When dams loom large: missing the big picture

A looming threat

In the north-east region of India, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, a threat to forests is looming large and is expected to lead to a loss of large areas of forests in the next decade—mega-dams and mining.

From 2004 to 2013, at an all-India level, 6000 km2 of forests were given clearance for various kinds of development projects including 2500 km2 for mining—an area equivalent to three tiger reserves. Of this, ~1600 km2 was given clearance for projects in Northeast India, with 90% of these projects in Arunachal alone. The projects cleared include open-cast coal mining, limestone, thermal power, uranium, cement and fertilizer plants, oil exploration, and drilling (at least 14 in three states).

In addition, a multitude of dams is proposed and ongoing in several states of Northeast India.  In 2009, there were 130 proposed dams in Arunachal (38,613 MW), which by March 2013 had increased to 153 (43,118 MW). The forest areas to be submerged are large including 5000 ha in Dibang, 1400 ha in Lower Demwe, 4000 ha in Lower Siang, and 4000 ha in Lower Subansiri adding up to 15,000 ha (150 km2) of forest in Arunachal Pradesh. There are numerous upstream, downstream, cumulative ecological, and social impacts of these dams.

Rivers be dammed

Often, these dams are proposed as being more benign and less ecologically damaging as they are termed ‘run-of-the-river’ schemes. This is misleading. Run-of-the-river schemes are defined as:

A power station utilizing the run of the river flows for the generation of power with sufficient pondage for supplying water for meeting diurnal (daily) or weekly fluctuations of demand. In such stations, the normal course of the river is not materially altered.

A storage dam is defined as:

This dam impounds water in periods of surplus supply for use in periods of deficient supply. These periods may be seasonal, annual, or longer.

However, even though many of these dams may not require large submergence areas, they drastically reduce or change the natural water flow regimes of the rivers. In addition, given that multiple projects are proposed on the same rivers, large stretches of a single river can be affected.

The November 2012 minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects states:

On the main Siang river, the reservoir of Lower Siang HEP spreads for about 77.5 km, followed by reservoirs of Siang Upper Stage-II and Stage-I for 57 km and 74 km respectively i.e. total river length in reservoirs will be 208.5 km without any free-flowing river stretch in between. On Siyom river, there are six planned projects in cascade affecting 90 km of river stretch (63.5 km in reservoirs and 26.5 km in tunnels) without significant free-flowing river stretch in adjacent projects. Similarly, 7 projects are planned on Yargyap Chhu in cascade.

The negative impacts of such dams can be severe, including loss of fisheries, changes in wetland ecology in the floodplains, disruption to agriculture in the chaporis (islets) and impede on other livelihoods due to blockage of rivers by dams. Moreover, there is increased vulnerability to floods due to boulder extraction for dam construction and sudden massive water releases from reservoirs during monsoons. Dam safety and other risks are critical to consider in a geologically fragile and seismically active region.  Scientists have suggested that the proposed dams in Arunachal will have a severe effect on wildlife in important Protected Areas like Dibru-Saikhowa and Kaziranga, with negative impacts on species such as floricans, wild water buffaloes, and river dolphins.

An argument that is often made in favor of dams in low human population density areas such as in Arunachal is the ‘small displacement’ of people involved, suggesting that there is little social impact. For example, the proposed 3000 MW Dibang Valley hydropower project, which will submerge around 5000 ha, is in the thinly populated Dibang Valley district in Arunachal Pradesh that has a population density of 1 person per km2. However, the entire global population of a tribe—the Miju Mishmi, numbering 9500—resides here. There are 17 dams are proposed in this valley and yet the social impact is deemed as low with an entire tribe either directly or indirectly affected.1

The bewildering numbers of dams in every single river basin appear to have been proposed with no foresight in terms of the logistical feasibility and existing infrastructure to access these areas and the capacity to build such large dams.

