Making a hash of its mandate

IIT-Roorkee's study is counterproductive

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | June 27, 2011



The first ever cumulative impact assessment (CIA) study of hydro-power projects  being built on Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, two tributaries of river Ganga, has come as a big disappointment.

Carried out by the Alternate Hydro Energy Centre (AHEC) of IIT (Roorkee), which submitted its report to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) recently, the study ignores the very raison d’être of its endeavour – assess cumulative impact of 70 hydro-power projects (HPs) commissioned or in various stages of development (three of which were scrapped last year) on these rivers, their surrounding ecosystems and human habitations along the rivers. Of the 70, 54 are run-of-the-river (ROR) and the rest storage-based projects.

The task was onerous and yet important to make sure the drive to harness hydro-power doesn’t kill the rivers and the life-sustaining environment they build around them. In fact, it was prompted by a supreme court order of 2009 to allay such fears and came in the wake of scrapping three major HPs – at Loharinag Pala, Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati on Bhagirathi river. But the findings not only fail to live up to the expectations, they do a reverse swing and advocate more such projects.

Here are some of the key issues involved in the study, the findings and what’s wrong with these findings.

* Both Bhagirathi and Alaknand originate from glaciers and so do several of their tributaries. The report says glaciers are in much higher altitudes, upstream and distant to be affected by the HPs.

Right, but it doesn’t take into consideration the crucial fact that 75 percent of Himalayan glaciers are retreating at an annual rate of 3.75 percent. This was revealed in the “most detailed” satellite-imagery based study “Snow and glaciers of the Himalayas” carried out jointly by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and Department of Space. Though this particular report was released in June this year, similar findings have been published in the past too.

The study doesn't take into consideration how much less water will flow in over the next five, 10 or 15 years and how that would impact the existing hydro-power projects. Prudence demands that such information are taken into consideration while planning or assessing projects.

*A dam (storage-based project) submerges part of the river and run-of-the-river  project diverts a part of it, thus “affecting” the river. Talking about diversion, the report says “the river becomes dry in the diverted stretch” which could be “very long” and “fatal to aquatic life”, besides depriving water to people on the banks. Submergence too has an adverse impact.

The report goes on to point out that the existing HPs would affect 47.3 percent of Bhagirathi and its tributaries and 43.9 percent of Alaknand and its tributaries. While failing to assess what the cumulative impact would be on the rivers and their tributaries,  the report proposes "a threshold, say 70 percent, may be fixed" for this, meaning that a river may be allowed to be submerged or diverted up to 70 percent of its length.

Shockingly, the study doesn’t say on what basis this threshold has been arrived at. Taken singly, the report points out, 70.71 percent of Bhagirathi river is affected (31% diverted, 39% submerged), yet it goes on to advocate for revival of the Loharinag Pala project and others on the same river which were scrapped last year.

* The study recognizes the fact that all HPs adversely impact the river and its aquatic life and hence it should get a breathing space between the dams/barrages “so that the river is given an opportunity to recuperate its ecological environment”. But what should this breathing space be or whether adequate breathing space has been provided in the existing projects has not been spelt out.

* The study recognizes that HPs restrict flow of rivers and that to keep the rivers and their ecosystems in good health and sustain human livelihood and wellbeing certain quantity of water should “always flow in the rivers”. It describes this flow as “environmental flow” but bases its calculations on the “minimum flow” required, ignoring needs and expectations of people living on the banks, a flow required to help flora and fauna to prosper and flourish, and not just survive and the fact that floods too have important ecological functions.

While proposing a minimum flow, the report acknowledges that this may reduce power generation and “such reduction may make several schemes unviable, especially small scale hydropower schemes”. Yet, it doesn’t say if we should scrap more projects to account to prevent this. On the contrary it concludes that hydro-power can be harnessed with environmental sustainability “provided certain measures are taken”. What these measures are, we are not told.

This part of the study also suffers from “a major handicap” as “measured river cross sections and velocity of flows were available at limited locations”. It goes on to say that the desired “building block method” which should be applied to arrive at the right environmental flow “requires much more data, time and manpower and other resources and therefore, could not be applied in this study”.

* The study registers negative changes in water quality but gives a thumbs-up saying that the impact is well within the limits of environmental sustainability. This assessment is based on individual case studies, rather than the combined impact of a series of projects. Experts point out that the thumbs-up is based on Centre for Pollution Control Board’s “use-based” classification of water which may be okay to determine potability of water drawn from a tube well but not for determining water quality of a natural river.

