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Multiple hydro projects on Chenab worry experts

The Chenab is poised to become one of the more dam-congested rivers in India, with the government planning to generate around 15,000 megawatts of electricity through 60 hydropower projects in the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh

The latest to start is the 850 megawatt Ratle project in Jammu and Kashmir. Its foundation stone was laid recently by prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Experts are worried about the effect of so many projects in this quake-prone zone of the Himalayas. “The damage to any of the dams in the event of a strong earthquake can devastate habitations downstream,” says G.M. Bhat, a noted seismologist based in the state’s summer capital Srinagar.

“The Chenab river for most its course in Jammu and Kashmir follows various seismic fault lines,” adds Bhat. The dam and power house of the Baglihar hydroelectric project – also on the Chenab – are “virtually within the active fault zone,” according to him.

Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of the department of Earth Sciences in Kashmir University, fears that multiple dams may trigger an earthquake earlier than expected. “Though dams don’t cause earthquakes, but the very presence of the dams can be an important factor in triggering the earthquakes earlier than expected,” says the professor, who has written a book last year called Indus River basin: Common Concerns and the Roadmap to Resolution.

Romshoo warns that the waters from the reservoirs behind the dams may seep deeper into the earth and lubricate the faults, hastening slips and thus triggering earthquakes. He agrees with other experts that seismological stresses have been accumulating in northern India. “This should be a cause of concern to all of us here,” Romshoo told The Third Pole.

India Meteorological Department (IMD) records show that the state’s Chamba-Doda region in the Chenab basin has experienced 10 earthquakes of magnitude 5 to 5.5 over the past 40 years. The Kashmir valley was hit by quakes of magnitudes varying from 6.5 in 1885 in Sopore, 5.5 in 1967 in Anantnag and 5.3 in 1963 in Badgam.

Dams trigger landslides

“Damming of water also causes landslides as was the case with Baglihar dam in 2009,” says Bhat. The February 2009 landslide cut off the people in two districts – Doda and Kishtwar – for days. Legislators from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – in opposition in the state – had said the landslide was caused by “the ill-advised construction” of the Baglihar project. Recent media reports say there have been more landslides and cases of land subsidence in the area after 2009.

Landslides do more damage than endangering human lives and cutting off communications. Zaffar Reshi, a botanist who teaches in Kashmir University, says landslides remove the topsoil that is essential for plant growth. And once there is no vegetation it can lead to heavy soil erosion. “Also, the exposure of topsoil, because of landslides, is an invitation to opportunistic (invasive) species, which are quite unnatural to the system.” Landslides destroy habitats and food resources for various insects and birds as well, Reshi points out.

Cumulative impacts

Romshoo says several power projects on the same river have a cumulative impact. “They affect physical variables, such as flow regime and water quality. They also affect productivity and species composition in the river. Dam construction is probably one of the greatest stressors affecting the integrity of running waters, because it can interfere or even stop the transport of sediment and nutrients along waterways and eventually disturb ecological connectivity, which underpins the transfer of materials and products of ecological functions and processes.”

Himanshu Thakkar of the NGO South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) says, “Over 60 projects are under planning, construction and commissioning in Chenab Basin of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. But no cumulative impact assessment (CIA) has been carried out to study the cumulative impacts of these bumper to bumper projects on the ecology, geology, disaster impacts, climate change impacts and communities of the Chenab.”

Thakkar charges that no carrying capacity study has been done in the basin to ascertain if it can take all these projects in a sustainable and safe way. “The website of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests till July 1,  2013 did not show the Form I, Form I A or the Environmental Impact Assessment Report of the Ratle project, clearly violating Central Information Commission’s orders.” The prime minister had laid the foundation stone of the Rs. 5,500 crore (US$856 million) project on June 25.

The area where the Ratle power house is scheduled to be built
The area where the Ratle power house is scheduled to be built

Striking a balance

Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, chairman of the environment committee in Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly, says he is going to discuss with the government the issue of power development and its impact on the people and the environment.

“On the one hand, we can’t deny ourselves the energy needs since we are almost entirely dependent on energy,” he says. “But at the same time, we can’t neglect our environment under the shadow of expanding our energy resources,” he mentions. He talks about the need for a futuristic plan and says he will get a study conducted on the carrying capacity of the Chenab basin before more hydropower projects are built.