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Environmental and Energy Security: Dams, Water Wars and Dependence on Fossil Fuels; By Raakhee Surya

CAS article no. 0150/2016

Energy and the environment are two important issues of the day. The future of mankind depends on whether we make them symbiotic or competitive. We are imperilled by extreme weather patterns, terrorism, civil war, etc. and much of it is ruled by mankind’s thirst for crude oil. With the clarion cry against poverty the mad scramble towards development has become a mad scramble for fuel. Sustainable development could be the solutions to the problems of the environment and the need for energy to power the growth of nations. In the quest to eliminating poverty, be it developing countries such as India, China or even the developed nations such as United States and the members of the European Union, all are adding to global warming with the continued dependence on fossil fuels. The previous pet of renewable resources hydro-electricity from large dam projects is also being proved to be a contributor to global warming. In addition to displaced peoples and environmental damage while harnessing the flow of rivers, it now appears the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the many dam projects, registered and unregistered are an added threat.

Moving on from Fossil Fuels

Although oil prices are low, their supply and use is both harmful to the planet and is insecure throughout its supply chain. While shale oil & gas is being hailed as the next big thing in energy security its damage to the environment is significant. Fossil fuels bring funds to terrorists and other illegal organizations and maleficent regimes. The decoupling of the economy from coal and crude will help the planet and help with securing peace. Science makes it clear that even harnessing the already available fossil fuel resources will make a joke of the carbon budget and goal to hold global temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” written into the Paris Climate Agreement about to come into force.

Developing nations opt for coal to power their thermal power stations being built nationally and internationally regardless of their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) on record. China is building thermal power stations in Pakistan despite its own “low-carbon” growth strategy. India commissioned six thermal power stations in the period between the announcement of its INDCs in October 2015 and signing the Paris Agreement in April 2016. Meanwhile China continues to block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) when India explores it as an alternative. Bangladesh plans to build a thermal power station adjoining the ecologically sensitive Sundarbans, the mangrove forests that it shares with India at the Gangetic Delta. This trend is the norm in most countries.

There is also the case of the problematic participation and sponsorship by fossil fuel companies in climate negotiations. Their strong presence at the various climate summits, their sponsorship and powerful lobby ensures the diluting of norms and limits of the “carbon budget.” Not only powerful private fossil fuel companies but also the fact that there are many wholly and partially state-owned fossil fuel companies, consultants, turnkey and supply-chain companies involved, keeps the production of fossil fuels and dependence on it going.

Air pollution as well as GHG emissions makes thermal power plants a liability. The ever-growing number of automobiles fuelled by petrol, diesel, and gas also smothers the planet with noxious gases as well as GHGs. Policy incentives to decouple economies from the crude dependence is poor. The eco-friendly alternatives exist yet economies of scale favours fossil fuels. A serious commitment to making the eco-friendly alternatives affordable should be central to national action plans to fight global warming and climate change. With the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP22) coming in November 2016, as well as the US Presidential elections and the Paris Agreement coming into force the road-map to commitments made has to be reviewed.

Take for example solar panels and photovoltaic fuel cells, their prices have fallen drastically and becoming affordable with the growth of the solar power industry. Announcement at COP21 in Paris of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with 80 nations committing to fostering to the growth of this young industry and renewable energy source also boosted affordability of panels.

Investing in research and development (R&D) as well as subsidies to renewable sources of energy can also popularize this alternative to fossil fuels. State electricity distribution systems also need to be made to commit to purchase renewably generated electricity such as from wind and solar farms instead of thermal power stations.

Dams and Water Wars

The past couple of months have brought dams and rivers front and centre in conflicts, both national and international. Rain-deficit, drought-hit regions along the River Cauvery has become flashpoints between the riparian states Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Supreme Court intervention in river water–sharing plan hasn’t prevented violence breaking out between the two south Indian states.

The Indus river system flowing between India and Pakistan has been subject to the Indus Water Treaty since the 1960. The continued terror and insurgent attacks on India and their increased frequency led to the Indian administration announcing that it will relook at the water-sharing mechanism with the unfriendly administration and armed forces of Pakistan. Almost simultaneously China’s announced that it has blocked and dammed the Xiabuqu river, a tributary of the Tibetan stretch of the Brahmaputra known as Yarlung Tsangpo. The Brahmaputra is flood-prone but vital to the lives of people in India’s Northeastern states as well as Bangladesh. The damming of the tributary and the timing of the official announcement is decidedly malicious.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since 2007, with confirmations from more recent research emphasizes that large dam projects also emit GHGs. In addition to international diplomatic problems, displacing peoples and hurting native cultures dependent on the path and flow of rivers as well as the ecological damage to the riverine system, large dams also produce large amounts of methane a GHG that has a bigger effect that even carbon dioxide in warming the planet. Thus damming of rivers is another flashpoint in a world destabilized by extreme weather – be it floods or droughts. Both the effects of climate change continue to make access to water and ownership of river systems flashpoints.

Achieving Both Environmental and Energy Security

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”

Elon Musk, billionaire, inventor, and serial entrepreneur

Necessity is the mother of invention, but while the need of the hour is finding and prioritizing eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, it is not a priority. As the meme goes “trees only give us life-giving air, if they gave us free Wi-Fi we wouldn’t be cutting them down so indiscriminately.” The same goes to our prioritizing R&D and incentivizing of climate-friendly technologies. We need more people like Japanese engineer Atsushi Shimizu. He has succeeded in making a huge opportunity of the regular threat his nation faces. His typhoon turbine could bring energy security for decades to Japan as he harnesses the violent forces of nature to solve Japan’s energy insecurity. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster amidst the violent earthquake and resultant tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011, nuclear reactors and power generation was put on hold in Japan. Instead this inventor turned to the power of the other force that is a regular feature in Japan.

Japan imports about 84% of its energy requirements. Six typhoons have hit Japan in the last ten months. Extreme weather patterns caused by climate change have actually increased the number of typhoons hitting Japan, whose kinetic energy Shimizu hopes to harness. His green tech firm Challenergy have modified conventional wind turbines unsuitable for typhoon prone regions to work exponentially at harvesting wind energy and making Japan energy secure for over 50 years by using the power of the typhoons that batter it. Just one mature typhoon produces kinetic energy “equivalent to about half the world-wide electrical generating capacity”! This is the kind of solutions to environmental and energy security problems that need to be encouraged not finding extracting more polluting fossil fuels.


(The writer, Ms Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst and Associate Member, C3S. She holds a Master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues.)

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