"Hydropower is a renewable, economic, nonpolluting and environmentally benign source of Energy."
So says the Annual Report of Ministry of Power (2001-2002 Chapter 2) where the untapped potential of all the Mountain states have been mentioned. Though it's correct that it's a cleaner energy source with lesser carbon emissions and harmful residues, the impact of construction such dams in any eco-system has been glossed over. It is not at all surprising then, that a Ministry who thought of Hydropower projects as 'environmentally benign', do not have any mention of environmental studies, ecological health or alternate renewable power source like solar or wind even in their latest annual report.
More than 1000 dams (storage, run-of rivers, small hydro power with cascading dams, big and medium) are planned, under construction and /or sanctioned to be built on ALL river systems of the Himalayas – proposed by the Centre and implemented by the State at breakneck speed. It is now obvious why most Environmental Impact Assessments required for approving these power projects, are a farce and clearances have been given so easily. And since it's 'environmentally benign', they do not see any reason to do a serious cumulative impact assessment either on the Himalayan ecology or its unique flora and fauna and the social impact it will have on affected communities whose cultural identity, customs, food habit and livelihoods are inextricably linked with these river systems.
So what happens when all these hydro power projects are built? We get a whopping 110,000 MW* plus energy supply, the states gets to earn revenue and thus show increase in the states' GDP and hence growth. Due to very deep links with the private players, lots of money will get exchanged between them and the politicians (like the Sikkim Rs.20,000 crore scam) making many people rich overnight. The only fallout will be the extreme damage to the ecology, wildlife and the local communities whose lives and livelihood are solely dependent on natural resources and these rivers.
Let me sight a few examples: **
Virtually all the rivers are being dammed at not only one or two places but bumper to bumper on Chenab and Sutlej Rivers due to which, no part of the river is left free flowing. In Chenab, only 10% of the river can be seen flowing at all as the water from one hydro power project meets the reservoir of the next hydro project. This has turned the river into a series of puddles, alternating with dry stretches and for the rest bypassed through tunnels. An Environmental clearance is given in perpetuity, which means there are no systems of checks and controls to oversee whether environmental norms are being followed or not during or after the building of the dam. As this photographic evidence on Sutlej and Baspa's many HEPs show, muck has been dumped without thought into the river, villages' water sources have run dry and 5km downstream, the river itself has run dry which proves that the dams are not releasing the required amount of water to keep the river in flow.20 dams have been sanctioned or being built on the ecologically and socially fragile districts of Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal which is known to fall on Seismic IV and V zones. In a region where very few places are fit for yearlong habitation and cultivation, rehabilitation becomes really difficult for the close knit communities.
In Uttarakhand, 700 km of tunnels are being built through the fragile mountains in order to dam all rivers. There was no Public Hearing conducted, as required, before the construction of the Singoli-Bhatwadi Hydroelectric Project (90 MW) started. The affected villages came to know only when the private companies started cutting down the trees in their area for the project. A 13 km long tunnel will now be constructed for this project and it will run under 26 villages.
The tunnel of the Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project (400 MW) in Uttarakhand is 16 km long and extends between Lambagad and Chaain villages. Four tunnels of this project go from under Chaain village to the power house. In September/October 2007, unexpectedly, land started collapsing and sinking in and around this village.
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) have been a complete farce in the 'bio-diversity hotspot' of Arunachal as it is elsewhere. For example, according to the report, Damming Northeast India, the EIA for the 1,000 MW Siyom project lists 5 bird species in an area which has over 300 species and even in this short list has one which is non-existent; the EIA for the 600 MW Kameng project reclassifies carnivores such as the red panda, pangolins and porcupines as herbivores; the EIA for the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri lists 55 species of fish in a river which has at least 156 species and reports an area called the 'Arctic' in the Eastern Himalayas.Virtually all available arable land in the affected Siang valley will be submerged by the 2700MW Lower Siang project.
States like Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are home to small populations of culturally sensitive indigenous communities. The entire population of Idu Mishmi tribe in Dibang valley is 9500 and their displacement by 17 projects has been termed as 'small'. Moreover, the projects will bring in more than 150,000 labourers from outside for a long time which will completely change the demographic and socio-cultural identity of the region.After the commissioning of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project, flow in the Subansiri River in winter will fluctuate drastically on a daily basis from 6 cumecs for around 20 hours to 2560 cumecs for around 4 hours when the water is released. Thus the river will be starved for 20 hours and then flooded for 4 hours with flows fluctuating between 2 percent and 600 percent of normal flows on a daily basis.
It's funny how the debate on development always swings to extremes with people asking that if we stop 'development', then should we all go back to living in the caves. From whichever angle you look at it, damming of all rivers and constructing bumper to bumper dams is not development. It will sustain our energy requirement for a decade or so, post which the effects of environmental damage will take over fully. Even the US which leads the world in dams with around 80,000 dams / hydropower projects have realized the real depth of ecological damage that has occurred over the years and has now put a stop to all future projects.
We are at a stage where we can learn from the mistake of others and use science to walk the middle path and build a sustainable future. We need to realize where to draw the line and say it's enough. The Himalayas and its river systems are essential to our survival and like the mountain worshipping communities there, the sooner we realize it, the better it will be for us.
Suresh Bhai of HPSS, Uttarakhand along with many other experts, CSOs and local communities is campaigning for a separate people's policy for all Himalayan states of India.
To show your support for the Himalayas, please sign the petition here.
*Added state wise from various reports and sources.
**Excerpts taken from.
The Energy State and the Tragedy of its Rivers - Suresh Bhai; Raksha Sutra Andolan, Jal Sanskriti Manch, Nadi Bachao Andolan Uttarkashi, Himalaya Seva Sangh; Uttarkashi, 2009.
Damming Northeast India – Joint report by Neeraj Vagholikar (Kalpavriksh), Partha J. Das (Aaryanak) and Action Aid India, 2010.
Report by Himanshu Thakkar (January 2011) - For South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.
Report by Parineeta Dandekar (December 2012) - For South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.
Report by Dr. Latha Anantha, River Research Centre, Kerala (January 2013)
Maps – Sanctuary Asia, maps adapted from the Department of Hydropower Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
Bipasha Majumder is a communications officer with a leading NGO. The steady destruction of nature and wildlife, especially in the Himalayas, which she calls her 'home' is an issue very close to her heart.
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