NEW DELHI, April 29 (Reuters) - Badly managed hydro-power projects in northern India were partly to blame for devastating floods last year that killed thousands of people and caused extensive damage, an environment ministry panel said in a report obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.
The panel finding's highlight the problem facing India, one of the world's lowest per-capita energy consumers, as it rushes to expand power generation to meet rising demand.
Governments have long sought to harness the power of rivers despite the risks, in part to diversify away from polluting coal and gas plants that are increasingly costly to run.
The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand was hit by its heaviest rainfall on record in June 2013, causing lakes and rivers to burst their banks, inundating towns and villages below.
In a report commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, a panel of 11 experts said that hydroelectric plants had led to the build up of huge volumes of sediment in rivers that was not managed properly.
The sediment raised river beds during the floods and was then flushed downstream, aggravating the severity of the flooding.
"Can it be a mere coincidence that the maximum destruction of land and property occurred in areas downstream of hydro-power projects?" the experts asked, referring to three projects in particular.
The official death toll was 900 with more than 5,700 people declared missing, making it the deadliest ever in the mountainous region. Floods or landslides also washed away or damaged 5,000 roads, 200 bridges and innumerable buildings.
The experts rejected suggestions that the extent of the flooding was caused by deforestation or the breaching of dams brought on by landslides, as was the case in previous floods.
Authorities urgently needed to conduct region-wide assessments of the impact of projects, rather than consider individual plants in isolation, the panel said, and should reject 23 out of 24 proposed power projects in Uttarakhand if they were within areas of significant biodiversity.
Companies with hydroelectric interests in the state include Jaiprakash Power Ventures Ltd, GVK Power & Infrastructure Ltd and state-run NTPC. The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based environmental group, said he welcomed the report but limiting the study to two of the state's river basins had weakened its findings.
"Most of the recommendations are useful but some of them are a bit weak," he said. "We think they should have asked for all work on the 24 proposed projects to stop immediately - they should have said this explicitly."
Hydro electricity accounts for about 18 percent, or 40,000 megawatts, of India's installed generation capacity and another 14,000 megawatts are under development, government data shows, but its contribution is expected to fall as environmental complaints slow new construction. (Reporting by Tommy Wilkes and Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by Robert Birsel)