FAVOURITES: 11 March 2010 -India is determined to reduce carbon emissions and to supply renewable power to its enormous population. But with the massive hydro power generation dam projects under way in the sensitive Himalayan foothills, the cost is high. Lynne Blundell recently travelled to the region and here presents a rare insight into the harsh conflicts that India faces in its search for a sustainable future.

Australia’s dismal record on renewable energy was thrown into stark relief for me during a recent trip to India. In that country, despite enormous economic and social obstacles, 10 per cent of power already comes from renewable sources and the figure is rising.

Impressive as this is, it has not come without its costs; the insatiable demand for power from a huge and growing population has driven the Indian government to allow some energy sectors, in particular hydroelectricity schemes, to push ahead despite a rising tide of protests from environmentalists and local communities.

Such conflicts are not new, but they highlight the dilemma facing governments seeking to meet present and future power needs, including through less carbon intensive alternatives.

As energy shortages around the world mount, these battles are likely to become increasingly common. Renewable energy sources might reduce carbon emissions but they still impact on local communities –wind turbines are large and loud, hydro schemes require dams and large-scale solar plants need space.

Similar issues are now emerging in Australia where communities have opposed wind farms, citing noise and visual pollution.

Boosting the renewable energy sector
The Indian government has shown remarkably strong commitment to boosting the renewable energy sector. According to the Prayas Energy Group, a charitable trust and research organisation, almost 10 per cent of India’s power now comes from renewable sources. This compares to 5 per cent in Australia and 3.8 per cent in the United States.

In addition, the Indian government has implemented strong energy efficiency standards for new appliances and buildings and launched an efficiency-based cap-and-trade scheme involving 700 large industrial companies. Massive subsidies for solar technologies are also planned.

All this, despite the fact that India’s carbon and energy use is far lower than  in Australia, the US or China, albeit that this is largely a result of high levels of poverty.

The Indian government has implemented strong energy efficiency standards for new appliances and buildings and launched an efficiency-based cap-and-trade scheme involving 700 large industrial companies Photo: Lynne Blundell

Green Buildings a $40 billion market
At the recent Green Cities 2010 conference in Melbourne, India’s Green Building Council senior director, Sundaresan Raghupathy, told delegates about India’s determination to overhaul its building sector, with plans to increase the number of green buildings from the current 502 to 1000 by 2012.

“There is huge potential in India. Green building materials are expected to grow by US$40 billion by 2010,”Ragupathy said.

During my visit to India, which coincided with the Copenhagen climate summit, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, appeared on national television, promising significant cuts in emissions and a commitment by government to policies to address climate change.

It was an impressive performance. Ramesh acknowledged the effects of climate change were already being felt in India, pointing to shrinking glaciers and erratic monsoons.

”There is no country that is as much impacted by climate change as India…. First, we are dependent on monsoons, the southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoon.  They are the lifeline of our country.  Two out of every three Indians still depend on agriculture for their livelihood,” Ramesh said.

Flows in Sikkim’s Teesta River, in northeast India, have declined dramatically since the construction of dams Photo: Lynne Blundell

“Secondly, we have the Himalayan glaciers – anywhere between 9000 and 12,000 Glaciers. There is a great deal of scientific debate on what is happening to these glaciers but we do not have to wait for perfect science. The warning signals are already there. Most of the glaciers are receding.”

Ramesh announced that regardless of the outcome at Copenhagen, India would cut carbon emission by 20 to 25 per cent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. This would be achieved through mandatory fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, environment-friendly building codes and the introduction of clean coal technologies for power plants.

The challenges for India are enormous. The second most populous country in the world after China, India occupies only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area and supports over 15 per cent of the world’s population.

According to a report on India’s energy use by researchers from Stanford University, The Institute of Technology Madras and Prayas Energy Group, over two thirds of India’s renewable capacity comes from wind power, approximately 10 Gigawatts (GW), which has grown at an annual rate of 26 per cent since 2000.

“This is in spite of the fact that India has unfavourable wind resource conditions in comparison the US, China and the EU [European Union]. Since 2000, India has added 14.4 GW of Hydro-power capacity. This trend is likely to continue.

“The Indian government proposes to support 20GW of solar capacity by 2020. Seventeen states, which account for roughly 92 per cent of the power consumed in the country, have Renewable Purchase Obligations (RPO) in place, which range from a few per cent to 20 per cent by 2012,”says the report.

Since 2000 capacity additions from renewables comprise nearly a quarter of total additions in the Indian power sector. This rises to 50 per cent if large hydro projects are included.

A dam on the border of the Dzongu Reserve, the land of Sikkim’s indigenous Lepchas Photo: Kerry Little

The conflicts of power generation

But it is in its approach to hydroelectric schemes that some cracks emerge in India’s energy strategy. Inevitably, with a rapidly growing population, increasing urbanisation and an ever-rising demand for power, the mighty rivers flowing down to the plains from the Himalayas are an attractive option for power generation. The government has targeted hydro schemes for huge growth.

