Fear over India's dangerous dams

Emergency crews searched for 150 people in Uttarakhand, northern India, last year after Himalayan glacier debris crashed into a river, causing a huge flood, which destroyed a dam. 

The fragile ecology of the Himalayan region has been increasingly devastated by dams, heavy infrastructure projects and climate breakdown.

If the Tehri dam collapsed, it would cause flood waves which would wipe out Rishikesh and possibly Haridwar.

Floodwaters broke through a dam leaving 150 people missing and 26 people dead in the Uttarakhand dam disaster last year. This is not the only dam-related disaster to have struck the northern Himalayan region of India, and certainly won't be the last. 

Stormy rains brought heavy floods to the Himalayan heights of Uttarakhand state of India in June 2013. Villages and towns were submerged in waves of water, sediment, and stones. The damage was particularly heavy below the sites of some hydroelectricity projects.

Nearly 6,000 people lost their lives - including most of the visitors, pilgrims, migrant workers, and tourists. The loss in terms of houses, buildings, roads, and bridges was estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

This article has been published through the Ecologist Writers' Fund. We ask readers for donations to pay some authors £200 for their work. Please make a donation now. You can learn more about the fund, and make an application, on our website.

Life-threatening

The enormity of the tragedy shook the people of India, and many of them spoke against the role of dams and hydropower projects. Officials stated that dams helped to reduce the damage.

The Supreme Court of India sought the advice of an expert's body on this issue. This experts committee chaired by Dr Ravi Chopra, director of People’s Science Institute, was composed of independent experts as well as those in official positions. Hence why there were differences within the committee.

Nevertheless, it stated that several flood waves were aggravated by hydroelectricity projects, including those under construction. The poor waste management by the project authorities came in for special criticism for aggravating the tragedy.

The committee drew attention to the fact that the damage had been extreme below the Vishnuprayag and Srinagar hydroelectricity projects.

Neglect of catchment area treatment, supposed to precede such projects, had proved costly. The report said: “Reservoirs have been impounded while implementation of catchment area treatment plans has not even started. This is a life-threatening situation.”

Fertile

However, this didn't stop the rush to continue the dam projects. At the time of another wave of destruction due to floods last year (2021) in the same state. The hydroelectricity projects faced a lot of flak for aggravating the tragedy.

Even if we go by what official reports state, some of these projects have the destructive potential to lead to even bigger disasters in the future.

This is particularly true of the most controversial of all these projects, the Tehri Dam Project (TDP), constructed in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.

If the Tehri dam collapsed, it would cause flood waves which would wipe out Rishikesh and possibly Haridwar.

This is a 260.5 meters high earth and rockfill dam, across the river Bhagirathi at Tehri, just after its confluence with river Bhilangana. It is responsible for creating a storage reservoir to generate power and provide irrigation facilities, with an underground powerhouse of 1000 MW capacity. This high-risk project was resisted by people for nearly 25 years. 

Ultimately, nearly one hundred thousand people were displaced, including those living in some of the most fertile and beautiful villages of this region.

Voiced

The resistance movement was led by Virendra Dutt Saklani, an elderly freedom fighter.  When he became too ill, the Gandhian environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna continued the movement. 

Bahuguna was a close friend of Edward Goldsmith, the founder and former editor of The Ecologist. Goldsmith was close to both these leaders and reported extensively on their movement over a long period of resistance.

This project located in high-risk conditions was taken up initially with some reluctance even from senior officials.

Y.K.Murthy, former chairman of Central Water Commission, stated: “The dam at Tehri would not only be one of the highest structures of its kind in the world, but would create a whole host of complex technical problems.”

As an increasing amount of people voiced their apprehensions about the safety of this project, then prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered a review in 1980.

Safety

This was assigned to an experts’ working group constituted by the Department of Science and Technology.

While submitting his report in 1986 the chairman of the Working Group complained about the “unending dogmatic approach” of the dam authorities, and stated that the Tehri dam site is not suitable for a 260m high dam. He made a clear recommendation for halting the work on this project.

However, the authorities managed to manipulate things to continue the project. Then in 1990, the TDP was comprehensively assessed by the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

After examining the data in detail, meeting several experts and activists, and visiting the dam site area and villages the committee concluded: “The Tehri Dam Project, as proposed, should not be taken up as it does not merit environmental clearance.”

Although the EAC Report examined all important aspects of the TDP, it gave its opinion that safety factors alone are important enough to stop the clearance of this project.

Collapsed

It said: “Taking note of the unacceptable risk involved and extremely poor status of readiness of the project, it would be irresponsible to clear the Tehri dam as currently proposed."

The committee stated the hazards of TDP: "Considering the certainty that a strong earthquake of magnitude greater than 8.0 on Richter scale will occur in the region during the life of the dam, and considering that the dam design does not provide for such an earthquake, the Committee has no option but to conclude that construction of Tehri dam involves totally unjustified risks.

"The magnitude of the disaster that would follow, if the dam collapsed, strengthens the Committee's opinion that approval to the construction of this dam would be irresponsible."

The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) had not given the necessary attention to the hazards and risks of TDP. The report stated:  "Though despite repeated requests, the THDC did not provide the committee with risk analysis in terms of the impact of dam failure on the life, property and cultural heritage. "

"Our own tentative calculations suggest that if the Tehri dam collapsed, it would cause flood waves which would wipe out Rishikesh and possibly Haridwar. This wave would wash away most of the settlements around this region."

Calculation

It added: "Frequent occurrence of tremors caused by RIS would become a source of hazards to the population in the neighborhood in the reservoir."

