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Starving for Power, India Looks to its Rivers

Modern India has struggled mightily to deliver sufficient power to its vast populace. Service interruptions are common, and this past summer India suffered the largest electricity blackout in human history.

India is hoping a massive new dam system will keep the lights on, the NYT reports:

As a solution, the government proposed constructing 292 dams throughout the Indian Himalayas — roughly a dam every 20 miles. If completed, the 7,000- to 11,000-megawatt dams would double the country’s hydropower capacity and meet about 6 percent of the national energy needs projected for 2030 (based upon 8 percent annual growth of the nation’s domestic product). The dams, the reasoning goes, would provide electricity to needy people as well as offset carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Scientists and citizens alike are crying foul, however, pointing out that the dams will probably displace millions and wreck ecosystems throughout the Himalayas.

The environmental concerns are very real: “The dams are proposed in areas of the Himalayas that are rich in biodiversity. And their creation threatens to submerge over 130,000 acres of forest, which would probably push 22 plants and seven vertebrate groups into extinction by 2025.” But the underlying problem is that India is really bad at planning and installing infrastructure and power generation systems. Its track record up to this point has been dreadful. To the bureaucracy in Delhi, the dam program appears to be a solution that offers the path of least resistance. After all, isolated mountain villagers have very little political clout in the capital.

India must have more power; there is no doubt about that. And at their worst, hydroelectric projects still offer advantages over coal. However, India is too important and its economy is developing too quickly for the kind of haphazard process that produced these dam plans to work over the long term. Figuring out how to produce the required power with the smallest feasible environmental footprint is something every country has to do as it modernizes. India’s failure to get this right is going to exact an increasingly heavy toll as time goes by. Indeed it already is.

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