Community groups concerned over thrust on large dams in Himalayas

Community organisations, which are facing human-induced climate change impacts in Himachal Pradesh, claimed on Tuesday that the government of India’s policy of promoting mega hydropower projects in the Himalayas is at manifold risk of earthquake-triggered landslides.

The risk of constructing dams in the Himalayan region came to the fore following the devastating floods in Uttarakhand in 2013, and again after the deluge that wreaked havoc in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand on Sunday.

“We express our collective rage at the inaction by the government at multiple levels and its repeated thrust on large dams in the Himalayas,” said a statement by 12 community groups, largely based in Himachal’s high mountains that share similar topography to that of Uttarakhand.

“No amount of monetary compensation can placate the anguish of those who have suffered irreparable losses. The lack of accountability and intent of all institutions, agencies and political representatives involved stands amply exposed,” it added.

Saying that the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster was an expensive and tragic lesson, the community organisations said that the Ravi Chopra Committee and scientific assessments made clear the role of hydropower and mindless construction in exacerbating the impact of the Kedarnath flashfloods.

“But we learnt nothing from it. No amount of evidence presented to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the state departments, the Central Water Commission and to the courts has led to a reconsideration or review of the hydropower policy of the government of India or the state governments,” they pointed out.

“Lack of adequate and thorough scientific planning and shoddy impact assessment studies are approved by expert appraisal committees with members who are clearly in support of the projects.

“The Asian Development Bank, which has funded the expansion of NTPC projects in the Dhauliganga river, approved an environmental impact assessment report of Tapovan Vishnugad that didn’t have a single mention of the threat of flood or glacial lakes, avalanches. International financing agencies are thus also complicit in this negligence,” the statement said.

Once clearances are granted, non-compliance of environmental norms and social accountability laws is rampant.

“No safety monitoring is undertaken and the lives of the workers and the people of the affected villages are constantly at stake. Have we ever heard of an environment clearance of a dam being cancelled because of non-compliance? Diminishing space for democratic public participation in decision making processes has further worsened the situation in the past few years.

“What is worse is that the Central government, despite the obvious hazards associated with large hydropower projects, had in 2019 classified projects above 25 MW as ‘renewable’ which will be able to avail subsidies and the power produced by these will be subject to obligatory purchase norms,” it said.

On the upcoming hydropower projects in the trans-Himalayan regions of Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, the activists said the tribal communities have been resisting them tooth and nail.

“These are also geologically unstable terrains prone to earthquakes and avalanches,” it said.

Quoting a study by researchers from the University of Potsdam in Germany, they said it analysed 273 hydropower projects in the Himalayas of India, Nepal and Bhutan and found that about 25 per cent of them are likely to face severe damage from quake-triggered landslides.

In recent decades, the ecologically and geologically fragile and sensitive Himalayan terrains have become even more vulnerable due to rapidly changing climatic patterns.

“Let us acknowledge that these climatic changes, be it erratic rainfall or deglaciation due to increased warming, are not ‘natural phenomena’. These are caused and exacerbated by several anthropogenic factors, the biggest being the rapid exploitation of land, water and forests,” the statement said.

Seeking a moratorium on the construction of new hydropower projects till a study on the cumulative impact of the projects on the fragile ecology and livelihoods is done, Prem Katoch of Save Lahaul Spiti told IANS that the Avay Shukla Committee report presented to the state high court in 2011 had recommended a moratorium on new projects.

But the state government had dismissed the report completely, he said.

The other community organisations which are concerned over large dams include the Himalayan Students Ensemble; Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective; Himalaya Bachao Samiti, Chamba; Himalaya Niti Abhiyan; Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur; and Spiti Civil Society.