India’s push for round-the-clock clean energy from dams upends lives

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The pickup truck jostled away from the roaring Sutlej River and up the steep mountain path flanked by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, some nearly 7,000 meters (22,965 feet) high. The nine passengers, farmers-turned-activists campaigning to prevent more dams from being built, were traveling to the remote Kandar hamlet in India’s Kinnaur district.

The few-dozen Indigenous residents were forced to relocate after falling boulders destroyed most of their previous homes in 2005. And villagers believe tunneling for dams was to blame, although authorities deny it.

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Indigenous activists like Buddha Sain Negi, 30, went there to learn more about the continued struggles faced by Kandar. Sitting atop a steep slope overlooking a 19-year-old dam, the activists heard residents speak of ways India’s hydroelectric push had upended their lives and led to nearly two decades of protest.

Some families took shelter in sheds, and more lives were lost because of falling boulders before they got compensation to build new homes, although it wasn’t enough to mend livelihoods.

For villagers like Raj Kumari, 48, the fear of that night remains. The farmer said her husband was out when the boulders began rolling down. “My daughter said that we’ll get left behind and die, and only her father would survive,” she said.

A favorite initiative of Indian governments, the push for dams has skyrocketed as the nation looks for round-the-clock energy that doesn’t spew planet-warming emissions. Hydropower commonly is produced when fast-moving water spins turbines to generate electricity.

But natural water systems have been altered by dams in this region that receives little rainfall, and farmers are struggling to irrigate their orchards. Spring waters from melting glaciers they’ve historically relied on also are drying up with climate change.

Farmers found themselves turned into activists fighting against more dams, with thousands protesting last August after a fatal landslide in the district. Carving mountains to build tunnels that funnel river water has made deadly landslides more common — a risk scientists and locals have flagged, although authorities say they take precautions.

India’s federal ministries for renewable energy and environment didn’t respond to an email request for comment.

“This is a fight for our survival,” said Buddha Sain Negi, the activist-farmer.

Dam opponents point to other impacts: Thousands of trees, including the rare Chilgoza pine whose nuts are prized and provide valuable income for local communities, are being cut to make way for construction.

The Sutlej River is now dry in patches, meaning some families struggle to immerse the ashes of cremated loved ones. And some residents fear thousands of migrant workers, coming to work on the dam, could overwhelm them.

The district, home to around 100,000 people, already produces 4,000 megawatts of clean energy — the equivalent of four nuclear power plants, said Jiya Lal, a farmer who is part of an advocacy group for environmental justice in the mountains. He said locals here have been asked in the “national interest” to reconsider their objection to dams. He asked a question echoed across the Himalayas: “How much more can be demanded of us?”

The federal government aims to increase India’s electricity output from dams to 70,000 megawatts by 2030 — an increase of 50 percent that could account for 8.5 percent of India’s entire capacity. It also wants to add 18,800 megawatts of pumped-storage dams, which act as giant batteries that store energy by pumping water from one reservoir to another that’s elevated then releasing it through turbines to produce power.

Only China and the US have more dams than India’s over 4,400. The country hopes dams can help solve the clean energy puzzle: How to keep the grid running on renewables when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that electricity generated by dams in Himachal Pradesh state would generate profits and jobs. “The wealth of water and forest in tribal areas is priceless,” he said in October.

But recent disasters, including a holy town sinking in January, have resulted in “question marks” over the focus on dams as a way of ensuring round-the-clock clean power, said Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

About a tenth of India’s power comes from the sun or wind, and large dams provide the “backbone” by allowing it to balance the grid when there are sharp changes in demand, said Ammu Susana Jacob, a scientist at the think tank Center of Study of Science, Technology and Policy.

To wean itself off dirty fuels and meet its 2030 goals, India needs to increase its energy storage capacity to 41 gigawatts, according to government estimates.

Bhanu Pratap Singh, director of the hydropower company Shree Bhavani Power Project, rued that dams hadn’t received the same kind of governmental boosts that solar or wind had, but said this was changing.

Delays due to legal challenges of getting land meant that private companies were less keen to build large dams, Singh said. And with rising concerns about the risks of building dams in the fragile mountains, he said that those opposing dams and those building dams needed to be in “consistent and transparent dialogue.”

While dams, unlike battery storage, aren’t reliant on expensive imports, they are still costly. Land needed to build them is scarce, and communities are often displaced. Cascading environmental impacts trigger local protests, like the one in Kinnaur, which add to costs. This helps make hydropower more expensive than solar or wind in India.

With global battery prices plummeting since 2017 and likely to get cheaper, India is faced with the “tricky” question of whether it makes sense to lock billions of dollars into new dams when other technologies are getting more viable, said Rahul Walawalkar, who heads the India Energy Storage Alliance, an industry group.

The sheer scale of India’s energy transition — demand for electricity will grow more than anywhere else in the next 20 years — means there are limited options if the country wants to restrict imports. “It’s a necessary risk,” Walawalkar said.

In Kinnaur, the costs of India’s answer to this question looms large for Shanta Kumar Negi, a local politician who says people in the higher reaches of the mountains buy water to irrigate fields, with dams exacerbating the water crisis triggered by global warming.

“If I don’t fight to stop the wrong being done to us — how will I answer my children?” he asked.

Experts say the ongoing protests in Kinnaur and elsewhere underline the risks of pushing dams without thinking through potential impacts on the environment and the resulting financial costs.

In 2019, at least 37 dams were delayed, and there were another 41 where construction hadn’t begun for reasons ranging from financial problems to protests, according to a parliamentary report.

Signs of tensions over dam construction are visible on the national highway in Kinnaur: There are warnings about loose boulders on mountain walls, and ancient trees are painted with red crosses marking them for felling.

The situation reflects India’s “siloed approach” to building big projects, such as dams, that don’t take into account climate realities, said Abinash Mohanty, who heads climate change and sustainability at the global development organization IPE Global.

The Himalayas are a more fragile ecosystem than others, disrupted by climate extremes and intense human activities — yet whether the environment had reached its tipping point wasn’t taken into account.

Mohanty compared it to people trying to lift heavier weights than they can handle. “You’ll either hurt yourself or drop it,” he said.

Climate change is exacerbating threats. Over a fifth of 177 dams built close to Himalayan glaciers could be at risk of flooding if glacial lakes burst, according to a 2016 study. Five years later, a flood made worse by melting glaciers smashed two dams, killing at least 31 people.

Even some dams listed in government documents as designed to pump water to help store power aren’t actually doing so. A 25-year-old dam in Gujarat doesn’t pump water because of an engineering issue, while a second reservoir is still being built for another 17-year-old dam, according to the India Energy Storage Alliance.

India has drafted guidelines for boosting use of pumped-storage dams that suggest doing away with environmental assessments and public hearings for some projects.

But Walawalkar of the industry alliance said governments need to be careful about choosing the right locations to build dams. “Blanket environmental clearances could be a double-edged sword,” he said.

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