Endangered Rivers And Biodiversity
Over 70 hydel projects are being constructed in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins in Uttarakhand, adversely impacting over 9,000 hectares of forest land, the holy confluences of rivers and several wildlife parks. A Wildlife Institute of India report recommends that 24 of these projects be scrapped
If you want to visit the Valley of Flowers National Park or the Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve in Uttarakhand, plan it this August. If you want to see the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers en route to Kedarnath and Badrinath, do it soon. The rivers may soon disappear. If you’re looking forward to seeing the confluence of the rivers (called holy prayags, one of which, the Vishnuprayag, has already been destroyed), rush, because they’re all slated for extinction. With dams and big hydro projects planned in this region, sanctioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and some already under construction, there may be little reason to visit these places in the coming years, unless you like looking at dry riverbeds and muck-disposal sites.
The Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) report which is a cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects on the terrestrial and aquatic ecology of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins was finally put up on the MoEF website on April 16, 2012, more than three months after it was submitted, but just a day before an NGRBA (National Ganga River Basin Authority) meeting. The timing is significant. While the MoEF can claim credit for putting the study up before the meeting, none of the members, and very few external experts and mediapersons, were able to go through the report, support it or raise and record their concerns before the NGBRA meet.
Over 70 hydel projects are in various stages of completion, construction and planning in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, though some accounts put the number at 300. If all these projects, with a combined installed capacity of at least 9,563 MW, go ahead, they will lead to the deforestation of at least 9,494.68 hectares of forest land and adversely affect 655 km of river length. Many of these projects are entirely or partially inside the Gangotri National Park, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Nandadevi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Valley of Flowers National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Sites of outstanding universal value). They will pose a threat to 16 fish species, five rare and endangered mammals (including the snow leopard, brown bear and mouse deer), five rare and endangered bird species, 55 rare and endangered plant species, over 300 medicinal herbs, and hundreds of plants that are used by locals in varied ways.
Despite an unusually large number of projects under consideration in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins, which would adversely affect culturally and ecologically important rivers, the Panch Prayags, and outstanding biodiversity, the MoEF did not suo motu order any cumulative impact assessment studies. This was done only when the CEC and Supreme Court gave explicit directions to the Forest Advisory Committee, in February 2009, to conduct assessment studies for the projects.
In June 2010, the forest conservation division of the MoEF assigned the study to the Wildlife Institute of India. And the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) assigned a ‘Cumulative Impacts on the Environmental Side of the Projects in Bhagirathi and Alaknanda River Basins in Uttarakhand’ study to AHEC-IITR (Alternate Hydro Energy Centre-Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee). AHEC submitted its report in March 2011, while the WII submitted its interim report on five projects (2) that had applied for forest clearance to the MoEF. In May 2011, the Forest Advisory Committee rejected forest clearances to three of these projects.
Evidently these are important reports that, in the words of the prime minister, at the third NGRBA meeting, will “guide what actions we need to take pending formulation of a long-term policy” for the Ganga river (http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=82308).
Unfortunately, however, the IIT-Roorkee report on the cumulative impact of these projects was of such poor quality that the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for river valley projects of the MoEF slammed the report and is paying no heed to it. Civil society too rejected the report, which reads like a mouthpiece for hydropower developers and refuses to take a considered, independent and unbiased stand. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has prepared a detailed critique of the report. It also published a critique of the river ecology aspects of the report, by Emmanuel Theophilus, Himal Prakriti, Uttarakhand.
More importantly, the report failed to come up with any sort of cumulative assessment of the impact of dams in the region.
In this context, the WII report is critical. While providing slick lip-service to terms like ‘cumulative impact assessment’ and ‘sustainable development’, the MoEF is blatantly giving individual clearance to projects. In a shocking incident, the MoEF actually sanctioned a project in this region that has been rejected by the Forest Advisory Committee twice for the extensive and irreversible ecological damage it will cause! (It has also been rejected in the WII’s interim report.) This was done on the basis of representation by the project developers to environment minister Jayanti Natrajan. Why would the minister be ready to listen to persons with vested interests rather than the expert environment body commissioned by the ministry?
