The recent disastrous glacier outburst at Joshimath in Uttarakhand may have caused a big damage to life and property, including at least four hydroelectric projects in the region, but it is unlikely to slow down the government and industry’s bid to tap the massive potential of the country’s renewable energy. India is aiming at creating some 225 GW of renewable energy by the end of 2022-23. Hydro-electric power projects are expected to contribute substantially to this generation capacity. However, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by the Prime Minister himself, will be more cautious and would like the new power projects strictly follow the guidelines on how to deal with disasters caused by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) as such floods may occur again and again. Reports say that the “Inventory and Monitoring of Glacial Lakes / Water Bodies in the Himalayan Region of Indian River Basins”, sponsored by Climate Change Directorate, Central Water Commission, and done by National Remote Sensing Centre during 2011-15, found that there are 352, 283 and 1393 glacial lakes and water bodies in the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra basins respectively.
The NDMA guidelines say construction of any habitation should be prohibited in the high hazard zone. “Existing buildings are to be relocated to a safer nearby region and all the resources for the relocation have to be managed by Central/State governments. New infrastructures in the medium hazard zone have to be accompanied by specific protection measures.” The industry is naturally cautious. So are the central and state governments, environmental agencies and NGOs. However, there will be no let-up in existing hydropower generation and expansion through new projects. As it is hydroelectric projects are subject to highly time-consuming permissions and clearances at multiple levels. Contractual conflicts, environmental concerns, financial constraints and unwilling buyers often play spoilsport for new projects. The country’s estimated hydropower potential is said to be 145320 MW, excluding small hydro projects (SHPs). Hydropower potential is identified mainly in northern and north-eastern regions. Arunachal Pradesh is said to have the largest unexploited hydropower potential of 47 GW, followed by Uttarakhand with 12 GW. Unfortunately, hydel projects tend to grow at a snail’s pace. Due to this, the installed hydropower generation capacity at the end of February, last year, was only around 45700 MW. Massive procedural delays lead to time and cost overruns. Just for an example, an additional generation of only about 10000 MW of hydro-electric power was possible over the last 10 years. At a time when the things seem to have started moving, the Joshimath glacial outburst came as a big damper, at least for the time being.
Last November, China’s state-owned Power Construction Corporation announced plans to develop a mammoth hydroelectric project upto 60 gigawatts (GW) capacity on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river, known as the Brahmaputra river in India. The project challenges the water security of India and Bangladesh since both the countries are on the downstream of the Brahmaputra river. China is, by far the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power and has a number of hydropower plants at the upstream and middle stream of the Brahmaputra river. As of 2019, China’s hydropower capacity was over 1,300 TwH (terawatt hours). Other top world hydropower producers were Canada (398 TwH), Brazil (397 TwH), the US (274 TwH), Russia (190 TwH) and India (162 TwH).