Nyamjangchu river

The 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydroproject is proposed on the perennial Nyamjangchu River in Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh by SPV of Bhilwara Energy Limited called NJC Hydropower. It was recommended for Environmental Clearance by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in September 2011.

Of its total 125 km length, Nyamjangchu flows for 40 kilometres in India. Of these 40 km, it will be inside a tunnel for 23.5 kms, affecting 35 kms of its length as the Nyamjangchu HEP comes up. If we add the reservoir formed in this length, it will mean that nearly the entire river will be profoundly changed read, destroyed.

Zemithang valley, where the project will come up is remarkably rich in biodiversity, providing habitat to endangered trees, herbs and orchids. It is one of the last strong holds of the elusive Red panda and one of the last wintering sites of the Black-necked Crane, besides of Schedule I protected species like Snow leopards. It is also an Important Bird Area (IBA).

The region has a strong tradition of community conservation religiously followed by Buddhist Monpas. Two Community Reserves have been set up in the Zemithang Valley to conserve the endangered Black-necked Cranes. Fish in the river are revered by the local Monpa tribes and are not killed, nor are trees felled. Near the barrage site stands an 800 year old Gorsam Stupa, with rich religious and cultural significance. The Monpas are entirely against this project which they think will cause irreversible damage to their river and region.

The protests

A case has been filed against the project in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which led to a landmark order from NGT about open and accessible communication from the Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as project proponents One fact is clear: Nyamjangchu HEP will affect nearly the entire Nyamjanchu River as it now exists. By now, this has become an oft repeated tale for almost all here-to flowing rivers of the Himalayas. The problem gets magnified several times when one dam is followed by another and that by another, converting a river into a series of reservoirs and tunnels.

This is already happening in Sikkim toTeesta, where the planned 44 dams have the potential to lock up the river completely, leaving stagnant reservoirs. It is happening with Chenab in Himachal and in Jammu and Kashmir with over 49 projects, in Sutluj in Himachal where after four consecutive dams, the river will be put in a tunnel for approximately 50 kilometres for the 775 MW Luhri Dam. The entire Upper Ganga: Alaknanda and Bhagirathi is facing this fate with over 70 mega hydropower dams planned and under construction.

As a compromise to this de-watering and devastation of rivers following dams, the concept of 'environmental flows' (eflows) has been evolving. Eflows describe the quantity, quality and timing of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems.

While in the western countries eflows are being pushed for their ecological significance, a flowing river means a lot more to Indians: it has spiritual, cultural and religious significance and supports several livelihoods in its wake.

Bhilwara group gave the task of calculating eflows from Nyamjangchu Barrage to CIFRI, Central Inland Fisheries Institute, Barrackpore. CIFRI is the oldest premier research institute in the field of inland fisheries in India and it was thought that its report will help the river and its species.
However, CIFRIs report is a huge let down. At the outset, CIFRI has defined Eflows as: "water considered sufficient to protect the structure and function of an ecosystem and its dependent species...." It means enough water is to be released in the downstream of the river system after utilizing the water for the development projects. If all development projects are allowed to come up on rivers and eflows are decided later there will be (and has not been) no water to release for eflows.

TwangThe report has some embarrassing cut paste errors which talk of large, lowlands rivers, which Nyamjangchu is not. CIFRI has recommended eflows release at a blanket rate of 3.5 cumecs (cubic meters per second) from the barrage, without any justification. This is 14.4% of average lean season flow, less than even the arbitrary 20% lean season flow generally prescribed by MoEF. In fact, flows recommended by CIFRI are 39% lower than lowest recorded flow. Even in monsoon, CIFRI has not recommended a single cumec of additional flow from the barrage. This flow with velocity of 0.36 meters/second is not sufficient even for the CIFRIs target specie Snow Trout. The recommendations section is so erroneous and shocking that it seems as if CIFRI has simply forgotten to add basic analysis to support its recommendation. Nor has CIFRI recommended that eflows be released through fish passages, which enable migration of fish in the upstream.

This migration is an important part of the reproductive process of most of the fish species found in the Nyamjangchu. The MoEF needs to reject this report and the Environmnetal Clearance given to Nyamjangchu immediately. The sad fact is that private interests are being aided by premier research institutions, which are expected to protect natural resources and community concerns and carry out independent, responsible research.

The local Monpa community which has conserved and nurtured this river and its ecosystems since time immemorial are now fighting with all their might to save it. The Monpas and the River need our support too.

Image 1 & 2 © Tenzing Rab Monpa, Image 3 © nlobsang

Parineeta Dandekar is with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

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