Out of the 70% of Earth that is covered with water. Less than 2.5% is fresh water –a fraction of which is available for human use in the form of rivers and lakes. This is why for centuries rivers have been the very cornerstone and foundation of civilization, bringing precious drinking water and sustaining the life of millions along its banks.
Today as communities have expanded away from fresh water sources structures that store, transport and utilize vast amounts of water or dams are believed to have become vital for survival. With the growing urban population in India, approximately 1.2 billion people, especially as more of India begins to urbanize, comes an increase in the demand for electricity. As a result, today the uses of rivers and dams have extended to include hydropower generation.
As the National Geographic’s sums up India’s energy situation: “India: the world’s second most populous country is growing far faster than its own significant fossil resources can handle. “…It is the world’s third largest coal producer, is amongst the world’s top CO2 emitters. But because half of its population still has no access to electricity, per capita emissions are the lowest among major economies…’ ‘…The struggle is to increase energy access while holding down emissions growth.’
- A dwindling source of fossil fuels,
- An uncertain market for oil
- Coupled with the projection of exponentially increased energy demand and unsustainable development
The need for renewable, clean and affordable energy is vital.
- Currently the country relies 75% on coal and oil resources and less than 25% on other renewable energy sources.
- Recently, the massive power grid failure in July 2012, reportedly the largest blackout affecting nearly 700 million people, or twice the population of America, clearly illustrated India is struggling to effectively meet its demand.
- In this power crunch the potential of hydropower seems like the glimmering light of hope providing the promise of not only clean energy but also employment and development.
- In fact, according to the World Bank, ‘Hydropower potential is commonly believed to be one of the most important strategic assets of the state for the development of its economy.’
- With an estimated of about 25% of India’s hydropower potential exploited a large percentage remains untapped.
Upper Ganga Basin: Hydropower Development
- The Upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand, India has become an attractive site for these projects with estimated hydropower potential to be nearly 20,000 MW. Giving this state a projected title of ‘Urja Pradesh’ or the Energy State.
- As the state’s tourism site describes it as, “the land of Gods, the home of Himalayas and truly a paradise on earth, alluring everyone from everywhere. The fresh air, the pure water, the chilling snow, the spellbinding mountains, the scenic beauty, the small villages, the simpler people and a tougher lifestyle is what that distinguishes Uttarakhand from rest of the world… The State is truly a treasure house …and is an ideal location for eco-tourism, as well as wildlife tourism.
- Although the cultural and spiritual history of the state is as old as India itself, its identity as an independent state is new, formed only in year 2000 after the bifurcation of Uttar Pradesh. The separation promoted its upward growth it also brought upon increased pressure to develop itself in the same way as its neighboring states as an industrial capital.
Himalayan State’s Dilemma
- State is trying to develop like its neighboring states in the plain and industrialize but massive deforestation and cutting into the Himalayan Mountains is wrecking havoc on its natural heritage and eco-tourism.
- The state’s massive influx of outside media, ideals and standardized education that is not instilling a sense of pride in their indigenous culture are forcing the people of the mountains to be dissatisfied with their lives, increasing male migration and growing problem of intoxication and drinking.
- The state’s major challenge is that its heterogeneous growth has mostly limited to the plain regions, leaving over 40% of its rural population below the poverty line. Having a low rate of unemployment the state faces a unique phenomenon of ‘the working poor’ with low wages and income.
Therefore, the promise of development to bring more employment and better paying jobs brings with it the hope to be more like the rest of the nation and the rest of the world.
Dams Bane or Boon?
To what extent are the promises of energy, development and employment really being meet by hydropower projects on the Upper Ganga River Basin and are these dams a ban or are they a boon to India?
Let us use this simple equation to help us answer this question:
Proposed Benefit of Dams – (Actual Costs + Risks of Dam)= Actual Benefit
Benefits of Dams
The following are the most prominent proposed benefits of hydropower in Uttarakhand.
- Energy Production
- Employment of the people of the State
- Revenue for the State and Development
- Flood Control
- Today, only about 3,000 MW have been harnessed by over 70 hydropower schemes with plans for over 100 more to come up. The State plans to expand its hydropower production capacity to become self-reliant and a net exporter of surplus power.
- In terms of energy production Uttarakhand is currently a net importer of power, generating a seasonal surplus of power. It has witnessed a sharp increase in energy demand, growing more than five times, in the last eight years; only 52 percent of its power is met from its natural resources.
