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Drop 23 projects, do cumulative assessments & improve governance, says Dr Ravi Chopra headed expert body on Uttarakhand flood disaster

Written By Gopal Krishna on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 | 7:37 AM

In a significant development on role of hydropower projects in Uttarakhand flood disaster of June 2013, the Expert Body (EB) headed by Dr Ravi Chopra has recommended that at least 23 hydropower projects should be dropped, that hydropower projects played significant role in the Uttarakhand disaster and that there is urgent need to improve the environment governance of hydropower projects. The Report “Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects During The June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand” dated April 2014 has been submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on April 16, 2014 and was made public following hearing in the Supreme Court on April 28, 2014. The committee was appointed by a reluctant Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in October 2013, following the Supreme Court’s suo motto order of August 13 2013.
Source: MATU Jansangathan
Damaged Vishnuprayag Dam in Uttarakhand floods of June 2013: Source: MATU Jansangathan
Uttarakhand floods of June 2013[1],[2]: The committee report endorses the stand taken in a letter[3] that was written to MoEF on July 20, 2013, endorsed by over 20 individuals and groups including from Uttarakhand on the role of existing and under  construction hydropower projects in the Uttarakhand floods  of June 2013. MoEF did not take any action on this letter, but it was Supreme Court order next month that pushed MoEF to take necessary action.
SC order of Aug 13, 2013[4]: On Aug 13, 2013, while disposing off the petition on Srinagar HEP in Uttarakhand, the Supreme Court, suo motto, made an order that asked, MoEF and Uttarakhand governments not to provide any further clearances to any more hydropower projects anywhere in Uttarakhand till further orders. Both MoEF and Uttarakhand governments have been violating this order. However, one of the fall outs of this order was formulation of Expert Body appointed by MoEF more than two months latter, through an order on Oct 15, 2013, whose report now is available in public domain.
Limited TOR[5]: The Supreme Court order of Aug 13, 2013 pertained to whole of Uttarakhand, as was the disaster of June 2013. However, the MoEF order and subsequently CWC tried to restrict the field of work of the committee to Alaknanda and Bhagirathi sub basins rather than whole of Uttarakhand.
Problematic constitution: The constitution of the Expert body was also problematic from a number of aspects. There was clear conflict of interest with respect to some of the members like Dr BP Das, former member and Vice Chair of the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects, as explained below. The committee also included chairman of Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority, which unfortunately act like lobbies for hydropower projects. These persons were in the committee to bring in respective expertise, but in stead used their presence in the committee to discredit evidence which suggested clear role of hydropower projects, some members also advocated for more hydropower projects, in stead of adhering to the mandate given by the Supreme Court, thus raising the issue of contempt of court.
In what follows we have given some useful recommendations and conclusions of the EB, followed by some weak recommendations and conclusions of the EB report, based on a quick reading of the report (we got the over 200 page report only on April 29, 2014), following by some remarks on role of vice chair, CWC, CEA, MoEF and our conclusion.
Map of Mandakini Valley, epicenter of Uttarakhand floods of June 2014 (Source: EB report)
Map of Mandakini Valley, epicenter of Uttarakhand floods of June 2014 (Source: EB report)
On 24 projects recommended to be dropped by WII “After considerable discussions and analysis, the Expert Body concluded that of the 24 proposed Hydropower Projects (HEPs) that Wildlife Institute of India (WII) recommended for Review, 23 HEPs would have significant irreversible impacts on biodiversity values.”
“The EB recommends that for the 23 proposed HEPs out of the 24 identified by WII (other than the Kotli Bhel 1A project) that would have irreversible impacts on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins, the HEPs that fall in any of the following conditions should not be approved for construction.
(a)               Proposed HEPs that fall inside wildlife Protected Areas such  National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries
(b)               Proposed HEPs that fall within the Gangotri Eco-sensitive Zone
(c)               Proposed HEPs that fall above 2,500m that encompass critical wildlife habitats, high biological diversity, movement corridors, and fragile in nature due to unpredictable glacial and paraglacial activities.
(d)               Proposed HEPs that fall within 10 km from the boundary of Protected Areas and have not obtained clearance from the National Board for Wildlife.”
It would have been in fitness of things if EB had exclusively asked for stoppage of work on all these 23 projects with immediate effect.
On Kotli Bhel 1A The EB has, we believe, erroneously concluded, over ruling the conclusion of WII and expert review initiated by EB, “that the Kotli Bhel 1A project might not significantly worsen the condition of the river Bhagirathi between Koteshwar and Devprayag – already part of a highly fragmented zone”. However, EB has asked for  “due modifications to its design and operations so that an adequate stretch of the river downstream of the Koteshwar dam just above KB-IA can be maintained in a free flowing state”. This means the project work should stop and it should reapply for clearances after doing the suggested modifications in credible way.
Restoration: “The river bed profiles at Phata-Byung, Singoli-Bhatwari, Vishnuprayag and Srinagar HEPs have changed significantly. This requires a fresh analysis of the project hydrology and redesigning them if necessary.
