Can We Harness Himalayan Hydropower? Yes, But It's Risky

60 Indian scientists and environmentalists have asked India's Prime Minister to stop "any more hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas."
Loukia Papadopoulos
Construction site of the Upper Marsyangdi Hydropower Project in the Annapurna Region in Nepalolli0815/iStock

According to the International Hydropower Association (iha), around 60 percent of all renewable electricity is generated by hydropower and the sector produces about 16 percent of total electricity generation from all sources including nuclear and fossil fuels.

That's an impressive amount of power, but we need even more if we are to effectively mitigate climate change. Now, hydropower projects are showing up all along the Himalayan arc which covers territory in Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Indeed, the Himalayas have a steep topography and abundant water resources that can produce enough hydropower for all of South Asia.

There is a problem though. The area is at high risk for earthquakes and more environmental disasters.

In light of this, a group of 60 Indian scientists and environmentalists wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month asking him to stop "any more hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas and on the Ganga whether under construction, new or proposed." The report further warned that "rising temperature and precipitation can increase the occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods and landslides over moraine-dammed lakes" in the high Asian mountain. 

Several hydropower projects in the region have already been severely damaged by floods and landslides in 2013 and in February 2021.

According to C. P. Rajendran, a paleo-seismic specialist and adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and signatory to the letter to the prime minister, the region is just too unstable to handle hydropower projects and global warming is only making it worse.

Rajendran told Sci Dev Net that he believes climate-change-induced temperature rises could increase rockfalls in the Himalayas. "Mountain permafrost holds rocks together and helps stabilize the steep slopes but warming over the last few decades may have affected its role as a slope stabilizer," he explained.

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So is there a way to take advantage of the Himalayans' natural landscape to produce hydropower energy safely?

Basanta Raj Adhikari, assistant professor at Tribhuvan University's Institute of Engineering, in Nepal, also told Sci Dev Net that engineers can develop smaller hydropower projects that produce electricity from the natural flow of river water eliminating the need for a dangerous large dam or reservoir.

This, he argues, would go a long way in avoiding the disasters that could come with "the anticipated large Himalayan earthquake,"

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