Experts Recommend Scrapping Dams in Light of 2013 India Floods

Bharat Lal Seth
Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Less than a year after a furious Himalayan flood claimed thousands of lives and destroyed numerous houses, roads and other infrastructure in the Alaknanda river valley, an expert body has concluded that hydropower projects exacerbated damages. The 11-member committee, constituted by the Supreme Court in the aftermath of the June 2013 floods, submitted its findings on April 28. 

Vishnuprayag dam was swept away during the 2013 floods.
Vishnuprayag dam was swept away during the 2013 floods.
Photo: Matu Jansangthan

Last year the government of Uttarakhand called the flood disaster a natural calamity. The Meteorological department recorded intense rainfall in a 72-hour period, while a sudden outburst of a glacial moraine dam resulted in a devastating surge of water, rock and sediment through the Mandakini river valley, a major tributary of the Alaknanda. 

However, people in the region and activists believed that the disaster was partly human-caused. They laid blame on a number of existing and under-construction hydro projects. They noted that the debris from blasting tunnels for the projects and other construction works had been unlawfully accumulating on the banks (and in some cases was dumped directly in to the river), which was carried away in the floods and greatly added to the force of the impact downstream. 

Activists further alleged that poor operation of dam gates at some sites increased the force of the surge and caused more damage downstream. Such an allegation was made against Jaiprakash Power Ventures Limited, which operates the 400-megawatt Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project commissioned in 2006. The company claims that all four gates of the dam were opened in time. In December last year the company filed an affidavit in the courts saying, “whatever happened in the area was an act of God and a natural calamity for which nobody including the project is responsible.”  

The expert body, however, states that there “is some doubt about whether the Vishnuprayag project authorities were able to properly manage the opening and closing of the gates.” Even if the gates were opened, they note, water was blocked by massive boulders and other debris. As a result, “it led to the river outflanking the barrage on the left bank, sweeping away the company’s offices, helipad and the national highway,” the report states. 

The expert body has also stated that if there was intense rainfall from the upper reaches of the Alaknanda, one of the Ganga’s headwaters, leading to numerous landslides along the banks, then why was considerable damage observed only downstream of certain hydroelectric projects? “A detailed investigation is warranted in order to arrive at a scientifically viable explanation,” said the report.

The state of Uttarakhand has the second highest hydropower potential of the Indian states, with an official potential of 27,039 megawatts. The state has been proactively seeking to develop 450 projects, mostly in the Ganga and Yamuna river basin. According to the experts’ report, the state has commissioned 92 projects with a capacity of 3,624 megawatts. An additional 38 are already under construction, while detailed project reports have been prepared for another 38 that are currently awaiting statutory clearances. 

Given the state government’s rush to maximize power generation, the expert body was additionally asked to assess the cumulative effects of existing, under construction and proposed projects planned bumper to bumper in a cascade in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, the headwaters of the Ganga. The expert body has come out strongly in favor of releasing water downstream of dams in ways that mimic pre-damming hydrology. Until there is a clear and enforceable plan for managing the river basin with “environmental flows,”, the expert body has recommended that the government ensure the release of at least half of the average flow in the dry season.

The expert body also recommended that 23 out of 24 proposed projects be scrapped entirely. This is in line with the recommendations of an earlier report published by the Wildlife Institute of India, which described the significant impacts these dams would have on the biodiversity in the region.     

But the expert body, in particular two of its members, representatives of the Central Electricity Authority and the Central Water Commission, are not in agreement with other members on the final recommendations. These two members of the government, viewed as sympathetic to the hydropower lobby, have submitted an alternative report. On May 7, the Ministry of Environment and Forests sought to form yet another committee. The Supreme Court has given the environment ministry until July to explain why this is essential. Activists have questioned the motives of the two dissenting members as an attempt to dilute the recommendation of the expert body. 

The case is being watched closely as the judgement can impact dam building in all Himalayan rivers of India. Knowing what is at stake, the Indian Hydropower Association has filed an Intervention Application in the case. Hundreds of memorandum of understandings for hydroelectric projects have been signed in the past decade, and several projects under construction and many of those proposed could be cancelled if the Supreme Court accepts the findings of the expert body.