Unresolved Conflicts In The Himalayan Region Dim Outlook For Hydropower

Courtesy of ClimateWire (subscription required), an interesting report on the impact that unresolved conflicts in the Himalayan region are having upon the outlook for hydropower:


“…The outlook on hydropower in the Himalayas looks gloomy as fast-developing countries scramble to meet their energy needs at the geographical heart of Asia’s 10 transboundary rivers.

In a region that’s home to 40 percent of the world’s population, but has little cooperation between neighboring countries, experts questioned the viability of large-scale hydro projects in the Himalayas, at a China Environment Forum panel held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars yesterday.

“You have the making for a perfect storm,” said Isabel Hilton, journalist and CEO of China Dialogue, a non-governmental organization devoted to environmental issues in China, with “population growth, industrialization, urbanization, existing water stress, transboundary tensions, decreasing supply, climate change and a plan to build the most dams in the world in a region with almost no mechanisms to manage those dams.”

These problems are compounded by the fact that many existing dams were built on an unsustainable model, said Hilton. Hydro projects were based on the assumption that the Himalayan rivers have a relatively stable flow. However, “climate will undermine the assumption of stable water revenues,” she said. As glaciers melt, reducing seasonal river flows, and as monsoons also become more unpredictable, dams could be forced to operate far below or above their capability.

“You have a very volatile system in terms of the hydrology,” said Hilton. Hydro projects in Nepal are already operating at just 10 percent of their capacity, she said, while severe flooding in Pakistan last year overwhelmed the country’s water infrastructure, worsening the effects downstream. This catastrophic overflow of water “is the kind of freak weather event that’s more likely to occur with climate change,” said Hilton.

Big storage dams aren’t a clean energy solution

As a relatively clean energy source, hydropower can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But to mitigate climate change, Dan Millison, manager of the clean energy consulting firm Transcendergy, said that hydropower projects in the Himalayas will have to have a very large output.

Power-hungry countries like China and India could easily build 100,000 megawatts in coal projects over the next 20 years, despite their publicly stated climate mitigation goals, he said. “So if you’re going to use hydropower, you have to talk scale. Scale means gigawatts.”

Achieving the necessary output is a challenge, said Millison, who continues to advise the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It’s difficult to raise capital without policies in place to make hydro projects more competitive and help reduce consumer demand. Large-scale water storage dams also release methane emissions, which could undermine their clean energy status and influence international financing decisions, he said.

Consequently, large-scale water storage dams are not Asia’s solution to energy security and climate change issues, said Millison. Run of River projects, which harness the natural water flow, are much more viable, he said. But it’s also necessary to reduce demand, conserve water and invest in other renewable sources. Looking to other potential business opportunities in the energy sector is much more productive than threatening to start wars over inefficient hydropower sites, Millison added.

Managing resources collectively

Tensions between Himalayan neighbors are unlikely to ease, said Hilton, particularly as India and China continue to experience rapid economic growth and urbanization. There’s a legacy of countries blaming the upper riparian — the upstream area — rather than looking at their own mismanagement of water resources, she said.

China, which favors large-scale storage dams, is the world leader in building hydro projects. The country is set to build 60 dams over the next five years, said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum. That number is on top of the collection dams that already congest China’s waterways. The staggering scale of China’s dam program amounts to “more concrete than the world has ever seen poured, certainly in one region,” added Hilton.

China and India are now entering further into a race to develop hydro energy along the historically disputed territory surrounding the Brahmaputra River, which flows across southern Tibet and into Arunachal Pradesh, India. The river has a massive amount of hydropower potential that both India and China would like to tap into, said Hilton. But the region’s 40-year-old unresolved conflicts have resurfaced, inciting allegations that each group intends to steal the other’s water.

If China has its way, said Hilton, a dam along the Brahmaputra would form the west end of China’s South-North Water Diversion Project — a giant engineering feat that will redirect water resources from the south to the thirsty north. The eastern end of this project is already in operation.

China and India need to find ways to cooperate on technical issues, said Millison. Plus, the more research and development there is in the Himalayas, the more likely it is that American companies will get involved in water conservation, treatment and recycling projects.

The region needs to change its hydropower strategy, said Millison, or it could exacerbate water issues. “It’s easy to pour concrete. It’s not easy to manage water,” he said.



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