Jasleen Kaur (Columnist)
Like the blood throbbing within our veins, Uttarakhand’s rivers breathe life in the hilly state. Over the years, the pristine glacial waters and the breath-taking hilly terrain have caught the attention of many for they serve a purpose beyond being crowded tourist spots: damming. The government of India has been keen on turning Uttarakhand into a hydropower hub by harnessing its water’s potential energy and “squeezing” out the maximum power they can spew out. Dressing lies with promises has taken them as far as completing some of their ambitious projects that aren’t symbiotic and focus only on unidirectional profit, making our ecosystems expendable.
From planning sessions and blueprints to the finishing of its construction, the dam building process is long enough to be ridden with corruption and negligence. Such flaws in the system are mostly overlooked or justified, but their long-term ill effects are out in the open.
The first step of the process is the selection of an appropriate site. Yes, rivers and terrain are first on the criteria list, but what’s underneath them determines the future. Uttarakhand is a seismologically active zone, which means that due to the heightened activity of the tectonic plates, this region is prone to earthquakes. Constructing a dam in a place like this is a gamble as at anytime an earthquake strong enough to shatter it can strike and cause a massive flash flood. Tall dams in Uttarakhand are “said” to be made sturdy enough to stand earthquakes a little over 7 Richter scale, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a catastrophe. Reports suggest that due to the ongoing friction b/w the two tectonic plates on which India sits, there is a high probability of a devastating earthquake to strike the northern states in the future. If such a scenario ever arises and the dams are not able to withstand it, tonnes of water will be unleashed in an instant and will lay every form of life in its way to waste. Also, more natural resources will be expended to rebuild what was damaged. Thus, the functional and the ongoing projects do not seem to be secure investments and can prove to be fatal.
Before any actual construction work begins, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of India, an organization responsible for the assessment of environmental consequences of a plan, policy or program, is required to conduct researches in and around the chosen site to assess the possible consequences and threats the structure might pose on the environment. The groundwork can only begin if and only if the research results give a nod. Unsurprisingly to our dismay, this law has craftily been overlooked. To this date, there has been no accurate research conducted by the EIA and hence, most of the data available are tampered with. To the contractors and the government, time is money and researches are not only time and money consuming, but also a hurdle. Most of the dams currently in use are situated in eco-sensitive zones, inflicting permanent damaging upon them. Had proper research studies been carried out, it would’ve been impossible for them to do their business.
A majority of the dams planned in the state are constructed in the deep forests, disturbing their harmony and peace. Consequently, for projects of such humongous status, a significant amount of deforestation is inevitable, mainly for the clearance of the area and for building colonies and camps for the officials and workers. With many more projects on the way, it is estimated that nearly 90% of Indian Himalayan forests would be affected by them. Tree species richness would be reduced by 35% and tree density would be reduced by a whopping 42%. By 2025, 22 angiosperms and 7 vertebrate taxa might vanish forever from our deciduous forests.
The rivers are no better. Damming not only causes the river water level to recede downstream but also fragments it. With alarming rates of water deprivation, rivers are rendered to mere streams or just their dried-up courses by the time they flow through towns and cities, with permanent changes in their geomorphology and hydrology. Tehri dam, located a kilometer away from the confluence of the rivers Bhagirathi and Bhailangana, is one of the best examples of this. During the course of its construction, disturbances in the physical, chemical and biological parameters of the rivers were observed. Not only did the water levels downstream decrease absurdly, but the quality of the water degraded too. Huge amounts of silt (from construction debris) deposited in the river were responsible for its questionable level of murkiness. Anomalies in the density of periphytons were also one of the grave concerns. These organisms are the dominant primary producers (blue algae, fungi etc) of aquatic ecosystems and attach themselves to stones, boulders and another bottom substrate of the river. Their number makes or breaks the overall health of a water body. The now inhospitable environment of the water caused their numbers to dwindle significantly and is now sucking the life out of the river.
Huge water reserves pose another problem. These reserves constructed at high altitudes have caused the breeding area of snails and mosquitoes to expand, enabling them to adapt to the colder environment. The consequences? They are now seen almost all around the year, unlike before when they couldn’t survive the winter, bringing with them diseases like malaria, dengue, and bilharzia.
Everything that is mentioned above does not constitute as the biggest threat to our natural heritage. It is the people who let their land be exploited in exchange for money that is the real problem. As if multiple pilgrimage destinations weren’t enough, the dams have also been turned into suffocating tourist spots. Swarms of people visit the dam and the nearby places, making space for unnecessary commercialization. Gradually, as villages and town settle around, forests get eaten from inside out, taking away what little biodiversity the place was left with.
With hundreds of functional dams in the state, the government plans on another one in Pancheswar, engulfing an area as big as Chandigarh. While many have seen foreseen what ill it will bring with itself, the authorities are still keen on progressing with the project. Are we going to let it happen, even after knowing what is in store for us?
It is only fair to utilize what we are provided by this planet but there is a fine line between utilization and exploitation. The crumbling ecological balance cloaked as our commercial and industrial “progress” today might seem like our biggest mistake a few years from now. Mindless extensive abuse without a single thought about sustainability is exploitation, and it will definitely lead us to a point of no return if all we do is sit and wait for our approaching doom while denying its existence at the same time.