Professor James Brune, a prominent seismologist, said: "We have to conclude that the proposed Tehri Dam's location is one of the most hazardous in the world from the point of earthquakes. There is little question that in terms of the hazard rating of the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), its hazard class is extreme.”

“No large rock-fill dam of the Tehri type has ever been tested by the shaking that an earthquake in this area could produce, and we have no idea how the dam would react.

"Given the number of people who live downstream, the risk factor (in the ICOLD classification) is extreme. In such circumstances, the ICOLD declares that a fully state-of-art dynamic design analysis of the dam, in response to specified acceleration time histories, is mandatory."

A critical factor, based on which clearance was finally given to the TDP by a special High-Level Committee of the Government of India (after the EAC had refused to clear the project), was the calculation of the Peak Ground Acceleration.

Displaced

This calculation was based on the work of Professor Brune. But when the calculation was shown to Professor Brune, he responded: "The calculation used is incorrect, out of context and out of date, in my opinion, no weight can be given to the resulting calculation of a maximum acceleration of 0.22g.”

The TDP was cleared by the authorities whilst ignoring the reports of their own experts’ committees and misrepresentation of the views of prominent experts.

This indicates the extent of which some authorities, together with huge construction companies, are willing to neglect the most critical safety and environmental issues in order to push hydropower projects foward. As a result, people in the Himalayan region are gravely at risk of eventually getting displaced.

I visited the people displaced from the submerged town of Tehri and surrounding villages several times at their resettlement sites. There are many problems inherent in the resettlement process as people moved from hill villages to plains faced several adjustments issues. Some of them were soon displaced a second time.

Unfortunately, too many people have been displaced in the Himalayan region, not just by dams, but also by highways, infrastructure, and tourism projects.

Displacement

As my reports on their problems were published, I was contacted by people from several earlier dam projects in the Himalayas.

Imagine my surprise when several persons evicted from the submergence site of the Bhakra Dam, the first such major project of post-independence India, came to my home one day to speak about their problems. I learned that though displaced in the 1950s they had still not been resettled properly.

Similar was the plight of Pong dam evictees and the cases relating to their resettlement, involving inter-state disputes, are continuing.

In more recent times dam-led development pattern is spreading to several new areas of the Himalayan region, even the scheduled areas where tribal communities live with special protective constitutional positions. In other areas, peaceful resistance to this dam-led pattern of development is growing.

Fertile land suitable for cultivation is limited in the Himalayan region. Generations of efforts are involved in creating terraced farms. Hence why even more care should be exercised here than in the plains to minimise displacement of farmers.

Mining

More farming responsibilities are being looked after here by women as the rate of migration of men from villages is high. Women-led livelihoods tend to be much more common in these villages.

In recent years there has been a spurt of highways and related tunnel projects, as well as highway widening projects. While this led to the direct eviction of many people, careless construction and excessive felling of thousands of trees also led to repeated landslides and threats to the homes of several villagers.

When I visited one such village on Parwanoo Solan highway, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, named Mangoti Nande Ka Thara, they complained that because of landslides and other harm suffered during highway widening work, their entire settlement had become extremely unstable and risky.

Ultimately, they may be forced to seek shelter at some other place. Inquiries in other villages on a further stretch of the widened highway revealed that several other villages had also suffered heavy damage while widening of this highway.

Mining activities, particularly excessive sand mining in rivers, have proved very harmful in terms of accentuating disasters as well as reducing the water-absorbing capacity of rivers and other water sources. Several mining mafias have continued this destruction despite court directives to monitor such accurances. 

Risks

There is increasing concern that even more serious environmental and safety risks may be created by what is taking place across the Himalayan borders near China. This is particularly true in the context of the recent Chinese activities relating to dams and hydropower generation.

While China has already built some dams on Brahmaputra River (called Yarlung Tsangpo in China), the biggest threats are being debated in the context of a Megaproject. This project is planned to have three times the installed power capacity compared to the Three Gorges Project, which currently has the highest installed power capacity in the entire world.

Building such a gigantic project in a known seismic area is widely seen to be a very high-risk, with serious implications downstream not just for India but also for Bangladesh.

This is in terms of flood and quake disasters, reduced lean season flow, and reduced deposition of fertile silt. Given a history of hostile relations, difficulties in the regular sharing of water data may accentuate problems for India.

Free debate in India, which allows for at least the risks to be widely known, may also not take place in China.

Effort

There is a strong case for drastically changing development priorities in the Himalayan region so that risks to safety and sustainability can be minimized.

There is increasing support for ecologically protective farming methods,  as well as regeneration of natural forests, community renewable energy projects, crafts and carefully planned eco-tourism. There is also support for more local crafts and folk arts, as well as improvement in education and health services.

Such a pattern of development had been advocated for years by Vimla Bahuguna and Sunderlal Bahuguna, senior Gandhian activists, who played an important role in opposing the dams-led growth pattern.

Sunderlal Bahuguna died last year. A little before this I had visited their home in Dehradun to present them the book I had just written on their life and the resistance movements inspired by them.

Vimla Bahuguna told me: “People ask us what we gained from devoting so much effort at an elderly age to opposing the Tehri dam. After all our efforts the government still went ahead and built it. Our answer is that this opposition was an essential part of what we need, and what we want to create in the Himalayan region.”

This Author

Bharat Dogra is an honorary convener and campaigner for Save Earth Now. His recent books include: Man Over Machine, Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna - Chipko Movement and the Struggle against Tehri Dam Project in Garhwal Himalaya.

This article has been published through the Ecologist Writers' Fund. We ask readers for donations to pay some authors £200 for their work. Please make a donation now. You can learn more about the fund, and make an application, on our website.

More from this author

Donate

The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.