Scientist's Hunger Strike Halts Work on Himalayan Dam

This blog post appeared on in March 2009.

The near-death of one of India’s most distinguished scientists has halted work on a major hydroelectric dam in the Himalayas. Professor AD Agarwal, 77, former dean of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi at Kanpur, has been on hunger strike for 38 days in protest against a project that would dam the waters of a Ganges tributary.

"The water ... is not ordinary water to a Hindu. It is a matter of the life and death of Hindu faith," Agarwal said, before beginning his fast in January.

This is his second fast in the past year, which he called off last week only after the Indian government agreed that it would look into electricity generation that would not impede the flow of the holy Ganges. The river must run free in order to maintain its sacred status.

However, this dam project is only one of the hundreds planned to for the Himalayan foothill regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. The power needs of these nations are rising, but according to a recent report by the NGO International Rivers, many are being carried out with little environmental assessment.

"If all the planned capacity expansion materializes, the Himalayan region could have the highest concentration of dams in the world. The dams' reservoirs, tunnels, transmission lines and related works will destroy thousands of houses, rivers, forests, spiritual sites and even parts of the highest highway in the world, the Karakoram highway," says Shripad Dharmadhikary, one of South Asia's leading water and energy experts and authors of the report, titled "Mountains of Concrete".

"Damming and diversion of [Himalayan] rivers will severely disrupt downstream flows, impacting agriculture and fisheries and threatening livelihoods of entire populations," warned Dharmadhikary.

The report also cautions that climate change and the melting of the Himalayan ice cover would reduce the anticipated amount of electricity generated. As the glaciers melt, the initial increase of water flow will later decrease, as the rivers’ source disappears.

The report points out that "[t]he impact of global warming is already being felt much more in the Himalayas than in other parts of the world. This is resulting in the accelerated melting of glaciers and the depletion of the massive water store of the region. There are real fears the snow-covered mountains [will turn] into bare, rocky mountains. As glaciers melt, water in the rivers will rise, and dams will be subjected to much higher flows, raising concerns of dam safety.”