Hydropower | Project | Himalayas | 30th August 2021 | Virtual Wire
The Environment Ministry, in an affidavit placed in the Supreme Court, has disclosed that it has permitted seven hydroelectric power projects in the state of Uttarakhand to go ahead.
In the aftermath of the devastating Kedarnath floods of 2013, the Supreme Court had halted the development of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand. It had called on the Environment Ministry to review the role played by hydroelectricity projects in amplifying natural disasters like cloud bursts and floods.
Several expert committees were set up to examine the role of 24 such proposed hydroelectric projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin of the river Ganga and its tributaries. The first two committees had concluded that the proposed projects could have a significant environmental impact and irreversibly impact the fragile ecology of the region.
Following this adverse observation by the expert committees, six private project developers impleaded themselves in the case in the SC. They sought their projects to be allowed to be continued given that they were already in various stages of construction following a clearance from the environment ministry. A new committee set up in 2015 recommended the projects to be allowed with design modifications to some.
The Environment Ministry has given the go-ahead to 7 hydropower projects that are reportedly in advanced stages of construction. The cleanliness of the Ganga River is premised on minimum levels of water flow in it in all seasons and the proposed hydropower projects upstream of the Ganga basin could hinder water flow in the Ganga River. The hydropower projects induce severe ecological damage to the region.
The large scale deforestation exercises involved in construction leads to land degradation and desertification in the region. Large scale projects with large storage basins lead to the submergence of large areas of land. The use of rock blasting and heavy machinery during the construction of power projects has damaged the fragile hills.
The lack of scientific disposal of construction debris is leading to environmental pollution in the river basins. The fragile ecology of the region is prone to natural disasters like landslides and Glacial Lake Outbursts. The presence of hydropower projects in such vulnerable regions only increase the threat to the life and infrastructure in the region.
The break in the Raunthi glacier had triggered floods in the Rishiganga river in Uttarakhand and washed away at least two hydroelectric power projects- Rishiganga hydroelectric power project and the Tapovan Vishnugadh project in February 2021. Also the seismically active Himalayan region is prone to earthquakes. A massive earthquake that could damage the dams can lead to flash floods and lead to loss of life and property downstream of the dams.
Global warming is expected to intensify the Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw. Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number and area of glacier lakes. Glacier lakes pose the risk of outbursts.
Environmental experts have attributed the glacial melt in the Raunthi glacier which had triggered floods in the Rishiganga river to global warming. Also, the recent sixth assessment report of the IPCC has warned of the possibility of increased instances of cloudbursts. The increased chances of intense spells of rainfall would trigger landslides in the region threatening the hydropower projects.
This places the residents of the region at increased risk of loss of lives and livelihood. Hydropower is abundantly available in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and its usage becomes critical to the development of the state. Hydropower constitutes a renewable source of power and will be critical to meet India’s obligations under its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Climate Agreement.
While the hydropower projects in the region have brought prosperity, they have also increased the vulnerability of the fragile ecosystem of the region. Infrastructural development in the region cannot come at a heavy environmental cost, given that such growth and development will not be sustainable.
A balance has to be struck between development and environmental sustainability. Small run-off hydropower projects with a small environmental footprint should be promoted in the region. Other alternatives like solar power should also be explored. The government must review its policy on hydropower projects.
The fact that the state of Uttarakhand has its own unique environmental challenges needs to be accounted for adequately in such a policy. The conservation, sustenance of these ecologically fragile regions must be given the highest priority. The fact that the government has stated that it is not in favour of greenfield hydropower projects in the region is a welcome move in this regard.