According to its mandate, the WII report can help assess the cumulative impact of massive projects being planned in the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins. It can also help initiate a discussion on the value we ascribe to outstanding, protected biodiversity, rivers and related natural resources and the livelihoods of people who depend on them, and the services they provide, vis-à-vis our current development paradigm and planning and decision-making processes.
Despite some serious flaws, the WII has done a much better job of the task given to it than the AHEC. The report has evolved thinking about some of the cumulative impacts, linked them with hydropower development and devised a methodology to address these impacts, integrating biodiversity and impact values. The methodology comes up with multiple scenarios of cumulative impacts on sub-basins with or without projects. Importantly, the WII has moved away from project-centric impacts and has assessed cumulative impacts on the terrestrial and aquatic ecology at a sub-basin level, dividing the two basins into 18 sub-basins. Cumulative impacts can be better seen on a landscape scale than on a project scale. After a baseline study of the aquatic and terrestrial ecology of the region, the report has assigned biodiversity values to individual basins. Based on the projects planned and their nature (run of river/storage), a score card for impacts has been made. In the final matrix, biodiversity scores and impact scores are superimposed to give an idea of the overall impact on the sub-basin. These impacts range from low, moderate and high to very high.
Critically important habitats of valued biodiversity components significantly overlap with locations of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins (WII, April 2012)
Based on these cumulative impacts, a ‘list of proposed projects that may be reviewed for combined benefits of reducing impacts on both, aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity and for acceptable outcomes from hydropower development for biodiversity conservation and societal wellbeing’ has been put forward. The list of projects to be reviewed (recommended for exclusion/scrapping) features 24 projects. According to the report, ‘ecological prudence requires that securing long-term biodiversity conservation should get precedence over economic considerations visualised in commissioning these 24 projects’. The list of these projects is given in Table 1.
The report also recommends that the rivers Nayar and Balganga, which are of critical importance for their aquatic biodiversity, especially fish populations, should be declared fish conservation reserves and should be protected from further degradation and hydel projects. These two stretches are comparatively less disturbed.
For projects already in operation, the study recommends ‘monitoring for compliance of clearance conditions and conducting environmental audits to identify areas of negligence in environmental management so that regulatory frameworks can be better tailored for ensuring the reduction in the combined footprint of all projects operating in the sub-basins’. However, it is an open secret that the MoEF does not have the will, capacity or the inclination to actually do this. Instead of setting up monitoring committees full of uninterested bureaucrats, it would be more effective if the committees saw 50 per cent local participation and are empowered to make corrective recommendations whenever required.
While accepting that dropping these 24 projects would mean reducing power-generation capacity by 27 per cent, the report significantly states that India has one of the world’s highest power transmission losses (6)—about 30-40 per cent—against a global average of 15 per cent. A better and more effective power transmission management system could, to a large extent, offset this loss in power generation. This is a welcome statement as this and the falling per MW electricity production in India’s hydro sector, non-optimisation of peaking power generation and sanctioning of unviable capacities are issues that are consistently ignored whilst lobbying for more dams.
Although the WII study has some strengths, it also has some major lacunae which need to be addressed urgently:
Number of projects underestimated: Though the study mentions that only 70 projects are commissioned, under construction and in the planning stage, the number is clearly much greater. As an example, the study has not included commissioned projects like the 144 MW Chilla, 0.4 MW Tharali, 0.8 MW Tapovan or planned projects like the 745 MW Utyasu (I-IV), 745 MW Birahiganga, 72 MW Bagoli or 44 MW Bangri. This is a very serious lapse. The AHEC study lists 244 projects in various stages of construction in Uttarakhand, of which a majority are in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins. The number needs to be re-checked on an urgent basis and additional projects included in the list.
No mention of impacts of peaking power: All hydropower projects are supposed to generate maximum peaking power, as this is supposed to be their USP. Peaking power, even if regulated with strict e-flow norms, can lead to huge downstream fluctuations in water levels, affecting ecosystems and communities. This has been one of the central points of discussion in basin studies on rivers in the Northeast like the Lohit and the Siang. However, the issue of peaking power does not find a single mention in the WII report—a huge omission that has to addressed as it will add to the cumulative impacts.
