Hydropower projects are wreaking havoc in the Himalayas

The deadly February 7 flash flood in Uttarakhand should not be blamed on ‘nature’s fury’ alone.

A aerial view of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project two days after it was damaged by a flash flood, in Uttarakhand, India, Feb 9, 2021 [AP Photo]

On February 7, a Himalayan glacier broke and caused a flash flood in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand. The avalanche smashed two hydroelectric dam projects and killed more than 200 people. A total of 205 people were reported missing in the disaster, but so far only 74 bodies and 34 separate body parts have been recovered from the debris. Local authorities have declared those still unaccounted for as “presumed dead” and initiated the process of issuing death certificates for them.

Environmentalists who have been studying Himalayan glaciers for decades have linked this deadly disaster, like many others before it, to climate change, adding weight to the growing calls for aggressive climate action in the region.

Attributing the blame for the flash flood solely or mainly to the ongoing climate crisis, however, risks obfuscating the failure of national and international agencies involved in construction projects in the region to act on the lessons learned from past disasters.

Less than 10 years ago, in 2013, flash floods left more than 5,700 people dead in Uttarakhand. Back then, experts quickly drew links between the disaster and the numerous hydropower construction projects in the high mountain valleys in Uttarakhand, arguing that these projects had exacerbated the intensity of the floods. “The disaster is a costly wake-up call,” Peter Bosshard, the policy director at International Rivers, said in the aftermath of that deadly flood. “It shows that nature will strike back if we disregard the ecological limits of fragile regions like the Himalayas through reckless dam building and other infrastructure development.”

After the 2013 flash flood, the Supreme Court of India also mandated a national panel of experts to investigate the policy failures responsible for the disaster. After conducting an investigation, the panel called for hydropower development in this “disaster-prone” region to cease, arguing that it significantly amplifies the damages caused by natural disasters. It also asked for the installation of a flood warning system. Later, two Supreme Court justices noted that they “are very much concerned about the mushrooming of a large number of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand […] The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, muck disposal, mining, deforestation, etc. on the ecosystem has yet to be scientifically examined.”

Indian governmental agencies, however, refused to heed these warnings and continued their efforts to build dams on Himalayan rivers. Today, there are plans to build over two dozen medium and large hydropower projects in Uttarakhand alone. Dozens more are planned in other parts of the Indian Himalayas.

Environmentalists argue that the construction of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project, one of the two damaged by the February 7 flash flood, likely increased the damage caused by the disaster. This dam was being built by India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), with the financial backing of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Both the NTPC and ADB were undoubtedly aware of the warnings environmental groups and other agencies have been issuing about hydropower development in the area since at least 2013. Their apparent decision to ignore these warnings cost the lives of hundreds of people working on the project site on the fateful morning of February 7. Had it not been a Sunday, the number of fatalities on the site would have been significantly higher.

The second project affected by last month’s flash flood, the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project, was not merely damaged but completely swept away by the violent surge. And the disaster did not hit that construction without warning, either.

The Rishiganga project site was struck by a cloudburst, floods and landslides several times between 2008-2016. None of these incidents led to the project’s suspension. In the summer of 2019, the residents of Raini village, world renowned for the role they played in the Chipko (Hug the Trees) movement of the 1970s, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Uttarakhand High Court, calling on the district magistrate of Chamoli and the state government to review the environmental and social impact of the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project site. The PIL also did not lead to any constructive action.

Those behind the hydropower projects in the Indian Himalayas long defended their efforts against criticism from environmentalists by arguing that these hydropower plants would reduce India’s harmful emissions and the detrimental effects of climate change on the local population. Indeed, the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Himalayan river valleys is part of a national plan to cut emissions linked to the energy sector. If and when these plans are fully realised, the disaster-prone Indian Himalayas will have one dam every 32 kilometres.

But, as the fate of the Rishiganga project clearly demonstrated, building carbon offset projects in fragile ecologies is a dangerous and misguided endeavour. The Rishiganga project was approved under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was anticipated that once fully operational, the project would deliver emission reductions equivalent to 49,585 metric tonnes of CO2 per annum. Those anticipations were washed away, quite literally, in part because of the damage that the project likely caused to the local ecology and geology.

The rapid expansion of hydropower projects in the region is not fuelled only by a desire to produce clean energy, either. The continuing “water war” between India and China is also a motivating factor behind the mushrooming of these projects in the Indian Himalayas. In November 2020, the Power Construction Corporation of China, a Chinese state-owned company, announced plans to develop a massive hydroelectric project, with production capacity of up to 60 gigawatts, on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river. India responded by announcing plans to build a 10-gigawatt project on the Siang, the main tributary of the same river, to “offset the impact of the hydropower project by China”.

Whether they are built solely to produce clean energy or in response to regional rivalries, the hydropower projects in the Indian Himalayas pose a significant threat to the region’s ecology and the wellbeing of local communities. Despite repeated warnings from experts, local authorities and government agencies involved in these hydroelectric projects have failed to enact proper safeguards.

Even after last month’s deadly flash flood, then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Tirath Singh Rawat refused to acknowledge the role the massive hydropower projects in the region has played in bringing about this tragedy. Instead of committing to take the necessary precautions to prevent its repeat, the chief minister called the incident a “natural disaster” and reiterated his commitment to hydropower development. The central government, meanwhile, merely read out a statement announcing the number of dead and missing persons in parliament.

More than 550 hydroelectric projects are under construction or being planned throughout the Himalayas in China, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. Without discounting the potential benefits of small-scale hydropower projects, national and international agencies active in the region should put in place ecological and social protection measures to ensure these projects do not cause more harm than good.

That such measures have not been put in place despite thousands of deaths in dozens of disasters that have struck the region over the past two decades, is a damning indictment of the failure of international and national environmental governance. International and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and national energy corporations, must be held to account for these major lapses.

To avoid tragedies similar to the February 7 flash flood in the future, the question of climate action should be debated in tandem with the broader question of adopting an ecologically-sensitive model of development. To achieve this, we should stop attributing the blame for such disasters solely to “nature’s fury”, and start holding national and international agencies and policymakers accountable for their failings.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.