‘Scrap 24 dams, save Ganga’

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Wildlife Institute of India report warns against ecological impact of dams in Uttarakhand

A REPORT commissioned by the Union environment and forests ministry warns the Centre against going ahead with 24 hydropower projects planned on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river systems in Uttarakhand. The projects would destroy 22 per cent of the state’s forestland and affect the unique Himalayan ecology along one-third of lengths of the two main tributaries of the Ganga, states the report prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun.

The ministry, in 2010, had asked WII to assess cumulative impact of hydropower projects on the biodiversity of the Himalayan state. WII studied 70 projects, both under construction and proposed, and found that 24 of the 39 proposed projects would significantly affect critically important habitats in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins. The region supports a large number of rare, endemic and threatened (RET) species.

Of over 1,000 plant species found in the river basins, 55 come under RET category; of 85 animal species, six are RET species; and 16 out of 76 fish species are under RET category.

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“We have recommended maintaining seasonal flow in the rivers for conservation of aquatic biodiversity,” says V B Mathur, dean of WII and coordinator of the study. “We have lost rich biodiversity of Uttarakhand due to big dam projects like Tehri on the Bhagirathi. There is a need to be extra cautious.” To offset the losses due to 31 under-construction projects, the report recommends establishing two conservation reserves for aquatic biodiversity.

To recover the loss of power generation due to scrapping of the 24 hydropower projects, Mathur suggests reducing loss of power during transmission. The 70 projects underway in Uttarakhand are expected to generate 9,563 MW. Scrapping the 24 projects would reduce power generation by 27 per cent, Mathur says. At present power transmission losses in the country are between 30 and 40 per cent. Reducing it to the global average of 15 per cent can help save the power, he adds.

Surprisingly, though WII had submitted the report in March, the environment ministry put it up on its website on April 16, just a day before the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) met to discuss ways to ensure uninterrupted flow of water in the holy river. Analysts say the timing is significant because the ministry can claim to have made the study public before the meeting, but no one would be able to go through the report to raise the concerns highlighted in the report before NGRBA.

Omissions

Himanshu Thakkar of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People points out problems with the report. It underestimates the number of hydel projects on the anvil in the state. Those which have been given a miss include commissioned projects like the 144 MW Chilla dam and proposed projects like 745 MW Utyasu dam on the Alaknanda.

Besides, the report ignores the human need while calculating e-flow in the rivers. E-flow is defined as the quantity, quality and timing of water flow required to sustain riverine ecosystems and the livelihoods and well-being of people who depend on these ecosystems. This is a huge omission and needs to corrected as it affects the cumulative impact of the projects, he adds. The report also misses aesthetic, cultural, spiritual and religious values associated with the Ganga and protected status of the Bhagirathi. The impact of sedimentation on biodiversity and geomorphology have also been given a miss in the WII report. Thakkar, however, hails the report for recommending regular environmental audits for commissioned projects to identify areas of negligence in environmental management. “But it is an open secret that the environment ministry has neither the will nor the ability to do this,” he adds.

WII recommendations can help save the fragile ecology of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, but activists have little hope. Past experience shows that the ministry is insensitive to such strong recommendations (see ‘Cleared at cost of biodiversity’, January 16-31, 2012). Despite commissioning the studies, the ministry often prefers ignoring their recommendations.

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  • Unfortunately, in Uttarakhand

    Unfortunately, in Uttarakhand like many other places, the link between people and ecology has been sundered, leaving a population desperate for jobs and economic advancement (read the good life as shown on TV). As such, many social organizations in Uttarakhand are pushing for the restart of many of these projects, the ecological consequences be damned.

    Moreover, dams have become a touchtone of politics in the hill areas, splitting communities between those who will lose their lands, villages, and livelihoods, and those who have moved on to believing that massive economic benefits will accrue if each dam is given the go ahead (regardless of the less than stellar or honest record of the private contractors).

    The debate has become violent on occasion, and there seems to be little room for honest discussion on the pros and cons of each project. Instead, falsified Environmental Impact Assessments have been pushed forward, and battlelines have been drawn.

    It's a sad state of affairs. The end is near for the hills. Either people will live there and earn a living with a restored ecological balance, or it will become a network of dams and reservoirs with a dwindling population.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dr G D Agrawal is agitating

    Dr G D Agrawal is agitating for this
    We should support it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • This is one of the biggest

    This is one of the biggest crisis of our lifetime...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Now that a major calamity

    Now that a major calamity occured,will the Government more careful in giving future clearances for dams without justification(yielding to political pressures).
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • People of Uttarakhand have

    People of Uttarakhand have had enough in the flood which washed away almost all the resources they had to survive and live. It was again disappointing to read about the forest land getting destroyed, to build dams. I hope such rubbish activities never get encouraged. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 4 years ago | Reply
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