Six months after a devastating flood of rock, ice and debris gushed down the Rishiganga river in Uttarakhand and killed at least 200 and severely damaged two hydropower projects, three Central Ministries, which initially had dissenting views on the future of hydroelectric power projects have agreed to a consensus.
As hydro power projects, dams and construction activities are increasing, landslides too are becoming common in Himachal Pradesh, especially in the tribal districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur which have seen incessant rains.
GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment)
Dimensions of the Article:
- Concerns on recent approval of hydropower projects in Himalayas
- Studies and Evidences regarding the risks of Hydropower projects in Himalayas
- Counter Arguments and Recommendations
- Way Forward
Concerns on recent approval of hydropower projects in Himalayas
- The recent approval for 7 hydel projects essentially goes against the core mandate of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) which is to conserve the country’s natural environment.
- Approvals have been given despite the dire warnings of climate change threats and environmental challenges these projects could pose.
- The proliferation of dams is not restricted to Uttarakhand. By 2007, Sikkim had entered a contract with private-public sector players for the development of 5,000 MW. Arunachal Pradesh signed memoranda of understanding in 2010 for 40,000 MW.
- These agreements thrived on speculative investments and political brokering and had minimal accountability or experience in the courier and logistics, real estate, steel fabrication, and tourism sectors.
Studies and Evidences regarding the risks of Hydropower projects in Himalayas
- The study and analysis of recurrent disasters in the last decade in the state of Uttarakhand point towards the anthropogenic pressure being a direct or an indirect contributor.
- Post the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, in suo motu cognisance by the Supreme Court, an expert body (EB-I) was constituted to investigate the link between hydro-power projects in Uttarakhand and the recurring disaster. In its findings, EB-I said there was a direct and indirect impact of these dams in aggravating the disaster. However, to get approvals for these projects, multiple committees were formed with some design changes to finally get approvals.
- Besides, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has special significance in the context of fragile mountainous ecological regimes.
- Read more on the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) covered in Aug 10th, 2021 CNA.
- The sustainability of the dams in the long term is highly questionable as hydropower solely relies on the excess availability of water. Climate change models are clear about the cascading impacts of global warming trends on the glaciers of the Himalayas — the main source of water in the region. Temperatures across the region are projected to rise by about 1°C to 2°C on average by 2050. Retreating glaciers and the alternating phases of floods and drought will impact the seasonal flows of rivers.
- Evidences suggest that about 15% of the great earthquakes (of magnitudes greater than 8) of the 20th century took place in the Himalayas and many of its segments are likely to see a period of intense earthquake activity in the future. The 2015 Nepal earthquake is a case in point – Several dams were damaged in that event destroying a third of Nepal’s hydropower.
- The conclusions of EB-I that had flagged the incalculable environmental risks of such structures have been conveniently sidelined and overwritten by EB-II.
- EB-II has paved way for all projects through some design change modifications.
- Recent affidavit reveals that the Government is inclined towards the construction of 26 other projects, as in the recommendation of the expert body (EB-II; B.P. Das committee).
- The affidavit submitted by the MoEFCC conceals its own observations and admissions given in its earlier affidavit of 2014 which admitted that hydroelectric projects did aggravate the 2013 flood.
- It also conceals the minutes of the meeting and decision taken by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in 2019 in this regard which mentions that there would be “no new hydropower projects” on the Ganga along with the cancellation of those that have not reached 50% of its construction.
- A huge amount of money is being wasted in the construction of hydel dams that will function much below their efficiency, cause the loss of water and forests, and render the area fragile.
- By the time they are constructed, the cost of electricity generated will also be phenomenally high and would have no buyers.
Counter Arguments and Recommendations
- Hydropower is abundantly available in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and its usage becomes critical to the development of the state.
- Hydropower constitutes a renewable source of power and will be critical to meet India’s obligations under its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Climate Agreement.
- While the hydro power projects in the region have brought prosperity, they have also increased the vulnerability of the fragile ecosystem of the region. A balance has to be struck between development and environmental sustainability.
- Small run-off hydro power projects with a small environmental footprint should be promoted in the region. Other alternatives like solar power should also be explored.
- The fact that the state of Uttarakhand has its own unique environmental challenges needs to be accounted for adequately in any policy on hydro power projects framed/reviewed by the government. The conservation, sustenance of these ecologically fragile regions must be given the highest priority.
- Science and logic press on the need for conservation and protection in these sensitive areas.
- These are the projects that have been approved by the Government with no science backing them but with several scientific truths demanding their cancellation.
- Considering the environmental and cultural significance of these areas, it is imperative that the Government refrains from the economically challenged rapacious construction of hydroelectric projects and declares the upper reaches of all the headstreams of the Ganga as eco-sensitive zones. It must allow the river to flow unfettered and free.
- Additionally, the MoEFCC must formulate a written position on climate change adaptation with respect to the hydropower sector, after a thorough public discourse.
-Source: The Hindu