- However, as per the current power sharing agreement and the Gadgil Formula nearly 75% of the powers generated by the State’s over 100 megawatt private projects gets sold to the national grid. Only about 12% of free power is given to the State as a royalty, to be used for the State’s welfare.Ref:
- Hence, there is a misconception that energy produced from dams in the Upper Ganga Region actually benefits the rural population of Uttarakhand, much of the energy actually gets sold to meet the needs of major northern cities like Delhi while people of the mountains are left without electricity.
- While power for India’s national capital is crucial for the development of the nation… northern cities are notorious for experiencing 40-50% of power transmission losses much more than the international average of 15%
|Moreover, power supply through the grid system to interior villages in mountainous terrain is expensive and challenging due to:
Therefore a system that has worked in the plain regions in India will not necessarily be the power solution for this state.
Problems with Decentralized Energy for the State
o Though there are problems related to the financial viability of decentralized power generation by the public sector, non-government community efforts have proved to be promising. Poor people, who cannot afford electricity under government schemes, contribute labour and marginal cash as their contribution to their community’s efforts to get access to reliable and cheap electricity.
Solutions for Decentralized Energy Options for State
o In fact there is a tremendous potential in the state for decentralized micro-pico hydel projects (of less than 10 MW) which can generate local employment, create reliable decentralized power without irreversibly damaging the state’s natural heritage.
o Garahats, which as per UREDA estimates, some 15,000 traditional watermills or gharats exist in partially functioning or defunct condition in the State. After upgradation, they hold the potential of providing 5 KW of electricity which cannot just light the neighbouring areas; but can also be sued for some productive applications like milling, drying and thrashing of grains or for fibre- processing activities like spinning, dyeing, drying, etc. In this way they can be a significant source of cheap power for the rural population.
o Due to the difficult terrain and inaccessibility of many of the remote areas of the state, providing CNG or LPG is a difficult task. However, the cooking and water heating requirements can be met through solar cookers and solar water heaters. In fact, there is plenty of solar and wind potential that can be tapped in the state to meet its energy needs.
o Uttarakhand is dominated by pine forests. Pine needles, although being used for cooking purposes occasionally, are not a favoured fuel due to the release of nitrogenous compounds during combustion. However, a new process to utilize the pine needles, while avoiding the nitrogenous emissions, has been developed i.e. electricity generation through the gasification of pine needles.
o The next proposed benefit of dams is employment. As mentioned before, although unemployment rates are low in this state nearly half of the state still exists below the poverty line, with low wages and income.
o So the real problem is not that there are not enough jobs but there is a lack of skill enhancing and training available to the people of the mountains and jobs with low wages.
o Let’s take the example of Maneri Bhali 1 operational since 2007 employed only 70 people, two of which are junior engineers the rest of whom work in lower posts as drivers, security guards, janitors, etc when the actual population of this district is almost three lakhs .
o Even the environmental impact analysis for these dam projects state ‘…proposed hydroelectric project do not envisage significant job opportunities for the local residents in the unskilled and semi skilled however preference will be given to the persons affected by the project if they meet the requirement.’
o No doubt local employment is boosted by the construction phase of the project and a few jobs may be generated but it’s a short term affect and in the long term most of the locals are left still in a state of ‘the working poor’ including a land that has lost much of its original beauty.
- Water and power directly and/or indirectly affects all aspects of development. So, what kind of development is promised by hydropower projects and who do they really benefit? And at what cost?
- World Commission on Dams (WCD) has clearly stated in its comprehensive dams report entitled Dam Right, “the benefits of dams are often exaggerated, while the social and environmental costs tend to get underestimated.”
- While dams are being decommissioned internationally, the proposition of over 70 more projects on India’s national river, which is not only the lifeline of nearly 500 million people but is the hope and faith of billions—drawing in the largest spiritual gathering of the world—during the Kumbha Mela, sets a great divide between the diverse range of stakeholders, creating a truly unique set of costs for the River Ganga.
Costs of Dams
The following environmental and social costs seem to be the greatest:
- Cumulative impact of several Run of the River schemes bumper to bumper on the rivers length, which require tunneling, construction, barrage and reservoir formation
- Drying and disappearance of large segments of the river as it is channeled through many kilometers of dark tunnels
- Aggravation of the pollution by the low dilution capacity of the river and reduction to the river’s self-cleansing potential.
- Significant and irreversible social cultural costs.
