Hydropower is often termed “green energy” and proffered as an alternative to polluting coal-generated electricity for burgeoning cities and energy-insecure rural areas. India is the third largest coal producer in the world; it is projected to be the largest coal consumer by 2050. In the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, India, over 450 hydroelectric power schemes are proposed or are under development. Hydropower projects ranging from micro hydro (run-of-the-river systems with generating capacity up to 100 kW) to large reservoirs (storage systems up to 2000 MW) such as the Tehri Dam are in various stages of planning, construction or implementation. Run-of-the-river hydropower projects are being developed in Uttarakhand in order to avoid some of the costs to local communities created by large dams. Stakeholders in this rapid hydropower expansion include multiple actors with often diverging sets of interests. The resulting governance challenges are centered on tradeoffs between local electricity and revenue from the sale of hydropower, on the one hand, and the impacts on small-scale irrigation systems, riparian-corridor ecosystem services, and other natural resource-based livelihoods, on the other. We focus on the Bhilangana river basin, where water dependent livelihoods differentiated by gender include farming, fishing, livestock rearing and fodder collection. We examine the contradictions inherent in hydropower governance based on the interests of local residents and other stakeholders including hydropower developers, urban and other regional electricity users, and state-level policymakers. We use a social justice approach applied to hydropower projects to examine some of the negative impacts, especially by location and gender, of these projects on local communities and then identify strategies that can safeguard or enhance livelihoods of women, youth, and men in areas with hydropower projects, while also maintaining critical ecosystem services. By assessing the Bhilangana basin case, we also offer hydropower–livelihoods–irrigation nexus lessons for headwater regions across the Himalayas and globally.
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