Time to rethink hydropower in Uttarakhand, say experts

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The Third Pole, Uttarakhand, India

An expert panel appointed by India’s environment ministry blames hydropower projects for magnifying last year’s Uttarakhand disaster, and the Supreme Court halts 24 projects

 400 MW Vishnuprayag hydel project that got destroyed in June 2013 by the severe flash floods that swept through the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, (Courtesy: International Rivers)

The 400-megawatt Vishnuprayag dam was destroyed  by the June 2013 flash floods that swept through the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. (Courtesy: International Rivers)

In mid-June, it will be the first anniversary of the Uttarakhand tragedy where over 900 people died and hundreds more went missing after landslides and floods tore into the Himalayan state. For years, environmentalists had been warning that the disaster was waiting to happen as the authorities went ahead to build many of the 450-odd hydroelectric projects planned in the region.

Echoing concerns raised by green activists, a recent report submitted by an expert body to the Supreme Court has stated that hydropower projects were responsible for amplifying the scale of the Uttarakhand disaster and causing environmental damage in the state.

After getting the report, the Supreme Court ruled this month that all ongoing work on 24 hydropower projects in the state should be stopped until the next hearing, scheduled in July. Eminent Uttarakhand-based environmentalist Bharat Jhunjhunwala had gone to court over the issue.

The seventeen member expert body was constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests following an August 2013 Supreme Court order for a detailed assessment of whether hydroelectric projects had contributed to environmental degradation and if they had played a role in the Uttarakhand tragedy. Over half a million people were affected in what was termed the worst natural disaster India faced after the 2004 tsunami.

The expert committee found that construction of massive dams in Uttarakhand resulted in large-scale excavation of muck that was disposed irresponsibly on riverbeds, which got washed downstream during the floods multiplying the extent of damages manifold.

“It’s definitely a strong report and the most comprehensive and in-depth one so far. It could have delved into the socio-cultural aspects but what we had been saying all along that these dams are detrimental to the environment and that they were responsible for the disaster, has been taken into account,” said Mallika Bhanot, an activist from a people’s movement called Ganga Ahvaan.

The experts want a rejig of the state’s hydropower policy. They recommend scrapping 23 projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers and their tributaries. These two rivers join to form the Ganga, India’s longest river and one considered holiest by millions of Hindus.

“The hydroelectric power projects would have irreversible impacts on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins,” states the report.  It further points out that a number of these projects fall inside protected forests, the Gangotri eco-sensitive zone or critical wildlife areas, and that these projects should be rejected.

The report also says that above the snowline – which is between 2 and 2.5 kilometres above sea level in the area – should be kept free of hydropower projects. Since glaciers in the area are receding due to climate change, there are more debris (called moraine) near their snouts and therefore more sediment in the rivers that spring from these glaciers. That can mean a higher volume of mud cascading down and increasing the damage in the event of flash floods, like the ones that took place in 2013.

The experts want the federal environment ministry to carry out cumulative environment impact assessments for all river basins and issue river regulation zone guidelines on the basis of these assessments.

“The area is already highly prone to flash floods, seismic activity and landslides. With big hydro projects come tunnelling, blasting that further increase the risk of landslides and can play havoc in case of a disaster like the one we witnessed last year,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) told thethirdpole.net.

SANDRP said in a statement that the experts should have asked for immediate stoppage of work on all 23 projects. The NGO questioned the presence of some members on the committee, alleging that they had a conflict of interest, especially B.P. Das, former member and vice chair of the environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on river valley projects. The EAC had cleared the projects in the first place.

The environment ministry told the Supreme Court this month that it wanted to reconstitute the expert committee. The court asked why, and the matter will be taken up in July.