Damming the Himalayas

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 6:51 PM EDT

A recent report by International Rivers details a rash of dam building projects in the world's most rugged and scenic mountain range:

Massive plans are underway in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan to build several hundred dams in the region, with over 150,000 megawatts of additional capacity proposed in the next 20 years in the four countries. If all the planned capacity expansion materializes, the Himalayan region could possibly have the highest concentration of dams in the world.

It's almost certain that this will happen. Sometimes known as the "Third Pole," the Himalayas contain of 3,700 square kilometers of glacial ice, which is melting due to climate change and gushing down the slopes of the 14 tallest peaks in the world. South Asia's boom in population, economic output (which is surprisingly immune to the global downturn), and Western-funded carbon offset projects virtually insures that the forces of dam building will be almost as powerful as the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates.

Clearly the dams will export cheap and low-carbon electricity. But they will also displace hundreds of thousands of people, import hordes of culturally disruptive migrant laborers, wreck fisheries, and, maybe worst of all, breach in the likely event of an earthquake or climate-change-induced flood, unleashing a cascade of disasters. Novelist Arundhati Roy has eloquently opined against the Narmada dam project, though to little avail. We can only hope that the scenic Himalayas will fare better in the protective embrace of their poets.