Hydropower Projects Continue to Generate Concern in South Asia

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Originally published in VOA News

By Steve Herman
New Delhi

Asia is grappling with how to balance its burgeoning demand for energy against protection of the environment and society. The conflict is apparent in some of the region's most ambitious infrastructure projects, which involve building dams, changing courses of rivers and erecting transmission lines to bring electricity to energy, deprived homes and businesses.

An ethnic group from the border region of India and Burma, known as Kukis, marches to protest construction of the Tamanthi Dam in Burma.

Activists of the Anti-Tamanthi Dam Campaign Committee raise slogans at a protest in New Delhi, India (VOA news)By Indian standards their protest is small and quiet. Most passersby near the parliament in New Delhi ignore the 50 tribal demonstrators, including women and young children.

They oppose the plan by Indian state-owned companies to harness Burma's Chindwin River and export 2,400 megawatts of electricity to India. The dam is also touted for controlling flooding and irrigating farms.

Patrick McCully is executive director of Rivers International, an environmental advocacy group in the U.S. state of California. He argues that these projects do more harm than good.

"They destroy rivers. They eradicate whole ecosystems," he said. "This may come as a surprise to a lot of people but big reservoirs in tropical areas have very high emissions of greenhouse gases because of all of the rotting vegetation in the reservoirs. The global warming impact of big reservoirs in the tropics can be even higher than coal-fired plants."

Such projects frequently displace communities.

"Very few of those people are able to regain their previous living standards. People are impoverished, pushed off into slums, indebted," he added. "They lose their land. They lose jobs. They lose the social cohesion of their communities. The record of the authorities, in terms of being able to enable people to regain or improve their living standards, is abysmal."

Lulun, who uses one name, the president of the Kuki Student Democratic Front, says this is already happening to his people in Burma (also known as Myanmar) where their ancestral land is being cleared to build the Tamanthi Dam.

"There is forced labor. Land confiscation is there. Two, three villages are already relocated without any compensation. They lost their paddy fields. They lost their houses and they have many hardships," said Lulun. "Apart from that we are concerned with environmental degradation. There are tigers, lions, even elephants there."

The World Bank, which is not funding the Tamanthi Dam project, estimates Burma, which is under military control, has the potential to generate annually 100,000 megawatts of electricity from its rivers.

The World Bank itself, in recent years, however, has backed away from supporting large-scale, hydropower projects in Asia.

"The institutions didn't appear to be as sensitive to some of the environmental and social concern of this development than we felt comfortable with. So it was really more of a reputational risk issue," said Salman Zaheer, the bank's South Asia energy sector manager.

The bank is now cautiously re-engaging, as Zaheer terms it, with the controversial energy sector. It is involved in one project in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and appraising another in neighboring Uttaranchal. The World Bank is also helping fund a 1,000 megawatt hydropower plant on a tributary of the Mekong in Laos.

Rivers International estimates that, in India alone, somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people have been evicted from their homes by hydroelectric projects.

China, as well as India, is looking beyond its borders for new sources of hydro-electricity. The Chinese are planning or implementing such projects in Burma, Nepal and Thailand.

Environmentalists acknowledge the huge unmet power needs in the developing world. But Patrick McCully at Rivers International contends many of the dams would not need to be built if the existing infrastructure was more efficient.

"There's a huge amount of energy wasted in the existing systems, in terms of how electricity is generated and transmitted and used by the end-user," said McCully. "The first priority should always be to make the system as efficient as possible before adding all the expense and the environmental impacts and the social impacts you get with most of the new types of supply."

A study, partly funded by the World Bank, has shown that many of the more ambitious hydroelectric schemes have not lived up to expectations - generating less power and irrigating far fewer hectares than forecast.

World Bank regional energy expert Salman Zaheer says backers of these projects need to learn from the past and be aware of emerging challenges.

"I think we have to approach hydropower development, particularly in the Himalayas, with the utmost humility," added Zaheer. "These are young mountains. As we face climate change it is causing glaciers to melt faster and more unpredictably. So it is bringing down a lot more silt, boulders and other things than before."

Such events diminish the capacity of the dams and disrupt the function of power generation stations. It also adds another layer of concern for those funding and building such projects.