Hydropower and geopolitics: winners and losers in the Indian sub-continent

JP Casey 6 April 2021 (Last Updated April 7th, 2021 16:50)

India is moving away from coal, and towards hydropower, as it looks to expand its renewable power capacity. However, these moves are laced with environmental challenges and political pressures, raising the question: how will India balance all of these conflicting concerns and challenges?

Hydropower and geopolitics: winners and losers in the Indian sub-continent
“You know the car culture of Delhi and Mumbai? Bumper to bumper. That’s what they want to do in the Himalayas with dams. Bumper to bumper,” said Prakash Nautiyal in 2014. Credit: lakshmiprasad S and Alamy Stock Photo

It is no secret that India boasts one of the world’s fastest-growing, and most energy-intensive, economies in the world. Figures from the International Energy Association (IEA) highlight the unprecedented growth in Indian energy over the last three decades: since 1990, India’s domestic energy production has increased by 104%, its carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 335%, and its total electricity consumption has risen by 459%.

It is also common knowledge that coal power has been a cornerstone of this dramatic growth, having remained the largest section of the Indian power mix since 1990. The total volume of energy provided by coal-fired facilities has only increased over the last thirty years, from just under 100,000 kilotons of oil equivalent in 1990 to over 400,000 in 2018.

In more recent years, India has looked to diversify its energy mix, with hydropower emerging as the renewable power source of choice in the country. This is no surprise, considering India boasts the world’s fifth-largest hydropower capacity. 

The development of facilities such as the 2.4GW Tehri complex has seen hydropower’s contribution to the country’s energy mix grow over the past decade. In 2008, Indian hydropower accounted for 10,211 kilotons of oil equivalent, which leapt to 12,995 kilotons 10 years later.

Yet this gradual shift away from coal, and towards hydropower, has not come without challenges. Aside from the conventional environmental risks associated with large-scale hydropower production, most notably the increased frequency of flooding in vulnerable areas, there are more unique geopolitical concerns, with India vying for control of the waterways around its borders with its neighbours. 

With hydropower set to form a cornerstone of India’s push for greater use of renewable power, questions remain as to how it can overcome these challenges.

The growth of hydropower

India has led the way with new hydropower developments over the last decade; the IEA predicts that, between 2021 and 2025, Asia will account for 43% of new hydropower facilities worldwide, with India and Pakistan the key contributors. However, it could be argued that India is not only a place of great potential for hydropower, but a country where hydropower is already a key component of its energy mix. 

“India is a major hydropower producer, recently overtaking Japan as the world’s fifth-largest producer by installed capacity at over 50GW,” notes Alex Campbell, Head of Research and Policy at the International Hydropower Association (IHA), a non-profit organisation that aims to advance the development of sustainable hydropower.

“Hydropower provides essential flexibility and storage services for variable renewables like solar and wind power. It’s critical importance to India was perhaps best demonstrated in April 2020, when hydropower operators restored electricity to tens of millions of households following a Covid-19 lights-out vigil that caused an unprecedented 31GW fall in demand.”

This example is particularly relevant, as it demonstrates the potential of hydropower to provide a flexible and reliable source of power in exceptional circumstances, useful traits considering India’s ambitious climate and energy targets. 

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Indian energy consumption could double “over the long term” and outlined plans to increase the country’s reliance on renewable power, targeting 450GW of renewable production by 2030.

Such plans are admirable for their scale, but are likely to require reliable, productive forms of energy generation that are already well-established, such as hydropower, to balance more lucrative investments in projects such as wind and solar power.

“If you remove hydropower from modern energy grids, the cost to both the environment and energy security would be huge,” says Campbell, highlighting the extent to which hydropower has quickly become a cornerstone of both the Indian and global energy mix. 

“Analysis by the IHA suggests that, if hydropower was replaced with burning coal for electricity generation, up to four billion metric tonnes of additional greenhouse gases would be emitted annually worldwide and emissions from fossil fuels and industry would be around 10% higher.”

Challenges in the past

When transitioning from one form of energy to another, there are often challenges involved, and hydropower in India is no different. The rapid and widespread construction of hydropower facilities threatens to impede the lives of both local people and wildlife, with artificial reservoirs and the potential for flooding disrupting long-established cultural and behavioural patterns.

