Training engineers, not Ganga

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

gangaHydropower is important. But how important? Is it important enough to dry up stretches of our rivers? Or is there a way to balance the need of energy with the imperative of a flowing, healthy river? I have been grappling with these issues for the past few months. But now that the committee (of which I was a member) on the hydropower projects on the Ganga has submitted its report, let me explain how I see the way ahead.

The Ganga in the upper reaches has been an engineer’s playground. The Central Electricity Authority and the Uttarakhand power department have estimated the river’s hydroelectric potential at some 9,000 MW and planned 70-odd projects on its tributaries. Their dreams are gargantuan. In building these projects the key tributaries would be modified—through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs—to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda could be “affected”. As much as 90 per cent of the other smaller tributaries could be “affected” in the same way.

In this way, hydropower would re-engineer the Ganga. It would also dry up the river in many stretches. Most of the proposed projects are run-of-the-river schemes, which are seemingly benevolent as compared to large dams. But only if the project is carefully crafted to ensure that the river remains a river and does not turn into an engineered drain. On the Ganga, many projects were planned and were being built so that one project would divert water from the river, channel it to where energy would be generated and then discharge it back into the river. But the next project would be built even before the river could regain its flow. So, the river would simply dry up over entire stretches. Energy generation was the driver; indeed, the only obsession. The plan was based on using up all the water in the dry season to make energy. The river would have died.

In the committee we discussed various options for ecological flow (e-flow)—why and how much water should be left in the river for needs other than energy. The hydropower engineers argued for 10 per cent e-flow, which they said they could “accommodate” in project design without huge loss of energy generation. The Wildlife Institute of India, commissioned to look at ecosystem and fish biodiversity needs, suggested between 20 per cent and 30 per cent e-flow in different seasons.

I said this was inadequate. In most stretches, the lean flow (from November to April) was less than 10 per cent of the high monsoon flow. Leaving just 30 per cent would mean a trickle. It was not acceptable. I proposed 50 per cent e-flow at all times. But clearly, this was completely and absolutely unacceptable to the other side.

My colleagues at Centre for Science and Environment decided to do some number crunching. The committee had been provided, on repeated requests, hydrological data of 24 constructed and proposed projects. My colleagues took this data and analysed what would be the impact on energy generation and tariff in different e-flow regimes. They found that in the 50 per cent e-flow scenario there was substantial impact on the amount of energy generated and, therefore, on the tariff. But if we modified this a little and provided for a little extra water for energy generation in the high discharge season, but kept the 50 per cent e-flow for the lean season, the results changed dramatically. In this case, the reduction in energy generation was not substantial. Therefore, tariffs were comparable. The reason was simple: the projects actually did not generate much energy in the lean season. The plant load factor, project after project, showed that even in the unrestricted scenario (e-flow of 10 per cent or less) there was no water to make energy in the lean season. We suggested that mimicking river flow was the best way to optimise energy generation. The river had enough to give us but only if we put the river first, our needs next. Based on this, our proposal was to provide 30 per cent e-flow for six months (May to October) and 50 per cent for six months (November to April). But as expected, this analysis did not suit the power interests. IIT-Roorkee, also a member of the committee, was asked to review the analysis.

The games started. IIT-Roorkee, represented by its Alternative Hydro Energy Centre, disputed our conclusions. We asked why? No data was provided on the method of estimation. But hidden in the background sheets provided by IIT-Roorkee was data from two projects of hydrological flow used to disprove our figures. We checked. We found to our shock that figures of flow had been modified; suddenly there was no water in the river in the first place, so a higher e-flow regime would naturally mean lower energy generation. We checked again. We found that even levelised tariff figures had been “changed” from what was provided earlier to the committee.

A round of data contest began. In my next article, I will tell you how the matter was resolved (or not). But let me leave you with this thought: rivers should not be trained; it’s Indian water and hydropower engineers who need re-training.

