Chamoli flashfloods: Study outlines risks of hydropower projects

The study asserts that such projects must be planned keeping in mind both current and future social and environmental conditions.

Published: 14th June 2021 10:28 PM  |   Last Updated: 14th June 2021 10:28 PM   |  A+A-

The washed away Tapovan hydel power project plant after Feb. 7 glacier burst in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand

The washed away Tapovan hydel power project plant after Feb. 7 glacier burst in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. (Photo | PTI)

Express News Service

DEHRADUN: A recent study which revealed cause of Chamoli flashfloods as a rock and ice avalanche
releasing energy "equivalent to about 15 Hiroshima atomic bombs" highlighted the risks associated with the 'rapid expansion of hydropower infrastructure into increasingly unstable territory'. 

Published in 'Science Magazine' journal authored by 53 scientists, experts and researchers, the study questions long-term sustainability of hydroelectric power projects and asserts that such projects must be planned keeping in mind both current and future social and environmental conditions including risks to infrastructure, personnel, and downstream communities. 

“This disaster has taught us a lot about an entirely different kind of far-reaching hazard to hydropower generators being developed in the Himalayas,” said Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Jeffrey Kargel, a co-author of the study. 

The study also mentions that an expert body was formed at the behest of the Supreme Court of India after a rainfall-induced disaster in June 2013 killed over 4000 people, and damaged much  infrastructure, including hydropower projects . 

The expert body’s report documented how hydropower projects had exacerbated the 2013 disaster. Sediment dumping and the use of explosives by dam construction companies were specifically mentioned as causing harm to the fragile Himalayan environment. 

The report mentions at least three environmental concerns with respect to the Tapovan Vishnugad project, which was damaged in the recent disaster. 

First, the project, which is located in the Buffer Zone of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, poses a potential threat to the region’s biodiversity and habitats. 

Second, sediment disposal was mismanaged at the dam site. Third, on December 24, 2009, tunneling intersected an aquifer and discharged at least 60 million litres of water, daily, for over one month . 

The project was also damaged in the 2012, 2013 and 2016 floods.

Additionally, there has been public discontent regarding the lack of community participation in the decision-making process for the project. The importance of seeking public opinion in hydropower projects in the Himalaya has been stressed by Grönwall. 

Kavita Upadhyay, a water policy expert and Indian journalist who has written about the natural environment and hydropower of the region, is also a co-author on the paper. 

“The Uttarakhand Himalaya has had numerous prior disasters, including a rainfall and glacier lake outburst flood that killed more than 4,000 people in 2013. For decades, local villagers warned of mountain hazards. The flood wrecked two hydropower projects and swept away bridges. At least 190 of the victims were hydropower project workers who were unable to escape from the project sites," said Upadhyay.

The study adding that at least 16 major disasters from floods due to heavy rain or glacial lake outburst floods, landslides, and earthquakes have occurred in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya in 
Uttarakhand between 1894 and 2021 asserted, "Conservation values carry elevated weight in development policies and infrastructure investments where the needs for social and economic development interfere with areas prone to natural hazards, putting communities at risk," said the study.

Mentioning that seismicity is an important consideration when locating and constructing hydropower projects in the Himalaya as many Himalayan regions, including Uttarakhand are vulnerable to large earthquakes the study added that much greater magnitude of this event certainly argues for avoiding development in these areas, especially given that we can expect global warming to increase their frequency.

"In sum, it is apparent that tension between conservation and resistance to development on one hand, and pressures to develop on the other hand are very alive in Uttarakhand and other L Himalayan states," said the study. 

Further, outlining the importance of attempts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and that hydropower is an obvious choice for  doing this, the study added, "The tension thus will not disappear; the question is how to balance the needs. Wide-ranging Earth-system hazards have been displayed intensively in repeated disasters in the Himalayas."

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