Hydropower in the Northeast: Potential and harnessing analysis - A critique

This paper was commissioned as an input to the study “Development and Growth in Northeast India: The Natural Resources, Water, and Environment Nexus” by the World Bank.

The main objectives of the hydropower study are as follows: 

  • An analysis of the hydropower potential in the Northeast and key elements of the strategy that should be followed for optimal realization of this potential 
  • An overview of the hydropower development options in the Northeast with regard to the water resources in the different river basins, including consideration of flood control and irrigationmap of the north-eastern states

Map of the north-east states

Context setting: The paper begins with presenting the state of power generation in the northeastern region and in the nation as a whole. Information is presented about the history of power sector development in the country, the power regions, and the status of power generation and utilization in the country. Charts are used to present power shortages and installed capacity in the power regions as well as for all the states in the northeastern region

Northeastern region: This section describes the following features of the region

  • Physical features
  • Geographic and forest features
  • Climatic features
  • Physiographic features
  • Geological features
  • Seismicity
  • Socio-economic indicators
  • surface water and hydropower resources
  • Groundwater resources
  • Flood problems
  • Irrigable area

Schematic map of the Brahmaputra showing annual flows

Schematic map of the Brahmaputra showing annual flows

Hydropower potential and status of development:  This section cites two studies that assessed the 'exploitable hydropower potential' of the Brahmaputra basin. The first study carried out during 1953-59 estimated this potential at 13,400 MW while another study carried out during 1978-87 re-evaluated it at 84,040 MW per year. The hydropower potential of the major basins as estimated during the two studies are presented in a table as well as graphically. The section further details the levels of hydropower exploitation in this region as compared to those in other regions.

Emerging hydropower development and the Northeastern region: The results of the preliminary ranking study carried out in 2001 of identified hydropower sites are presented. The regional distribution of hydro schemes, as well as state-wise distribution in the NE region are presented in tabular format. There is also a breakdown of these schemes as per tariff. This is set against the requirements of the National Power plan and various Five-Year plans. While acknowledging that power generated in the region will largely benefit the overall power demand in the country, the section also makes an attempt to  examine benefits to the producing region as well. 

Issues in development of hydropower

General issues: The positive impacts of hydropower, including it's contribution to system reliability, increased infrastructure in the region are explained. The report of the World Commission on Dams is then referred to, and the adverse social and environmental impacts of dams listed. It is recommended that a strategic environmental assessment be carried out before any potential development of hydropower. It also states that hydropower development should aim to compensate affected communities, and include them in project planning.

Technical and organizational issues in the Northeastern Region: Difficult access, remote locations and lack of infrastructure has been cited as some of the problems in development of hydropower, as have rehabilitation of project-affected populations and getting forest clearance. It also mentions that storage projects on Siang, Subansiri, Lohit and Barak basins have now been redesigned as cascades of dams to minimize submergence. This section also elaborates on the perceived desirability of storage dams deeming them 'essential for maximizing benefits' while giving a nod to the 'issues of uneven distribution of benefits  and costs, sharing the cost of flood moderation, and rehabilitation of project-affected populations.'

International issues: This section takes into account the complexities of trans-boundary rivers. The issues with all of the involved neighbours, India, China (Tibet), Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar are detailed. 

Flood control in the Brahmaputra basin: The provision of infrastructure, and cost allocation are considered in this section. 

  • Flood control component of projects: The author explains that other than the Pagladiya multi-purpose project and the Tipaimukh basin, there are no schemes planned or being constructed with flood mitigation as an explicit component. The section strongly urges the benefits of storage dams or flood control.
  • Cost allocation to various uses: Here, the complexity of flood control in transboundary rivers and that of resettlement and rehabilitation issues are described, and possible options put forward. This takes the form of, among other things, increasing the income tax exemption period on power revenues and creating a centrally-supported revolving grant fund for storage projects

Irrigation benefits in hydroelectric projects: This section claims that while hydroelectric dams have no power benefits, the 'regulated flows' from these dams will enable increased irrigation in the plains of Assam. This does not take cognizance of the fact that most of the unirrigated area in the NE states are in the mountainous areas, which require decentralized means of irrigation, and increasing irrigation in the Assam plains will not significantly increase the percentage of irrigated area in the region.

Rationale for development of hydropower in Northeastern Region : The paper states that exploitation of the Northeastern region for hydropower will satisfy power requirements outside the region. It also claims that this will benefit the region through improving infrastructure, and 'improving the quality of life', though it does not explain the latter. The section goes on to state that 'in places where it is not feasible to extend the transmission network' nonconventional and decentralised means of electricity generation need to be considered. This, ideally, should be the backbone of any development plan for the region, and will improve the 'quality of life' of the residents without displacing them.

Projects for implementation in Northeastern Region: This section details the power generation planned during the 11th and 12th plan periods.

Approach to selection of schemes for implementation : Preliminary studies have identified 30 schemes in the region, with a first year tarriff less than Rs. 2.50 per KWh. The paper suggests that this would be a reasonable start. The policies of the various states are examined, with the conclusion that hydropower development will be concentrated in Arunachal Pradesh. Details of construction in the following basins follow-

  • Kameng
  • Subansiri 
  • Siang 
  • Dibang
  • Lohit 

Northeastern hydropower projects and transmission issues: After acknowledging that the power generated from the planned hydropower projects is in excess of the region's requirements, this section explains the difficulties and cost of laying the transmission system necessary to disperse this power.

Institutional and organizational structures for implementation: This section explains the roles of the various organizations involved in power development and water resources, while emphasizing that the central government has powers to legislate on transboundary rivers.It recommends relating a new organization to fulfil the potential of hydropower development in the region.

The appendices present data pertaining to the state of energy and hydropower in the north eastern region as well as in the nation. These figures are valid till 31 March 2005. The data sets included are as follows:

  • Current power supply position (national and NE region)
  • National installed capacity by region
  • Northeastern region: Installed capacity by state
  • Energy generation, losses, and consumption patterns by region
  • Northeastern region: energy generation, losses and consumption patterns by state
  • Northeastern region: Flood damage by state
  • Status of hydroelectric potential and development by region
  • Northeastern region: status of hydropower potential and development by state
  • Arunachal Pradesh: Preliminary feasibility report schemes with tariff less than Rs.2.50 per kilowatt-hour
  • Preliminary feasibility report schemes with tariff less than Rs. 2.50 per kilowatthour: Phasing of benefits and expenditure
  • Hydro schemes in Sikkim
  • Hydro schemes in Meghalaya
  • The Electricity Act, 2003
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