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The dharma of dams
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Monday, October 23, 2000

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The dharma of dams
C.V.J. Varma

It is gratifying to read the Supreme Court's verdict permitting further construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. It is a landmark judgement for India's water resource development because it recognises some cardinal truths. To quote from the judgement: `` of big dams cannot be equated with setting up of polluting industries as far as their effect on the environment is concerned. What is being constructed is a large dam. It is neither a nuclear establishment nor a polluting industry. The construction of a dam would undoubtedly result in the change of environment but it will not be correct to presume that it will result in ecological disasters.''

Nature is a huge desalination plant that transforms sea water -- which comprises nearly 97 per cent of the total available water on earth -- into the precious substance upon which human life depends. Unfortunately, nature does not make water available in the places where we want it to be, when we want it and in the quantities we require it to be. Take that classic example from Gujarat, where water had to be transported to the region by trains, even when elsewhere, vast stretches of the country were reeling under floods.

It is this that necessitates technological intervention for purposes of harnessing, conserving and properly managing water resources. And it is this which underlines the absolute necessity for dams -- although they will, of course, have to be carefully planned. Some 45,000 dams exist in the world today and about 30,000 are required by the end of the century.

The human use of water has increased more than 35-fold over the past three centuries, totalling an annual consumption of 3,400 cubic kilometres. Out of this, 69 per cent is used for agriculture, 23 per cent for industry and eight per cent for domestic use. However, developing countries, especially those in Asia, use 86 per cent of its water for agricultural purposes.

Together with this, there is another dynamic at work: Population growth. The world's population is expected to increase to 8.9 billion by 2050, and again 59 per cent of the people will be in Asia. While every effort must be made to check this phenomenon, there is no denying that growing numbers will put a great pressure on food stocks. Foodgrain demand, globally, is estimated to increase by 37 per cent, from 1,937 million tonnes at present to 2,655 million tonnes by 2050. This makes it imperative that we manage our water resources wisely.

Added to this are energy requirements, for both food production as well as improving the general quality of life. Economic growth will inevitably lead to higher power consumption, the present average global growth rate being about 2.3 per cent per annum. Indeed, energy consumption in the developing world is expected to more than double by 2020. With fossil fuels and hydrocarbons being a limited resource, the world will have to source its power consumption from non-hydrocarbon resources. By 2050, at least 50 per cent of the world's total energy requirement would have to come fromsolar, wind, wave, geothermal, and hydro sources. Of all these renewable energy resources, hydro power is the cheapest.

In most countries, specially in developing ones like ours, rivers carry the bulk of their water during the four monsoon months, followed by the relatively dry non-monsoon months. Dams, small or big, have to store water for regulated release in the lean months, as well as to moderate floods and facilitate hydropower generation.

There is another powerful argument for dams, and that is the environmental one. To preserve our forests and guard against their further depletion, it is essential to provide regulated water supply and, more importantly, energy. It's the high demand for fuel that is one of the important reasons for our forest cover coming under threat and you can't save forests without providing alternate sources of energy and food. Ironically, then, to preserve the very culture of indigenous communities, it becomes vital to reduce the pressure on their habitats. Those who say they are fighting for these communities would serve the cause better by propagating the need for the controlled development of water resources.

Finally, there is the lifestyle argument. Quality of life is today defined by access to electricity, whether we like it or not. And the country has to plan for the insatiable thirst for electricity that is manifesting itself everywhere.

So how far has India gone in meeting some of these challenges? Certainly, an immense effort has been made over the past 50 years in the field of water resources development. The irrigated land area in the country has increased from 23 to 92 million hectares and consequently agricultural production has multiplied some four-fold, from 51 million tonnes to 198 million tonnes. By 2050, foodgrain production will have to increase to 500 million tonnes and for this to happen the irrigated area will have to increase by 160 million hectares -- 75 per cent more than what India has today.

As for energy production, just one simple statistic should suffice: per capita consumption in this country is just 360 kilowatt hours (Kwh) -- that is 1 Kwh per day. Compare this with China's 720 Kwh, Brazil's 1,783 Kwh and Australia's 6,600 Kwh, and the picture gets clearer. With the increase in economic development and standards of living, per capita energy consumption in India should rise to at least to 1,000 Kwh. The present position is in spite of the fact that, during the last 50 years after independence, electricity production has increased by 1,500 megawatts.

Thus far our energy/electricity production is dependent on coal, with the thermal to hydro mix being 75 per cent to 23 per cent. Unfortunately, our coal has 40 per cent ash content. Apart from this, for just load management, it is necessary to have a 60:40 mix of thermal and hydro. We have, therefore, to develop our estimated hydro potential of 84,000 MW available.

India, before 1947, had only 300 dams as against some 4,300 today. Given its requirements, it would need another 10,000 over the next 50 years. There is, of course, the argument that proper watershed management can serve as an alternative to storage reservoirs. While traditional methods like water harvesting, and so on, are necessary and must be encouraged, they are just not sufficient to ensure the country's sustainable food security and drinking water requirements. Besides, they do not address its energy demands. In short, there is just no alternative to dams, big and small, if the country's future has to be secured.

The writer is president, International Commission on Large Dams

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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