Hydropower, once used to run water or sawmills and work a paddle wheel (Samson, 2010), now constitutes to about 17% of the world’s total energy production (Perlman, 2018). Recently, Nepal has begun on an abandoned hydropower project, Arun 3. Originally planned in 1992, Arun 3 is now a collaborative hydroelectric project between Nepal and India after the World Bank withdrew its financial support back in 1995. The construction of dams has started in May 2018 (Reynolds, 2018). Being the 137th of 147 countries in terms of electric supply quality (ADB, 2017), about 60% of the people in Nepal “still has no access to electricity and urban areas require up to 16 hours of load-shedding” (Butler, 2016). Arun 3 promises to produce up to about 4018.87 million units of electricity a year (Power Technology, n.d.). However, hydropower has its disadvantages. Arun 3 has potentially damaging impacts on Nepalese’ health and community such as displacing locals and separating existing communities. In addition, the building of the dams has a harmful impact on biodiversity in Nepal. Thus far, there has been no sufficient planning done to mitigate the potential problems. This is a severe issue. Without proper planning, the effects of the project are irreversible. Considering this, I would invoke the precautionary principle to engage the government in directing its resources to more extensive and detailed research and planning with regard to the problems that Arun 3 will cause. This is so that the government is well-equipped with a detailed plan to foresee and mitigate any problems, reducing the impact Arun 3 has on the environment and the locals. In this paper, I would be discussing the disadvantages of Arun 3, mainly in the aspect of the environment and human health.
The dam constructed for Arun 3 (70m tall and 466m long) is expected to have a capacity of 900MW and is situated in Sankhuwasabha district in East Nepal, along the Arun River (IBN, n.d.). It is potentially damaging to the environment and affected locals in Sankhuwasabha district. Firstly, Arun 3 will likely cause the destruction of the biodiversity in the Sankhuwasabha district and the Arun River that the dam is built on. The Arun River houses about 84 species of fishes, including the Barilius Jalkapoorei, the Labeo Angra and the Pontius Clavatus which are not found in other rivers in Nepal. This makes the Arun River extremely essential because it is the sole habitats for these species. By building the dam, the upstream part of Arun River is converted into an “artificial slack-water reservoir habitat” (International Rivers, n.d.). This will affect the properties of the river such as temperature and oxygen levels, making it unsuitable habitats for the native aquatic flora and fauna. In severe cases, the changes in the physical qualities of the Arun River will cause these native fish species to be extinct, an irreversible impact on biodiversity. In addition, several species of fishes such as the Tor Tor and the Labeo Rohita are “migratory and susceptible to any changes in the quality of water” (Shrestha, 1989). Hence, the building of the dam will likely block migration of these species and affect their population as they are unable to migrate to spawn. For example, the Tor Tor migrates to spawn and will refuse to breed if there is no “free-flowing turbulent water with melting snow” (Shrestha, n.d.).
Therefore, the dam of Arun 3 will likely affect its population since it cannot reproduce. The Arun Basin is also habitat for over 3000 species of flora, 25 species of mammals and 130 species of birds. The dam will prevent the downstream flow of sediments by trapping them. This affects the habitats of biodiversity downstream as the trapped sediments are essential in maintaining and keeping them fertile. This will affect the flora species because they can no longer obtain the required minerals from the now less fertile soil. The dam might also result in riverbed-deepening which will “lower the water table accessible to plant roots” (International Rivers, n.d.). It will become increasingly difficult for plants in the Arun Basin to absorb groundwater. The dam will also alter the river flow and disrupt the delicate balance of life in and around the river. For example, diets of piscivores in the Arun Basin would be affected if fish populations decline and this will affect the top predators that eat these piscivores. Over time, the ecology of the river will be affected as food chains are no longer in balance.
Next, Arun 3 will also destroy the environment surrounding the dam. In the initial phases of the dam, the reservoir will be flooded and vegetation around the dam will rot. This causes huge amounts of carbon stored in this vegetation to be released and methane is produced as vegetation decays. According to Fearnside (2014), the amount of greenhouse gases dams produce is sometimes more than power plants that use fossil fuels. These greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to the enhanced greenhouse effect, ultimately contributing to climate change. Although climate change is not unique to Nepal only, Nepal will suffer greatly from its effects due to the melting of glaciers at the Himalayas that will likely cause other natural disasters such as floods. In the end, the safety of locals are threatened and the environment is degraded.