Livelihood issues: Another serious weakness of the WII study is that it does not consider livelihoods that depend on the ecological goods and services of river systems in the region. It simply states: ‘In addition to the expansion of urban areas, road-building activities and, in recent times, hydroelectric projects have further marginalised the individual landholding in Uttarakhand. These projects are certainly going to engulf the already marginalised productive agricultural fields, thus implying more hardship to local populations in times to come.’ It adds that degrading ecosystem goods and services from a flowing river impairs social and economic development and could have an adverse influence on livelihoods, income and local migration, which in turn may lead to unrest and even political conflict.
There was huge scope here to study the impacts of such projects and put them to decision-makers so that the so-called economic benefits may be compared with livelihood and ecological losses. The report has not done this. The impact score card devised by the WII should have included impacts on settlements and villages, drinking water sources and streams, fisheries, riparian farming, groundwater recharge, fodder for animals, medicinal plant use, etc.
Aesthetic, cultural, spiritual and religious values do not find mention either, in the report. The AHEC-IITR report also falls short on this front. Considering the cultural importance of the Ganga and Panch Prayags (five confluences, namely Dev Prayag, Karna Prayag, Rudra Prayag, Nanda Prayag and Vishnu Prayag; the last of this was destroyed by the Vishnu Prayag HEP) in the hearts of millions of Indians, the omission is serious.
There is also no mention of the protected status of 135 km of the Bhagirathi river, nor the cumulative impacts of allied activities like road-construction, muck-disposal, quarrying, extracting material from riverbeds, blasting, tunnelling, settlements, etc.
The report is also silent on the issue of climate change and its impact on biodiversity, glaciers, methane emissions from storage reservoirs, and the unique biodiversity value of the cryosphere. No consideration has been given to the free-flowing distance between two dams. Or the cumulative impact of changed silt flow on the biodiversity and geomorphology downstream. This is a big omission as changed silt patterns have far-reaching effects on the region’s aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity.
The environmental flows section in the report is a major let-down. They have used methodologies based on the ecological management class (EMC) and ecological needs of fish. The EMC methodology was put forward by Vladimir Smakhtin et al in 2007 and the authors themselves say in the paper: ‘The set of indicators used here is very preliminary and the selection of indicators needs to be revisited. Apart from the rather general nature of some indicators, no indicators relating to the social importance of rivers have been considered in the approach, at present. This is acknowledged as a serious limitation and one that needs to be addressed in future work.’
Environmental flow describes the ‘quantity, quality and timing of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and wellbeing that depend on these ecosystems’ (Brisbane Declaration 2007). The social aspects of e-flows cannot simply be brushed aside, as the WII report has done.
The report claims to have used the building block methodology to calculate e-flows, but there is no evidence of it. The e-flows recommendations therefore need to be reworked with a much more holistic perspective; until then, the releases mentioned in the report should be considered minimum threshold values.
All of these issues must be addressed in order to understand the whole range of cumulative impacts of projects in the region. WII should be asked to work on these aspects and come up with a report that includes all possible impacts and their mitigation measures.
In the meantime, the MoEF should adopt all the recommendations made in the WII study without any closed-door negotiations with the project proponents. It is learnt that GMR Energy rejected the WII impact scores and the MoEF accepted their arguments before giving the project forest clearance. None of these discussions have been put in the public domain. Accepting the word of private project proponents against the biodiversity scores developed by the WII is clearly unacceptable. If there has to be any discussion, it must be transparent.
It is time for the MoEF to take some hard decisions and walk the talk about sustainable development. It must review its decision on forest and environment clearance for all projects that the WII report has asked to be excluded, including GMR’s 300 MW Alaknanda Hydro. The MoEF should tell the WII to redo the study, keeping the above flaws in mind. It should reject the AHEC report and instruct an independent credible agency to do another one. In the meantime, it would be in the best interests of everyone that the MoEF suspends the process of giving clearance to new hydro projects in Uttarakhand. Yes, we do need energy, but it need not be at the cost of our life-support systems. (Infochange)
By Parineeta Dandekar