Should dams be damned?

Should dams be damned?

Shivaji Sarkar It was waiting to happen since 1960s. No sane advice of environmentalists, activists or religious leaders was heard by the...

Shivaji Sarkar It was waiting to happen since 1960s. No sane advice of environmentalists, activists or religious leaders was heard by the Government. Uttarakhand is still sitting on a powder keg. The losses, the cost of rebuilding the roads and infrastructure, as per the State government estimates, are around Rs 21,000 crore, and sought from the Centre as a package.
This estimated package would be only a fraction of the cost the State is planning to invest in more "planned development". Tehri dam alone had cost about Rs 10,000 crore. In all 244 hydel projects of various sizes are planned to be constructed in the State. Uttarakhand has lost over 2000 lives, over 5000 reported missing, several thousand heads of cattle, livelihoods of lakhs, 1000 km of roads, about 300 bridges, thousands of private and Government houses and many other infrastructure. Not all can be estimated in terms of money. Damage to 10 power plants would be about Rs 20,000 crore. What has happened is a planned disaster and not development. The Pancheswar dam being planned in Tanakpur on the Uttarakhand-Nepal border is likely to be bigger than Tehri and biggest in India. Does that mean more disasters are awaiting the region? The big question to be asked is: Should we really have dams? These hold water during summers keeping people in its riparian area thirsty, and submerge them during rains as these cannot hold on to the excess water. Ironically, dams damn the fate of the common man and fill the pockets of the rich, be it the power lobbies or the industry mafia. The June 18 cloudburst has been the worst since the 1978 Alaknanda tragedy. It was then caused as a large landslide blocked the flow of the river and heavy rains led to flash floods in a 300-km region up to Hardwar. In fact, the statement of Tehri Hydropower Development Corporation (THDC) on June 19 indicates that the worst is yet to be averted. It stated that it had to withhold 2.5 lakh cusecs of water that poured in the dam and released only 17.6000 cusecs. Had all been released, the townships of Rishikesh and Hardwar would have been wiped off! This does not mean Tehri has been a saviour. The dam facing high siltation does not have the capacity to withhold that huge body of water. It has been releasing it later causing flash floods in many areas of Uttar Pradesh up to Allahabad. The Tehri cannot repeat it as a huge body of water could lead to the rupture of the dam and maybe a worse recurrence of the 1978 tragedy. The dams themselves are the worst hit, questioning the wisdom of building them on such critical regions. Among the hydro-power projects that have been washed away are Asiganga-I (45 MW) and Asiganga-II (45 MW) in Uttarkashi district and Kaliganga-II (6MW), Madmaheshwar (15 MW) in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand and 8 MW hydro project Sobla-I in Pithoragarh district. Besides, Maneribhalli-I (90 MW), Maneribhalli-II (34 MW, Pilangad (2.25 MW) in Uttarkashi district, Badrinath-II (1.25 MW), Pandukeshwar (750 KW), Urgam (3 MW), Tharali (400 MW) in Chamoli district, Kanchotti (2 MW),Chirkilla (1.5 MW), Relagaad (3 MW) in Pithoragarh district and Kaliganga-I(4 MW) in Rudraprayag district are said to be badly damaged. A cloudburst had swept away bridges and a large chunk of the Gangotri National Highway in 2012 as well as in Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts. In 2010, a similar flooding had occurred in the region. The phenomenon, states a UNDP and European Commission joint study in the Sutlej basin in Himachal Pradesh, an adjacent region, is apparently repeating. It revealed "glacial lake outburst floods" (GLOF) had been occurring "quite regularly". Notable incidents occurred in 1997, 2000 and 2005 in the Sutlej basin and in 1970 and 1978 in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, with 2000 and 2005 being the worst. Worse, incidents of GLOF are reported in Sikkim, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal and Arunachal Pradesh. Environmentalists warn that a delicate ecological balance in the area has been gravely imperilled and that up to 26 km of riverbeds along the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi have begun to dry up. In the case of Alaknanda, the tragedy unfolded soon after the Uttarakhand Government cleared the construction of a 12-km-long tunnel and a four-storeyed hydro-electric project in Chamoli about two years ago. The explosives used to build the project in the nearby river area and the debris of the construction material played a major role in the drying up of the riverbed. The swelling of the Alaknanda River on June 18 is attributed to this and the Vishnuprayag dam, which burst open changing the local topography on the road to Badrinath. Importantly, in 2009, the CAG reviewed 42 hydel projects and noted that over 200 more projects were coming up � almost at every 5 to 7 kms. The yearning for making Uttarakhand the "Urja Pradesh" has sadly paved the way for disaster. The riverbed is being used by the construction lobby for dumping of debris and is heightened by unsustainable concrete constructions on the edges of mountains and river banks. The large dams led to timber lobby felling of lakhs of trees and warming the region. Deforestation and tunnelling for hydel project loosened the fragile Himalayan structure, says a 2003 report of the UN Environment Programme. There is need for a detailed study as to why the Kedar Dome, Sub-peak of Kedarnath Mountains, burst, first time in known history, which led to the flash floods. It led to the rupture of Charbari Lake, less than 6 km from the shrine, after a cloudburst. This apart, the rain has been incessant�it was 315 mm as against normal rainfall of around 70 mm in June. The UNEP and UNDP reports speak of climate change being heightened by irrational human activities. These also question the formation of the smaller State of Uttarakhand. As long as it was part of Uttar Pradesh, environmental norms were strictly adhered to. During the past 12-odd years, a pliable political leadership, in collusion with the corporate-contractor lobby, has thrown the norms to the wind in the name of "development." Most hydel projects have been undertaken without assessing their impact on environment; hence the huge devastation. Even in Delhi over 70 per cent of the Yamuna bed has been occupied illegally and semi-legally, including by the Commonwealth Games Village. This is against the Central Water Commission's recommendation way back in 1981 warning against any construction on the riverbed and its catchment areas. But who cares? The Uttarakhand devastation is a lesson for the Governments. It is not restricted to the Himalayas. It has happened in Morbi in Gujarat, Koyna in Maharashtra and very recently on the Krishna in Karnataka. The reasons were similar-- blocking of the rivers' natural path. It raises the question: Is it possible to have a national policy to maintain the perennial flow of the rivers? Hydel power is neither cheap nor easy to harness except possibly the run-of-the-mill sort. Can we think of giving it up at least in delicate zones and spare the nation both human and economic disasters? � INFA
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