To think hydro dams will resolve all problems is too naive

  • Imtiaz Ahmed
To think hydro dams will resolve all problems is too naive

Mar 1, 2015-

Last year, Nepal signed the power trade agreement with India ending a long hiatus in hydropwer development in the country. It was followed by the signing of a Project Development Agreement on Upper Karnali and on  Arun III, which had been stalled since the early 1990s. Many see hydropower as the next frontier in Nepal’s development. Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations in Dhaka University, who along with Ajaya Dixit and Ashis Nandy wrote the South Asian Water Manifesto back in 1997, however, does not entirely subscribe to this view.

Akhilesh Upadhyay and Darshan Karki spoke to Ahmed about the alternative discourse on water resources, large hydropower projects and what the rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his vision of development could mean for Nepaland the region.   

The water manifesto talks of issues such as equity, water-sharing and that the media instead of informing the people is peddling the mainstream view. But the fact is: the alternative discourse hasn’t advanced much in our region.

One of the reasons for writing the manifesto was to challenge the land-centric view of things.

We wanted to make it water-centric, which is just picking up in Nepal. Though people talk of its hydro potential, given its terrain and the kind of activities required, how far is it feasbile? Further, tectonic movements in the northern part of India have made people realise that not all is well in the land-centric understanding of things.

In case of Bangladesh, it is the soil or silt that flows through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal, which has made the country. It is a delta; so we are people of many rivers rather than many lands.

After two decades, people have taken up research on water commons and we have established a water museum. The first one was established in Kuakata, Bangladesh. In the beginning, people were sceptical. Now, Nepal wants one and so does India. Here is an opportunity to get away from a land-centric understanding of things and to realise that water is not only fluid but also sediments. Ajaya Dixit and I have come up with a formula: water is not just H2O, but also P4 (pollution, power, politics and profit). Natural science will call water H2O; social science H2O and P4.

In Nepal, we have just signed agreements to develop Upper Karnali and Arun III with Indian firms. What would the water discourse that basically revolves around development projects these days be in an ideal world?

People talk of sharing water, for example, but they never talk about sharing silt. People say that blocking rivers for a while will not be a problem in hydropower projects because it is run-of-the-river. But the river has other dimensions—riverine forestry, fishery, and the whole civilisation tied up with it. An Indian hydrology expert Kalyan Rudra says that ‘run-of-the-river’ is a misnomer. In one of his books, Rudra shows on a map that the Farakka Dam in India built to save the Kolkata port not only failed in its purpose but, more importantly, the river has now shifted its course so drastically that the whole dam has become irrelevant.

So the point here is, megaprojects no doubt have the potential to make money and is the easy way out for electricity. But time and again, we have seen that it does not work. The locals do not get the benefits.

The Arun, for instance, was conceptualised in the early 1990s and the World Bank was ready to finance it. However, due to wide-ranging arguments such as that it does not help people, it was cancelled. Now, the fact is we have not moved ahead since; we have lost 20 years.

That is the sad part because we don’t invest in alternatives. An interesting way to look at it would be to ‘alter’ the ‘native’. But we keep on reproducing the same knowledge and argue ‘Well, there will come a time when the native will understand why it was so important’ and we go back. We have not invested in serious knowledge creation and production. We also need a climate for alternative thinking. Have our governments really invested in alternative and creative thinking?

I am not trying to rule out hydro dams entirely. But you don’t want to build something to end up with problems later on. If you say we don’t have alternatives, we need to challenge that thinking. What are the other ways of bringing electricity? In India, you will always see dams being built where marginalised people live. You don’t see a dam being built in Delhi or Dhaka. That is the other issue.

So who controls the hydropower discourse in the region?

It has always been petrodollars or dollars or the people with money/elite. I don’t only mean the political elite but also the economic elite, who are all together when it comes to the land-centric understanding of things. It’s not as though they are doing it connivingly all the time. Rather, they believe in it. The very fact that water can be H20 P4 has not registered. It is an elitism resulting from a Western discourse, though the debate has moved ahead even in the West where we see serious anti-dam campaigns. It is also a result of material gains which can be made out of dams.

How will it play out in the larger scheme of things with Modi’s arrival in India who is big on investment and hydropower in Nepal?

Well, Narendra Modi holds two important cards if you look at the elections. One is the ‘development card’, the promises of efficiency which has attracted many people. If I am not mistaken, he received 34 percent of the popular votes. The second card is ‘communal’ and he got elected due to this too. If the first card falters, then you end up banking on the second one. He came to Nepal with the first card. But the second card could also be very problematic for Nepal. While Nepal may not be so diverse in terms of religion, in terms of ethnicity and language, it is a mosaic. So if you have a majoritarianism of one kind, it can filter into a majoritarianism of another kind.

Modi’s talk of investment sounds exciting. But it gets stuck in ‘developmentality’. It almost makes it look like the problems we have in South Asia are purely economic and if only we can build some hydro dams, everything will be resolved. That I think is too narrow and does not look back into our civilisational discourse.

India is greatly energy-starved while Nepal is cash-strapped but has the potential resources. So where do you see the pitfalls? It is a win-win situation, so to say.

This very idea of Nepal having the hydropower potential by looking at the mountains is problematic because somehow the mountains and the delta are bound together.

The point here is run-of-the-river does not make any sense. You make these large dams to almost shift the gods and goddesses—as all the rivers in South Asia are taken to be gods and goddesses—as if to say we can do better than you.

So the very idea that India is energy starved and Nepal is hydrorich is a very narrow way of looking at social science, development and the civilisation. I see no reason why Nepal cannot be cash rich otherwise or India could be energy rich in other ways. Bangladesh, for instance, is growing at six percent and we don’t have hydropower. Readymade garment industry, migrant remittances, the NGOs and a little bit of peacekeeping help it grow. So there are other ways of developing because, at the end of the day, what creates value is human resource. I understand Modi’s way of development but it cannot be universalised and Nepal should be very careful about that.


Published: 02-03-2015 08:35

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