International Rivers Network’s South Asia Campaigns
The Sutlej River in Northern India, near the proposed Rampur Hydropower Project.
Credit: Ann Kathrin Schneider
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For every high dam that is being built there is an alternative. Maybe no dam, maybe a less high dam.-- Arundhati Roy
Great rivers are the cultural and economic backbone of South Asia. The Brahmaputra, Indus, Narmada and Ganges have contributed to the rise and prosperity of some of the earliest civilizations in history and today are the source of livelihood for millions. The South Asian river basins, most of which have their source in the Himalayas, support rich ecosystems and irrigate millions of hectares of fields, thereby supporting some of the highest population densities in the world.
Rivers are, however, also a source of controversy and conflict between countries and people in South Asia. As many South Asian economies are overwhelmingly defined by rivers and their benefits, the distribution of river waters is highly contested. The question of whether and how to harness rivers for hydropower generation and commercial irrigation is an issue of great concern and a source of controversy in the region. Large-scale water development has in the past contributed to the impoverishment of many river basin communities in South Asia. However, many governments in the region still exaggerate the irrigation and power benefits of large dams and neglect their social, environmental and economic costs. Despite this legacy, the construction of large dams continues to be promoted as the best option to increase access to water and energy for the poor in South Asia.
Alternative cost-effective, pro-poor and decentralized ways to harness water and generate energy are too often overlooked. Decentralized renewable power supply options, such as off-grid micro-hydropower, biogas plants, solar and wind power, would often be much better suited to supply rural villages with electricity. Supporting poor farmers to trap rain when and where it falls would often be a better investment in irrigation and rural poverty reduction than the construction of large storage dams.
In India, as in other parts of South Asia, those alternatives are often sidelined in favor of the construction of large dams. India is one of the hotspots of global dam building. More than 4,000 large dams have submerged huge amounts of land and have displaced more than 40 million people, most of whom have never been properly compensated. The irony is that this "development" effort has instead created a huge underclass of refugees and increased poverty in rural India. It also led to the formation of one of the world’s most remarkable people’s movements, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).
For nearly 30 years, Indian civil society, including the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has been a leader in the fight against the social ravages of large dam projects, such as the Narmada Valley Development Project, that includes the controversial Sardar Sarovar, Maheshwar and Indira Sagar dams.
Pakistan also has a well-coordinated civil society movement fighting against destructive water infrastructure projects. The environmental and social consequences of large dams and canals on the Indus have for many years been the focus of civil society opposition in Pakistan.
The Government of Pakistan is planning to build and complete five more large dams on the Indus and its tributaries by 2016: Bhasha, Kalabagh, Munda, Akhori and Kurram Tangi Dam.
The building of large dams and canals is also highly controversial in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. After heated controversies and the first ever World Bank Inspection Panel claim, the Bank in 1995 famously withdrew from the controversial Arun III hydropower project in Nepal. The project was shelved thereafter. In Sri Lanka, the planned construction of the Upper Kotmale hydropower project -- which is likely to destroy large areas of fertile land, displace hundreds of families and destroy pristine wetlands -- has led to massive opposition in Sri Lanka and abroad.
IRN is working with civil society groups and peoples’ movements in South Asia to protect their rivers and watersheds and to promote a socially just development path.