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Ministries reach consensus on hydropower projects in Himalayas

Context:

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.

Relevance:

GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Developments between the SC and the Govt. regarding hydropower projects in Himalayas
  2. Concerns regarding the impact of Hydropower Projects 
  3. Counter Arguments and Recommendations
  4. About Himalayan Biodiversity
  5. Significance of Himalayan Ecosystem

Developments between the SC and the Govt. regarding hydropower projects in Himalayas

  • In the aftermath of the devastating Kedarnath floods of 2013, the Supreme Court had halted the development of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand.
  • It had called on the Environment Ministry to review the role played by hydroelectricity projects in amplifying the natural disasters like cloud bursts and floods.
  • Several expert committees were set up to examine the role of 24 such proposed hydroelectric projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin of the river Ganga and its tributaries. The first two committees had concluded that the proposed projects could have a significant environmental impact and irreversibly impact the fragile ecology of the region.
  • According to an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in 2021 on the feasibility of hydroelectric projects in the aftermath of the 2013 Uttarakhand floods: seven hydroelectric projects have been allowed to complete construction primarily on the grounds that they were over “50% complete.”
  • The seven projects are the Tehri Stage 2, Tapovan Vishnugadh (which was impacted by the February flood), Vishnugadh Pipalkoti, Singoli Bhatwari, Phata Bhuyang, Madhyamaheshwar and Kaliganga 2.
  • No other new projects would be allowed in the upper reaches of the Ganga and those sanctioned would have to abide by environment regulations that prescribe a minimum flow in the river at all times of the year to preserve its health.
  • There have been multiple expert committees set up by the government over the years to examine the feasibility of the projects and their construction has frequently provoked agitations.

Concerns regarding the impact of Hydropower Projects 

  • The large scale deforestation exercises involved in construction of hydropower projects leads to land degradation and desertification in the region.
  • Large scale projects with large storage basins lead to submergence of large areas of land.
  • The use of rock blasting and heavy machinery during the construction of power projects has damaged the fragile hills.
  • The lack of scientific disposal of construction debris is leading to environmental pollution in the river basins.
  • The cleanliness of the Ganga River is premised on minimum levels of water flow in it in all seasons and the proposed hydropower projects in the upstream of the Ganga basin could hinder water flow in the Ganga River.
  • The fragile ecology of the region is prone to natural disasters like landslides and Glacial Lake Outbursts. The presence of hydropower projects in such vulnerable regions only increase the threat to the life and infrastructure in the region.
  • Also the seismically active Himalayan region is prone to earthquakes. A massive earthquake which could damage the dams can lead to flash floods and lead to loss of life and property downstream of the dams.
  • Global warming is expected to intensify the Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw. Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number and area of glacier lakes. Glacier lakes pose the risk of outburst.

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.

About Himalayan Biodiversity

  • Himalayas form about 12% of the country’s landmass and is home to about 30.16% of its fauna and 31.6% of its flora.
  • In, India, Himalayas is spread over six states – Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh. • It is divided into two bio-geographic zones namely – Trans-Himalayas and Himalayas based on the physiographic, climatic and eco-biological attributes.
  • Himalayas is endowed with a varied biodiversity from alluvial grasslands to subtropical broadleaf forest, mixed conifers and conifer forests in higher hills and alpine meadows above the tree line.
  • Himalayas has high species diversity and endemism and is one of the hotspots located in India.
  • Himalayas has over 131 protected areas which include 20 national parks, 71 wildlife sanctuaries, five tiger reserves, four biosphere reserves and 7 Ramsar Sites.

Significance of the Himalayan Ecosystem

The Himalayas are the body and soul of India. In a very special measure, the Himalayas constitute India’s national mountain system. The following few points will bring out the significance of the Himalayan Mountains to India:

  • Climatic Influence: The Himalayas play a very significant role in influencing the climate of India. By virtue of their high altitude, length and direction, they effectively intercept the summer monsoons coming from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea and cause precipitation in the form of rain or snow.
  • Defence: The Himalayas have been protecting India from outside invaders since the early times thus serving as a defence barrier. But the Chinese aggression in India in October 1962 has reduced the defence significance of the Himalayas to a considerable extent.
  • Source of Rivers: Almost all the great rivers of India have their sources in the Himalayan ranges. Abundant rainfall and vast snowfields as well as large glaciers are the feeding grounds of the mighty rivers of India.
  • Fertile Soil: The great rivers and their tributaries carry enormous quantities of alluvium while descending from the Himalayas. This is deposited in the Great Plain of North India in the form of fertile soil, making the plain one of the most fertile lands of the world.
  • Hydroelectricity: The Himalayan region offers several sites which can be used for producing hydroelectricity. There are natural waterfalls at certain places while dams can be constructed across rivers at some other places. The vast power potential of the Himalayan Rivers still awaits proper utilisation.
  • Forest Wealth: The Himalayan ranges are very rich in forest resources. In their altitude, the Himalayan ranges show a succession of vegetal cover from the tropical to the Alpine. The Himalayan forests provide fuel wood and a large variety of raw materials for forest-based industries.
  • Agriculture: The Himalayas do not offer extensive flat lands for agriculture but some of the slopes are terraced for cultivation. Rice is the main crop on the terraced slopes. The other crops are wheat, maize, potatoes, tobacco and ginger. Tea is a unique crop which can be grown on the hill slopes only.
  • Tourism: By virtue of their scenic beauty and healthy environment, the Himalayan ranges have developed a large number of tourist spots. The hilly areas in the Himalayas offer cool and comfortable climate when the neighbouring plains are reeling under the scorching heat of the summer season.
  • Minerals: The Himalayan region contains many valuable minerals. There are vast potentialities of mineral oil in the tertiary rocks. Coal is found in Kashmir. Copper, lead, zinc, nickel, cobalt, antimony, tungsten, gold, silver, limestone, semi-precious and precious stones, gypsum and magnesite are known to occur at more than 100 localities in the Himalayas.

-Source: The Hindu

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