June 2013: What was different in Himalaya?
June 2013 has been a month that will be etched in the minds and hills of the Himalaya for the large-scale devastation wrought about in the valleys of Kedarnath. The Himalaya are known to be earthquake prone. But this devastation was not due to an earthquake but floods caused by a cloudburst.
The pilgrim towns devastated by floods this year have been in the Himalayas for so many millenia. Would they have come survived for so long if the hills were so flood prone? Have these hills not witnessed cloudbursts before, in all these years? What is so different this time around then?
Have we been doing something different in these hills, something that our predecessors did not?
An Overpowering Situation
The journey upstream along the major rivers Alakananda and Mandakini reveals the answer.
Dotted with more hydel plants than green plants is a barren mountainscape that greets our eyes as we go up along these rivers to the upper reaches of the Himalaya. We see a plethora of Hydel power projects being built on the main river itself at close proximity.
With 42 hydel power plants operational and 203 more in various stages of approval, planning and development, it boils down to one hydel power plant every 5 to 7 kms of the river flow downstream.
This was not the landscape that was home to the humans, flora and fauna that have been living there for millennia.
The number of Hydel projects in these hilly areas of Uttaranchal have prompted these regions to be derisively nicknamed as Urjachal – Urja for power, achala meaning mountains.
Contract With the Hills
Most certainly, for the amount of funds and effort being invested in the erection of each power plant, sufficient attention may have been given to test the soil conditions. The ability of the terrain there to withstand the drilling, blasting and damming needed for the power plant would also no doubt have been analyzed and necessary approvals procured.
But hills being hills and a fragile ecosystem and terrain at that, the effects of such heavy duty construction cannot be expected to stay localized to the ground on which that power plant is being constructed alone. The vibrations would ripple across the hills and valleys causing the rocks and soil to loosen and crack at the slightest cause.
It is like a pack of cards stacked up like domino. It is hard to say which card will cause the pile to cave in.
Who knows that scooping out portions of one hill will not cause damage elsewhere?Imagine the strain on the hills when it is being blown up and drilled every 5 kms. Little wonder then that a heavy downpour due to a cloudburst can literally pull the ground away from under one’s feet causing breeches, landfalls and flash floods.
Media had been highlighting this issue for a while, villagers too. Warnings were there for the traditional stake holders of the land to see physically and raise orally. They seem to have got drowned in the contractor driven model of development driving growth in the region.
Worse still, this so called development in this area is not for the people in the hills but to benefit the people living in the plains and cities below.
Shifting the Silt
Every river by nature has silting. But heavy to very heavy silting is a unique feature of all Himalayan rivers, whether they flow north, south, east or west. These rivers originate in glaciers high up in the Himalaya. As the glaciers grind over the rocks and flow out as rivers, these rive waters bring down mineral rich silt from the hills.
It is because of this silting nature of these rivers, that right from Haridwar where Ganga enters the plains, to Bangladesh, the land is most fertile with alluvial soil.The immensely fertile Gangetic plains of eastern Bihar, Bengal and Bangladesh were formed by such silt naturally filling up the sea bed. This silting has been a boon for the people of the plains and it is no wonder then that this belt is one of the most densely populated regions of the world.
Cost of Silty affairs
When a dam is built across such rivers, the storage area of the dam will be filled with silt within a few years to a decade. While the cost of desilting is one factor, the second issue is – where can so much silt be manually relocated? Is sale of silt perhaps anticipated as a byproduct of this power generation?
Instead, a better way would be to tap all the excess water flowing over a certain level, which will have lesser silt and take it away downstream through series of canals for other needs. This method has stood the test of time and has been found to be sustainable.
One of the earliest examples, dating back to over 2000 years ago, is the Sringaverapura water diversion system built near Varanasi. While this system is in the plains, this principle is time tested and valid for the Himalayan rivers.
Another drawback of building dams across such heavily silting rivers has been observed by the CAG. As explained in CAG report, the silt in a river slows down the river as it comes downstream, making it less turbulent. With the construction of hydel projects across these rivers, the river waters are routed into turbines for generating power and then released back into the river stream.
The silt in the river therefore gets withheld upstream due to this. Not only is the downstream flow made devoid of fertile silt but the turbulence of the water flow also increases downstream due to lack of silt to slow it down. This makes downstream regions of the river more prone to damage from breaches of river banks and flash floods.
In the name of development and supplying power, we are going to impoverish the farmers in the plains by robbing them of the fertile silt that the rivers naturally brought with them for free. We are not far from the times when the farmers may perhaps be asked to buy the silt to enrich their land – just like they have been made to buy seeds and fertilizer, which were earlier available to them from Nature for free.
In this scenario, does it seem a wise option to build not one, but hundreds of dams, across the river flow of such silting rivers?