news Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 05:30

Monalisa Das | The News Minute | 2.03 pm IST

The Larji dam mishap in Himachal Pradesh June 8, brought along with it a grim reminder of another tragedy that hit the nation around the same time last year - the Uttarakhand flash floods. 

Though the magnitudes of both these tragedies are vastly different, both of them have been widely accepted as the result of human activity in connection with rivers.

The Larji dam

When the sluice gates of the Larji dam on River Beas were opened suddenly and allegedly with no warning, 24 tourists drowned. They were engineering students from Telangana, who were on a college trip. Initial reports suggested that it was the dam operator’s fault as they did not sound warning signals before releasing the water in an uncontrolled manner. Information that emerged since then, suggests that the sand mafia’s involvement in the incident cannot be ruled out. It may be involved in two possible ways:
  • The sand mafia allegedly bribes dam officials to release water in one go, instead of in a phased manner, so that the force of the water deposits huge amounts of sand on the river bed. This is later collected by the miners. 
  • News reports also suggest that illegal sand mining is rampant on the banks of the Beas. This has reportedly led to the creation of several illegal approach roads to the river bed, which often enables tourists to access the river at spots where they would not have gone otherwise.

The flash floods of Uttarkhand

In the case of the Uttarakhand floods, which also affected parts of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, at the time of the tragedy, the state had received excess rainfall (375% more than usual). This caused the melting of the Chorabari glacier, causing the deluge and huge landslides. 

More than 1, 00,000 people were said to have been displaced during the floods, and over 5,000 were presumed dead. The disaster is often held as the worst natural disaster in the country since the Tsunami hit southern coastal India in 2004. 

Because Uttarakhand lies in the fragile Himalayan belt, environmentalists had blamed uncontrolled and unscientific constructions for the disaster. Ad hoc construction of roads, tunnels and dams for hydroelectric power projects is said to have given rise to the “man-made disaster”. 

Dams

In both tragedies, dams have played an influential role. Some might find the idea far-fetched in the case of the Larji dam mishap. However, the soaring number of dams constructed for hydroelectric power projects across the country is harming the environment severely. And the repercussions of this, we have already witnessed. 

A report published in Down to Earth states: “The Ganga’s hydroelectric potential at its upper levels is at 9,000 MW and the government of Uttarakhand has planned 70-odd projects on its tributaries. These projects would modify the key tributaries to an extent that 80% of the Bhagirathi and 65% of Alaknanda, and 90% of the other tributaries could be affected.”

First of all, building dams has several environmental consequences. These include obstruction of the natural course of the river, which affects its biological and chemical properties. 

Construction of dams also leads to large scale deforestation and also submersion of land, which upsets the balance in the ecosystem. As a fall-out of the obstruction of the natural course of the river, surrounding areas become susceptible to landslides and flooding.

Hydro-electric power and inadequate laws

As the demand for electricity is going up, there are endless opportunities to set up hydroelectric power projects. 

A report carried by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) titled “The Social-Ecological Effects of Small Hydropower Development in Himachal Pradesh”, explains how the Himachal Pradesh government privatized the hydropower production sector in order to promote it, and subsequently generate revenue from it. For small dams, the developer does not need conduct Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Impact Assessment which are required for larger dams. 

Dams, disaster management and safety 

Speaking to The News Minute, Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of SANDRP, says that these disasters occur because dam operators do not have proper environmental plans. While building dams, credible cumulative management plans and operational aspects of hydroelectric power plants need to be kept in focus. This does not guarantee 100 percent safety, but in case of a disaster, it can definitely reduce the impact.

Thakkar points out that the Beas is currently in its lean season, so the water level was not supposed to rise. He adds that during this time of the year, the dam operators were not supposed to release huge amounts of water suddenly and with no warning. 

That there are absolutely no laws to regulate the functioning of dams in the country was previously discussed in The News Minute report: No law to ensure safety of people affected by dam activity: Himanshu Thakkar

Politics

Why does the government go ahead with these projects even when some of them have multiple loop-holes? Politics plays a very important role in such projects. 

“The Environment Ministry is considered a road-block in growth by the rest of the government”, Thakkar states, explaining that the governemnt puts pressure on the MoEF, to clear hydro-electric power projects. 

In an analysis done by SANDRP on the functioning of the Expert Appraisal Committee on river valley projects, it was found that the committee had a zero rejection rate for a seven-year period between April 2007 and June 2014.

The development debate

The question of balancing the environment while attempting to the meet requirement of power is an important one.

Dr. Lalit Pande, director of Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi, an NGO in Almora that works on raising environmental awareness among other issues, is of the view that it all depends on perspective and how you choose to see the issue. “If other states demand more power, we will need to generate more electricity, for which more dams are needed. Should we think about local residents or focus on the greater good?” he asks.

He also says that one of the links between both the tragedies lies in the uncontrolled use of technology without paying heed to future consequences. He blames human carelessness for giving rise to such accidents. “We are not prepared to handle such advanced technologies. It seems man wants to conquer nature”, he adds.

However, Thakkar is of the opinion that there needs to be regulation to ensure that development is participatory. “We need to have a proper and thorough environmental and social impact management system of dams along with a democratic participatory process”, he says. 

Despite differences of opinions, it is too late to say that both the tragedies could have been avoided. Let us not forget that it is not just the environment that we are taking a toll on, but human lives too are at stake.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.