The Chamoli disaster of February 2021 once again shows that there are multiple ways in which hydropower projects tend to act as force multipliers in disasters.
The hydropower projects, in this case, may not have been the direct cause of the origin of the floods in the Rishiganga river basin in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. But as the flood storm travelled down and went past the obstacles in the form of the barrage, dam or hydropower station, the storm flowed down with greater power and greater quantum of debris.
The construction of hydropower projects involves deforestation, submergence, construction of dams, power stations, roads, townships, tunnelling, blasting, destruction of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, mining, dumping of millions of cubic meters of muck, among others. Each of these has an adverse impact on the local ecology and local capacity to withstand/ adapt to the impact of disasters, each such adverse impacts increases the disaster potential of the area.
Where did the maximum number of deaths occur during the disaster? At Hydropower projects. Where did the maximum economic damage happen? At the hydropower projects.
It’s clear that in the case of most disaster events, hydropower projects are force multipliers where they are located. This is in addition to all the direct ecological and social impacts of the hydropower projects. None of the project appraisals or impact assessment reports even mention this, in spite of SANDRP writing to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the members of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley projects that appraises the hydropower projects.
It should be added here that the Environment and Social Impact Assessments of these projects are never an accurate, honest, rigorous account of the likely impacts. Most such reports, in any case, are cut and paste jobs. No project has ever been rejected by the EAC, MoEF or judiciary in spite of bringing such numerous cases before these bodies.
So the hydropower projects were never ecologically viable or socially acceptable.
Now they are not even economically viable. The surest sign of this is the en masse exit of the private sector from the hydropower projects. It’s now only the public money that is pushing these unviable projects. The cost of power from any hydropower projects that are under construction or proposed would not be less than Rs 6-7 per unit, while we are able to get solar or wind power at less than Rs 3 per unit. The rapidly falling cost of energy storage is discrediting any claim of justification for such projects for peaking power. In any case, considering that existing hydro projects are not even optimally operated for generating peaking power, nor are a number of even existing pump storage projects not operating in pump storage mode for lack of viability, there never was any sound case for hydro for peaking power in India. This is also true considering that there is no attempt at managing the peak power demand.
Each time there is a disaster like the Chamoli disaster, this gets discussed, and soon forgotten. That also shows how little is the capacity of our system to learn any lessons from such disasters. The Justice Radhakrishnan verdict of Supreme Court dated Aug 13, 2013, in the context of the June 2013 Uttarakhand deluge got derailed from its intent following his retirement. If that verdict was taken to a logical conclusion in letter and spirit, we may have seen much-reduced disaster proportions this time.
Chamoli disaster, however, provides another opportunity to learn these lessons afresh. One immediate step that can be taken is to scrap the damaged or destroyed hydropower projects including Rishiganga project, Tapovan Vishnugad project and also Vishnugad Pipalkoti Project. Also, review the rest of the under-construction projects. In years to come, we will soon have to consider decommissioning of other existing hydropower projects, as they would continue to be force multipliers in years to come, as a recent UN report also highlighted.
This is also an implication of the PMO decision in Feb 2019, where it was decided in a meeting chaired by the then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Shri Nripen Mishra that no new hydropower project will be taken up in Uttarakhand, where this author was also present. Will the government show courage to take these steps urgently?
(Himanshu Thakkar, Environmentalist and coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People)