The collapse of the Teesta 3 dam in northeastern India at the beginning of this month led to the death of dozens, and there are still people missing. These types of disasters are raising doubts among more and more residents about hydropower plants, which play a key role in India’s climate ambitions. Experts believe it is important to focus on other forms of “clean energy.”
“I think the development of new projects has been delayed for at least ten years due to this disaster,” says Anand Sankar. He works as an independent researcher on hydropower projects in North India.
In principle, India has come a long way towards achieving its climate goals. By 2030, 50% of the energy mix must be green energy, and according to Department of Energy figures, that percentage now stands at 41% with more than six years to go.
One of Prime Minister Modi’s most important promises in 2015 was to provide electricity to every Indian village within a few years. To a large extent, the necessary infrastructure has been successfully established, but reliable electricity supply remains a challenge. More than half of India’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants, making India one of the countries with the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions. The government wants to reduce these emissions to zero by 2070, and this requires more green energy sources.
Anand Sankar says hydroelectric power plants are very popular for this purpose, because they produce quick results. “It can absorb a decline in energy supply in the very short term.” The capital, New Delhi, for example, depends largely on energy from hydroelectric power plants. During extremely hot summer days, expected peaks in energy use, including air conditioning, can be absorbed quickly. When it comes to wind and solar energy, India has not yet been able to store excess production for later use. Hydropower plants do not need expensive batteries because the dam acts as a storage facility.
Tsunami in the mountains
But there are also downsides to hydroelectric power plants. This has come to light due to, among other things, climate change and failure to regulate building codes.
Things went wrong in the early morning of Wednesday, October 4th. A glacial lake breached in North Sikkim. The released water formed a kind of tsunami that made its way down the mountain rivers very quickly. It ended up in the Teesta Dam Reservoir 3, the largest and most prestigious project in the state. It turns out that the dam was not built for this amount of water.
Anand Sankar says there have been warning signs for some time that the dam was not strong enough. The dam’s inability to withstand the force of the water mass is attributed to its quick and cheap construction.
Moreover, it now appears that mistakes were already made before construction. For example, no comprehensive research has ever been done into the river system around the Brahmaputra, one of the major rivers of India, whose branches terminate in Sikkim at the Teesta III Dam. “This is a $1.6 billion project and there is no information available about the checks that have been done,” says Anand Sankar.
According to Sankar, insurance companies have become more cautious due to these and other disasters in the past. They now charge exorbitant sums to cover these types of large projects.
Bennett Das of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi also sees a decline in the construction of mega dams. “The Himalayan ecosystem is vulnerable, and construction of such projects always causes damage.”
To achieve climate goals, Das believes the Indian government must now focus on further developing wind energy and biomass-generated electricity. “Hydro-generated electricity remains important to India’s power grid, but not at any cost,” says Das.
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