Ruthless Exploitation Of Rivers Undermining Mountain Ecosystems

By: Rakesh Lohumi, Sr. Editor-ICN Group 

SHIMLA: The breathtaking sights and the thunder of the fast flowing Sutlej will be lost to the posterity if all the hydroelectric projects are commissioned over the next decade as planned.

The river with the highest power potential in the state will virtually vanish like the mythological Saraswati. A dry river bed dotted with manmade reservoirs built to divert water for power generation will be left as the meandering river will flow only through long tunnels bored underneath the towering mountains as and when its full potential of 13,332 MW tapped.

The cascade of big hydroelectric projects will effectively kill almost 300 km length of the total  320-km stretch of the river from Shipke La,  where  it enters India from China, to Bhakra Dam of the river which  will flow through tunnels or subsumed in the reservoirs.

Bhakra reservoir alone is 90 km long, followed by recently commissioned Kol Dam with storage extending 37.5 km upstream. These two storage schemes along with three big run-off-the-river completed projects, 1500 MW Nathpa Jhkari, 1200 MW Karcham Wangtu and 412 MW Rampur project, have already transformed the physical character of the river with discharge reduced to a trickle, except the four months of rainy season.

Public outcry forced the  SJVN Limited  review its plan to construct  38 km twin tunnels for the proposed 775 MW Luhri project which would have wiped out 48 km length of river. However, the revised proposal to built the project in three stages will not make much difference as length of tunnel will decrease but the reservoirs will be longer.

The fate of the Chenab basin (4,031.91 MW), the Beas basin (5,995.45 MW), Ravi basin (3,237.12 MW) and Yamuna basin (839.89 MW) will be no different as the government has already assigned projects in a haphazard manner without bothering about the riparian distance. In fact in many case the domains of the projects overlapped, leading to litigation.

The Shukla committee set up by the state high court  to examine the environmental fallout of over 100 MW projects had recommended minimum riparian distance of 5  km between two  projects but it was opposed by the state  the independent power producers (IPP). Ultimately the Centre decided to make a riparian distance of 1 to 2 km between two projects mandatory on the basis of the Shukla committee report.

The total hydropower potential of the state has been pegged at 27,436.35 MW, including 485 small projects (up to 5 MW), and so far small and big projects with aggregate capacity of 10,500   MW (40 percent) have been commissioned. Further projects of 4500 MW capacity  were under or  in the process of obtaining various mandatory clearances, while projects of 5,900 MW were under investigation.

The ruthless exploitation of river and streams with  620 small and big projects , virtually coming up one over the other, are  a serious threat to the fragile mountain ecosystems. The long term implications for the hill people will be severe. While big projects, particularly those with big storage reservoirs, have been opposed by the people and environmentalists across the country, the fallout  of small projects has not come into sharp focus.

In Himachal the small projects are being seen as a curse by the affected villagers who are already feeling the impact. The reasons are not far to seek. The villages are mostly perched on higher grounds on the hill slopes the people are not much dependent on the main rivers. Their life  is hinged to the small streams, which cater to their needs for drinking water and irrigation. Not only that the streams also have religious significance as village funeral grounds are also located on their banks.

In the tribal  Kinnuar district, where maximum projects have come up, the people maintain that the long tunnels bored underneath the mountains disrupted the natural aquifers as a result of which natural springs were drying up, leading to shortage of water for drinking and irrigation.

The impact is discernible in declining productivity of the apple orchards. As per Him Dhara , a Himachal based  an environment research and action group, 43 out of 167 of water sources have dried up and discharge in another 67 sources has declined appreciably in the villages affected by the construction of Karchham Wangtoo Project. The information was provided by the Irrigation and Public Health department under the Right to Information.

The policy to provide subsidy on small projects was framed by Centre for harnessing the small steams for the benefit of the local people. However, the government had turned these into goldmine for private companies, mostly from outside state, and the projects have become a curse for the villagers.  In countries like Sweden, 20 per cent of the hydropower potential has been left unexploited to protect the environment.

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