Not only will the Arun 3 project affect the environment, but it will also impact the livelihood, health and safety of locals around the dam. In order to build the dam, locals will have to be displaced and relocated to other areas. This will result in communities being broken up because it is unlikely that the entire community is relocated to the same location. Relocation will also affect the livelihood of locals because of the difference in the living environment. In Sankhuwasabha, most locals mainly do subsistence farming of potato, wheat and maize. Cardamon and citrus fruits are also the main cash crops of the area. (Shrestha, n.d.) After being relocated, the new environment might not be suitable for these cash crops and locals have to adjust to new ways of lives. This loss in livelihood might be a huge obstacle that locals have to overcome in adjusting to their new environment. In addition, even if locals are not reallocated, their crops will rot due to the possible floods caused by the dam. This amounts to huge monetary losses which will have a bigger impact on these locals who rely solely on sub farming as their main source of income. The building of the dam will also threaten the health and safety of locals around the dam due to the increased possibility of natural disasters. While the dam is being constructed, landslides have already occurred.
On 5 July 2018, a landslide occurred at the construction site due to heavy rainfall and it trapped four workers. Research has suggested that hydroelectric dams increase the risk of natural disasters like earthquakes and landslides due to increased pressure on surrounding land (Hvistendahl, 2008). For example, the Three Gorges in China has been accused of increasing the risks of landslides in the areas around it (Reuters, 2009). It is possible that Arun 3 dam will also cause increased risks of landslides, especially since Sankhuwasabha district is on a slope which makes it more prone to landslides. Increased risks of natural disasters will threaten the safety of locals. However, Arun 3 can also be a solution to poverty and energy scarcity in Sankhuwasabha and Nepal. According to ADB (2017), “Nepal is rich in hydro resources, with development potential of 83,000 megawatts (MW) and commercially exploitable hydropower generating potential of about 42,000 MW”. Arun 3 can help Nepal exploit its hydro resources, generating about 900MW of energy to be used by locals or exported. This can significantly address Nepal’s current energy problems. In addition, “Nepal will receive about Rs348 billion in revenues and Rs107 billion in royalties over 25 years” (Sapkota, 2018).
Evidently, Arun 3 is a major source of revenue for Nepal which can contribute greatly to its economy. Arun 3 can also benefit the local communities through job creation, lifting these communities out of poverty. Compensation plans have also been developed to help those affected. They will be given monetary compensations and given free electricity. Areas around the dam will also have improved facilities like roads and hospitals. Undoubtedly, the benefits of Arun 3 are extensive. However, one cannot deny the fact that there is a severe lack of mitigation plans with regard to the problems Arun 3 will cause. Evictees of Arun 3 are not given land but are instead given monetary compensation (Mainali, 2017). This is done so through a scientific method and the overall cost, from planting to production (Subedi and Shakya, 2016). This is not necessarily effective. With the loss of livelihood and shelter, there is little that locals can do to readjust to their new lives. IBN is currently conducting classes for locals on how to spend their compensation money more prudently (Mainali, 2017) but it is still likely that locals might still lose all their compensation money through gambling or failed businesses. Although some communities are given food and homes for the initial six months (Subedi and Shakya, 2016), communities would have to struggle on their own afterwards.
In conclusion, this paper seeks to analyse the impact of Arun 3 on Nepal and the affected local communities. Arun 3 has its benefits to local communities and it is a potential solution to Nepal’s energy problems. However, it is also proven to be damaging to the environment by destroying biodiversity in the Arun River and Sankhawasabhu district. It also poses a threat to the safety of locals in the area due to increased risks of natural disasters. Currently, there is also a lack of mitigation plans In view of the detrimental effects on the environment and human health, I would invoke the precautionary principle to direct the government’s resources into research and planning so as to come up with a solution to mitigate the possible problems that Arun 3 can cause.
With regard to the possible loss of biodiversity, the government can consider building an artificial river so that new spawning channels can be created. This can be done so by side-channelling the original river course to a suitable location. This allows fish species that are unable to migrate due to the dam blocking the river to be able to reproduce in new spawning locations. (Shrestha, n.d.) Alternatively, since this is a collaborative project between Nepal and India, the Nepalese government can work more closely with India and tap on the expertise of India to mitigate these problems. In my opinion, Nepal will benefit greatly from Arun 3 but she must first be able to address the potential problems that may arise.