The Environment Ministry, in an affidavit placed in the Supreme Court earlier this month, has disclosed that it has permitted seven hydroelectric power projects, which are reportedly in advanced stages of construction, to go ahead.
One of them is the 512 MW Tapovan Vishnugadh project, in Joshimath, Uttarakhand that was recently damaged by a flood in February.
What’s the history of hydropower projects in the Himalayas?
- In the aftermath of the Kedarnath floods of 2013 that killed at least 5,000 people, the Supreme Court had halted the development of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand pending a review by the Environment Ministry on the role such projects had played in amplifying the disaster.
- A 17-member expert committee, led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, was set up by the Ministry to examine the role of 24 such proposed hydroelectric projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin, which contains the Ganga and several tributaries.
- The Chopra committee concluded that 23 projects would have an “irreversible impact” on the ecology of the region.
- Following this, six private project developers, whose projects were among those recommended to be axed, impleaded themselves in the case on the ground that since their projects had already been cleared for construction before the Kedarnath tragedy, they should be allowed to continue.
- The SC directed a new committee to be set up to examine their case.
- This committee, led by Vinod Tare of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, concluded that these projects could have a significant environmental impact.
- The Environment Ministry in 2015 set up yet another committee, led by B.P. Das, who was part of the original committee, but had filed a “dissenting report”.
- The Das committee recommended all six projects with design modifications to some, and this gives lie to the Environment Ministry’s current stance. The Power Ministry seconded the Environment Ministry’s stance.
- The Water Resources Ministry, then by that time, has been consistently opposed to hydropower projects in the Ganga.
- In charge of the National Mission for Clean Ganga, the Water Ministry has maintained that the cleanliness of the river was premised on minimum levels of water flow in all seasons and the proposed projects could hinder this.
- By 2019, however, the renamed Jal Shakti Ministry had changed its stance to accommodate seven out of the 24 projects.
- Its current position however is that barring these, it is “not in favour” of new projects in the Ganga river basin.
- Though hearings in the SC are ongoing, this is the first time that the government has a formal uniform position on hydropower projects in the Uttarakhand region.
- In Feb 2021 also, Uttarakhand floods washed away at least two hydroelectric power projects — the13.2 MW Rishiganga hydroelectric power project and the Tapovan project on the Dhauliganga river, a tributary of the Alakananda.
- This was due to the break in the Raunthi glacier that triggered floods in the Rishiganga river.
Importance of Himalayas and threat of degradation:
- The Himalayan range is a transnational mountain chain and is the chief driver of the Asian climate.
- It is a source for numerous Asian river systems and glaciers which are now under the threat of degradation and retreat due to global warming; these river systems provide water for billions of people.
- This legacy of humanity has now become highly contentious with territorial disputes between two nuclear powers — India and China.
- The ongoing low-level military confrontations between these two countries have led to demands for further infrastructural development on both sides, including all-weather roads, much to the peril of regional biodiversity and the livelihoods of the indigenous population.
- High seismic zones coincide with areas of high population concentration in the Himalayan region where landslides and glacial lake outburst floods are common.
- About 15% of the great earthquakes of the 20th century (with a magnitude of more than 8) occurred in the Himalayan region.
- The northeast Himalayan bend has experienced several large earthquakes of magnitude 7 and above in the last 100 years, more than the share from other parts of the Himalayas.
- In a recent article in Nature, Maharaj K. Pandit, a Himalayan ecologist, says in recent years, the Himalayas have seen the highest rate of deforestation and land use changes.
- He suggests that the upper Himalayas should be converted into a nature reserve by an international agreement.
- He also says the possibility of a Himalayan River Commission involving all the headwater and downstream countries needs to be explored.
What are the challenges such projects face?
- Following the break in the Raunthi glacier that triggered floods in the Rishiganga river in Uttarakhand on February 7, which washed away at least two hydroelectric power projects, environmental experts have attributed the glacial melt to global warming.
- Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to decrease the stability of mountain slopes and increase the number and area of glacier lakes.
- Climate change has driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall.
- The thermal profile of ice, say experts, was increasing, which means that the temperature of ice that used to range from -6 to -20 degree C, was now -2 degree C, making it more susceptible to melting.
- It was these changing phenomena that made infrastructure projects in the Himalayan regions risky.
- Expert committees recommend that there should be no hydropower development beyond an elevation of 2,200 metre in the Himalayan region.
- Moreover, with increased instances of cloudbursts, and intense spells of rainfall and avalanches, residents of the region were also placed at increased risk of loss of lives and livelihood.
How can these conflicts be resolved?
The challenges facing development in the Himalayan region are multi-faceted.
The Uttarakhand government has said that it’s paying over ₹1,000 crore annually to purchase electricity and therefore, the more such projects are cancelled, the harder for them to meet their development obligations.
Several environmentalists, residents of the region, say that the proposed projects being built by private companies allot only a limited percentage of their produced power for the State of Uttarakhand itself.
Thus, the State, on its own, takes on massive environmental risk without being adequately compensated for it or its unique challenges accounted for.
Several environmental activists say that the Centre has frequently changed its position and will continue to prioritise infrastructural development in the region, even if it comes at a heavy environmental cost.
Though the Centre is committed to hydropower projects because it’s a renewable source of power, but the ecological damage of hydropower projects in Himalayan region (especially in Uttarakhand) combined with the reduced cost of solar power means that government should not favour any further greenfield hydropower projects in the region.
Government should adhere to the recommendation made by the expert committees that there should be no hydropower development beyond an elevation of 2,200 metre in the Himalayan region.