Hydropower Projects in the Himalayas

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    • Recently, a report titled The Hidden Cost of Hydropower: environmental hazards and risks of tunnelling, excavation and construction in Run of the River Hydropower Projects in Himachal Pradesh was released.

    About

    • It is a recent report compiled by Himdhara, an Environment Research and Action Collective.
    • On similar lines, in an affidavit placed in the Supreme Court, the Environment Ministry has disclosed that it has permitted seven hydroelectric power projects, which are reportedly in advanced stages of construction, to go ahead. 
    • One of the projects is the 512 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project, in Joshimath, Uttarakhand that was recently damaged by a flood.

    Key Findings of Report by Himdhara

    • Building hydropower projects in the Himalayas is due to the existing geological and ecological vulnerability of the mountain range itself.
      • 97.42% of the total geographical area of Himachal Pradesh is prone to landslides, according to the Geological survey of India. 
    • The underground component of the civil work in hydropower projects is quite substantial, involving blasting and dynamiting which exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and unleash impacts that are yet to be adequately studied and understood. 
      • The report highlights four major impacts of this kind of construction:
        • Geological impacts – triggering of landslides/slope failures leading to damage of roads, farms, houses;
        • Hydrogeological impacts – drying of springs and underground water sources;
        • Muck dumping along rivers leading to increasing siltation in forests and pastures;
        • Safety negligence leading to accidents

    Central Government’s latest stand

    • The central Government has specified that NO New Hydro power Projects will be taken up or allowed in upper reaches of Ganga now. 
    • Exceptions include only the projects which have been completed 50%.
    • These are 7 projects:
      • Tehri Stage 2: 1000 MW on Bhagirathi river
      • Tapovan Vishnugadh: 520 MW on Dhauliganga river
      • Vishnugadh Pipalkoti: 444 MW on Alaknanda river
      • Singoli Bhatwari: 99 MW on Mandakini river
      • Phata Bhuyang: 76 MW on Mandakini river
      • Madhyamaheshwar: 15 MW on Madhyamaheshwar Ganga
      • Kaliganga 2: 6 MW on Kaliganga river

     

    Recent history of Hydropower Projects in Himalayas

    • Kedarnath floods were the break point: 
      • 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. 
    • Committee for analysing the proposed HEP:
      • Ravi Chopra Committee: 
        • 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, implemented 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.
      • Vinod Tare Committee:
        • 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. 
      • B P Das Committee:
        • 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.

    Challenges to these projects in Himalayas

    • Glacial melt and permafrost thaw:
      • The break in the Raunthi glacier that triggered floods in the Rishiganga river in Uttarakhand, which washed away at least two hydroelectric power projects — the 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydroelectric power project and the Tapovan project on the Dhauliganga river, a tributary of the Alakananda — has been attributed to the glacial melt due to global warming. 
    • Glacier retreat tends to:
      • decrease the stability of mountain slopes and 
      • increase the number and area of glacier lakes. 
    • Erratic weathers: 
      • Climate change has driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall. 
    • Thermal profile of ice:
      • The thermal profile of ice 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. 
    • Purchasing electricity is expensive:
      • 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. 
    • Limited distribution of generated electricity:
      • 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. 

    Way Ahead

    • Do not include any greenfield projects and work on the already existing ones or the stalled ones.
    • 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.
    • The expert committees recommended that there should be no hydropower development beyond an elevation of 2,200 metre in the Himalayan region. 
    • Also, with increased instances of cloudbursts, and intense spells of rainfall and avalanches, residents of the region should be placed at increased risk of loss of lives and livelihood.

    Landslides and Himachal Pradesh

    • 97.42% of the total geographical area of Himachal Pradesh is prone to landslides, according to the Geological survey of India. 
    • A Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment study published by the Himachal government’s own Disaster Management Cell found that a huge number of hydropower stations are under threat of landslide hazard risk and at least 10 mega hydropower stations are located in medium and high-risk landslide areas.
    • A research study released in 2018 by the Institute of Earth and Environmental Science in Germany concluded that one in four hydropower projects in the Himalayan region are at risk from landslides triggered by earthquakes and tremors. 
    • The report cites examples to illustrate how risks of accidents around hydropower project sites are higher due to climate change related disasters like flash floods and cloudbursts.

    National Mission on Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE)

    • The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) has announced the launch of a National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem. 
    • The Mission needs to deliver better understanding of the coupling between the Himalayan ecosystem and the climate factors and  provide inputs for Himalayan Sustainable development while also addressing the protection of a fragile ecosystem. 
    • This will require the joint effort of climatologists, glaciologists and other experts. 
    • Exchange of information with the South Asian countries and countries sharing the Himalayan ecology will also be required. 
    • There is a need to establish an observational and monitoring network for the Himalayan environment to assess freshwater resources and health of the ecosystem.
    • The mission attempts to address some important issues concerning
      • Himalayan Glaciers and the associated hydrological consequences,
      • Biodiversity conservation and protection,
      • Wildlife conservation and protection,
      • Traditional knowledge societies and their livelihood and
      • Planning for sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem.

    Source: TH