Spark (un)plugged

  • Saarc may have energy security high on its agenda, but it has yet to walk the talk
- Navin Singh Khadka
Spark (un)plugged

Nov 13, 2014-

Going by what officials have said about the agendas for the upcoming South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit, most of them indeed sound like stereotypes. One area that appears to be the exception is energy.

It is not that past summits never made tall commitments on securing sustainable energy supplies. According to the Saarc Secretariat’s website, it all began way back in 2000, with the formation of a technical committee: “Thereafter, recognising that this vital area requires focused attention, the council of ministers approved the creation of a specialised working group on energy in January 2004.”

Study after study

And so began the unending journey of forming working groups and task forces that conducted studies one after another and made several series of recommendations. One ‘concrete achievement’ the regional grouping’s Secretariat proudly mentions is the establishment of the Saarc Energy Centre (SEC) in Islamabad “to promote development of energy resources, including hydropower, renewable and alternative energy resources and energy trade in the region.” It has been eight years since the Centre came into being, and all that the programme section of its website lists is a number of studies and capacity building works.

As if that were not enough, a Saarc energy trade study was done with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank. That study identified four trade options which were to be considered “by the relevant Saarc mechanism in order to make a road map for implementation.” But instead of going for implementation, Saarc chose to commission another study on regional power exchange.

What happened to that study remains unknown. In the meantime, a seminar organised by the SEC last year recommended the preparation of a 20-year perspective plan on the need of electricity power for all Saarc member states. “This plan would cover complete supply chain from generation to transmission and distribution along with supply-demand scenarios together with investment requirements,” the energy centre says. “Such a plan will help the member states in charting their strategies for the development of their respective power sectors and to balance their import/export potential in regional power trade.”

Sounds like a plan? It might well, and the upcoming Saarc Summit could in all probability showcase that as an action-oriented agenda. Now, here is the catch: after the Summit, the SEC is organising a workshop next month that will discuss and prepare the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the study of the 20-year perspective plan to be financed by the World Bank. Given past and present mistrust and suspicions between Saarc member states, thrashing out the ToR will be easier said than done.

India’s needs

As India’s former minister for state for power, KC Venugopal, said during a regional power conference in 2011, “The issue of cross-border trading is a complex one involving market, technology and, most importantly, geopolitical issues.”

The controversies surrounding the Indus Treaty between India and Pakistan are still unresolved. Pakistan continues to claim that India diverts waters from the Indus basin by using its hydropower structures upstream while New Delhi dismisses this allegation by arguing that they are run-of-river projects that don’t stop the rivers’ flows. Not to forget, there have been fresh tensions between the two South Asian nuclear rivals.

Then there is India’s preference for bilateralism over multilateralism. New Delhi has always wanted to deal with its neighbouring countries individually rather than regionally. If Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s ‘new policies’ mark a shift in that age-old position, it’s a different thing. Of course, he has spoken about a new approach to energy cooperation. True, there have been some important developments in cross-border power trade between India and its neighbours, including Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. And there is no doubt that India will need massive energy supplies to power its growth. The International Energy Agency estimates India will add between 600GW to 1,200GW of additional generation capacity before 2050. With an installed capacity of nearly 255GW at present, India has managed to bring down its supply deficit from 10 percent to five in the last few years.

If its vast unused coal reserves, untapped hydro resources in places like Arunachal Pradesh, and new nuclear power plants do not sufficiently supply its future energy needs, India will then of course inevitably need power supply from across borders. The groundwork happening now for cross-border transmission lines is indeed a long term project.

“Now, South Asia is witnessing the emergence of sub-regional grids, especially in the eastern part of the (South Asian) region,” Srinivasan Padmanaban, regional director of the South Asian Regional Initiative for Energy, a programme funded by the US government to promote cross-border power, told this scribe during a BBC interview in 2012. “The cross-border interconnection between India and Bhutan, India and Nepal, and India and Bangladesh are examples of what is beginning to happen.”

What begun then has surely seen some progress in the last two years, thanks mainly to India’s energy needs. Giving ‘talk-shop’ Saarc the benefit of the doubt, it may genuinely be trying to build on that. But expanding the sub-regional power grid to as far as Afghanistan via Pakistan or down south to Sri Lanka through India still has a long way to go, especially with so much of power politics at play on the way.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London

Published: 14-11-2014 09:10

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