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Bumper-to-bumper dams

By Parineeta Dandekar

In a small stretch of the Chenab river basin, Himachal Pradesh is planning 49 major hydroelectric projects which will convert a living river into a series of puddles. It is time India took the cumulative impact of cascading mega hydro projects seriously

Hydroelectric power, Dams, Chenab river, Environment impact assessment study

Tandi, where the rivers Chandra and Bhaga meet to form the Chandrabhaga, or Chenab

The Chenab (Chand Aab), Chandrabhaga, or 'Moon river' flows for 130 km in Himachal Pradesh, which holds a tiny proportion of the basin's catchment area: 7,500 sq km of a total of 61,000 sq km. In this tiny area, the state is constructing, implementing and planning 49 major hydroelectric projects on the Chenab. While other rivers like the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, as well as smaller streams and tributaries in Himachal have been almost completely dammed, the Chenab is the last comparatively free-flowing healthy river in the state.

As things stand now, if all projects are implemented, less than 10% of the river will be seen flowing at all. Dams are being constructed bumper-to-bumper in a very tight sequence, where water from one hydro project meets not the river but the reservoir of the next hydro project in line. This conversion of a living river into a series of puddles, alternating with dry stretches and bypassed by tunnels, will have a profound impact on the ecology, biodiversity, hydrology, sociology and water availability of the region.

Chenab river map

Himachal Pradesh is already experiencing these impacts in the Sutlej basin where scores of projects are being implemented and where the Luhri project, funded by the World Bank, will destroy the last remaining 50 km of free-flowing river. In the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand, which is facing a similar fate, cascades on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers have led to protests throughout the country. IIT-Roorkie and the Wildlife Institute of India were commissioned to conduct studies on the cumulative impacts of hydropower dams in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins; both the prime minister and environment minister stressed the importance of such studies.

No one, however, seems bothered about the Chenab. The Himachal Pradesh government is actually suggesting that the condition of cumulative impact assessments for projects on the Chenab put forward by the MoEF should be lifted as "it is unilateral and contrary to the state's interests"! Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, in a letter to Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan, writes: "As many as 28 hydroelectric projects of combined generation capacity of 5,800 MW are at an advanced stage of obtaining (environment ministry) clearance. All these projects are located on the Chenab. Such a condition would result in delaying the execution of the projects." (1). It would appear as though the chief minister believed that the interests of the state lay only in the execution of hydropower projects, nothing else. Services obtained from a river such as water availability, groundwater recharge, fishing, irrigation through smaller streams, climate regulation, tourism and protection of lands, forests, mountains and biodiversity are not in the interests of the state and are worthless!

Table 1: Partial list of large hydro projects planned/under implementation in the Chenab basin, Himachal Pradesh

Sr No HEP Cap in MW District Tributary Length of HRT Distance from U/s project Distance from D/s project Developer
1 Gyspa 300 Lahaul and Spiti Bhaga 14.96 km     Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited
2 Chattru 120 Lahaul and Spiti Chandra 10.48 Not applicable   DCM Sriram
3 Shangling 44 Lahaul and Spiti Chandra       Reliance Power
4 Miyar 120 Lahaul and Spiti Chandrabhaga       Moser Baer
5 Tandi 104 Lahaul and Spiti   7.4     ABG Shipyard
6 Rashil 130           ABG Shipyard
7 Seli 400 Lahaul and Spiti       Zero Moser Baer
8 Reoli Dugli 420 Lahaul and Spiti   11 km Zero   Moser Baer
9 Teling 94           Reliance Power
10 Bardang 126 Lahaul and Spiti         ABG Shipyard
11 Patam 60 Lahaul and Spiti   9.75 +      
12 Tinget 81            
13 Purthi 300 Lahaul and Spiti         Reliance Power
14 Sach Khas 260 Chamba Chenab 3.5 km   9 km  
15 Dugar 380 Chamba Chenab 8.5 km 9 km 3 km Tata Power S N Group, Norway
16 Gondhala 144 Lahaul and Spiti Chenab        
17 Khoksar 90 Lahaul and Spiti Chenab        
  Total 3,173