All projects must undertake river restoration works after prior clearance from MoEF. It was noticed that project developers were engaged in projects’ restoration only. MoEF needs to conduct a formal review of the environmental damages at all the HEPs in Uttarakhand and prepare guidelines for restoration. Till then none of the projects should begin power production.”
HEPs above 2 MW need EC “All projects > 2 MW, shall require prior Environmental Clearances (EC) from MoEF”.
“A multidisciplinary expert body should be constituted with members of proven expertise and experience to review every year the progress/performance of each HEP and its compliance with the sanction conditions. This body will also review the technicalities of disaster preparedness before each monsoon season and examine the impact of monsoon storm and floods on the performance of all the project components. The environmental health of the river will be a critical area for comprehensive examination.”
No projects above winter snow line “Learning from the June 2013 event, the EB believes that the enhanced sediment availability from and in paraglacial zones could be a serious problem for the longevity of the existing, under construction and proposed HEPs in Uttarakhand. Therefore the EB recommends that the terrain above the MCT in general and above the winter snow line in particular (~2200-2500 m) should be kept free from hydropower interventions in Uttarakhand.”
SIA should be carried out for all river systems in Uttarakhand “The WII study has already identified 24 proposed HEPs in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins as likely to cause irreversible impacts. But comprehensive research studies of other basins in Uttarakhand are lacking at this stage… Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) be carried out in other major river basins of Uttarakhand such as the Yamuna and Kali basins.”
Distance between projects in a cascade “Scientific studies by subject experts should be conducted for establishing baseline data on river parameters, diversity and populations of floral and faunal species in different rivers of Uttarakhand at different elevation zones.  Such studies should be used for deciding upon the minimum distances between two consecutive HEPs. Until such scientific studies are completed, no new HEPs (in S&I stage) should be cleared on the rivers of Uttarakhand within a distance that may later be revoked. Minimum distances for projects in the clearance stage should be significantly revised upward from the current consideration of 1 km.”
SANDRP Map of Bumper to Bumper hydropower projects in Alaknanda basin in Uttarakhand
SANDRP Map of Bumper to Bumper hydropower projects in Alaknanda basin in Uttarakhand
National Himalayan Policy “Since the Himalaya are our vital source of growth and abundance, a National Himalayan Policy needs to be urgently created and implemented.”
“Therefore, the EB strongly recommends that a detailed study of the impacts of hydropower projects in terms of deforestation/tunneling/ blasting/reservoir formation on the hydrogeology of the area should be carried out.”
A study on the role of large artificial reservoirs on local climate change and precipitation patterns with special reference to the Tehri dam reservoir.”
Sediment transportation studies “Recent studies have highlighted serious concern about the Indian deltas, which are shrinking due to changes in river courses. The Ganga-Brahmaputra delta is also noted in this category. This seems to be a major issue in near future therefore we recommend that the studies should be carried out regarding the impacts on sediment transportation due to projects existing on Himalayan rivers.”
Cultural impacts of HEPs “Therefore EB recommends that the Ministry of Culture along with the local representatives and spiritual leaders should undertake a comprehensive study of the cultural impacts of HEPs in the spiritually rich state of Uttarakhand.”
“The river bed profiles at Phata-Byung, Singoli-Bhatwari, Vishnuprayag and Srinagar HEPs have changed significantly. This requires a fresh analysis of the project hydrology and redesigning them if necessary.”
“River Regulation Zone (R.R.Z.) guidelines should be issued immediately by the Ministry of Environment & Forests and should be executed accordingly.”
Muck Management: “The existing practices of muck management are inadequate to protect the terrain and the people from an eventuality like the June 2013 flood. Therefore, a serious revisit is required towards evolving technically better and ecologically sustainable methods for muck disposal and rehabilitation in Uttarakhand.”
Environmental Flows: “Till such time as a decision is taken on the EFlows recommendations of the IITs-consortium, the EB recommends EFlows of 50% during the lean season and 30% during the remaining non-monsoon months. Sustaining the integrity of Uttarakhand’s rivers and their eco-systems is not negotiable.”
Eco-Sensitive Zones: “It is recommended that legislation be enacted to (i) protect small but significant rivers (as done in Himachal Pradesh and also recommended by the IMG for Uttarakhand) as pristine rivers and (ii) designate Eco-Sensitive Zones for all rivers of Uttarakhand.”
Community based CA and CAT “Community-based CA and CAT plan execution must be done by the State Forest Department within the construction period of the project.” This is to be monitored by a committee that includes two representatives from local communities, a renowned environmentalist, among others.
Forests and Biodiversity Conservation: “Community based CAT programmes have to be systemically implemented for ensuring sustenance of the plantations. This requires training of forest officials to work with the communities through their Van Panchayats.”
