Sreelatha Menon: Mountains of Concrete

 This article appeared on on May 10, 2009.

Dawa Tsering and Tenzing are stuck in Gangtok since they began their indefinite fast nearly two years ago. Maybe they are stuck for ever as the Himalayan state of Sikkim has on its agenda about 30 hydel power projects on various rivers, including the Teesta, and a target of 8,000 Mw capacity addition. The Lepcha activists see in this danger to their rivers, mountains and to their ancient tribal abode of Dzongu in North Sikkim.

The two discontinued their studies and left their homes to resist the government’s attempts to dam the rivers of Sikkim. Their fasts have been continuing and it’s their achievement that dams on four rivers, Rangyong (117 Mw), Lingza (99 Mw), Rukyel (33 Mw) and Ringi (90 Mw) were cancelled last year. Teesta-IV has been indefinitely stalled though Teesta-V has been commissioned. Dawa says they cannot afford to stop the agitation as the rivers are still in danger.

The fear is echoed in a report on the mushrooming hydel power projects in the Himalayas which warns Asian countries against their massive dam building programmes in the Himalayas. The report, aptly called “Mountains of Concrete,” by Shripad Dharmadhikary, has been brought out by the American non-profit organisation, International Rivers, and says that climate change will reduce these dams to useless investments while these structures will reduce the 2,400-km arc of Himalayan ice into rubble.

The report asks for a critique of the Himalayan hydro power programmes spanning the six nations — Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan — which share the mountains.

India alone, it says, is scheduled to spend over $60 billion on hydel power in the next two decades, the highest in the region. It says existing hydel projects have not achieved their potential. The future of these dams is uncertain as the depletion of glacial wealth with climate change will mean doom for them, says the report.

The icy wealth on the Himalayas which the world stands to lose due to this reckless exploitation of rivers is evident from the fact that 14 of the highest peaks in the world, called the “eightthousanders” (peaks with heights greater than 8,000 metres), are in the Himalayas.

The report says that recent years have seen a renewed push for building dams in the Himalayas and massive plans are underway in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan to build several hundred dams in the region, with over 150,000 Mw additional capacity proposed in the next 20 years in these four countries.

Most Himalayan dams are being constructed to supply electricity to load centres that are far off (in case of Nepal and Bhutan, for exports to India) and recommends that countries look at alternative ways to meet their power needs. It gives the example of the transmission and distribution losses, which are as high as 45 per cent in India.

The Himalayas are a golden goose for these countries but they might just kill the goose if they don’t stop and study the impact before going ahead with their plans, the report says bluntly. Which is to say after the Cree (a North American tribe) saying that only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river poisoned and the last fish caught will you find that money cannot be eaten.

And in the case of the Himalayan dams, there may be no money left to eat either. Not to speak of some ice.