Even as the world tries to ameliorate the impact of hydropower dams, when there is burgeoning literature pointing to the ecological impacts of hydrological fluctuations, when the US has actually decommissioned more than 1,000 dams (a majority of them hydropower projects) because of their impact on ecology, the power secretary of Himachal Pradesh said at a meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEF on the 'Cumulative Impact Assessment Study of Chenab': "So far there is no conclusive study indicating that the hydropower projects have detrimental effects on the river's health." (2). This statement is completely unscientific demonstrating clear bias on the part of the state government towards hydel projects, most of them initiated by private players. And the Expert Appraisal Committee, whose primary task is to look at the environmental impacts of all major hydro projects in the country and sanction projects based on the severity of these impacts, did not object to this statement!

Agitation in Nagri, Jharkhand
Women's protest march against the 300 MW Gyspa project in Lahaul Spiti. 2010

More than 20 projects have been sanctioned or are under construction in the ecologically fragile, highly seismic district of Lahaul and Spiti. Interestingly, most of these projects are being developed by powerful private players like Tata Power, Reliance, DCM Sriram, Moser Baer and L&T. Many of these projects are being opposed by locals.

Lahaul and Spiti is a secluded region with a population density of less than 2 people/sq km, at places (3). It is dotted with Buddhist monasteries and is famed for its peas and potatoes, swift and scenic rivers and thriving trout population. The 300 MW Gyspa project has been facing stiff local opposition because of the submergence and displacement of over 100 families. The region has very few places fit for year-long habitation and cultivation, making rehabilitation extremely difficult for close-knit communities. In addition to dams on the Chenab, dams on the river Spiti, a tributary of the Sutlej, also fall in Lahaul and Spiti district, adding unimaginable stress to the already vulnerable region. Nearly all projects fall in seismic zones IV or V.

The MoEF sanctioned TORs for cumulative impact assessments of the Chenab in February 2012. Surprisingly, this critical task has been entrusted to the Directorate of Energy, Government of Himachal Pradesh. Can there be any agency with greater conflict of interest than the Directorate of Energy for this study? Can we expect this department to conduct the study in an unbiased manner? Even as the directorate put out a request for proposals for contractors to carry out the study, it did not mention that the consultant had to be an independent agency with a credible track record, as specifically instructed by the EAC.

The MoEF seems to have meekly accepted the Himachal Pradesh chief minister's demand for delinking environmental clearances from cumulative impact assessment studies, without any questions asked. Indeed, the EAC and MoEF have been according clearances and TORs to projects on the Chenab with great efficiency. At the last two meetings, in September-October 2012, the EAC approved TORs and revised capacities for as many as six projects on the Chenab in Himachal Pradesh, without even mentioning that the recommendations of the cumulative impact assessment study would have to be adhered to. As it is,we do not have a single example of a project being dropped or modified significantly after environmental clearance has been granted; the EAC even finds changing the E-flows release condition impossible after granting clearance. So no independent action can be expected after this delinking.

Delinking environmental clearances from the CIA study defeats the entire purpose of undertaking an objective CIA. If the assessment of cumulative impacts is not going to inform decisions on height, capacities and length of head race tunnels for the project, keeping in mind various aspects of impacts and carrying capacity, what is the use of the cumulative impact assessment? The EAC and MoEF should immediately stop considering any projects in the basin until a credible, independent CIA is completed and assessed in participation with Chenab valley residents and others concerned.

In addition to this, private project proponents are 'revising' (another term for increasing) the capacities of hydel projects significantly. The reason given is increased water availability as indicated in the Central Water Commission's revised hydrological studies. Urgent studies are needed to understand why water availability in these parts is increasing sharply. One of the most likely reasons is increased glacial melt due to climate change. This needs to be analysed further as it could have many far-reaching implications on water security and disaster management. It could lead to increased danger from extreme climate events like the devastating floods in Leh in 2010 which took a toll of over 115 lives. The impact of such extreme climate events will surely be compounded by the scores of hydel projects. Local communities are raising these issues at most public hearings but are receiving no satisfactory answers.

