Written by: Gargi Sarma, Industry Analyst @Global Launch Base
We all are well aware of the versatility of the Hydropower dams that benefit the communities in a variety of ways. Hydropower and pumped-storage continue to play an important role in the battle against climate change, providing vital power, storage and flexibility. Though Hydropower does not pollute the air or the water supply, the Hydropower facilities, on the other hand, can have significant environmental consequences by altering the environment and impacting land use, housing and natural ecosystems in the dam region.
A dam and a reservoir are common features of hydroelectric power projects. The graph below shows the distribution of dams in both the hemispheres and how vastly it is threatening the species within its region. These constructions block fish movement and impact the fish populations. The temperature of the water and the flow of the river also gets affected by the operation of a hydroelectric power plant and moreover the native flora and animals in the river and on land get harmed as a result of these changes.
Figure: Globalscale dams impact on freshwater megafauna
(Source: Future large hydropower dams impact global freshwater megafauna, Scientific Reports, 2019)
Furthermore, the people's houses, valuable natural regions, agricultural land, and archaeological sites may be covered by reservoirs. As a result, dam construction may necessitate the relocation of people. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, may also develop and be released into the atmosphere in some reservoirs.
Now when we come to India, it is the fifth-largest country in terms of installed hydroelectric power capacity in the world. India's installed utility-scale hydroelectric capacity was 46,000 MW as of March 31, 2020, accounting for 12.3% of the country's total utility power production capacity. A total of 4,683 MW (1.3 % of the total utility power generating capacity) of smaller hydroelectric power units have been constructed. At a 60% load factor, India's hydroelectric power potential is projected to be 148,700 MW. In the fiscal year 2019–20, India generated 156 TWh of hydroelectric electricity (excluding small hydro) with an average capacity factor of 38.71%.
The following table shows the basin wise hydroelectric power potential of the Indian river system as suggested by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).
Examples of environmental issues related to hydropower electricity projects in India:
The flood and catastrophe vulnerability of Uttarakhand and the Himalayas has risen as a result of the building and operation of dams and hydroelectric projects. The hazards are being multiplied by the growing frequency of heavy and strong rainfall events, glacier melting, glofs and moraine left behind by retreating glaciers, the intrinsic fragility of the mountains, blasting and tunnelling and deforestation.
According to Reuters, Kerala's two largest reservoirs, Idukki and Idamalayar, have been functioning for years without emergency action plans (EAPs), which are a necessity for major dams throughout the world. The reservoirs also lack "rule curves," a crucial safety guideline that specifies the maximum amount of water that may be safely kept behind a dam at any one time based on seasonal conditions. The banks of the Periyar River, which makes its way to the shore, are dotted with dozens of cities and villages. The path of the river downstream has changed and communities have encroached along its banks over the years since the gates on the gigantic Idukki dam have not been opened for 26 years. As a result, victims and officials had no idea where water levels might increase in the case of a disaster.
3. Northeast India
The Tipaimukh High Dam (THD) on the Manipur-Mizoram border was built to retain floodwaters in the lower Barak valley, but it was later upgraded to include a hydroelectric component. The THD case highlights concerns of relocation and loss of livelihoods, particularly for a large number of indigenous populations, mostly belonging to the Zeliangrong and Hmar peoples. The dilemma is also transboundary since the people of Bangladesh are concerned about probable changes in the flow pattern downstream of the dam following the THD's construction.
Alternatives/ Solutions and the startups encouraging them:
1. Biomass gasifiers: Generates power by burning waste materials from agriculture (such as rice or maize husks).
2. Micro-hydro (100 kW) and pico-hydro (5 kW) systems are small-scale hydroelectric systems that do not require a dam and run on the river's natural flow.
3. Solar and wind power
New World Wind
4. Co-generation is a system that generates electricity, heat, and cool from waste heat and is generally located near a consumer's demands. Low voltage systems can be used to share/sell the surplus to neighbouring consumers.
When looked at the other factors which imply the disadvantages behind hydropower dams in India include our inability to provide proper forecasts, use available forecasts, and have a functioning disaster management mechanism, as well as our dismal track record in conducting any credible environmental-social impact assessments. Moreover, lack of public consultations, poor appraisals, and a lack of capacity to monitor or achieve compliance.
On the other hand every year, dozens of such dams are decommissioned at a faster rate in developed nations like the US and Europe owing to the deemed hazardous and non-economic problems related to it. However, it is concerning that developing countries like India are not being able to recognise the unsustainable character of these programmes and still new hydropower projects are coming up. It is true that in three monsoon months, Indian Rivers transport more than two-thirds of their yearly flow. We are wasting a vast amount of water that is always flowing and may be transformed to electricity. Thus these questions are also certain to think about: can we afford to waste the majority of water's energy by allowing it to trickle down the drain unutilized during the rainy season? Dams and reservoirs on the other hand are built to endure a hundred years or more and what other form of energy has such a lengthy lifespan? They give us low-cost energy no doubt but it also comes with irreparable damage to major rivers and ecology.
Therefore, for the country's development and prosperity, it is necessary to expand and shift reliance on hydropower. This is important for the long-term water resource development to assure the continued supply of water for hydropower generating and other operations, as well as flood mitigation for downstream residents. Hence, we need to look for sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions to our increasing demands for water and electricity for various purposes.
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