- Irreversible damage to the flora and fauna of the river
- The Himalayas, according to WWF and the UN, are the most endangered ecosystems in the world and the River Ganga the most threatened river of the world, with its largest tributary, the river Yamuna, having been so exploited that it is has been deemed by the UN as “a dead river.”
- Currently from Maneri to Koteshwar, projects such as the Maneri Bhali I (90Mw), Maneri Bhali 2 (304MW), Tehri (1000MW), Koteshwar (400 MW) have rendered 115 kms to tunnels and reservoirs while the river Ganga, the lifeline and Mother to millions, has nearly disappeared in her original path.
- According to the Wildlife of India’s if all the proposed projects with a combined installed capacity of at least 9,500 MW are constructed they will lead to a deforestation of at least 9,500 hectares of forest land and adversely affect nearly 650 km of the rivers length.
- In a recent article, Ganga Activist and Water Man, Shri Rajendra Singh says, “The River Ganga gets a grade ‘C’ because of its pollution and interrupted flow. The proposed hydro-electric projects and their cumulative impact, of the medium to large dam projects, will render over 80% of Ganga water dry, significantly aggravating the pollution levels in the river by reducing its dilution capacity or ability to cleanse itself, threatening half a billion people of India.”
- Furthermore, a recent study by NEERI and Dr. DS Bhargavji, retired Professor of IIT Roorkee, shows that the unique self-cleansing capacity of this national river, unparalleled in the world also loses this capacity when the river’s flow is blocked by hydel projects. The rich radioactive sediments and minerals that give the water this quality are significantly reduced thereby preventing downstream plains and farms of fertile and nourishing soil.
- Drying of streams also leads to no water for drinking for locals, loss of grazing and agricultural land, dried water sources, uncontrolled heavy blasting for tunnelling, road building and power houses are seen besides de-forestation and unchecked dumping of muck in the river bed at all construction sites which go onto further destroy the once fertile land. While the projects provide energy and employment to those outside of the state and negatively impact not only the land in which they are built but also the local and indigenous people who are often displaced from the homes of their ancestors—permanently depriving future generation to their national, cultural and spiritual heritage.
- Additionally, thefaith of billions connected to the River Ganga, which is not merely a river but is a spiritual entity and a divine mother to them leave people with no place in which they may perform their daily oblations and prayers.
- In an open letter by the Members of Parliament to the PM of India they state, ‘that not a single village in the vicinity of the already existing project can be termed as developed. In fact, the villages that were once enriched with perennial water supplies and vast grazing lands are now deprived of both – water & land. Deep cracks in houses & unexplained land sinking has happened at several unexpected sites much distant from the dam.’
- Although often public hearings and environmental clearances are in place much too often they are neglected or completely overlooked.
- While mitigation plans are proposed and promised to the locals they are often left with empty promises.
- Additional the risks of dams in this region include:
o Himalayan Region being zone 4-5 on the seismic scale, highly prone to earthquakes, so construction/blasting and reservoir formation create a great risk, especially if an earthquake comes over the scale of 8.5 strikes.
o The political, cultural and social controversy associated with dams in this region often delay the initial construction period resulting in excessive investment, much more than initially anticipated.
o The mountains of this region are made of clay and so large dams are believed by some experts to pose a serious and severe incidents/landslide- land sinking accidents have been experienced in the recent past.
o Furthermore, an open letter of the Members of Parliament written to the Prime Minister of India states, ‘…the existing hydropower projects in the state are functioning below 40% efficiency & yet several new projects are being proposed and built.’ The high rates of sedimentation renders the lifeline of these dams much shorter than 50 years, especially during monsoon and less discharge especially during winter.
o The Himalayan glaciers have been reported as retreating due to the obvious threat of global warming, including the construction activity and blasting of the mountains, further leading to the formation of huge glacial lakes posing a bigger danger to population downstream of the rivers.
- So while dams maybe a solution in most parts of the world in the Upper Ganga River Basin the trend begins to appear like this:
Reduced Benefit of Dams – (Increased Actual Costs + Significant Risks of Dam)= Highly Overestimated Benefits
The following suggestions are recommended to proceed ahead for a safer and more sustainable future for all:
Heeding the warning of environmentalists, scholars, saints and the precedence set in 1917 Indian Government Agreement (under British rule), as demanded by Madan Mohan Malaviya, Kings of Bharat, the four Shankaracharyas and the general public, that there will be no hindrance to the flow of Ganga and on the 20th April 1917, granted by the Chief Secretary of the United Provinces, ICS Burns passed order No. 1002 to halt the formation of the first dam on the Ganga and to maintain Her free flow. As well as the more recent scrapping of the Lohari Nag Pala project and the declaration of the Bhagirathi River as an Eco-Sensitive Zone, whereby all projects over 25 MW are strictly prohibited.
