Monday, July 1, 2013

Dam is money, dam is destruction too

Srinagar (Garhwal) before the floods
A win-win situation, they say
In April, I mentioned on this blog that I had visited Srinagar, Garhwal and I had witnessed the immediate consequences of building cascades of dams for short-term pecuniary benefits.
Then I wrote: "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".
At that time, I was told that the projects currently underway should increase the hydropower capacity of the State to 12,235 MW. A total of 95 hydropower projects were being built or planned on different rivers converging in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin of Uttarakhand.
Environmentalists like former IIT professor, Dr. G D Agrawal (his sannyasi name is Swami Gyan Swarop Sanand) or before him Sunderlal Bahuguna had tried to oppose this wild contagion of new concrete infrastructures, but with little result. Everyone was however aware that since 2005, when the Tehri Dam’s reservoir was filled up, the flow of Bhagirathi reduced drastically.
I had concluded: "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’" and I added: "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!"
At that time, my article did not interest any editor.

Two months later
After the June 16 torrential rains, we have not lost rivers (though some changed their course, as seen on the pictures below), but havoc has been created by some of the hydro-power plants.
Understandably, the study of what happened to the dams is not the first priority of the Uttarakhand government and other Central agencies.
It is however worth quoting The Hindu: "The national highway between Dehradun and Srinagar [Garhwal] is currently broken at Byasi and Devprayag, with silt measuring upto 10 ft. covering an enormous area, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district. According to the residents of Shakti Vihar, an area in Srinagar, this disaster occurred on June 17 at around 3.00 a.m. when the Srinagar dam authorities lifted the dam gates."
Services Selection Board Academy in Srinagar
A resident told the newspaper: "The rainfall on June 16 was so much that the water reached up to our knees, and to add to it, the dam authorities released water without a prior warning.”
The silt came from the debris lying around the dam construction site. The water swept all the debris lying around the dam construction site and deposited it here (downstream), said a resident.
The water level this time was three to four metres higher than the previous floods.
Agencies' report says: "A Services Selection Board (SSB) Academy, a gas godown, a ration godown, a silk farm, hundreds of houses, vehicles, and animals were affected by the massive flashfloods that hit Srinagar."

The main fear of the residents is that during the next rains, the water will again be released from the Srinagar dam without any prior warning.

A CAG Audit
Was it predictable?
In 2009, after studying the Hydro-electric projects in Uttarakhand, a State Audit of the Controller General of Accounts (CAG) explained:
With the creation of Uttarakhand in November 2000, its hydro-power potential was recognized as key to the development of the State. The Government chalked out an ambitious plan to harness its hydropower potential through the concerted efforts of both the State and the private sector. The State policy to encourage generation of hydro-power was formulated in October 2002. The prime aim was to develop the state as ‘Urja Pradesh’, which would cater not just to the needs of the State but also to that of the power starved northern grid.
A performance review of the implementation of hydro-power projects through private sector participation was covering the key aspects of planning, allotment, operation, environment impact and monitoring of the projects revealed that:
Forty-eight projects with a total planned generation capacity of 2423.10 MW had been undertaken by Independent Power Producers (IPPs) in the State during 1993 to 2006, however, till March 2009, only 10 per cent of the projects with generation capacity of 418.05 MW were complete and operational. The prime reasons for the delays are problems associated with land acquisition, forest clearances and enhancement in project capacities.  ...More grave is the total neglect of environmental concerns, the cumulative impact of which may prove devastating for the natural resources of the State
Has anybody read the Report?
Certainly not the planners and their contractors: 'no time, too much money is involved! and we are working to improve the lives of the people', will say the politicians. Because, as I pointed out in another posting, Dam is Money.
In its Environment Impact, the CAG warned:
  • The State’s policy on hydropower projects was silent on the vital issue of maintaining downstream flow in the diversion reach (the stretch of the river from the point of diversion into tunnel to the point where it is released back into its natural stream). The physical verification of four out of five operational projects, showed that river-beds down stream had almost completely dried up, the water flow was down to a trickle, and extremely inadequate for the sustenance of ecology and nearby groundwater aquifers. [Paragraph 5.3.1]
  • Given the current policy of the State Government of pursuing hydro-power projects indiscriminately, the potential cumulative effect of multiple run-of-river power projects can turn out to be environmentally damaging. Presently, 42 hydro-power projects are in operation, 203 are under construction or clearance stage, while several others are at the conceptual stage. [Paragraph 5.3.2]
  • Negligence of environmental concerns was obvious as the muck generated from excavation and construction activities was being openly dumped into the rivers contributing to increase in the turbidity of water. The projects seemed oblivious of the fact that such
It is what happened on a very large scale in the days following the June 16 and 17 torrential rains. The CAG continues:
  • gross negligence of environmental concerns lead to deterioration of water quality and adverse impact on the aquatic biota. [Paragraph 5.3.3]
In the article of The Hindu quoted above, a  resident told the reporter:  “Though residents were saved, cattle were killed under the silt. Quintals of fish that was the river brought along are also rotting under the debris.”
It appears that every person passing by the site could smell the rotten flesh: "This can cause disease but the authorities have not yet bothered to take any action,” said the local source.
Further the CAG pointed out:
  • The plantation activity was highly deficient, as 38 per cent of projects reported hardly any plantation; posing severe hazards both for natural ecology and stabilization of hill slopes. [Paragraph 5.4.1]
The CAG concluded: "The individual and cumulative impact on the downstream river flow should be seriously considered to ensure that the projects do not result in disastrous impact on the environment."
Nobody cared. It was a win-win situation, isn't it?

