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In the world's largest blackout, some 600 million Indians lost power Tuesday. It is the second major failure of the country's power grid this week. Exactly what caused these monumental power outages is still under investigation, but the blackouts are raising new questions about India's rising energy needs. In this series, GlobalPost looks at the nearly 150 dams planned for the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Together, the dams would fill India's energy gap. But they will also devastate dozens of indigenous tribal peoples, wipe out thousands of acres of breathtaking forest and destroy some of the world's best whitewater.


Part 1: How many dams can one state hold?

India's banking on 150 in Arunachal Pradesh to help fill its immense power needs. But the value of the land and cultures that will be lost is impossible to calculate.

ARUNACHAL PRADESH, India — From the service road above the Lower Subansiri Dam, in northeast India, the river below looks deep and still, a dark forest green.

On the bank opposite, a mammoth conveyor carries silt and gravel from a quarry half a mile away. Upstream along the Subansiri River, brilliant red cranes tower over the 380-foot wall of concrete and steel — nearly completed — which unless construction can be halted will soon submerge some 8,500 acres of land.

When it's finished, the 2,000 megawatt (MW) Lower Subansiri project, being built by government-owned NHPC Ltd. near the town of North Lakhimpur on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, will be one of India's largest hydroelectric power plants. Including the Lower Subansiri, 150 dams — many of them massive projects of more than 1,000 MW of capacity — are planned for the Dibang, Siang, Siyom, and Lohit rivers.

Credit: Sanctuary Asia (adapted from map of Dept. of Hydropower, Government of Arunachal Pradesh). Click on the image for a larger version of the map.

For local residents and environmental activists, the Lower Subansiri is the first beachhead in the struggle against breakneck-pace development, which opponents say has been undertaken without full or sincere consideration of its consequences, and could wipe out thousands of acres of breathtaking forest, dozens of fascinating tribal cultures and some of the world's best whitewater for adventure tourism.

Power hunger runs deep

To be sure, India needs electricity. The country is already the world's fourth-largest electricity consumer, after the US, China and Russia. But last year, peak power demand topped 122,000 MW, resulting in a shortfall of some 12,000 MW, or nearly 10 percent, according to the Central Electricity Authority. Overall demand for energy over the year breached 860,000 gigawatt hours, resulting in a total gap of 73,000 GWh, or 8.5 percent.

And the situation promises to get worse, as the Ministry of Power projects a 56 percent increase in annual demand to 1.4 million GWh by the end of the next five- year planning period in March 2017 — requiring the addition of another 100,000 megawatts of generation capacity.

Some 300 million people in villages across the country still have no access to electricity at all. Factories are often forced to generate their own power. Residents of the country's showpiece metropolitan cities endure frequent “power cuts.” During the long, hot summer, excess demand forces electricity providers to resort to rolling blackouts, sometimes for six hours or longer.

In places like Roing — a small outpost in Arunachal's Dibang River Basin with the frontier character of a logging town — matters are even more uncertain. On a recent visit, spring rains knocked out transmission lines running from Assam, and at least one hotel was left without electricity for nearly a week and forced, like millions of businesses across the country, to run a diesel-powered generator from sundown to lights out around 9 p.m.