The Race to Harness Himalayan Hydropower

October 04, 2012

By Russell Sticklor - Spend a day in Kathmandu, Nepal's sprawling capital of 4-million people, and you'll quickly notice what has long been a fact of life in this landlocked Himalayan country, and many other South Asian nations - no reliable electricity supply exists. Up to eight times a day, neighborhoods throughout the city suffer rolling power cuts due to load shedding, causing residents and businesses alike to either carry on in the darkness, or rely on expensive, diesel-consuming generators to keep the lights on. Although the country's civil war ended in 2006, carrying the promise of restored domestic stability and accelerated economic development, Nepal's economy has remained hamstrung by an inconsistent energy supply, with only 40 percent of the population having access to electricity. This situation persists despite the fact that the country sits on top of a virtual goldmine - an estimated 80,000 megawatts (MW) of untapped hydroelectricity, of which it has harnessed a scant 700 MW.

Nepal's great untapped hydropower potential has not gone unnoticed. Neighbors India and China actively have courted the country for years, seeking dam construction contracts and energy export deals to help meet their own soaring domestic energy needs. But while some Nepalese hydroelectric projects have moved forward, some of the country's more ambitious hydroelectric development plans have been delayed or scrapped altogether since 2006, owing to Nepal's notoriously fractious internal politics, and persistent social unrest near proposed dam-construction sites in rural areas formerly sympathetic to the Maoist insurgency.  One reason for the impasse surrounding many major hydroelectric projects is that Nepal has long been wary of foreign meddling in its internal affairs, which has meant that Indian and Chinese efforts to bankroll major infrastructure projects are automatically viewed with suspicion.

India and China have become locked in competition to ink construction contracts in Bhutan and Burma as well, two countries similarly spanned by the Himalaya that possess substantial undeveloped hydroelectric resources. Bhutan and Burma have both embraced the idea of heightened hydroelectric development, reflecting a different attitude than Nepal's regarding both energy infrastructure and foreign contractors. Bhutan would benefit greatly from increased domestic power production, given that it now uses only 390 MW of its 30,000 MW hydropower potential (or 1.3 percent). Even at that modest level of development, hydropower has already emerged as one of the mainstays of the Bhutanese economy, alongside tourism. However, the country currently lacks the technical resources to further bolster its hydroelectric capacity, a vacuum that state-owned Indian energy firms have rushed to fill. Indian firms have competitive advantage over in China in this regard, as Chinese-Bhutanese relations have remained tense over the years due to persistent quarreling over contested border areas. As a result, many of the country's high-profile hydroelectric projects - such as the 2,500 MW Sankosh River Hydropower project, slated to become the world's fifth tallest dam upon completion in 2016 - are contracted to Indian companies.

Burma, meanwhile, represents one of the last major untapped sources of hydroelectricity in South Asia. From Burma's point of view, developing energy resources in the country's mountainous north - where many proposed hydroelectric sites lie - is strategically important for two reasons. Firstly, developing some of the country's estimated 40,000 MW of hydroelectric potential would help shore up domestic energy supply in this country of 54 million, which is slated to grow to 61 million by 2025, and nearly 71 million by 2050. Currently, Burma has harnessed only 2,440 MW, or six percent of this potential. Secondly, excess hydroelectricity produced in this region could be sold to consumers in adjacent Yunnan province (China) and Assam state (India), two economically underdeveloped regions bordering Burma that would benefit greatly from a more reliable energy supply.

Looking forward, it is undeniable that the economies of Burma, Bhutan, and Nepal will benefit greatly from capitalizing on the hydroelectric potential within their borders. Not only will harnessing the reliable, renewable power of the rivers shore up the domestic energy security of each country, but enhanced production of hydroelectricity would also provide an incredibly lucrative export commodity to be sold to India and China deep into the 21st century. Despite these many benefits, however, hydroelectric development in this politically and ecologically sensitive swath of South Asia carries with it significant risk in terms of human and environmental security, and therefore must be undertaken with great caution.

Poor planning and execution of hydroelectric projects run the risk of agitating populations in the vicinity of dam sites and exacerbating preexisting social and political unrest, as evidenced by the suspension of construction of the Chinese-backed $3.6-billion Myitsone dam in Burma due to ongoing protests in 2011. Across South Asia, one of the primary causes of dam-related unrest has been the collective failure of host country governments and foreign contractors to sufficiently consult with affected populations during both the planning and construction phases of hydroelectric infrastructure. Preemptively reaching out to these populations and finding ways to make them stakeholders in dam projects is crucial, because the alternative - forcible relocation from river valleys slated to be flooded to accommodate new reservoirs, and the attendant loss of valuable arable land and ancestral territory - is an understandable driver of public protest and political instability.

The drastic land-use changes necessitated by dam construction and reservoir flooding can also pose serious threats to sensitive riverine ecosystems. By disrupting a waterways' natural flow, dams trap nutrient-rich sediment flushed from the Himalaya that would otherwise flow downstream to improve soil fertility, and build up land mass in river deltas that serve as protective buffers against storm-induced tidal surges. Additionally, it is speculated that new large-scale dams and reservoirs can even impact the seismic stability of the earth underneath these sites.  In the case of Bhutan's Sankosh dam, for instance, fears of "reservoir-induced seismicity" are prevalent, as the weight and concentration of water behind new dams can arguably trigger localized earthquakes (as is thought to have happened in the case of a devastating earthquake in China's Sichuan province in 2008).

Even in light of these concerns, the development of Burma, Bhutan, and Nepal's hydroelectric resources in the context of an energy-hungry Asia is likely a matter of when, not if. Despite this inevitability, it is in the enlightened self-interest of host country governments and Indian and Chinese energy firms to plan and carry out these projects as sensitively as possible, taking into account (and being responsive to) the environmental and livelihood impacts in areas adjacent to and downstream from dam sites. Overlooking these concerns to quickly bring new hydroelectric infrastructure online may help satiate India and China's hunger for new energy streams in the short-term, but at the risk of inducing long-term environmental damage and domestic instability in the host countries that may not prove so easy to reverse.

Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark / World Bank via Flickr;

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