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India’s plans to accelerate its infrastructure development in Brahmaputra basin

By: Ananya Malik

Brahmaputra basin part in India spreads over states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya,  Nagaland  and the  whole  of Sikkim. Brahmaputra basin (in  India) is  bounded  by  the Himalayas  on  the  north,  by  the  Patkai  range  of  hills  on  the  east  running  along  the  India-Myanmar border,  by  the  Assam  range  of  hills  on  the  south  and  by  the  Himalayas  and  the  ridge separating  it from Ganga  basin  on  the  west. The  distribution  of  the  drainage  area  of Brahmaputra River in the states  of Arunachal  Pradesh,  Assam,  West  Bengal,  Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim are 81,424Sq.km, 70,634Sq.km,12,585Sq.km, 11,667  Sq.km, 10,803  Sq.km and 7,300Sq.km respectively.

Of all the hydropower in India, total of 31012 MW potential at 60% load factor is in the Brahmaputra region. In this case, Arunachal Pradesh alone has 67.5% (44 593 MW)  of hydropower in the Brahmaputra valley. According to state data, the largest hydropower available in Arunachal Pradesh is about 30% (44,593 MW) of total hydropower in the country followed by Himachal Pradesh 13.6% (19411 MW).

In the per independence period, many steps have been taken to generate hydropower in major rivers. (Rahaman 2019). After the 70s, due to the shortage of energy and the urgent need for modern industries and agriculture, the Indian Government promoted thermal energy sectors. This has led to a decrease in hydropower generation.

The share of hydropower in our country has continued to decline since 1963. The water supply dropped from 50% in 1963 to about 25% in 2010. (Rahaman 2019). However, progress is far from satisfactory.

Status of Hydro Electric Power Potential Development – Brahmaputra

Identified capacity as per assessment study

Capacity Under Operation

Capacity under construction

Capacity under-operation + under-construction

Capacity yet to be taken up under Construction

66065

2120

5736

7856

57544

Hydropower has made a significant come back in India, after the World Commission on Dams (WCD) and environmentalists had almost convinced governments to stop dams or more specifically in terms of engineering and infrastructure approaches to river management. There is 4413 square km of drainage area in India or almost 5.9% of the country’s total geographical area. The Brahmaputra has an average width of 5.46 km, and its maximum discharge at Pandu near Guwahati was 72,779 cumec and its minimum discharge was 1757 cumec. The average annual discharge is about 20,000 cumec, and the average dry season discharge is 4,420 cumec. Although recently, the Government of India (Department of Energy) has identified about 226 high-density areas in rivers in north-eastern India, most of which are located in the Brahmaputra region.

Salient features of the basin

State wise Basin area

The  Brahmaputra  basin  is  divided  into  5  catchments  and their  numbers  are  assigned  from 501 to 505by IMD. Catchment 326 is other than Brahmaputra basin in the Northeast region.

Catchments of the Brahmaputra Basin, CWC

The catchment area of Brahmaputra River in India, receives a number of tributaries at its north and south  banks. Crop  fields, extensive forest  cover,  tea  plantations,  grazing  land  and  water-logged swampy  areas  with  a  huge  network  of  tributaries  are  commonly  observed  components  of  the land use/cover of the Brahmaputra basin. The major part of basin is covered with forest accounting to 55.48% of the total area. The most predominant soil type found in the basin is the red loamy soil and  alluvial  soil.  Other  important soil  types are sandy, loamy, clayey  soils, their combinations  and laterite soils. The  entire Brahmaputra basin  falls  in  the  Eastern  Himalayan agro-climatic  zone(Planning commission, 1989).  Brahmaputra basin falls in 3 agro-ecological zones. Most of the upper Brahmaputra sub basin area falls in the ‘Warm per humid eco-region with brown and red hill soils. The Brahmaputra Valley  area is dominating by ‘Hot subhumid (moist) to humid (inclusion of per humid)  eco-regions  with  alluvial-derived soils.  The  lowermost  part  of  the  basin  is  falling  in  the ‘Warm per humid eco-region with red and lateritic soils’

As per international reports (ORF 2020) over the next 50 years (from 2020-21), approximately 99,256 MW of hydropower is expected to be generated in rivers in north-eastern India.

India’s North-eastern states, with their mountainous topography and perennial streams, have the largest hydropower potential in all of India. Together, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura account for almost 40 percent[1] of the total hydropower potential of the country. Since the 1990s, the Government of India (GoI) has shown interest in exploring this potential as an energy source that is cleaner and more sustainable than traditional ones. Following the Northeast Business Summit in Mumbai in July 2002, the Northeast has frequently been called the “Future Powerhouse” of India.

Additionally, a secure supply of water is crucial to state stability and safety in many countries around the world. The direct and indirect effects of water stress, such as migration, food shortages, and general destabilization, transcend national boundaries. As water stress continues to increase in the coming years, it will become even more important to prioritize water resources in policy formulations at home and abroad and Dams can be a key to it.

Other than that Hydropower has immense benefits, these are as follows:

  • Hydropower is sustainable source of energy.
  • India spends a lot of foreign exchange on energy but hydropower does not incur extra foreign exchange costs.
  • There is no inflation with hydropower since it uses water as a ‘raw material’ at no cost.
  • Hydropower is environmentally friendly, and the development of project sites promotes socio-economic growth in remote areas.
  • In long-term it is very cost  effective  and  renewable  form  of energy, while providing  additional benefits like irrigation, flood control, tourism, transportation etc

“As India plans to accelerate its infrastructure development in Brahmaputra basin, we also need to keep in check the long-term ecological impact of the same as these large scale project often have slow degrading impact on the environment and despite their significance, the viability of hydropower projects has come under scrutiny in Northeast India. “

While building large dams to harness hydroelectric power has certain benefits, the current paradigm, which neglects environmental issues, can have disastrous consequences and is fast becoming outdated.

“However, there is an urgent need for fast tracking the hydro power projects in Arunachal Pradesh by providing adequate funds and by striking a right balance between the requirements of development and environmental concerns. “

To ensure project viability, all possible hidden costs—including those of losing ecosystem services—must be factored into the projected cost of a plant before national resources are allotted. The time overrun of the current hydropower projects in the Northeast is an important reminder of the importance of ecological and human issues, which must not be neglected in favour of quick benefits. In addition to traditional EIAs, detailed studies should be carried out regarding possible geological issues that might arise during the project. Further, rehabilitation and resettlement processes should be transparent, and the people most likely to be affected should be involved from the start to avoid future feuds.

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About The Author

Ananya Malik

She is an associate at MRC. Her research involves geopolitical, social and ecological  analysis of transboundary waters particularly Brahmaputra River. She is an alumnus of TERI where she did her masters in water science and governance. Her other research areas include climate risk, water security and carbon finance.