himalayas themselves and the whole region would face grave consequences if its people and decision-makers fail to act as its custodians.

The second half of Concrete Mountains is dedicated to the social and environmental issues related to the topic. There are a lot of topics covered in this section (downstream impacts, loss of resource base, direct submergence, cultural impacts, ecological impacts, seismicity and sedimentation, climate change, etc.) that could have benefited from focus in terms of a specific target audience that ideally is also relevant to the debate. This section also provides a brief discussion on the response from affected people. I have always been most impressed with the various anti-dam movements in India. The national policy debates raised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and the mobilization of affected people’s resistance not only on the Narmada campaign but also other projects such as Teesta in the Northeast are inspiring examples for other dam-affected people. [TEAM has translated the Citizens’ Guide to World Commission on Dams, an activist organizational tool kit for people affected by dams, into Tibetan. We have sent a few copies to Teesta activists and are happy to send more copies for free to anyone who places an order.]

I am pleased that the report rightly situates the debate within the critical context of climate change. I believe climate change provides an important, pertinent and powerful critique of dam development in the region. If the glaciers and snows that feed the Himalayas are disappearing, why build such giant, expensive and controversial concrete structures? Some experts argue that big dams will be useful for storage purposes if climate change results in changes to water flow patterns. We can use the dams to store water when there is excess and release when supply is scarce. This report rejects this argument. Current dam projects, including those in the ‘pipeline,’ will not be able to deliver the designed benefits since flows are expected to decline significantly in the long run. Big dams in the Himalayas also increase other risks that are more common to the region such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and seismicity.

Another important point that I was delightfully surprised to see emphasized in this report is the issue of cumulative impact of these dams. What will be the long term added incremental impact of all these dams to the region’s environment and economy? No one has the answer to this question. Perhaps we will never know the answer to this question beforehand but this is an important conceptual question for people and policy makers concerned about the future of the region’s cultural and ecological heritage. A step in the right direction toward understanding cumulative impact is to improve and implement the project environmental impact assessment requirements.

While such important points are raised in the report, there is no discussion of certain other relevant and important concepts such as minimum in-stream flows, ecosystem services (of headwaters and free flowing river, for example), and human rights impact assessment. I think all of these concepts should be made relevant to any discussion of dam project planning to minimize environmental and social costs. It would have been very fitting for the report to include these concepts as a part of its recommendations to governments and funders, a section that is also missing in the report, which is my final critique. I would have either expanded the final one-page discussion on “Alternative Approaches” or included a set of recommendations for different target audiences, such as governments, IFIs, affected local people groups such as the Affected Citizens of Teesta.

It is unfair to expect a report to cover all relevant topics under the sun. For what it has set out to do, I think the report has achieved its purpose barring the unfortunate exclusion of Tibet and China. I wish to congratulate Shripad Sharmadhikary and the International Rivers for releasing this informative critical report.