Environment ministry to clear controversial Demwe hydroelectric project

Wildlife board in its report had pointed that the project will affect ecology in the area

 
By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Despite majority of the members of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) rejecting the clearance for the Demwe Lower Hydro Electric Project in Arunachal Pradesh, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan has kept its fate hanging in balance. In its meeting on December 13, the non-official members of the standing committee argued, on the basis of a site inspection report prepared by one of the committee's members Asad Rahmani, that the project if allowed will have devastating impact on the wildlife. The minister, however, said she will take a final call on the project.

The minutes of the meeting that were made public on January 27 quoted her saying the project “area was of strategic importance, and already a sizable investment of scientific, technical and financial inputs had gone into the project” and that “the matter could not be delayed further”. The following media reports said the minister might soon clear the project.

Points of contention
 
  • Report says that the submergence from the project will almost touch the border of the Kamlang sanctuary (only 50 metres away) although areas within 10-km radius of protected areas are to be considered ecologically-sensitive
  • The project is also in extreme proximity of a cultural heritage site, Parasuram Kund, and will submerge parts of the Parshuram Kund Medicinal Plant Conservation Area identified for the conservation of Globally Significant Medicinal Plants by the environment ministry
  • The project will cause serious fragmentation of the aquatic habitat in the Lohit river due to the breakage of longitudinal connectivity of the river
  • No migration of fish such as the Golden Mahseer would be able to take place in the uplands as Lower Demwe is located just before river enters the plains
  • The daily fluctuation of water level in Lohit river due to Demwe Lower dam will result in total habitat modification in grasslands of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the chapories (riverine islands) of Lohit river. Both the areas are identified as Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International and are the remaining limited habitats of the critically endangered Bengal Florican
  • There is a resident population of dolphins in Dibru-Saikhowa. The project would have an impact on nutrients and other aquatic life in the river during monsoons and thus affect the distribution and migration of dolphins
  • A good population of the Asiatic Wild Buffalo and the Hog Deer is present in Dibru-Saikhowa national park and the riverine tracts and islands of the Lohit. After the commissioning of the project, the downstream flow of water will rise as high as 1,729 cusecs for every day in winter for a few hours. This will impact foraging grounds of these species.
 
The 1,750 MW project is being executed jointly by Athena Demwe Power Ltd, promoted by the India-based Athena Energy Ventures Pvt Ltd,  and the Government of Arunachal Pradesh in Lohit district. It is scheduled to be commissioned during the 12th Five Year Plan. It is to be built in an area of 1,590 hectares and involves felling of around 43,000 trees. The project had received environmental clearance in February last year. The forest advisory committee of the environment ministry, which is yet to decide on the forest clearance for the project, had referred the project to NBWL last year as it was in the vicinity of the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary and the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

In November last year, the standing committee of NBWL sent a two-member team—Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, and Pratap Singh, chief conservator of forest (wildlife) of Arunachal Pradesh—to the project area to assess the possible impacts of the project on wildlife.

Ecology at risk

Rahmani in his report says that the submergence from the project will almost touch the border of the Kamlang sanctuary (only 50 metres away) although areas within 10-km radius of protected areas are to be considered ecologically-sensitive. The project is also in extreme proximity of a cultural heritage site, Parasuram Kund, and will submerge parts of the Parshuram Kund Medicinal Plant Conservation Area identified for the conservation of Globally Significant Medicinal Plants by the environment ministry. The project will cause serious fragmentation of the aquatic habitat in the Lohit river due to the breakage of longitudinal connectivity of the river. “In the current situation no migration of fish such as the Golden Mahseer would be able to take place in the uplands as Lower Demwe is located just before river enters the plains,” says the report.

The report points out the harmful impacts of the project downstream especially on the grasslands of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the chapories (riverine islands) of Lohit river. Both the areas are identified as Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International and are the remaining limited habitats of the critically endangered Bengal Florican. The daily fluctuation of water level in Lohit river due to Demwe Lower dam will also result in total habitat modification in these grasslands, says the report.

The report also highlighted the project's impact on the Gangetic River Dolphin, the national aquatic animal in the Lohit river in downstream areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA) while examining an appeal challenging the environmental clearance to the project had asked the NBWL standing committee to examine the downstream impacts on IBAs and dolphins. However, as a response to NEAA's order the Arunachal Pradesh government itself conducted a study and falsely stated that the dolphins do not exist in the Arunachal portion of the Lohit river, says the report.  It says, “There is a resident population of dolphins in Dibru-Saikhowa and these are seen at seven locations in the park. Most importantly, out of these seven locations four are on the southern boundary which is influenced by the flow of the Lohit river.” The report asked for a comprehensive study for this and said the project would have a impact on nutrients and other aquatic life in the river during monsoons and affect the distribution and migration of dolphins.

The report also highlights that a good population of the Asiatic Wild Buffalo and the Hog Deer is present in Dibru-Saikhowa national park and the riverine tracts and islands of the Lohit. It said after the commissioning of the project, the downstream flow of water will rise as high as 1,729 cusecs forevery day in winter for a few hours. “This has a high possibility of impacting foraging grounds of these species.”

The report adds that environment impact assessment report on the basis of which the environment clearance to the project was given was inadequate to assess the actual impact of the project downstream. The environment ministry had asked the state government to conduct a post-clearance study on the downstream impacts of the project on the ecology and the livelihood of the project. However, Rahmani asserted that such studies including a study on the cumulative downstream  impacts of all the dams proposed on Lohit, Dibang and Siang rivers should be done in advance before the final clearance is given to the project. On the basis of these findings, the report says the project should not be cleared. “Prima facie there are serious concerns about downstream impacts on wildlife habitat and species. In this scenario, the precautionary principle should be applied and under no circumstances should wildlife clearance be given based on current impact assessment reports,” says the report.

The discord

Singh, the other member of the site-visit team, however, disagreed with the findings of Rahmani. In a separate six-page report he picked apart Rahmani's claims of the downstream impact of the project. He said more comprehensive studies were required to draw any conclusion on the downstream impacts of the project and that these studies can be done simultaneously along with the progress of the project. “If impacts are found to be immitigable by other means, water flow can be suitably modified to minimise the impacts,” says Singh.

While the non-official members of the NBWL standing committee endorsed Rahmani's report and asked for the rejection of the project, the state government officials denied the project will cause any significant impact on the wildlife. Arguing that the project is important for the country’s strategic and development interests, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the Principal Seceretary (environment) of Arunachal Pradesh demanded the project should be cleared soon. “The people in Arunachal Pradesh are getting increasingly frustrated at the delay in the clearance of developmental projects on the ground of environment, forest and wildlife clearances,” he said.
 

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.