Hydrology of the upper ganga river

The impacts of water infrastructure and climate change on the hydrology of the Upper Ganges river basin

Assessment of environmental flows for the Upper Ganga Basin 

The drying up of River Ganga: an issue of common concern to both India and Bangladesh 


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  • Indeed a candid and truthful

    Indeed a candid and truthful narration of how capture of key elements in a decision making process is resorted to. Thankfully your membership in the committee at least allowed a persistent and committed engagments for a closer look at the way number crunching goes on in such high powered committee level. Two issues however stand out> First, While I fully accept the concept of training the engineers if the trainers themselves are questionable, as pointed out by you, then the results would not be any different. Take the case of Panchayati Raj Indstitutions. Since its coming into force in 1994 we are still obsessed with capacity building and training as the major activity. We also see that recently in case of fertiliser pollution story where many well know agriculture scientists argued for training and awareness generation amongst farmers for balanced nutrients application in their farms. Such incapacitating training certainly are flavour of the international organisation as well, for instance, WTOs Training programmes are guided by the "sunflower syndrome" where the sun is the funding agency in this case developed countries.
    Secondly, since many dreams on agriculture front are built on the flawed river water flows, the most recent case being the Rangarajan Committee on sugar decontrol recommending intensive sugarcane cultivation along Ganga.
    Certainly the training has a long agenda.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very well-written editorial,

    Very well-written editorial, Sunita.ji. Really, re-training of engineers for lateral thinking is a must. We are fortunate that CSE team has worked out an alternative and this should be accepted with an open mind, not based on any bias or hidden interest.
    Primarily, I feel we need to redefine 'development' and the notions of a blind race to become a 'developed and GDP driven Nation'!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Speaking about large

    Speaking about large hydropower projects in a North East Indian context, where many local communities and all those having concerns for the environment, biodiversity, seismic safety and other pertinent issues are not happy with the commissioning of mega projects, there should be an open-minded search for alternative solutions. Of the 160-odd hydroelectric power projects identified by the Central Electricity Authority under the 50,000 MW Hydroelectric initiative, about 42 projects between the installed capacity of 30-100 MW can yield a total of 2747 MW, of which some 32 projects with a total installed capacity of 2198 MW appear to be largely free from controversies and major adverse impacts. Additionally, at least about 612 MW can be generated from small hydropower projects. Thus a total installed capacity of 2810 MW can come from such small and medium-scale projects that are likely to have less environmental and social impacts. These additions themselves will greatly augment the present generation of 1116 MW in the region. Therefore, these projects could be examined with priority and executed if found feasible, while more extensive studies continue to be conducted on the controversial mega projects before arriving at any decision with informed consent of all stakeholders accorded uppermost priority. An atmosphere of trust and transparency has to be created among project developers and project affected population. Furthermore, smaller projects are likely to have shorter gestation periods and begin to address the existing power shortage in the region within a relatively short time. In many cases, projects could be downsized to arrive at an acceptable solution. For instance, the 600 MW Kameng Hydroelectric Project has been reviewed to an installed capacity of 480 MW to avoid submergence of Seppa town in Arunachal Pradesh. Similar reviews could be conducted on large projects with major environmental and socio-cultural impacts as well as high seismicity-related risks. The aim should be to arrive at not only informed consent of stakeholders at all possible levels, but also informed choice of the different technological options available, while paying due attention towards respecting the ÔÇ£Precautionary PrincipleÔÇØ.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for bringing up such

    Thanks for bringing up such an important issue so wonderfully so that anyone can undertsand what is happening. I have been thinking about the questions you have raised in your editorial. Some 3-4 years back, I visited Uttarakhand and saw that so many dams are being constructed as part of hydrological project. Understanding E-flow concept interms of water availability in river was very important for me as reader. Would await for your next editorial.
    CEE North, Lucknow

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Timely and rightly said; its

    Timely and rightly said; its time for paradigm shift - to adopt "policies as to how much of discharge need to be harnessed" to keep the rivers alive. A re-estimation of hydropower potential is called for, not to be surprised by the frank opinion of Ms. Sunita Narain.
    It's time to enforce "sustainable development" paradigm in our polices for natural resource utilisation.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for flagging the

    Thanks for flagging the important issue. Very well written. Look forward to the next article. Would it be possible for you to put in the public domain the work done by the CSE team on the alternative e-flow scenarios?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • To Sunita Just I have read


    Just I have read your write up `Training Engineers, not Ganga'. Here you wrote `rivers should not be trained; itÔÇÖs Indian water and hydropower engineers who need re-training'. Here is a very excellent sentence that you use in it. I like it. But when engineers read this they will be angry with you.

    Touhidur Rahman

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • For being the only non

    For being the only non scientist and non engineer working in Pollution Control Board regulatory regime, I have been experiencing this difficulty of common sense and common calculation being disputed by Engineering calculations. Personal experience being questioned by Laboratory Readings.

    Very peculiar, that Laboratory can give the results you want to see, or they want you to see. The sample, the result and the interpretation all not only question but also dispute the public experience.

    Life is not corroborated experiment but real experience.