The Vishnuprayag Hydro-electric Project (VHEP)
Another information has triggered through the Himalayan devastation. 
It is about the Vishnuprayag Hydro-electric Project (VHEP).
Vishnuprayag is one of the Panch Prayag (five confluences) of Alaknanda River, and lies at the confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers between Joshimath and Badrinath. It is located in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. According to Indian mythology, Rishi Narada meditated there and he had a vision of Vishnu himself. 
Two well-known environmentalists, Vimalbhai and Briharshraj Tadiyal wrote on their blog (Ganga matu jansangthan:
In the recent flood [of the] Alaknandaganga (near Badrinath Temple), when the waters rose, dam authorities failed to open all the gates of the dam. Due to this, a 2 km long reservoir was formed upstream of the dam. Pressure from the water broke the dam and went on to wipe out the Lambagad Village market.
Some shops in the Lambagadh market were already washed away when water was released unannounced from the dam in 2012. When villagers asked for compensation from dam authorities, dam authorities threatened to file police cases against them.
This year, water from the upper reaches of Alaknandaganga came unannounced and demolished the Vishnupyrag HEP.
This was the first dam to be built under a Private Public Partnership on the Alaknandaganga. This dam has also destroyed Vishunupryag, the confluence of the Dhouliganga and Alaknandaganga.
We have news that dams on Mandakini River such as Phata-Buyong HEP and Singoli-Bhatwari HEP [are] badly damaged. Small dams on Madhaymaheshwer and Kali river are also badly damaged. These small dams were funded by Asian Development Bank.
The construction of all these HEPs are responsible for big Damage in the whole Ganga valley.
This incident once again strengthens our argument that the Himalayas cannot support big HEPs or other big structures. The government and planners must understand the floods as an indication from nature and stop the madness of HEPs.
But dam is money. 
Will the Government of Uttarakhand continue with its dam policy after the deluge? Will the politicians resist the idea of getting rich quickly? 
Or will they learn from the disaster?
The same situation is bound to happen, probably on a larger scale, in Arunachal Pradesh.
And what about the string of dams being built by the Chinese on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Siang/Brahmaputra) in Tibet?
Is the situation different on the Roof of the World?
It is probably worse due to the higher seismicity.
Because here too, the State needs power 'to grow'.
Further, 'hydro-power' is still classified as 'clean' power! So, let us continue to build dams, will say the Communist or the Indian 'leaders'.
Men think that the Gods are crazy, but it is perhaps not the case!
Sometimes they have to bang the table and say 'enough is enough'.
And if men don't get it, they will bang again!
By the way, is Uttarakhand richer today than 20 years ago?

A few photos of the VHEP, borrowed from

 Before the deluge...

The Alaknanda has chosen its original course

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