These theoretical risks are heightened in India, where much of the country’s hydropower developments are centred in the Himalayan states in the north of the country. In 2003, the government announced ambitious plans to construct 162 new hydropower dams by 2025; 113 of these, with a production capacity of 40,000MW, are set to be built in five Himalayan states. More specifically, a total of 33 facilities were slated for construction in the state of Uttarakhand.

This dramatic geographic imbalance, where a small portion of the country’s land and water has been made responsible for meeting the power needs of the nation, has led to many waterways in northern India becoming congested with dams. 

As biologist Prakash Nautiyal put it in 2014: “You know the car culture of Delhi and Mumbai? Bumper to bumper. That’s what they want to do in the Himalayas with dams. Bumper to bumper.”

The IHA, meanwhile, is adamant that environmental and social concerns ought to be considered throughout all stages of hydropower planning and construction. 

“Hydropower projects can, and should, be developed responsibly, with minimal impacts on the environment, if they are properly assessed at the planning and operation stages against internationally recognised good practice,” says Campbell.

“The Hydropower Guidelines on Good International Industry Practice, governed by a multistakeholder council and published by the IHA, define how project developers should manage, mitigate, and overcome potential social and environmental impacts,” Campbell continues. “Local community members should absolutely be heard when planning and developing a hydropower facility, with their needs and concerns helping to shape project outcomes.”

Yet the extent to which these guidelines have been followed in India is unclear. In 2013, Uttarakhand was hit by flooding that killed 5,700 people and destroyed vast swathes of infrastructure in the state. While the melting of glaciers and extreme rainfall triggered the event, its far-reaching consequences owed much to the widespread nature of hydropower facilities in the region. 

In the weeks after the flood, the Indian Supreme Court placed a ban on new hydropower developments in the state, in order to limit the destabilising impacts of large-scale dams on an area that had so recently suffered an environmental disaster.

Challenges in the future

Worryingly, this pattern, where the consequences of a natural disaster are amplified by hydropower facilities, has been repeated. In February this year, another melted glacier caused another flood in Uttarakhand, which has led to 56 deaths and 150 disappearances. Unlike the 2014 incident however, it is unclear whether the state will look to roll back hydropower production in the region.

In March 2019, the government granted “renewable energy” status to all hydropower projects, removing policy distinctions between small-scale and large-scale hydropower projects and, in the opinion of those opposed to the dams, making it easier for new projects to be constructed. 

Of course, there is a delicate balancing act at work here. Hydropower facilities are responsible for both amplifying the impacts of climate disasters and for reducing the likelihood of them occurring in the first place, by combatting climate change.

This balance is something that the IHA is keenly aware of, with chief executive Eddie Rich saying in response to the 2021 flooding that “sadly, climate change means we will see more and more weather-related natural disasters”.

“Over the long term, we need to address climate change by accelerating the energy transition while also making renewable projects and other infrastructure more climate resilient,” Rich continued. “At the IHA, we recognise the importance of climate resilience and building hydropower projects sustainably and have developed international guidelines for the sector.”

There is a second manner of challenge too, that of geopolitical pressure. While the waterways that make up India’s hydropower resources are vast, these bodies of water often cross international borders and boundaries, making the construction of hydropower facilities as much a political issue as an environmental one.

One example of the increasingly politicised nature of hydropower in the region is India’s 1GW Pakul Dul hydropower facility, a $1.18bn investment set to be completed in 2023. The facility is situated on the Marusudar river, which flows into the Chenab river, which itself moves from India into Pakistan. 

In February this year, India increased spending on the project by 61.25%, with observers suggesting that the move is designed to improve Indian energy security, while simultaneously limiting Pakistan’s ability to build similar facilities on the parts of the river on its side of the border. 

Of course, this assessment is somewhat speculative – Campbell says that this was not something the IHA would be able to comment on. However, it is certainly true that the border-crossing nature of waterways in the region means that hydropower developments have a political edge to them that other renewable power sources, such as wind or solar power, do not.

The final challenge however, may be more straightforward, with Campbell pointing out that India’s reliance on hydropower has actually fallen in the last few years. Before India can look towards ensuring environmental security or navigating political pitfalls, it will need to shore up its hydropower sector first and foremost.

“Hydropower’s overall share of the electricity mix in the country has declined over the past decade, from 13% to around 10% of annual electricity generation,” says Campbell

“We expect that India will need to make important investments in hydropower over the next decades, in particular to modernise and upgrade the existing fleet, to take advantage of the latest innovations and technology and to support the growing share of variable renewables on the electricity grid.”