    I recall some time back how one EIA report wrote about Mango trees since the Data Entry Operator/EIA Essayist did not know of Mangroves. Every day I encounter this type of experience.

    Excellent editorial which makes people who feel helpless like me seeing our experience reflecting on your esteemed fortnightly.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Accepted that we require both

    Accepted that we require both the electricity for development and healthy environment for sustainability, we require to draw rational line so that one should not harm other and development can be achieved with minimal environmental loss.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It's been an issue of

    It's been an issue of contention between developers and regulators. The irony here is that developers kept on building one after another, while the poor regulators are still negotiating on the percentage which is becoming more of the wild goose chase story.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • india should be proud of her

    india should be proud of her daughters like SUNITA NARAIN

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It is true and

    It is true and congratulations to SN. These facts should open the eyes of the planners and designers who should correct themselves based ground realities. In spite of the availability technologies, things are going the wrong way. It means the basic assumptions and the choice of technology / software are not matching local needs and realities. This leaves the common man wondering what technology is doing for them who still struggle for their basic needs.

    Looking forward to hearing more from SN in the next article. All the best.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Shocked truly at the

    Shocked truly at the disclosure about modification of figures by IIT Roorkee, just to prove a premise which is as it is wrong in the first place! True, it is the engineers who need retraining, even about the basic moral values; particularly those in some serious decision making positions...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The affect on water ecology,

    The affect on water ecology, associated food chains, food web, fisheries, and other allied socio-economic activities and its impact on livelihood of communities living along the river, must be taken into consideration while coming to any decision. If 90 % flow is hampered, the effect on the above mentioned parameters will also be huge. Do the engineers have any answer for that or can they calculate the impact honestly?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Having read all the

    Having read all the post-review comments, I am equivocal however just want to add a well said quote by India's great moral leader Mohandas K. Gandhi that there is enough on Earth for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed. Today, Gandhi's insight is being put to the test as never before.
    Well done Ms. Sunita Narain. We look forward to your next post.

    Santanu Paul

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with you Prof George.

    I agree with you Prof George. All our training programmes are ill designed, particularly Govt sector. In the name of capacity building we are just providing stereotype readymade training NOT capacity building. Do remember me? I am from Haryana Irrigation Department & e-mail is

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita Ji, very well written

    Sunita Ji, very well written and thought provoking. I have seen the case of rivers in Himachal Pradesh. For example, Beas river downstream of Pandoh Dam (Diversion dam for 990 MW Dehar powerhouse of BBMB) is almost dry during summer. This is despite the fact that Himachal is the only state to have mandatory 15% e-flow and BBMB faithfully complies. Similarly I have seen mighty Satluj dry during summer downstream of Nathpa Dam (diversion dam for 1500 MW Jhakri Powerhouse of SJVNL). It is also interesting to note that the 15% figure is arbitrary and now modified to 20%, then the DPR of Luhri Project has probably 25% percent. In my opinion we cannot have any fixed value for all rivers. It should vary from river to river depending on many complex parameters, including hydrology, ecological system of the river, social considerations, etc.
    But of what use is all this? There is inadequate institutional mechanism in place to monitor compliance. Hardly any reliable measuring system in place. But above all, do we (engineers, hydro developers & Govt) have any will to implement it in true spirit. We may carry out umpteen studies (like World Bank e-flows study currently being undertaken by foreign consultants who do not know much about our river & other systems), write papers, organise seminars, etc. etc. but of what use. This is not a fight between professionals of two conflicting streams but a gigantic task to sincerely determine the consequences of unabated exploitation of rivers and take appropriate corrective steps before it is too late. We owe this to our next generation.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I agree. It is critical that

    I agree. It is critical that we have a strong monitoring system for ecological flow. In the Inter-Ministerial Group report this is the concession that has been made. It has been agreed that there will be an online monitoring system, which will be available in the public domain. I am still not sure how this will be set up, but still it is a step ahead. Lets hope we can get some action, before we end up killing all our rivers.

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I agree. It is critical that

    I agree. It is critical that we have a strong monitoring system for ecological flow. In the Inter-Ministerial Group report this is the concession that has been made. It has been agreed that there will be an online monitoring system, which will be available in the public domain. I am still not sure how this will be set up, but still it is a step ahead. Lets hope we can get some action, before we end up killing all our rivers.

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 4 years ago | Reply
  • The UN environment report

    The UN environment report states that Ganga would disappear by 2030.There would be no need to train engineers or even Ganga !!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply