India is today in the midst of a newfound drive to harness its water resources – and those of its neighbours – to secure an adequate supply of energy. But India’s heightened demand should not be allowed to shortchange the debate required on certain crucial issues. Worryingly, many of these are the exact same issues that were facing the construction of large dams three decades ago: losses of livelihood, forced evictions and the destruction of riverine and riparian ecosystems. Meanwhile, this wilful blindness is being egged on by the world’s largest funders. As the World Bank recently noted, “Hydropower is key to the government of India’s plans of providing all its citizens with reliable access to electricity by 2012.”
The focus of dam building in Southasia is in and near the Himalaya. In India, the large hydropower projects are on the mountain rivers of Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Arunachal Pradesh. Indian investors are also scrounging for suitable dam sites in Nepal, while the Indian government has been actively exploiting the hydro-wealth of Bhutan — the Chukha, Kurichhu and Tala projects export electricity to India. The planned West Seti project in Nepal will also generate electricity for India.
Over in Pakistan, in early 2006, General Pervez Musharraf announced plans to build five large hydropower projects over the next decade. Resistance from various quarters appears now to make the implementation of this plan unrealistic. Nonetheless, the Asian Development Bank remains willing to support Islamabad in building one of the largest and most costly dams currently planned in Southasia: the 4500-megawatt Bhasha dam, with a rumoured price tag of USD 10 billion.
It is in Sri Lanka that small hydropower technology has proven itself well-adapted for rural electricity supply. Small hydropower capacity currently stands at 100 MW, up from below one megawatt a decade ago. The 150 MW Upper Kotmale project is the only large hydropower project currently under construction on the island.
Bangladesh is currently mirroring India in its attempts to exploit the mighty rivers of neighbours to feed its own electricity grid. In July 2007, a government delegation visited the military rulers of Burma to discuss building a hydropower project that would generate 500-600 MW for export to Bangladesh. India is also sending delegations to Rangoon to reserve hydropower projects.
The myriad discussions and debates currently taking place in the Southasian social sphere over the future of large dams carry with them the potential to achieve two goals. First, the integration of project-affected people into the decision-making process. Second, to shift energy planning away from the singular focus of increasing megawatts, to taking an integrated ecological and societal approach.
~ Ann-Kathrin Schneider is a policy analyst for Southasia with the International Rivers Network.