India’s ‘water grab’ threatens the Himalayas

The world’s highest mountain range could be at risk as neighbouring countries rush to dam its mighty rivers. Will it be an environmental disaster or is it a green way to harness nature?

A vast swathe of forest will be destroyed, thousands of livelihoods lost and entire communities uprooted. For six years, peasant and environmental groups have opposed the construction of a 3,000 megawatt (MW) dam in India’s north-eastern region of Arunachal Pradesh, but their arguments were not enough. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has finally given it the go-ahead.

Environmentalists are aghast that the 266m dam, which will be among the world’s tallest, will be built without any public consultations or studies of its potential impact. They say the potential benefits will be greatly outweighed by its social cost as thousands are forced to leave their homes.

It is just one of 400 proposed hydroelectric projects on the Himalayas' mighty rivers. Taken together, they could produce 160,000MW of electricity, three times more than the UK's entire needs. India, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan are all engaged in a huge ‘water grab’ as they seek new power for their economies. Over the next 20 years, the mountain range could become the most dammed region in the world.

This rush to control water could have profound geopolitical implications. Half of India’s water comes from areas controlled by China, and Bangladesh is fearful of India’s dam plans because they could deprive its farmland of water.

How these projects will affect the environment is largely unknown, but opponents say the Three Gorges Dam is a lesson in the dangers of playing with nature. The Chinese government ignored environmentalist concerns when building the 600km reservoir, which forced a million people to leave their homes. Since then, landslides have become common and the region’s climate is more unpredictable.

Nature be dammed

Some say that building these huge dams will have potentially devastating consequences. They are hugely expensive and a startling recent study of 245 large projects found that none of them has been profitable. Construction costs typically overrun and in the past this has caused debt crises in Turkey, Brazil and Mexico. Environmentally and economically, dams are a disaster.

Yet others note that 70% of India’s power currently comes from CO2-intensive coal plants, which are far worse for the environment. Huge projects, like the Hoover Dam in the US, create jobs and boost an economy. Floods are currently devastating India’s north, but dams would give greater control over water flow. While some people might have to move home, around 300m Indians do not even have electricity. Damming the Himalayas could transform their surrounding countries and should be encouraged.

You Decide

  1. Is damming the Himalayas a good idea?
  2. ‘Environmentalists complain about every energy idea but they provide us with no realistic alternatives.’ Do you agree?


  1. In pairs, list as many positive and negative aspects of hydroelectric power as you can think of.
  2. Make a presentation covering where they are, when they were built and their controversies; and rate how successful they have been.

Some People Say...

“We would destroy one of nature’s endless gifts for an economic boost that lasts a decade.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about damming in the Himalayas?
The Himalayas are one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but if all of the proposed dams are built there would be one dam for every 32km of river channel in the Indian Himalayas. This would be meddling with nature in a huge way. Yet the world also needs to reduce its CO2 emissions, and hydroelectricity is green and renewable. Thinking about how to solve our energy needs and balance concerns such as these is one of the biggest challenges of our time.
What has been the experience of other parts of the world?
The US led the world in dam-building over the last century and it has over 80,000. Yet many of these dams are becoming too expensive to maintain. Many Americans are happy to see rivers returning to their natural state.

Word Watch

More than 80% of the country’s fifty million small scale farmers rely on rivers that first flow through India.
The study found that on average, the dams took 8.6 years to build and were three years late which made them useless for dealing with urgent energy shortages. Dam costs are on average double their original estimates.
The Itaipu Dam in Brazil is the world’s largest and its construction saddled the country with $8bn of foreign debt. Mexico also incurred huge debts building dams in the 1970s. Turkey’s Ilisu Dam also threatens to submerge the ancient town of Hasankeyf.
The dam’s construction began in 1931 during the Great Depression and created 21,000 jobs at a time of high unemployment.
At least 10 people have been killed in the floods currently affecting the north east region of Assam.

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