Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Future Lost Rivers

The lost Sarasvati river
It is now fashionable to talk about climate change and its implications on our future lives. A couple of years ago, French-born and Indian naturalized scholar, Michel Danino published a book, The Lost River: on the Trail of the Sarasvati, a mind-opener on the fate of the mythic Sarasvati river. Taking into account the latest research in fields as different as satellite imagery, archeology, linguistics, paleontology or mythology, Danino says: “The Indian subcontinent was the scene of dramatic upheavals a few thousand years ago. The Northwest region entered an arid phase, and erosion coupled with tectonic events played havoc with river course. One of them disappeared.”
He further explains: “It has been accepted that the loss of the Sarasvati played a role in the dissolution of the Harappan city states. Why did this remarkable civilisation with its excellent town planning, standardised writing and weight system suddenly collapse?”
One can of course think that this ‘Sarasvati’ was a myth and that one should live in today’s reality. However, this reality tells us something.
On March 30, 2013, The Australian published an article asserting: “About 28,000 rivers have disappeared from China's state maps, an absence seized upon by environmentalists as evidence of the irreversible natural cost of developmental excesses.”
Can you believe that more than half the rivers surveyed a few decades ago, no longer exist. It is what discovered some 800,000 surveyors who compiled the first national water census in China.
Beijing is “fumbling to explain the cause”, says The Australian.
The three-year study conducted by the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics discovered that out of some 50,000 rivers catalogued in the 1990s, only 22,909 rivers still exist today.
The Chinese officials immediately put the blame on the climate change, arguing that it has caused waterways to vanish; they also say that the difference was also probably due to ‘mistakes’ by previous surveyors.
Environmental experts do not agree; for them it is the direct consequence of the ill-conceived and wild development prevalent in the Middle Kingdom.
Ma Jun, the outspoken water expert heading the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, believes the missing rivers are a cause for ‘great concern’.
He explained: “One of the major reasons is the over-exploitation of the underground water reserves, while environmental destruction is another reason, because desertification of forests has caused a rain shortage in the mountain areas.” He added: “Large hydroelectric projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which diverted trillions of litres of water to drier regions, were likely to have played a role.”
Surprisingly, a few months back, Beijing announced that it had decided to go ahead with the massive controversial plans to dam the Salween (Nu) River in Yunnan province. Eight years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao had suspended the plans out of environmental concerns.
According to The South China Morning Post (SCMP): "Some environmentalists were stunned by the plan's revival, which is part of an effort by the government to promote hydroelectricity as a cleaner alternative to coal. Opponents said the decision marks a long-awaited victory for the country's mighty state-owned power companies and local governments that have been lobbying top leaders to promote the building of mega dams."
The lifting of the ban means an extra capacity of 120 gigawatts with the construction of 54 hydropower plants termed as 'key construction projects'; it may also mean that more rivers will disappear.
I was recently in Garhwal and I could witness the immediate consequences of building cascades of dams for short-term pecuniary benefits.
Local officials argue that, if the Centre does not want dams to generate power, then Rs 10,000 to 15,000 crore would have to be annually released as Central assistance. The Center wants power and the State, hard cash; it superficially looks as win-win situation, except for the rivers which have started disappearing at some places.
I was told that the projects currently underway should increase the hydropower capacity to 12,235 MW. A total of 95 hydropower projects are being built or planned on different rivers converging in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin of Uttarakhand.
Srinagar (Garhwal)
Environmentalists like former IIT professor, Dr. G D Agrawal (his sannyasi name is Swami Gyan Swarop Sanand) and before him Sunderlal Bahuguna have opposed this wild contagion of new concrete infrastructures, but with little results, though it is a fact that since 2005, when the Tehri Dam’s reservoir was filled up, the flow of Bhagirathi reduced drastically.
In the years to come, global warming will radically change the face of the planet; inconsiderate human activities can only accelerate these changes for the worse. Worldwide, it will create tens of millions of ‘environmental migrants’.
The process is bound to happen in the Indian Himalayas because once the dams are built, there will no more rivers to worship and no more jobs for the local population. They will have to migrate to the cities, with other negative consequences.
Many more new ‘lost Sarasvatis’ is the making!

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