Indicative list of capacity revision of projects on the Chenab

Sr No Name Initial capacity Revised capacity
1 Miyar 90 120
2 Gyspa 170 300
3 Dugar 236 380
4 Sach Khas 149 260

As the river Chenab descends from Himachal and enters Jammu and Kashmir, it is dammed by even bigger projects either operational, under construction or planned. Table 2 lists hydropower projects close to 9,000 MW in the Chenab basin in Jammu and Kashmir. This is not the full list. According to the Central Electricity Authority (4), projects totalling 4,200 MW are planned in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan, while additional projects for 2,075 MW have been identified. Some projects are under consideration for forest and environmental clearance, like the 1,200 MW Bursar project in Kishtwar district which requires 1,665 hectares of land, including 1,077 hectares of forest. It will affect more than 500 families in over 14 villages (option 2 requires 4,593 hectares of land!). And the 1,200 MW Sawalkote dam which will require 1,099 hectares of land, including 600 hectares of forest. Some of these dams will submerge parts of the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park. Here again, projects are being planned bumper-to-bumper; no environmental mitigation measures like fish passes or ladders are included and the social impacts appear huge, adding to the overall cumulative impact.

Despite all of this, no cumulative impact assessment study is being recommended or undertaken for the Chenab basin in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Chenab presently has more than 70 major hydel projects in various stages of planning, construction and operation with a combined capacity of over 13,000 MW (this is an underestimation in the absence of exact figures). The high density of projects magnifies their impact on all fronts: downstream hydrology, muck-generation and disposal, cumulative impacts of submergence, resettlement, cumulative impacts of loss of forest land and habitats, impacts on fish like the famous Chenab trout by a series of high dams, impacts on the region's seismicity, silt discharge of the river, impact of blasting and tunnelling, transport and road construction, construction and management of worker camps and colonies, ambient air quality, disaster risk, impact on local water sources and groundwater, cumulative impacts on the region's water security, fragile cultural fabric, etc.

The cumulative impact of cascading mega hydro projects is unequivocally huge, irreversible and negative. Most of the power generated in the basin will be going out of the basin; so will the benefits of increased revenue, profits, employment and contracts. In the Chenab basin there is also the issue of limitations imposed by the Indus water treaty of 1960 with Pakistan.

Table 2. Partial list of large hydropower projects on the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir

Sr No Project Capacity River
1 Kirthai I 250 Chenab
2 Kirthai II 990 Chenab
3 Bursar 1,200/1,500 Marusudar
4 Pakal Dul 1,000 Marusudar
5 Dul Hasti (operating) 390 Chenab
6 Ratle (GVK) 850 Chenab
7 Baglihar I (operating) 450 Chenab
8 Baglihar II 450 Chenab
9 Sawalkote 1,200 Chenab
10 Salal (operating) 690 Chenab
11 Chainani I, II, III 33 Tributary
12 Kiru 600 Chenab
13 Kwar 520 Chenab
Total 8,623/8,923  

Although India has been aggressively pushing for cascade hydropower projects on rivers like the Lohit, Siang, Kameng, Tawang, Subansiri, Bichome, Teesta and Dibang in the Northeast; Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Kali in Uttarakhand; Sutlej, Ravi, Beas, Yamuna and Chenab in Himachal, all our CIA studies or basin studies till date (if done at all) have been routinely poor and biased (5). In rare cases where consultants have showed courage and integrity by recommending that certain projects be dropped, their reports have been ridiculed and 'saviour' committees have been appointed to look into the reports again to make 'all ills go away', like the B K Chaturvedi Committee which is now looking at the WII study which recommended dropping 24 projects planned in the upper Ganga. The MoEF decided to dump the recommendation of the Teesta cumulative impact study when it stated that no projects should be built upstream of the Chungthang.

It is time India took the issue of the impacts of cascading mega projects seriously. These rivers are not merely power-producing channels, they have been providing and continue to provide millions of other services to local communities and our ecology. Departments and agencies cannot simply push ahead with their big dam agenda at the cost of the environment and communities, in the absence of unbiased scientific studies and good sense.

(Parineeta Dandekar is associate coordinator at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People)


2 Statement by Deepak Sanan, 55th Meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF
4 The 30th meeting of the Standing Committee on Power System Planning of Northern Region, Central Electricity Authority, December 2011

Infochange News & Features, December 2012