A double whammy: replacing native forests with paper forests

Compensatory afforestation is also offered as a way of minimising ecological damage by proposing double the area to be ‘reforested’, but there are few documented examples of scientifically planned afforestation with native species. Despite huge sums of money being allocated and spent, afforestation efforts often fail. In many cases, natural scrub forests or grasslands, looked upon as ‘wasteland’, end up being the target of afforestation efforts. Hence, not only are certain forest areas permanently lost, ‘compensatory afforestation’ involving monocultures of non-native species with limited biodiversity value result in damage or loss of natural habitat in another area.

Compensatory afforestation in states like Arunachal Pradesh is usually undertaken in existing Unclassed State Forest (USF) areas (which are used by the community) and under de facto ownership of local people. As a result of the afforestation activities, these community-use forest areas can be taken over by the Forest Department.

Another bizarre consequence of dam clearances is that the area under ‘Recorded Forest’ ‘increases’ after submergence. The area of forest, which is lost and underwater, is declared as a Reserved Forest with fishing rights. Consequently, on paper, government records will show an increase in the Reserved Forest area after submergence.

I met a chief engineer for one of the hydropower project companies in Arunachal Pradesh who had been associated with the only concrete gravity diversion dam (405 MW) that has been built and completed in Arunachal Pradesh on the Ranganadi river. He said that the Ranganadi is now a dead river and that the dam project was a ‘Himalayan blunder’. Coming from a dam builder, this was a rare admission and telling. Since the project has been commissioned, it has generated far less power than its originally planned capacity, while the river and its aquatic fauna have been negatively affected. The dam has also caused hardships and changes for the Nyishi community residing in the area.

The problem with Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)

If all these dams and others in the other Himalayan states come up, India would have the highest dam density in the world (0.33 /1000 km2), which is 62 times greater than the global average— one for every 32 km of the river channel. Of these dams, 88% are in species-rich ecosystems with a projected loss (extinction) of many plant and animal taxa2.

While the construction of mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh and their negative consequences have been highlighted in the print media by a few environmental activists/journalists, there are surprisingly few reviews/critiques in peer-reviewed mainstream conservation science discourse and literature. Apart from a few networks/organisations like the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP) (http://sandrp.in), the River Research Centre, and Kalpavriksh, mainstream wildlife biologists have failed to acknowledge the seriousness of this issue.

Conservation scientists complain that EIA studies are undertaken by dubious agencies with no scientific credibility, but few are willing to participate in making the EIA process better or critically evaluating an EIA report. The non-availability of scientific literature on the impacts of dams, the lack of published expert opinion/critiques of projects and their EIA studies can be a major hindrance for dam opponents who have mounted legal challenges to these projects.

It is well known that EIA studies are seldom conducted by ‘independent bodies’ as they are usually paid for by the project proponents resulting in an obvious conflict of interest. Worse, few EIA studies conduct or provide ecological analyses on the potential impact on wildlife in the area.

In the Tawang Stage II EIA study, the report only listed five of the common mammal species that occur in the area, with vague statements that the area is visited by ‘many bird species ’. Earlier scientific research has recorded at least 34 species of mammals in the Tawang area, almost all of which occur close to the dam site. While it is true that some species are restricted to higher altitudes and would not be directly affected, the EIA failed to mention that one of the main populations of the newly discovered Arunachal macaque (Macaca munzala) is also found at the site. The area is also visited by the black-necked crane, a highly threatened bird species, and other key species such as the takin (Budorcas taxicolor) and the Chinese goral (Nemorhaedus caudatus).

Missing the woods for the trees

I would like to make two points here. First, more scientific studies on the actual and potential effects of dams and how they can affect our river systems/terrestrial habitats and flora and fauna are much needed.  We also need better critiques of existing EIA studies and attempts to improve the way EIA studies are conducted to ensure that minimum standards are followed.

