Climate Change

Chamoli glacier burst: Himalayan blunders compounded

The issue is about carrying capacity of the fragile region, which is even more at risk because of climate change

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 11 February 2021
The devastated Rishiganga power project at Tapovan, Uttarakhand. Photo: Manmeet Singh

The flash flood in high Himalayas, which has claimed lives and wiped out two hydroelectric plants on the Ganga, should be a grim reminder of the mistakes we continue to make. There is no rocket science here about why this devastation happened. The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain ranges, prone to erosion and landslides and unstable because of high seismic activity.

This is compounded by the sheer madness — I will explain why I say this — of development, with hydropower projects being built back to back. On top of this, climate change and its resultant warming of glaciers and unseasonal snow and heat are exacerbating conditions in the already fragile ecosystem. On February 7, 2021, the people of Reni village — the birthplace of India’s environmental consciousness as this is where the women stopped the felling of trees — say they heard a loud bang. 

Within minutes the muddy deluge gushed down damaging the 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydropower project and then washing away the under-construction 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad project downstream. It is not clear (as yet) if the glacier melted; or there was unseasonal snow that melted; or that it was a combination.

What’s clear is that there was a landslide or avalanche that blocked the river and when the natural dam broke because of the force of water, it brought the power of kilolitres of water mixed with moraine, rock and silt. It is important to note is that this flash flood occurred in winter, when there is less water; so, destruction was limited. It should be a warning of the scale of devastation that can happen. There is no question that we are going to see more of this, not less, unless we change the way we do business with the environment. 

But more importantly it will happen until we take better studied decisions on the projects and on mitigating their impacts. This is where we falter. Our systems for decision-making to assess the impacts of “development” projects were already weak and have become virtually non-existent by now. The processes of decision-making are firmly in the hands of faceless and nameless committees, where papers are shuffled around to get the desired results.

This is where the Himalayan saga must be understood. I saw it from the insides when I was briefly a member of an inter-ministerial group on issues related to the Ganga in 2013. What I found was appalling and, frankly, depressing. The water and power engineers had calculated the hydropower potential as 9,000 MW, which would be generated by 70-odd projects, small and big. As per their own admission these projects, mostly in the upper catchment of Uttarakhand Himalayas, would “affect” 80-90 per cent of the stretches of the river. 

As these are mostly run-of-the-river projects where the water is diverted through tunnels or reservoirs and then released into the river, this meant that the river would not flow naturally, but would be re-constructed to 80-90 per cent of its length. The projects were designed to draw the last drop of water and during lean seasons, as per the project designers, the river would cease to flow naturally.

The inter-ministerial group was to assess this and provide guidance on the required ecological flows. The engineers argued 10 per cent ecological flow would be adequate and this is how they had designed the plethora of projects. The interest in building hydropower was obviously huge — it came from all sides; from energy industry and construction to political leaders who saw this as development opportunities for their region. But now that the list of the projects was on the table (over 6,000 MW had not been built yet), the question was how these could be justified. 

I argued that the projects had to be re-worked — both the commissioned ones and those on the table — so that the ecological flow was 30 per cent of the high flood water season and 50 per cent of the low water season. I argued that projects would need to mimic the river and not the other way around. Based on extensive calculations my colleagues and I showed this re-design would not compromise on tariff or generation capacity of existing projects.

But it would mean that the number of projects would need to be drastically reduced. This was not acceptable. I wrote then how hydropower researchers at the premier Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Roorkee then manipulated data to justify that up to 25 per cent of ecological flow for 8 months and 30 per cent in lean water months would be adequate. Forget that it would dry up the river; make the mighty Ganga — which holds the collective consciousness of the country — nothing more than an engineered drain. It was okay. 

My dissent was noted. And the report cleared business as usual. Since 2013, much more water has flowed down the Ganga and there has been much activism from courts and governments about the need to curtail these projects. But after all the big talk, not much has changed.

As of today, some 7,000 MW of hydroelectric projects are either operating or being constructed in this fragile region; back to back; with no respect for the river or its need to flow naturally. The issue is not about hydropower generation or the need for energy or development. It is about the carrying capacity of this fragile region, which is even more at risk because of climate change.

This needs to be assessed, but by keeping the river first and our needs next. Otherwise, the river will continue to teach us bitter lessons; it will be the revenge and rage of nature. Humans will be shown as the puny things we are.

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