SHIMLA: Having set aside a court recommendation about a moratorium on new hydro projects until basin wide environmental impacts studies were carried out, a German study has now established that current practices of project level environmental impact assessments (EIA) had failed to address larger effects like disappearing of rivers for long stretches, because of extensive hydropower development in Himachal Pradesh.

Geographer Alexander Erlewein University of Heidelberg of Germany, in a paper “Disappearing rivers – the limits of environmental assessment for hydropower in India” published in the international journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, has observed that mountain rivers, converted into cascades of power projects, are altering ecological conditions and leaving little space for original habitats.

There being a high demand for export of energy, the Himachal government has made this lucrative option “the principal and perennial source of revenue for the state” in its 2005 hydropower policy. Though environmental laws necessitate drawing up EIAs to predict likely environmental and social impacts of project implementation, effectiveness of the system to reduce and mitigate environmental impacts has been questioned by many studies.

Citing shortcomings in EIA system, the paper pointed out that there were inadequate screening and scoping, poor quality EIA reports, failure to consider alternatives, inadequate public participation, insufficient implementation of mitigation and monitoring measures and weak impact of impact assessments on decision making.

“Sutlej enters India at 3,000 m altitude and Bhakra is at about 500 m. In between, only for a few short stretches, the river will be preserved in its current form. Ravi, out of 70 km, will flow only for 3 km in its original bed,” Erlewein observed.

Though Himachal has enacted a unique legislation prescribing 15% minimum flow in lean season, it was not being followed by project owners, something the research revealed during field visits made to various project sites.

Fragmentation of rivers into stretches has started to severely damage, if not destroy, the habitat of all animal and plant species that depend on it for their migration and dissemination, the study said. Farmers in Kinnaur reported hundreds of natural springs having run dry since widespread construction of hydropower projects in the region began, it said.

Though dumping of muck in rivers is illegal, but visits to project sites showed that it was being violated with impunity. The paper has expressed serious concern over dried up river beds causing decrease in air moisture that may lead to more arid microclimatic conditions in upper Sutlej, Chandra and Spiti rivers.

The paper also records that the Himachal Pradesh high court’s recommendation that “the state government should carry out basin wide EIAs for all river basins and until these are finalized, no more hydel projects should be allotted,” have not been paid any heed by concerned authorities.

With the dominant view of the state’s power policy being “to develop the total hydropower potential,” the paper quoted an environment organisation describing it as a “guideline for the privatization of rivers for power generation.”

Lack of coordination in dam building among developers was also wreaking environmental havoc as most developers prefer to set up own facilities for power evacuation, production of construction materials, road access etc. At places, up to five transmission lines running parallel to each other were seen, the study pointed out.

Villagers in Kullu and Kinnaur, affected by small hydro projects on streams and tributaries, considered them to be more harmful than large dams on rivers because their diversion severely threatens local livelihoods and locals.

Construction and operation of small hydropower projects can lead to other significant impacts such as deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and disturbances of groundwater regimes, the paper noted.

Citing several inadequacies with EIA regulations in addressing significant environmental aspects of hydropower development, the paper makes a case for undertaking “strategic environmental assessment” (SEA) that has been enacted even by China and several other Asian countries, but not India.

The paper cited the case of Mekong river, it clearly analysed, “what will be lost, what will be gained and who will lose and who will gain.” The paper argued that SEA has the potential to address the urgent problem of cumulative impacts and would allow for examination of strategic alternatives, something that is almost missing in Indian hydropower planning so far.

Courtesy: The Times of India