Second, some development projects are obviously needed for the people of Arunachal Pradesh to create genuine economic opportunities and jobs and improve living standards. However, conservationists, scientists, bureaucrats, and government policymakers should not gloss over the impact of these projects on transforming natural landscapes irreversibly, especially in comparison to the relatively lower-impact subsistence land-uses by forest-dependent people.

Despite the more obvious large-scale threats from mining, dams, and other projects, the subsistence needs of communities’ residents around reserves have more often been portrayed in mainstream scientific literature as the overriding threat to conservation. There has been an undue emphasis on documenting the ecological impacts on biodiversity due to hunting, logging, and shifting cultivation in Northeast India. While this is important, as field biologists, we have neglected to assess the loss of biodiversity and forests due to government policies, industrial growth, and development. The emphasis seems skewed and disproportionate to the degree of threat.

To take just one example, the impact on wildlife and forests of a series of seven dams on the Lohit river due to a 7500 MW dam, the loss of 1400 ha of forest, and the influx of around 7000-10,000 migrant labourers that are resident for close to 7-8 years are likely to affect the ecology of that area much more than the subsistence shifting-cultivation and hunting practices of 3500 Idu Mishmi people. And this is just one river basin; the same applies to all the river systems in Arunachal.

In fact, communities can be allies in conservation as borne out by the case of the proposed 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydro-electric project in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. Here, the petitioners against the dam were the Save the Mon Region Federation, a local community organisation of Buddhist lamas and monks from Tawang. Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta fought the case in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). After a long-drawn-out court case which began in 2012, the NGT finally suspended the Environmental Clearance (EC) for the project in April 2016 while asking for a fresh study including public consultation. While many other socio-cultural concerns were expressed, the proximity of the dam site to the wintering grounds of the black-necked crane was a key factor.  It was a rare judgment where wildlife played a significant role in the suspension of clearance. Among other documents, a critique of the EIA study was used in the court case3.  This highlights the positive outcome due to the cooperation between community groups, research organisations, scientists, lawyers, and activists which unfortunately does not happen as often as it should.

The success of the Save the Mon Region Federation should enthuse other community groups in Arunachal to challenge farcical public hearings, faulty EIAs, and other issues with the clearance process. But as with most such dam projects, this is just a temporary victory.

A call to conservationists

On the one hand, we insist on relocation as a policy for safeguarding tiger populations and creating inviolate spaces based on the premise that human residence in a reserve is inimical for tiger conservation. We also want buffer zones where people and tigers are expected to ‘co-exist’, and where land use is to be made compatible with tiger conservation. Yet, when vast swathes of those same lands are being given away for dams and coal mines or converted to monoculture cash-crop plantations, we do not seem to protest as loudly. Maybe it is just easier to study the impacts of local communities rather than engaging with damaging policy decisions or critiquing government-supported development projects.

Fortunately, there has been a subtle shift in the last few years with greater acknowledgement among many biologists and conservationists of the threats from developmental projects. Following the elections of 2014 and the changes to environmental governance being brought in to favour industry and economic growth, several scientists, conservationists and members of civil society are acknowledging the far-reaching destructive impacts of ‘development’ projects. But we need more voices and inputs from scientists on the impacts of such development projects on both species and habitats as well as on local communities.

Further reading

Rajshekhar, M. 2013a. Hydelgate: Why Arunachal Pradesh’s hydel boom is going bust? Economic Times, April 20, 2013. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-04-30/news/38930347_1_hydel-arunachal-projects-jindal-power.

Rajshekhar, M. 2013b. Hydelgate: How corruptions, shoddy allocations in Congress-ruled Arunachal Pradesh are drowning India’s hydro-power plans. Economic Times, April 30, 2013. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-04-30/news/38930283_1_hydel-india-inc-jindal-power.

Rajshekhar, M. 2013c. Hydelgate: how the hydro-power boom changed Arunachal Pradesh? Economic Times, May 6, 2013. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-05-06/news/39065189_1_hydel-boom-land-rights-forest-rights-act.

This article is from issue


2017 Dec