Whether energy cooperation will benefit the environment or create problems in South Asia depends largely on whether hydropower is considered clean or damaging
Reports released by SAARC Energy Centre say that the South Asian grid can help minimise pollution from the power sector. It bases its arguments on the fact that polluting thermal power plants can be replaced with sustainably developed hydropower in Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and mountainous parts of India and Pakistan. SAARC is the association of eight South Asian countries that brings together India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives along with the three mentioned earlier.
The ADB-SAARC Power Exchange Report released in November 2012 says that every Gwh of coal-based generation produces an average of 1,000 tonnes of CO2. The collective fuel cost savings in India from coal-based generation alone could be up to US $300 million by displacing 10,000 Gwh of coal-based power, it says.
But some environmentalists disagree. They quote the example of Bhutan where dams are being constructed to satiate India’s power demand. They claim that the Bhutan’s push to become powerhouse of the region is at odds with its principle of environmental protection. For example, the 1,200 MW Punatsangchhu-I and 1,020 MW Punatsangchhu-II, are being built on the same river. This could severely restrict river flow, especially in the winters when the water flow dwindles to about 10 per cent of the flow during monsoons. “We have to preserve the ecologically fragile region, else we will have to spend more on disaster mitigation,” says Ugen Lhendup, coordinator of the Royal Society for Protection of Nature’s (RSPN’s) environment education and advocacy programme.
Punatsangchhu projects have also affected wildlife, says Lhendup. RSPN’s study of the impact of the projects on white bellied heron, a critically endangered bird, shows the bird’s population has reduced to just 20 currently from 200 in 2006. No hatching has been reported this year. Other mega hydel plants have affected the population of mahseer fish by blocking their seasonal migration for breeding. But Ugyen Tsechup, president of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes that environmental conservation need not be an impediment to economic development. He suggests, the government should improve monitoring and conduct environment impact assessments.
Another example of the potential environmental impact of this energy cooperation is that India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is setting up a 1,320 MW coal-fired super thermal power plant in Rampal in Bangladesh under the aegis of Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC). This will be the largest power plant in Bangladesh and is expected to start generation by 2018. The fact that the plant site is located next to the ecologically sensitive Sundarbans saw massive protests from environmental activists in September this year.
“Without developing its own gas fields, Bangladesh is inviting polluting plants to generate power based on imported coal. At Rampal our government completed land acquisition even before getting the environment clearance,” says Anu Muhammad, professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka and secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports, a civil society group working on energy issues. He believes the project will be a disaster for Sundarbans as massive amounts of coal will be imported through the delta. Besides, there will be the daily emission of pollutants from the power project. “Indian laws do not allow such a project on the Indian side of Sundarbans delta,” he points out.
Muhammad highlights another project which could have implications for the environment. It is the power corridor connecting India’s North East (NE) to the mainland through Bangladesh territory. With the hydro potential in NE, particularly in Arunachal and Tripura, estimated at over 50,000 MW, India will need to transmit the power to its mainland via the chicken’s neck of Indian territory. It will be prohibitively costly. “The cheapest way is to bring it via Bangladesh territory and in turn assure a certain supply to the country,” says an official in the Bangladesh Power Development Board. As part of the cooperation, Bangladesh too wants to use Indian territory to import hydropower from Nepal and Bhutan in future.
However, the energy initiatives between the neighbours have raked up controversies in Bangladesh.”With hydro projects in North East, flow of water in rivers of Bangladesh is bound to be hit. Even if we get a portion of the hydro power it will be at the cost of our rivers,” tells Kallol Mustafa, an engineer and member of the National Committee. But some officials feel that it’s a question of priority and developing hydropower in sustainable manner.
“The South Asia region is energy starved and we need to utilise every possible means of generating energy. We need to see if that is the priority. Hydropower can be developed sustainably,” maintains Anoop Singh, associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Management Engineering at IIT-Kanpur who has studied South Asia energy cooperation. Similarly, Bishwa Prasad Pandit, secretary, Nepal's Ministry of Energy, insists: “The need of the hour is energy security. Environmental issues are not as serious as projected and they can be dealt with the right approach.”
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