With India’s economy growing at its fastest pace, the need for energy and its availability can be a major barrier in the near future. There are high hopes that renewable energy sources like hydroelectric power can overcome these challenges and also help reduce emissions from coal based power plants, which currently supply most of the electricity.
India, the 7th largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world, gets about 15% of its electricity from hydropower. The country’s recent commitment at the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference at Paris to reach a target of 175 GW of renewable power capacity by 2022 will bring a transition with rapid growth in hydropower installations. But, what does this mean to the society and the environment? Are we on the right path of clean energy development? A new study by a team of researchers led by Senior Research Fellow, Suman Jumani from the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL), has tried to answer these critical questions.
Small Hydropower Projects (SHPs), aimed at producing small-scale hydroelectric power (between 2MW to 25MW), have witnessed massive growth in the past decade. They are presumed to be environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. The researchers of the study have surveyed four SHPs to assess if they demonstrate the assured positive social and environmental impacts as expected. These SHPs are located in the Gundiya river basin, a part of the Western Ghats - one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world. The river basin is not only home to a large fish and amphibian population, but also an important elephant corridor, making it an ecologically sensitive region for any development projects.
The researchers conducted interviews with the local residents of nine villages in the area to evaluate how well the locals are aware of these SHPs. In addition to interviews, they also used secondary data to evaluate and the socio-economic impacts of SHPs and their effects on access to water and human-elephant interaction in that area.
The study ascertains some discrepancies between the interview results and the reports from the Project Design Documents presented by the private SHP owners. The researchers gathered that the general level of awareness about SHPs among the locals was low, and assurances of local electricity and employment generation remained largely unfulfilled. The data collected also highlighted that there was a strong correlation between the increasing number of SHPs and the occurrences of human-elephant conflict.
The study also found that due to privatization of the area around the dam, the local residents have lost access to a 7.4 km river stretch, earlier used for fishing. A frequently used road that connected the village to a National Highway has also been blocked. Though the SHPs may have minimally benefited the locals with temporary employment, the overall impact has been largely contradicting to what was envisaged in the reports submitted by SHP owners.
Often, projects like these bring more harm than good to the locals. But there have been successful implementations of SHPs in the past too, as Ms. Jumani mentions, citing the model followed by the state of Himachal Pradesh, the only state in India that mandates 70% local employment in all SHPs. Another successful model that she recalls is of the Malari hydel plant in Uttarakhand where the project was co-implemented by an NGO and the local community with an objective of rural electrification and intensive community participation.
So what can be done in order to benefit the local community? “Public consultations are absolutely essential to understand and address the concerns of the local community. In some cases, the absolute lack of local participation has led to sustained protests, and the eventual shutdown of some plants. To develop a better co-operation between the project developers and the community, regulations that protect the rights to access water sources, local employment and decentralized electric supply need to be implemented”, says Ms. Jumani.
And what about the rising human-animal conflicts due to such development? “Human-elephant conflict is a complicated issue and a precautionary approach in the commissioning of SHPs in elephant habitat or corridors can be applied”, opines Ms. Jumani. The surveyed SHPs acquired upto 8 hectares of forest land and it becomes important to understand the cumulative ecological effects they may have.
Ms. Jumani’s efforts create awareness about development projects in ecologically sensitive regions do not seem to end. She is now evaluating the impacts of existing and proposed SHPs on forest and river fragmentation in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. “By doing so, we aim to identify sites of high conservation priority. We are also preparing a short film on the same for outreach purposes” she signs off.