Strict environmental policies

The struggle to restore river normalcy gathers momentum in the US with strict sanctions on dam construction

Published: Monday 15 November 1999

Strict environmental policies

Debris of the Maison-Rouges Da Despite the opposition from political heads and hydropower companies against dam destruction, the emphasis in usa is firmly on restoration of salmon population, even if it means razing the dams. Environmental degradation by dams is also kept in check by monitoring the renewal of dam licenses and also by refusing permission for the construction of dams on eco-sensitive rivers. Strict implementation: In the us , there are over 2,400 hydropower dams not owned by the government. These private dams come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ( ferc ) which issues licenses for a period of 30-50 years for new and existing dams. These licenses impose several conditions on the operation of dams such as minimum water flow, means for fish passage, recreational access and management of the land in the dam site. When a dam's license expires, the private company must apply to ferc for renewal of the license. At this junction, the government body Hydropower Reform Coalition steps in.

The coalition, formed in 1992, is a panel comprising national, state and local conservation and recreational organisations. Its main function is to reform the way ferc licenses all hydropower dams and improve rivers altered by hydropower dams. In each relicensing by the ferc , the coalition seeks the following key conditions:

l Fish passage facilities, where necessary (like fish ladders);

l Public access to the river for recreation;

l Protection of riparian habitat;

l Environmental restoration and mitigation trust funds;

l Planning for long-term dam maintenance; and

l River-wide planning and cumulative analysis

Until 1993, renewal of licenses was done without so much as a whimper. Today, the relicensing process provides an excellent opportunity for the public and government agencies to argue for dam removal, specially if it has outlived its usefulness.

What can India learn from all this? In India, too, the government frames elaborate environmental laws. But they are almost never implemented. Unlike the us , which adheres to its policies and laws, developing countries like India treat environmental regulations with utter disregard. The regulations are meant only to be kept on paper while the administration caters to the whim of vested interests all the time. Pollution in all its manifestations -- such as air, sound, water, environment -- have elaborate laws to bring about restorative measures. Take, for example, the Air Pollution Control Act framed in 1981. Despite the comprehensive restorative measures that need to be taken under the act, air pollution levels have hit an all-time high in Indian metropolitan cities as well as small towns. "The present state of affairs exist because the powers these laws transfer to enforcement agencies are never invoked adequately to make any effective impact," says Anumita Roychowdhury, coordinator for the Right to Clean Air Campaign, Centre for Science and Environment.

With inputs from Urmi Sengupta, California, usA; Kumkum Dasgupta and Arundhati Ahuja, New Delhi

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