Why is the government pushing these rivers destroying hydropower projects?

There are a lot of misconceptions about hydropower projects. They largely come from the statements of project proponents and government that hydropower is clean, green, renewable, cheap source of power. All this gives an impression that hydropower is environment and river friendly. This is a totally wrong impression.

A typical hydropower project involves a dam on the river, a water conductor system to take the desilted water from the dam to the machines of hydropower project, turbines and generators that uses the kinetic energy of the water to generate electricity and a tail end canal to take the water back to the river. These components have a number of impacts on the river and surrounding habitat during construction. The project could involve damming, deforestation, submergence, displacement, mining of material, tunneling, blasting, diversion of river, creating millions of cubic meters of muck, change in flow pattern of the river and everything that flows with the river. Since such projects mostly come up in hilly regions which are inherently vulnerable to disasters in a number of ways, the hydropower project hugely increases the disaster vulnerabilities, as we could see in Uttarakhand during the June 2013 flood disaster.

There are also large number of adverse impacts of the projects during its operation. The river downstream also becomes a hazardous zone, with sudden flow of large quantities of water during some periods and then no flows or very low flows during other periods. The river flow gets disrupted, its biodiversity destroyed, the habitat totally changed. The river is no longer able to provide most of the functions and services that it provided before the project was built. The fisher people who depend on the river lose their livelihoods and also source of protein. These impacts on the fisher folks and other people have never been assessed, compensated for, no question of including them in any rehabilitation. Thus, even the river downstream and upstream from the project gets adversely affected in multiple ways.

To illustrate, about 10 000 fisherfolks in Narmada estuary area have lost their livelihoods after the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat, but they have not even been compensated for the livelihoods they lost. Now the Gujarat government wants to build Bhadbhut barrage on the Narmada River close to the estuary, in the name of addressing the salinity ingress, but this will have further impact on the Narmada river and fisherfolks. The fisherfolks are naturally opposing the Bhadbhut project. In that context, it was strange that the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, at the concluding session of Narmada SevaYatra on May 15, 2017 said1: “Man Narmada se jitna loot sakte the lootate rahe! Apne swarthvash apni aavashyakta ke anusaar Man Narmada ki to parvah nahi ki, humne apni parvah jaroori ki. Man me wo adhikar bhav tha ki Man Narmada par to mera adhikaar hai, mein jaise chahun vaise uska upbhog kar sakta hun”. One wonders whom was he referring to here.

All this also applies to so-called run of the river hydropower projects and also small hydropower projects. These projects also have huge impacts, the scale could be different depending on capacity, location, size of dam, length of tunnel, and so on.

We are supposed to have environment governance of hydropower projects involving environmental impact assessment, environment management plan, public consultations, independent appraisal, environmental clearance, monitoring and system of compliance. Unfortunately, none of these really functions in manner to achieve its objectives.

As they way, you cannot make an omelet without breaking an egg. But destroying a river is not like breaking an egg. Do we need to destroy more rivers in quest for hydropower?

Unaddressed environmental impacts of Hydro Projects: To address the serious environmental impacts of hydropower projects, including numerous impacts on rivers, we need credible Environment and Social Impact Assessment, followed by Environment and Social Management Plan. The next step in Environment governance of Hydropower projects is a public consultation, including public hearing at the location of the hydropower project.

The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River Valley Projects in the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) is then supposed to assess the adequacy of the EIA-EMP and public consultation. Based on the recommendation of the EAC, the MoEF & CC issues letter of Environment Clearance (EC) to the project, this is typically a conditional approval with upto 40-50 conditions. The EIA-EMP and the conditions of the EC are to be implemented during construction and operation phase of the project. To ensure compliance, the project developer is supposed to send 6-monthly compliance reports. There is also the regional office of the MoEF & CC which is supposed to visit the project to ascertain compliance.

When large number of hydropower projects are taken up in a river basin, the issue of cumulative impacts in the context of carrying capacity at river basin level also comes up. The ministry claims they have started doing Cumulative Impact Assessments (CIA), and Carrying Capacity Studies (CCS).

All this sounds reassuring, but what happens on ground? No less than the Government of India’s recent environment ministers like Shri Jairam Ramesh and Prakash Javdekar have publicly accepted that in reality, most of these steps are seriously compromised. We have yet to see what we can call an ‘honest’ EIA-EMP of a hydropower project or CIA-CCS of any river basin. Public Hearing process is fixed, as Ramesh has publicly accepted. But even if all those present at the public hearing were to say that the project is unacceptable or impact assessment is fraudulent, still the project is likely to get green signal. In fact, the rejection rate of the EAC for River Valley Projects over the last eight years is zero. The EAC members typically have serious conflict of interest and are rarely independent persons with credible environmental track record. On the issue of compliance, Javdekar publicly said that the project developer is happy to get the clearance letter, irrespective of what are the conditions of clearance, since they know, there is no one to check if the conditions are adhered to. Even when project does not submit compliance report for years, there are no consequences. MoEF officials say they do not have time to even read the compliance reports when submitted! And when civil society groups submit proof of violations, Jairam Ramesh said he cannot take steps since he has no way of ascertaining the reality!

One result of all this is that our rivers get destroyed by hydropower projects, though 90% of hydropower projects fail to deliver on their promise of power generation.

Diminishing Returns from Large Hydropower Projects Let us try to understand the power generation performance of India’s large hydropower projects which we have been analysing for several years. The total installed capacity of about 150 large hydropower projects (above 25 MW capacity) of India at the end of April 2017 is 44594 Mega Watts (MW).

To compare the power generation performance at national level over the years, we calculated the power generation per MW installed capacity. As the graph below shows, the per MW power generation reached a peak of 3.97 Million Units (1 unit equals one Kilowatt Hour) in 1994-95, and in 2016-17, it was 30% below that level. In simple language, power generation through each MW of installed capacity has been showing declining trend, and in just concluded 2016-17 every MW generated about 30% less power than what each MW did in 1994-95. During 1993 to 2016, the rainfall was above normal in majority years, so the declining trend is not due to lower rainfall.

Each hydropower project is taken up after techno economic appraisal, counting all factors, including availability of water. Each project is cleared on the basis of a promise that it would generate certain quantum of power at 90% dependability. When we compared actual generation of India’s large hydro projects with their promised generation, we found that 89% of India’s projects generate below the promised performance and half of under-performing projects generate below even half of promised generation!

There could be a third way of assessing power generation performance of hydropower projects, by calculating what proportion of such power comes during peaking hours. One of the USPs (Unique Selling Propositions) of hydropower projects is that they can provide peaking power, since the turbines of these power stations can be put on or put off at very short notice, which is not possible for thermal or nuclear power projects and it is not economical to put off solar or wind power projects when power generation from such projects is on. However, we have only anecdotal evidence about this and it shows that some of hydropower projects are not providing peaking power when they could have. India’s electricity regulator, CERC, and data from the load dispatch centers have pointed out several such instances including in case of 1000 MW Tehri and 1500 MW Nathpa Jakhri hydropower projects.

As India’s power minister has repeatedly announced, India is power surplus country and is net power exporter. The Plant Load Factors of Thermal Power projects that once used to be over 80% are now down to close to 50%, not because there is no coal, but because there is no demand. There are instances where even solar and wind power projects have been asked to back down due to surplus power. There have been no fresh Power Purchase Agreements signed for several years. Private Sector seems no longer interested in Hydropower projects, because they know they are no longer viable. The tariffs of recent solar power projects have come down below Rs 3 per unit, when tariff of every hydropower projects now under construction would be Rs 5 and above, making them completely unviable even without counting the hidden costs of social and environmental impacts. Experience tells us that Hydropower is NOT climate friendly. The price of power at electricity exchanges has come down to less than Rs 3 per unit most of the hours, making hydropower completely unviable.

Thus, the Economics of electricity exchange markets and even the directly calculated costs (the environmental and social costs are never properly counted) tell us that large hydropower projects are no longer viable.

Why then is our government still bent on pushing these river destroying, socially disruptive, economically unviable, poorly performing, disaster enhancing and climate unfriendly hydropower projects?