- A thorough costs benefits analysis must be undertaken for each project over 25 MW. The following international recommendations by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) can be taken under consideration by relevant stakeholders.
- For the dams already built:
- Reinvestment in maximizing and optimizing energy output by existing dams.
- Ensuring that the 6 month checking and reporting process by the EIA is monitored and undertaken.
- The mitigation plans, including tree plantation, restoration of environmental degradation and people’s relocation and restoration is maintained.
- The ecological flows that are necessary to the river are maintained. If a minimum of 2-3 cumecs aquatic ecology is released in a 8-10 ft wide river bed than the 2 cumecs water is less than a foot that is lost on the boulders, which is witnessed downstream of the Maneri Dam. Therefore, restoring e-flows in the rivers must not only effectively promote the aquatic life in the river bed but the social-cultural activities, such as bathing, that take place in Ganga’s waters.
- Permanent cessation of all proposed projects, abandonment of all projects under constructed. All scrapped projects should be brought to an appropriate closure and the already done construction work should be sealed in to restore the ecology of the area. The tunnels and construction can be used for improving road connectivity such as was recommended for Lohari Nag Pala.
- For all new dams:
- The process of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) must be undertaken by an independent authority prior to the project.
- The Public Consultation and Public Hearing process must be done with clarity, being sure to involve and provide accurate data and information to all local stakeholders.
- The clauses of Environmental Clearances must be maintained and upheld by the involved stakeholders
- For example the Uttarakhand Environmental Clearance and No Objection certificate of the Maneri Bali states in:
- Clause 8 that implementation of project shall not adversely affect the forest, flora and fauna and human beings in that area when this is inadvertently the biggest risk and cost of these projects.
- Clause 14 states that complete details of projects must be published in newspapers and redressal of public observations must be ensured.
- It also states that Informational Centre should be set-up to inform all the local stakeholders. There are countless recorded testimonials that these centres were either not set-up or Gram Panchayats and their heads had often no idea that projects were being started until after the construction had begun.
- The certificate also states that village temples and monuments of cultural religious and historical archaeological importance shall not suffer any impact. The Ganga itself is a cultural, spiritual and natural temple…what about the impact and the rights of the billions that worship Her waters as the Divine Goddess?
- Strictly prohibit the obstruction and pollution to the River Ganga’s free and pristine flow.
- Create a dedicated panel of river experts and decision makers, such as the NGRBA, as a full time autonomous body, serving to protect the national river its sanctity and course in the web of life.
- Demarcation of the protected Ganga basin, i.e expansion of the Eco-Sensitive Zone to all the contributing head waters of the River and later to its contributing tributaries.
- Local representative group of men and women should be set-up to help do the monitoring and assessment of all projects on the ground level.
Some other preventative measures that can be implemented are as below:
- Supporting the new state of Uttarakhand and providing it with incentives to promote its green and sustainable development as a model to the world, which would be beneficial to downstream Ganga states and to the rest of the world.
- Implementing and reducing energy demands by effective demand-side management policies as well as improving its infrastructure to cut power transmission losses
- Rigorous energy conservation and water literacy education throughout the nation and city planning that is synergistically focused on demand side management and promotion of renewable energy that is safe and sustainable.
- Credits for reducing carbon footprints and water footprints should percolate directly to State governments and Urban Local Bodies.
- We believe that although the Center has done a great job with subsidizing alternative energy sources and creating a dynamic and resilient energy plan, the Center should also recognize and give incentives to green States who are committed to greening and developing in a sustainable and planned manner.
- Putting in place a model and measure of development that is truly holistic and inclusive of all, including the indigenous folks of Uttarakhand, not just GNP and GDP but factors such as Global Happiness Index and Global Environmental Index that can be added to better assess the well being and sustainable lifestyles of the people.
- A crucial balance must be found between development (i.e. meeting the energy and water needs of a fast-growing urban and industrial population) and protecting and conserving our sacred environment and the very essence and natural, cultural and spiritual heritage of India.
For if Ganga thrives, India thrives. If Ganga dies than India dies.