The nearly 150 dams planned for the sparsely populated Arunachal Pradesh would together fill India’s current energy gap. But they will also devastate dozens of indigenous tribal people, wipe out thousands of acres of forest and do away with some of the world’s best white-water. Jason Overdorf delves far and deep
From the service road above the Lower Subansiri Dam, in Northeast India, the river below looks deep and still, a dark forest green.
On the bank opposite, a mammoth conveyor carries silt and gravel from a quarry half a mile away. Upstream along the Subansiri River, brilliant red cranes tower over the 380-foot wall of concrete and steel — nearly completed — which unless construction can be halted will soon submerge some 8,500 acres of land.
When it’s finished, the 2,000 megawatt (MW) Lower Subansiri project, being built by government-owned NHPC Ltd near the town of North Lakhimpur on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, will be one of India’s largest hydroelectric power plants. Including the Lower Subansiri, 150 dams — many of them massive projects of more than 1,000MW of capacity — are planned for the Dibang, Siang, Siyom, and Lohit rivers.
For local residents and environmental activists, the Lower Subansiri is the first beachhead in the struggle against breakneck-pace development, which opponents say has been undertaken without full or sincere consideration of its consequences, and could wipe out thousands of acres of breathtaking forest, dozens of fascinating tribal cultures and some of the world’s best white-water for adventure tourism.
Power hunger runs deep
Yes, India needs electricity. The country is the world’s fourth-largest electricity consumer, after the US, China and Russia. Last year, peak power demand topped 122,000MW, resulting in a shortfall of some 12,000MW, or nearly 10 per cent, according to the Central Electricity Authority. Overall demand for energy over the year breached 860,000 gigawatt hours, resulting in a gap of 73,000GWh, or 8.5 per cent.
And the situation promises to get worse, as the Ministry of Power projects a 56 per cent increase in annual demand to 1.4 million GWh by the end of the next five-year planning period in March 2017 — requiring the addition of another 100,000 megawatts of generation capacity.
Some 300 million people in villages across the country still have no access to electricity at all. Factories are often forced to generate their own power. Residents of the country’s showpiece metropolitan cities endure frequent ‘power cuts’. During the long, hot summer, excess demand forces electricity providers to resort to rolling blackouts, sometimes for six hours or longer.
In places like Roing — a small outpost in Arunachal’s Dibang River Basin with the frontier character of a logging town — matters are even more uncertain. On a recent visit, spring rains knocked out transmission lines running from Assam, and at least one hotel was left without electricity for nearly a week and forced, like millions of businesses across the country, to run a diesel-powered generator from sundown to lights out around 9pm.