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Time for a moratorium on dam building in the Himalayas?

Warnings that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated were ignored. By 2013, 292 big hydro projects were under construction or planned for India’s Himalayan region, one every 10 kilometres or so

January 10, 2023 / 02:00 PM IST
Cracks appeared in 68 more houses on Monday taking the number of subsidence affected homes in Joshimath to 678.

Cracks appeared in 68 more houses on Monday taking the number of subsidence affected homes in Joshimath to 678.

Joshimath in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, the gateway for pilgrimages and treks, is a crowded and unplanned town situated on the unsteady debris of an ancient landslide has been declared a disaster-prone area and its residents are now being evacuated.

It is located downstream of the confluence of the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers, in a region reeling under a series of climate change-induced glacial melting and extreme precipitation events, incessant floods and landslides, especially since 2014, that has made its topography more hollow and unstable.

The actual sinking of Joshimath and 21 other villages in the Chamoli district began after the Kedarnath flood disaster of 2013 and intensified after the Chamoli flood disaster of 2021 caused by melting glaciers and excessive precipitation. However, two other multiplying factors speeded the sinking, the first is the ongoing dam building and tunnelling activity for NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project and the second, is the construction of the Chardham highway, the government’s plan to build highways to connect four of the most inaccessible Hindu pilgrimage hotspots in the most fragile parts of the Himalayas.

Needless to say, too much construction has led to several large-scale landslides. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 128 landslides recorded in the Chamoli-Joshimath region alone. For the record, in 1976, a Centre-appointed committee led by MC Mishra, the then collector of Garhwal, had warned that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated. He recommended that all further construction activities except repair work be prohibited.

This and the subsequent warnings from many more experts and activists, the likes of Sunderlal Bahuguna and Ravi Chopra, were wantonly ignored, and development, especially of hydropower dams, continued unabated and with great speed. The inherent fragility and unpredictability of the highly seismic nature of the Himalayas have been the main argument against building dams in the mountains. However, climate change is turning out to be a bigger threat to the grand plans of the government.

According to ICIMOD,  the physical manifestations of climate change in the mountains include extreme increases in temperature locally, and possibly regionally, and in the frequency and duration of extreme events. It seems certain that there will be appreciable changes in the volume and/ or timing of river flows and other freshwater sources. There is, however, great uncertainty about the rate, and even the direction, of these changes, because so little is known about the dynamics of Himalayan topo-climates and hydrological processes and their response to changing climatic inputs.

Bumper-to-Bumper Dams

On May 24, 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced his government’s vision to build 162 big hydroelectric power projects by 2025. Almost all of the new projects – 113 dams and power stations capable of generating 40,000 megawatts of electricity – were planned for five Himalayan states. Of those, 33 of the new hydropower schemes of 5,282 megawatts were targeted for the high mountain valleys in Uttarakhand. By 2013, 292 big hydro projects were under construction or planned for India’s Himalayan region, one every 10 kilometres or so. Imagine bumper-to-bumper dams.

On June 16 and 17, 2013, the mountains unleashed two days of monstrous floods that killed about 30,000 people according to the Wadia Institute for Himalayan Geology. The June flood also seriously damaged at least 10 big hydropower projects in operation and under construction in Uttarakhand. Another 19 small hydropower projects that generate under 25 megawatts were destroyed according to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

In the history of energy disasters, the Uttarakhand flood struck the global hydropower industry with the same force that the reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island (US, 1979), Chernobyl (Soviet Union, 1986), and Fukushima (Japan, 2011) battered the nuclear power sector. Later in 2021, the Chamoli floods destroyed the Rishi Ganga Power Project and severely damaged the Tapovan Vishnugad project, which was still under construction at the time.

On August 13, 2013, eight weeks after the flood, two Supreme Court judges, ruling in a case involving the 330-megawatt Alaknanda Hydro Power Project, issued an order that indefinitely prohibited the Central and state governments from granting any more permits for hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand.  “We are very much concerned about the mushrooming of a large number of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and its impact on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins,” wrote Justices KS Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra. “Various studies also indicate that in the upper Ganga area, there are large and small hydropower projects. The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, muck disposal, mining, deforestation, etc. on the ecosystem has yet to be scientifically examined.”

Joshimath may well be the future of all human settlements in the Himalayas unless there is a moratorium on further dam-building activities by India, China, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan to better understand the cascading effect of climate change, seismic vulnerabilities and population pressures on the mountains.

Shailendra Yashwant is a senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.

Shailendra Yashwant is a senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.
first published: Jan 10, 2023 02:00 pm