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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.
With a fast-growing reputation for some of the world's best whitewater, anti-dam activists say Arunachal Pradesh should look to eco-tourism for income.
PASIGHAT, Arunachal Pradesh — “You see that spot in the river there?” asks Tajir Tali, a rafting, trekking and fishing guide with Donyi Hango Tours & Travels, a locally owned firm. “That's where Roland flipped last time he was here.”
From a ridge overlooking the confluence of the Siang and Siyom rivers, near the East Siang district headquarters in the town of Pasighat, the water looks like a twisted blue rope — fast, yes, but without the foamy white you'd expect in a tricky passage.
If it rolled Donyi Hango's American partner, though, it must have some hidden power. An experienced paddler, Roland Stevenson has guided countless kayakers and rafters down Arunachal's many rivers, and notched up several “first descents.”
The endlessly braiding blue beckons, infinite and mysterious. Even more so because both the Siang and Siyom — as well as many other rivers in India's wildest, least-populated state — may soon be tamed, or killed, by more than 150 dams built to generate hydro-electric power.
“If the lower and upper Siang dams were to be built, almost all of the whitewater would be [lost] underwater,” said Stevenson, whose company, River India, runs up to 10 commercial rafting and kayaking trips in Arunachal every year. “Not only the whitewater, but some of the most beautiful gorges in northeast India.”
Protected, and neglected, by the government of India for the past 60 years, Arunachal Pradesh boasts some of the country's last surviving wilderness, miles upon miles of mountains and forests, along with some of the world's best and least explored whitewater.
Today Arunachal is sprinting in a breakneck race to dam its rivers. Dam proponents promise that the state will “float in hydro dollars like the Arab countries are floating in petro dollars,” as the state power secretary wrote in 2005. But paddlers, trekkers and birders say the dams will kill the eco- and adventure tourism business before it can prove its potential.
“Eventually there won't be any river-related activity. It will be totally closed,” said Jibi Pulu, a businessman from the Dibang River Valley's Idu Mishmi tribe who operates a lodge called the Mishmi Hill Camp on the banks of the Ezefra River.
Anti-dam activists have their work cut out for them. New scientific evidence shows that some hydro-electric facilities produce greenhouse gases of their own. And in Arunachal Pradesh, any reduction in carbon dioxide emissions must be weighed against the destruction of thousands of acres of dense forest that is today converting that CO2 into oxygen.
Moreover, environmental activists say that India could even eliminate the need for many of these dams — or the coal-fired power plants they're meant to replace. Due to long, poorly maintained transmission lines and shoddy equipment, India's annual distribution losses hover around 30 percent — which means that a third of the power India generates is lost before it reaches the consumer.
But it's an uphill battle. Despite new questions about how green they really are, the dams look clean when the only alternative is India's dirty coal. And hydropower has significant economic appeal for state administrators. India's massive demand for electricity has already allowed Arunachal Pradesh to collect nearly $300 million in upfront payments from would-be dam builders. And because the state has virtually no industry and only 1.5 million people, the sale of electricity to other parts of India would provide a significant source of continuing revenue.
Nevertheless, locals who feel their cultures will be destroyed, tour operators and adventurers say the state can meet its power needs and even generate some income through electricity sales with only a few small dams. And dam opponents question whether the huge number of dam projects proposed for Arunachal Pradesh will really benefit the state or its people.
Non-profits like International Rivers argue that the electricity generated by the projects will likely be sold directly to industry and remain too expensive for poor people – though the terms of most or all dam contracts promise 12-15 percent of the output to the state, free of charge.
Similarly, local tribal organizations maintain that revenue generated for the state benefits politicians more than people – pointing to estimates that suggest only 10 percent of the funds Arunachal receives from the central government ever make it to the grassroots, with the rest ending up in the pockets of politicians.
Meanwhile, eco- and adventure tourism — though they don't generate millions of dollars — bring money and jobs into the mountains and villages where they are needed the most, tour operators say.
Stevenson's company, River India, for example, was recognized with Travel & Leisure's Global Vision Award in 2010 and named a finalist in National Geographic's Geotourism Challenge in 2009 for its efforts to create jobs for locals and raise awareness about conservation along the Siang. And locally based, tribal-owned tour companies like Donyi Hango have also reaped benefits.
“All our logistic works and everything is taken care of by local people,” said Vikram Joshi of New Delhi-based Aquaterra Adventures — the Indian-owned company that ran the first commercial rafting trip in Arunachal in 2002. “On a lot of our trips we try to take along local young people who are interested in learning what rafting is all about.”
How much impact can tourism have? About twice the size of neighboring Bhutan, and with twice the population, Arunachal Pradesh has many of the same attractions. Apart from whitewater, it boasts beautiful mountains and breathtaking forests for hikers and birdwatchers.
And, like Bhutan, where the king barred television and the internet until 1999 and still requires locals to wear the traditional gho and kira in public places, Arunachal remains untouched by the homogenizing influence of globalization in many respects.