Every solution to the environmental challenges of our times needs meditation. There is no perfect solution. In the contaminated world where the man-made chemicals are omnipresent, organic farming sounds quixotic idea. When emissions are counted in the manufacture of solar panels, storages, and operation of digital controls, solar energy use by humans no longer can claim to be zero-emission technology.
The development of alternatives needs to search and research. It needs deep dive in the mind-lab. We need to scuba dive into the ocean of unknowns. That’s what exactly I did when I visited Qiandao Lake ( literally ‘ Thousand Island lake’). Let me first explain the background that drove me to meditate.
Qiandao is a human-made, freshwater lake of about 600 square KM located in Chun’an County, in China’s second richest province of Zhejiang. It was formed after the completion of the dam on river Xin’an to set up a hydroelectric station in 1959 when the then Chairman Mao was facing great famine. The move was welcomed by the people of China because it provided the water for irrigation and electricity for industrial activity.
That was the time when India too was busy building hydroelectric stations like Bhakra Nangal, called by the then Prime Minister of India Pandit Nehru called ‘Temples of modern India’.
Before the flooding, the backwater area was replete with hills of the height of more than 100 meters and dotted with ancient villages with extraordinary architecture. When the area got filled with water, the tops of nearly 1000 hills became ‘ islands’. Over 90% of their top land area of 90 square km is thickly forested with amazing biodiversity.
The dam, the first in China, itself is more than 100 meters tall and the power plant generates hydroelectricity of 845 MW.
( Compare with Koyna dam in western India, near my village in Satara district of the state of Maharashtra that was completed in 1964, has backwater lake area of 900 square Km, same height of 100 Meters but electricity generation capacity of nearly 2000 MW)
Hydropower is considered one of the important solutions for the climate crisis because it produces electricity without burning fossil fuel.
But it is not without emissions and definitely not without any adverse impacts. First, it submerges the forests that are carbon sinks. So dam sinks the forest and villages but not the emissions! Indeed it is clean energy that is produced by falling water, but the But big dam projects can totally disrupt the ecosystems including flora and fauna and causing tremendous damage to wildlife. The most visible impact is it creates ‘clean energy refugee’ forcing out residents of the villages that get submerged. The Three Gorges Dam displaced an estimated of more than 1 million people when hundreds of villages were submerged.
Dams disrupt the life of the river fish which is also a food supply line for the riverain. The scarcity of water and droughts due to climate change plays on the very basics of hydroelectricity. There is no option than to turn back to coal and gas.
Finally, the decaying flora in the lake releases methane that is more global warming than carbon dioxide. Now there is a movement to search the methods on how to prevent the adverse scenario arising out of dams.
No solution is perfect. We have to search and research. When I reached the banks of the Qiandao lake, the first thing I did was to wash my hands and feet and splash water on my face. I could not see the villages and the ancient architecture of Shi Cheng ( Lion City ) submerged under the lake. But that touch of water made me sit on its bank and meditate. I decided to dive into the dilemma of past and future.”