H P Upreti, an ex-serviceman lives in the Shakti Vihar locality of the Srinagar town of Uttarakhand. He vividly recalls the day, five years ago, when one of the worst natural disasters struck his hometown. “The water came rushing in. It was everywhere. Its a scene I will never forget.”
Srinagar was one of the worst-hit areas during the devastating June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. Low lying areas of the town, like Shakti Vihar, were inundated and houses were filled with muck deposited by floodwaters.
“Nearly the whole colony was underwater. The whole area was filled with muck brought in by floods. All houses were filled with muck and in some cases, the water had completely covered the ground floor of the house. I suffered heavy damage and everything was destroyed,” Upreti recounted to Mongabay-India while showing the restoration work he carried out.
“I got only Rs one lakh compensation and that too after a lot of haggling. I didn’t want to shift from here and so, since 2013, I have spent over Rs 14 lakh to restore my house,” added Upreti, who is now fighting a case for enhanced compensation.
Over 1,800 days have passed since the June 2013 floods that brought widespread tragedy to Uttarakhand. But its scars remain fresh.
The disaster that shook the hill state It has been estimated that about 6,000 people were killed, found missing or presumed dead, 4,200 villages were affected, 9,200 cattle/livestock were lost and 3,320 houses were completely damaged due to the floods.
Extensive relief and rehabilitation work has been carried out across the state but the scars of the tragedy are hard to go past.
Experts, both private and from government-funded institutions, unequivocally agree that the magnitude of the disaster caused by the June 2013 floods that ravaged a part of the hill state, had increased manifold due to unabated illegal construction on river floodplains and the government’s relentless pursuit of hydropower projects.
Currently, the state plans to develop 450 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) across the state to harness the potential of generating 27,039 MW of power.
Local communities in Srinagar town believe that the 330 megawatt Srinagar hydroelectric power project built on Alaknanda River amplified the damage.
Their fears were confirmed in the 2014 report of an expert committee, formed on Supreme Court’s order and led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra.
Further up in the mountains, in the Kedarnath temple area, which was among the most damaged areas in the 2013 tragedy, one can see the signs of suffering too. The town around Kedarnath temple and the downstream area were heavily damaged due to the collapse of the Chorabari Lake that lies around 1.5 km upstream of Kedarnath.
Push for dams
Despite several expert committees questioning the role of a large number of dams spread across Uttarakhand, the state government has not slowed its push for more such dams as it believes hydropower is an important source of revenue and will bring development to the state.
In terms of the hydropower potential, Uttarakhand is next only to Arunachal Pradesh and has an ambitious programme.
According to data from the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), the nodal corporation of the Uttarakhand government for managing hydropower generation at existing power stations and developing new hydro projects, the plan is to develop 450 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) across the state to harness its potential of 27,039 MW.
Over 250 of these projects are still on the drawing board and growing concerns about the effect of dams on biodiversity and riverine ecosystems have not helped their case either.
If completed, more than half of the 450 HEPs projects will have an installed capacity of five MW or more and majority of them will divert rivers through tunnels to powerhouses downstream.
In its 2013 report, the Ravi Chopra committee had suggested dropping of 23 of these hydropower projects but the issue has been pending with the apex court.
Experts believe that the development of these projects will irreversibly affect the landscape of Uttarakhand.
Fear of another disaster
“We saw what happened in 2013 and all those mistakes are being repeated again. The dam that is being built near our village has a huge tunnel inside the fragile mountains. There will be a constant danger to our lives,” said Sushila Devi, an activist from the Banswara area.
Could the unrelenting pursuit of hydroelectricity do more harm than good? A 2015 report by the Comptroller and the Auditor General of India had noted that the “natural terrain conditions combined with climatic/ weather conditions and haphazard human intervention resulted in the unprecedented disaster in the Kedar and Mandakini Valleys and in other parts of the state”.
But it seems no lessons have been learnt. In 2012, the 100-kilometre stretch of Bhagirathi River, which is a tributary of Ganga River, from its origin in Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, was declared as an eco-sensitive zone as a result of which setting up of any new HEPs in the stretch was banned.
Since then, the Uttarakhand government has been making efforts to get the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone notification amended, seeking permission for constructing 10 hydropower projects on Bhagirathi River with a total capacity of 82.5 MW. The government has argued that they were allotted prior to issuance of the 2012 notification and were under different stages of development and implementation. The latest plea to the union environment ministry was made in December 2017.
More than 60 per cent of Uttarakhand is covered with forests and they are huge storehouses of biodiversity. These forests are home to about 4500 plant species, of which 116 are endemic, representing an invaluable genetic resource.
Construction of dams requires huge forest area too which in-turn posing a danger to this biodiversity.
A final decision about the amendment of the 2012 Bhagirathi ESZ is yet to be taken.
Meanwhile, even as impacts of big dams are being debated, India is looking at building the country’s highest dam in Uttarakhand. The mega hydropower project, the 5,040 megawatt (MW) Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project (PMP), is planned on the India-Nepal border. It is planned on the Mahakali River, known as Sarada in India, at a location where the river forms the international boundary between India and Nepal.
(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed in the article are those of Mongabay.com. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org)