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Why hydropower projects in the Himalayas risky?

Why hydropower projects in the Himalayas risky?


  • GS 3 || Science & Technology || Energy || Renewable Energy

Why in the news?

The 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydroelectric power plant and the Tapovan project on the Dhauliganga River, a tributary of the Alakananda, were both swept away in Uttarakhand floods in February 2021.

Generation of Hydropower:

  • Hydropower is a renewable energy source since it generates electricity using the Earth’s water cycle.
  • Water evaporates from the Earth’s surface, condenses into clouds, rains back down, and flows into the ocean. The kinetic energy created by the movement of water as it flows downstream may be turned into electricity.
  • In 66 nations, hydropower accounts for at least 50% of energy generation, while in 24 countries, it accounts for at least 90%.

India’s hydropower technologies:

  • Hydropower technology has a track record of high efficiency, with efficiency rates of up to 90% depending on the design power.
  • The benefits of longevity and low generating costs do not appear to be reflected in India’s energy mix, which is dominated by thermal power.
  • With 42,783 MW of installed capacity, hydro has a market share of about 14% in 2016, down from 46% in 1966. This obviously demonstrates a disproportionate reliance on thermal plants over hydro assets.
  • The persistent non-achievement of objectives is largely to blame for hydro’s declining proportion of the total electricity portfolio.

India’s hydropower potential:

  • Basin wise potential:
    • Indus basin – 11.9 GW
    • Brahmaputra basin – 23.9 GW
    • Ganga basin – 3.4 GW
    • West flowing rivers of South India – 3.6 GW
    • East flowing rivers of south India – 5.7 GW
    • Central Indian river system – 1.6 GW

Advantages of hydropower:

  • Renewable source of energy: Hydropower is a renewable source of energy since it generates electricity rather than consuming water, allowing this important resource to be put to other uses.
  • Low recurring cost: It is a non-consumable renewable energy source with a low recurring cost and hence does not necessitate a big long-term investment.
  • Meeting peak demands: Hydropower stations are favored choice for meeting peak demands in grids because to its unique qualities of quick starting and closing, and it is less expensive than energy provided by coal and gas-fired electric plants. It also avoids financial losses due to frequency fluctuations and is more trustworthy because it does not use fossil fuels and is hence inflation-free.
  • Complimentary operational needs: Hydro and thermal power plants have complimentary operational needs, and a well-balanced combination helps to enhance capacity utilization. The seasonal load curves of regional networks mirror the pattern of hydro power generation.
  • Load factor is high: During the summer/monsoon season, when hydro power plant output is high due to heavy agricultural load, the system’s load factor is high. Weather-beating loads will be handled by thermal stations operating at base load and hydro stations operating as peak load stations during the winter.


  • Activists are concerned that two projects, Singoli Bhatwari and Phata Bhuyang, have been approved that are particularly related to the Kedarnath Tragedy (2013).
  • The Vishnugadh project, which was harmed in the February 2021 floods, was also permitted to proceed, despite the fact that 200 people perished as a result of the criminal negligence of not having a disaster warning system.
  • The fragile Himalayan area is being impacted by hydropower projects, dams, and building activity, rendering it vulnerable to calamities.

Challenges associated with the development of hydropower in India

  • Geological limitations: The Himalayan region is seismically unstable, making major dam building in this area structurally risky. Furthermore, big dams have been discovered to be the source of seismicity in a region (reservoir-induced seismicity). For example, in 1967, a reservoir generated earthquake occurred near Koyna Dam.
  • Environmental limitations: dams bury large swaths of forest area, making forest clearing difficult. By burying forest lands in the upstream and limiting river flow in the downstream, large dams endanger biodiversity in both upstream and downstream regions.
  • Socioeconomic constraints: Large dams cause communities to be displaced from upstream and downstream areas. Tribal tribes make up a major portion of those displaced by dams in India. It’s difficult to rehabilitate them elsewhere since they rely heavily on trees for food, shelter, and religious and cultural purposes.
  • Discharge of sediment: Dams minimize the discharge of sediment downstream by controlling the flow of a river. This might have a negative influence on deltas that rely on silt deposition. For example, in West Bengal, the Farakka barrage has decreased the flow of sediment to the Sundarbans delta, which is now threatened by coastal erosion.
  • Need of huge finance: Hydropower projects require a lot of money. As a result, compared to other types of power, private actors’ engagement in this sector is limited. Only around 3100 MW of hydropower has been installed by the private sector, indicating their limited involvement.
  • What are the challenges and tensions associated with hydropower projects in the Himalayas?
    • Developmental Responsibilities: The Uttarakhand government has said that it spends over 1,000 crores yearly on energy purchases, making it more difficult for them to satisfy their development obligations as more such projects are cancelled.
    • Renewable Source of Energy: Hydropower projects are important to the Centre since they are a renewable source of energy that contributes to meeting the Paris Climate Accords’ targets. Several environmental activists claim that the government’s push for such projects frequently overlooks the significant environmental and ecological costs involved.
    • Residents face disproportionate risk: According to local environmentalists, the proposed facilities being developed by private corporations only allocate a small part of their generated electricity to the state of Uttarakhand. As a result, the state bears a significant amount of environmental risk without being appropriately rewarded.

Initiatives taken:

  • The Indian government has made a number of policy efforts to promote long-term hydropower development.
  • In 2008, the government issued a Hydro Policy with the goal of seeing these projects through to completion.
  • The Centre and several states have launched PPP hydro projects to attract investors and create money while assuring project viability while developing water resources in an environmentally responsible manner.
  • In 2007, Odisha adopted a public-private partnership (PPP) strategy, followed by Arunachal Pradesh (2011), Uttarakhand (2012), and Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
  • One of the eight objectives in the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) is the National Mission on Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystems (NMSHE). The mission is to develop strategies for preserving and protecting Himalayan glaciers, alpine ecosystems, biodiversity, and animal conservation.

What options do we have for the future?

  • Eliminates financial limitations: Though PPP is best suited for hydropower projects since it eliminates financial limitations, ensures speedier project implementation, and balances project risks, it may also lead to disasters, such as the one that occurred in Madhya Pradesh’s Shree Maheshwar Hydel.
  • The federal government should establish a separate agency in collaboration with state governments to actively oversee the progress of hydro projects.
  • Land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement of displaced people, environmental and forest clearances, interstate conflicts, and law and order should all be handled directly by the government.
  • The funding and evacuation of hydropower projects are two major issues.
  • Hydropower projects are capital-intensive, and funding them for a lengthy period of time, such as 20 years, is difficult.
  • The majority of hydropower plants are located in remote locations in states where there is little demand for energy, posing geographic challenges in constructing the necessary transmission infrastructure for evacuation.
  • Run of the river: Run-of-river hydro projects can be used in future that harness the kinetic energy carried by water by using the natural downhill flow of rivers and micro turbine generators. Water is usually drawn from a river at a high point and directed to a canal, pipeline, or pressurized pipeline (or penstock).


India has a lot of potential when it comes to hydropower development. The Himalayan and North Eastern areas have a large portion of the untapped potential. The hydro industry has limited duties by nature, largely due to the risk of implementation, which can be minimized by timely engagement of government authorities to be held accountable for. Only if they can find comparable risk-adjusted profits in the hydro industry will private developers engage.

Mains oriented question:

The government should follow the expert panels’ suggestion that no hydroelectric development should take place in the Himalayan area above a height of 2,200 meters. Why? (200 words)