Engineers and environmentalists say that little work has been done on the human or ecological impact of the dams, which they fear could increase floods and be vulnerable to earthquakes.
“We do not have credible environmental and social impact assessments, we have no environmental compliance system, no cumulative impact assessment and no carrying capacity studies. The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, developers and consultants are responsible for this mess,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
China and India have both displaced tens of millions of people with giant dams such as the Narmada and the Three Gorges over the past 30 years, but governments have not published estimates of how many people would have to be relocated or how much land would be drowned by the new dams.
“This is being totally ignored. No one knows, either, about the impact of climate change on the rivers. The dams are all being built in rivers that are fed by glaciers and snowfields which are melting at a fast rate,” Tsering said.
Climate models suggest that major rivers running off the Himalayas, after increasing flows as glaciers melt, could lose 10 percent to 20 percent of their flow by 2050. This would not only reduce the rivers’ capacity to produce electricity, but would exacerbate regional political tensions.
The dams have already led to protest movements in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam and other northern states of India and in Tibet. Protests in Uttarakhand, which was devastated by floods last month, were led by Indian professor G.D. Agarwal, who was released this week after being taken to hospital after a 50-day fast.
“There is no other way but to continue because the state government is not keen to review the dam policy,” said Mallika Bhanot, a member of Ganga Avahan, a group opposing proposals for a series of dams on the Ganges River.
Governments have tried to calm people by saying that many of the dams will not require large reservoirs, but will be “run of the river” constructions which channel water through tunnels to massive turbines. Yet critics say the damage done can be just as great.
“[These] will complete shift the path of the river flow,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, a leading opponent of the Narmada dams and the author of a report into Himalayan dams. “Everyone will be affected because the rivers will dry up between points. The whole hydrology of the rivers will be changed. It is likely to aggravate floods.”