But as the Prayas report points out, this comes at considerable social and environmental cost:

“Social and environmental externalities related to big dams are well known. India does not follow the decision-making process recommended by the World Commission on Dams. The Indian government has perpetually faced criticism for its record on the rehabilitation of displaced people and on dam performance.

“Nevertheless, the government aims to build 50GW of hydro-power projects. Most of these projects are in the Himalayan region and in the northeast part of India. Ironically, water flows in these areas are highly susceptible to changes due to global warming. To ensure promotion of private investment in these dams, the regulator has passed on the full hydrological risk to the consumers, with a high potential cost.”

The Indian government’s determination to forge ahead with large-scale hydroelectric projects in the fragile Himalayan region defies warnings from climate scientists that the glaciers of the region are shrinking. The recent debacle over inaccurate figures in the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report does not alter the trend of declining precipitation and shrinking glaciers.

I visited this region, where construction of dams along the Teesta River in Sikkim, in north eastern India, have been a source of ongoing conflict between Indian authorities and the indigenous people, the Lepchas.

Traditional village life in the Dzongu reserve, in the Himalayan foothills, is threatened by damming of the Teesta River Photo: Lynne Blundell

In Sikkim there are currently more than 20 dams planned or in progress, several within the boundaries of the Dzongu Lepcha Reserve, an area set aside for the exclusive use of Lepchas and protected by legislation.  These dams are hailed by the state government as the path to economic independence as Sikkim is heavily dependent on the central government for funding.

To put these hydro schemes into perspective – according to a report on the environmental and technology website Ecoworld, at capacity China’s Three Gorges complex produces around 17GW. India’s current entire hydroelectric capacity is estimated at around 35GW and the Teesta river systems will add another 5GW into India’s power grid. Sikkim will be an energy exporter. The dams will also change the landscape and ecosystem of this area forever.

Ironically, local and state authorities also heavily promote Sikkim as an ecotourism destination with signs everywhere proclaiming its green credentials. This is hard to swallow when you venture into the Himalayan foothills in northern Sikkim, only to be confronted by massive dam construction and dwindling water flows of this once majestic river.

The sounds of the forest are now punctuated with the deep rumblings of explosives. Landslides, already a problem in the area, are now more common say locals – construction at one of the dams in Sikkim was halted last year when 12 dam workers were washed away in dam collapse.

The construction of hydroelectric power plants in remote communities faced with few opportunities for earning an income is an ethical minefield. In northern Sikkim the villagers increased their wealth in the past by growing cardamom crops. Soil depletion and crop disease in recent years caused the collapse of the industry, giving landowners a compelling economic reason to sell their unproductive land when approached by government and hydro companies.

Tenzing Lepcha and Dawa Lepcha on hunger strike Photo: weepingsikkim.blogspot.com

It is the encroachment of the dams on what they consider their sacred river and land that drove a group of young Lepchas to protest against the construction. They formed the Affected Citizens Of Teesta (ACT) and began a peaceful protest including several hunger strikes.

Two of ACT’s members, 33 year old Dawa Lepcha and 23 year old Tenzing Lepcha twice ended up in hospital, desperately ill after many weeks on hunger strikes, their first strike going for 63 days and the second for 96 days.

While in Sikkim I met these young men, both passionate about protecting their land. Dawa Lepcha, a filmmaker and secretary of ACT, who lives in Lingdong Village in the Dzongu reserve, was quoted in local media at the time of the hunger strikes:

“The proposed hydropower projects will have a drastic effect on the social, cultural and religious well-being of Lepchas, not to mention on the fragile environment of Dzongu, our ancestral and present homeland in north Sikkim.”

The protesters have attracted the support of other Lepcha communities as well as leading environmentalists both from within India and outside the country. Facing mounting pressure from hunger strikes, the state government ordered a halt to four of the projects in Dzongu, which were also inside the borders of the Kanchenjunga National Park.

Film maker Dawa Lepcha in Lingdong Village – “The proposed hydropower projects will have a drastic effect on the social, cultural and religious well-being of Lepchas, not to mention on the fragile environment of Dzongu, our ancestral and present homeland in north Sikkim.”

One dam on the border of the Dzongu Reserve went ahead and protesters are now fighting to stop the Panan project, a 280 MW dam inside Dzongu and on the border of Kanchenjunga National Park.

But victory for the members of ACT is bitter sweet – the protests have divided the local community. While some regard the damming of the rivers as destructive, others see the dams as a positive, bringing much needed development and income to local communities.

And as the world inevitably moves to a less carbon intensive future and seeks alternative sources of power, the balancing act between making the most of natural resources and exploiting them, along with local communities, will become increasingly difficult.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au

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