* The study admits that Bhagirathi and Alaknanda river basins are rich in biodiversity “designated as sensitive habitats” with “high conservation significance”. It also says that construction of reservoirs prevents migration of aquatic life and changes the domain of flowing water (river) to a standing water (lake) domain. This change brings about “significant changes in physic-chemical characteristics affecting the ecological parameters.

But it goes on to conclude: “So far, we don’t have any study of changes in aquatic life from river to reservoir. Thus, at present it is not possible to give any firm assessment on the impact of HPs on biodiversity of Alaknand and Bhagirathi.” But wasn’t that the purpose of the study?

It devotes considerable space to impact on fishes, particularly the famed golden mahseer and snow trout that so characterize these rivers by observing that the fishes “require an uninterrupted riverine habitat as well as floodplains for their breeding”, which dams and tunnels disrupt. And by way of solution, it says “fish passes” of various kinds be used. But not a word has been said about the efficacy of these passes and instances where such methods have been used successfully to make a convincing argument.

The only worthwhile suggestion the report contains is that no more HPs should be set up on the tributaries of Bhagirathi and Alaknand. It sys: “These streams have been identified as Nayar, Birhi Ganga, Bhyunder Ganga, Balganga and Asiganga which should not be exploited further as these are the lifelines of the main ecosystem of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers”.

* The study points out that tunneling work for ROR projects damage springs and other underground water channels. This alters water availability and effects local population. But in a typical bureaucratic exercise, it says such blockages would lead to springs finding alternate routes and that the reservoirs being built in other projects would recharge ground water to conclude that the effect will be localized and the cumulative impact will be negligible. And then it goes on to contradict itself: “In the absence of relevant groundwater in the project scenario it may be difficult (or improper) to conclude with confidence on the impact on construction of HPs on the availability of drinking water sources to the population in the project area”.

* Photographs carried in the report tell a harrowing tale of recklessness. Huge piles of muck, generated from excavation work, have been dumped in the river beds, skirting the water flow and in forested areas of hills destroying vegetation. Instead of expressing anxiety and asking for immediate remedial action to prevent damage to the river and forests, it merely advises that suitable dumping ground may be found.

Worse, it points out that afforestation and catchment area treatment has not started for any of the HPs and that post construction impact data are not available. Yet, it concludes that “the problems generated during the construction “will die out automatically”.

* The study is dotted with lamentations about lack of data and relevant information. The chapter on “recommendations” begins with this gem: “In view of the fact that the field of cumulative impact assessment (CIA) is new and is being introduced for the first time in India, there are many gaps in the knowledge necessary to undertake CIA with the desired degree of precision, particularly in the Himalayan region where the database is weaker than that in the rest of the country. It is therefore necessary that a major programme of research and development should be drawn and implemented as early as possible.”

Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former professor of IIM-Bangalore whose petition to the central empowered committee (CEC) led to the supreme court ordering this cumulative study in 2009, says the basic mistake of the study is to define cumulative impact more in terms of sustainable development in long term and less in terms of combined impact of more than one project taken together.

He goes on to add that AHEC has failed to include several impacts in its study: loss of forests and biodiversity, trapping of sediments in reservoirs, methane emissions from reservoir, impact on health due to mosquito breeding in reservoirs and so on.

In fact, when IIT-Roorkee was given the task by the MoEF, he had objected to the choice of both the organization and its director Arun Kumar, saying that their primary competence was in engineering and design of small hydropower projects, rather than environmental studies. He would have preferred if the task had been given to NEERI, Wildlife Institution of India or Forest Research Institute.

Himanshu Thakkar, an expert on water management issues, dismisses the report as “pathetic” and says he is planning to write to the environment minister Jairam Ramesh to junk it.

He finds several major flaws: lamentations about lack of relevant data which was its job to provide, a pronounced bias for hydropower projects, absence of cumulative impact study of key indicators, silence on restrictions to ensure bio-diversity and ecological stability and several others. He is particularly disturbed with the IIT-Roorkee’s prescription of letting 70 percent of the river length be affected. He says a river gets killed in two ways – submergence and diversion – adding, “So to allow killing of 70 percent of a river is nonsense”.

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