On World Rivers Day, we see why small hydropower projects, that are projected as ecologically benign energy solutions, are not really so.
Dinesh Valke/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The evening sun casts a long shadow on the placid and cool waters of the Kumaradhara River, near Dolpadi, in Puttur Taluka, near Mangaluru. These composed waters belie the troubled fate of the river that flows through the Western Ghats, irrigating riparian fields, supporting aquatic life and providing cultural benefits to the villagers.

The Kumaradhara has been the site of a struggle between local villagers and private hydropower developers, who plan to construct a 24 MW small hydropower project, despite the grave ecological, social and cultural consequences it poses. The local farmers and scientists have claimed that the small hydropower project (SHP) will submerge their land, disrupt agriculture and affect the rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats.

This is not an isolated case but an example of how damaging small hydropower projects can be for our rivers and the lives they sustain. The 15 MW Gumti hydropower project in Tripura, submerged close to 46.3 square kilometres of fertile land and displaced indigenous populations. The Tirthan River, that flows from the icy, glacial snow-clad peaks of the Great Himalayan National Park, was declared as a ‘No project zone’ and protected from a series of cascading 9 mini-hydel power projects through a High Court verdict that trumped Himalayan ecology over devastating SHPs and ruled against these small dams.

The negative consequences notwithstanding, the Indian state considers these small hydropower projects to be the ecologically benign and sustainable counterpart to large hydropower projects. The Draft National Mission on Small hydropower states that “Small hydro projects are run-of-river and are environmentally sustainable. These projects do not encounter the issues associated with large-scale hydro projects. There is no deforestation, resettlement or rehabilitation.”

Such projections, however, hide the threat to livelihoods, culture, land and biodiversity posed by these projects. SHPs, particularly those that are run-of-the-river and are under 25 MW in capacity, are classified as sources of clean and renewable energy. As a result, run-of-the-river small hydropower projects, that don’t require more than 5 hectares of land, are exempt from Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which is a mandatory requirement for other development projects. Further, SHP developers are eligible for subsidies and tax breaks from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), significantly reducing their capital cost.

Dammed for Life

India is rich in fast-flowing rivers that cascade down craggy peaks of the Himalayas – popularly known as the water towers of Asia. But building small hydropower projects in the fragile, geologically sensitive landscape of the Himalayas poses new challenges.

As glaciers shrink quickly in the Himalayas, this is likely to reduce the flow of rivers and SHPs further compound this issue. Studies have also linked the recent Kerala floods with multiple, cascading dams that were built in quick succession in ecologically fragile landscapes. India’s SHP potential is estimated at 20,000 MW with around 16,000 MW remaining untapped. As part of its Paris Climate Agreement goals, India aims to add approximately 5000 MW of small hydro capacity by 2022 and added approximately 2 GW of SHP capacity last year.

Despite the criticism and growing evidence of the adverse effects of these SHPs, the MNRE plans to construct 6500 additional SHPs in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, without adequate social and environmental regulations.

Run-of-the-river projects are especially encouraged because they claim to be low-impact and environment-friendly alternatives to large dams. They involve little storage of water and divert the river flow through a penstock tunnel and use the natural elevation to spin turbines that generate electricity. The water from the turbines is then returned to the stream through a tailrace tunnel.

In theory, projects that employ this technology claim that they are sustainable because the total amount of water taken from the river is fed back to the river. However, in practice, the penstock tunnel can be as long as 35-40 kilometres and the flow of water in the river is disrupted, thereby leaving the river bed dry. There is silting of water downstream and aquatic life, including fishes such as the mahaseer in the Western Ghats and trout in the Himalayas, are threatened.

The water depth and velocity are significantly reduced as rivers are left fragmented as a result of these projects. As ecological habitats are damaged, and river stretches disappear into tunnels, the ‘sustainable’ nature of these projects is called into question.

The local communities that depend on rivers to irrigate their land and to meet their livelihoods through water-run flour mills bear the brunt of indiscriminate small hydropower projects. In the Himalayas, SHPs have begun to cause a water crisis by disrupting the flow of water and affecting kuhls, indigenously devised channels that divert glacier-fed streams for agricultural practices. Moreover, SHPs ruin the Himalayan vistas and deface scenic valleys, leading to a drop in the number of tourists.

At the time of construction, many project developers promise employment, electricity benefits and other economic opportunities to local residents. Yet, these claims are seldom fulfilled because most developers prefer to hire migrant labourers that work on lower wages. Moreover, the electricity generated from the project is often fed to the centralized grid and not directly provided to the people who live at the site of the construction, leaving the villagers with no tangible benefits.

Cruising ahead

As rivers are traded for clean energy and vanish under the cascading impacts of small hydropower projects, there is a need to examine these projects in greater detail. The need of the hour is to regulate and formulate processes for addressing the environmental and social consequences of SHPs.

The EIA process should be made mandatory and there should be tangible and long-term benefits offered to local communities. A river is not just a flowing mass of water but is an entire eco-system that sustains and supports a rich mosaic of human, animal and aquatic life. The equity and environmental justice aspects of small hydropower projects must be addressed to protect India’s vanishing rivers because small is not always beautiful and neither is it always sustainable.

Shikha Lakhanpal is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Climate Change Mitigation and Development Program at ATREE, Bangalore.