“It was brought to the notice of the EB that clearances to start work had been granted recently to the Lakhwar (300 MW) and Vyasi (120 MW) projects. This is in violation of the spirit of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order of August 13, 2013. It is also noticed that these projects were approved more than 25 years ago. Consequently they do not have any EIA/EMP/DMP studies that are mandatory today. Without conducting cumulative impact assessments and disaster management studies of the Yamuna and Kali basins no such projects should be allowed at the risk of fragile ecology, biodiversity and lives of people living in and around the project sites.”[6]
SOME WEAK RECOMMENDATIONS OF EB
“The EB recommends that MoEF strengthens its personnel and procedures for post-sanction monitoring of environmental conditionalities. The MoEF should develop a programme for research studies by reputed organizations on the impacts of HEPs on river water quality (and flows). Pre-construction and post operation long term impacts monitoring studies are required.”
Geology & Social Issues: “Given the massive scale of construction of HEPs in Uttarakhand it may be worthwhile to set up a formal institution or mechanism for investigating and redressing complaints about damages to social infrastructure. The functioning of such an institution can be funded by a small cess imposed on the developers. It is also suggested that to minimize complaints of bias, investigations should be carried out by joint committees of subject experts and the community.”
Disaster Management: “Disaster preparedness is critical because all of Uttarakhand lies either in seismic Zone IV or V. These areas are most vulnerable to strong earthquakes. Disaster Management Plans (DMPs) are critical parts of EIA Reports. They need to be carefully reviewed and approved by local communities in the probable zone of influence.”
“It is necessary to establish an independent authority which may commission EIA Reports…”
CONCLUSIONS OF EB:
On Role of Dams in Uttarakhand disaster:
In Chapter 3 (p 10) chairman of EB notes, “Thus THDC’s inundation analysis results could
not be substantiated by the ground survey in Haridwar city.”
“In September 2010, to retain flood inflows in the face of water levels rising beyond the permitted FRL the (Tehri) dam authorities had to seek the permission of the Supreme Court. It led to inundation of the upstream town of Chinyalisaur and later after draw down fresh landslide zones were created around the reservoir rim.”
“Geo-chemical analysis of sediment samples taken from various locations along the river stretch in Srinagar, however, indicated a significant contribution — varying from 47% near the barrage to about 23% much further downstream (Fig. 3.19, pg 101, Main Report) — from muck eroded from muck disposal sites 6 and 9 located on the concave right bank and consequently experienced an intense current of the order of 7m/sec.
This raises a question that if there was heavy to very heavy rainfall from the glacial reaches of the Alaknanda valley, leading to numerous landslides along the banks, then why was massive damage observed only downstream of the Vishnuprayag and Srinagar HEPs? A detailed investigation is warranted in order to arrive at a scientifically viable explanation.”
“Otters appear to be nearing extinction in the Ganga, Alaknanda sub-basins.”
It is good to see that the EB has effectively rejected the critique of the WII report presented by Dr. Sabyasachi Dasgupta, HNB Garhwal University and consultant to UJVNL, following an independent review of the WII report by Prof. Brij Gopal, an eminent ecological scientist who had worked extensively on river ecosystems. Prof Brij Gopal, while finding some limitations in WII methodology, concluded: “he agreed with WII’s findings that the 24 proposed hydropower projects would impact the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins significantly. Based on his own analysis, Prof Gopal recommended that several more projects be dropped.”
SOME WEAK CONCLUSIONS:
“A ground survey of the inundation analysis carried out by THDC on the basis of which it claimed to have saved Haridwar from drowning raised doubts about the accuracy of the computer generated inundation maps. It is therefore not clear how much of Haridwar would have been affected if the Tehri dam had not been there. The problem at Haridwar, as at other towns and habitations along river banks, is that there has been wide spread encroachment and construction inside the river’s regime. Therefore it is imperative to set up river regulation zones where encroachments are forbidden. (Unscientific sand mining on river beds adds to the problem.)”
“There is some doubt about whether the Vishnuprayag project authorities were able to properly manage the opening and closing of the gates.”
Role of Dr B P Das: Dr B P Das has for close to a decade been member or vice chair or officiating chair of the Expert Appraisal Committee of MoEF on River Valley project and has in the process been involved in appraising and deciding on clearances for a no of projects and their impacts in Uttarakhand. Hence he was not likely to be in a position to take an independent view on Uttarakhand hydropower projects as there was a conflict of interest involved with respect to his earlier decisions. His biased views were also known through his article in The Hindu earlier. This got reflected in the alternate view on page 27 of chapter 3 and page 16-17 of Chapter 4 of the report authored by Dr Das. In Chapter 3 box, Dr Das’s abiding faith in the project developer could be seen. In Chapter 4 box Dr Das himself mentions that EAC has yet to take a view on WII report, but the he himself is a responsible party for EAC not having taken a view on WII report.
Role of CWC, CEA chairpersons: CWC (Central Water Commission, India’s premier technical body on water resources development under Union Ministry of Water Resources) and CEA (Central Electricity Authority, India’s premier technical body on power sector are largely known to act as lobbies for hydropower projects, in stead of the independent technical and regulatory body that they are expected to work as. In view of that, inclusion of chairperson of CWC and CEA in this committee was wrong step on the part of MoEF. We learn from a letter written by two eminent members of the committee, namely Dr Shekhar Pathak and Dr Hemant Dhyani on March 27, 2014, that indeed the chairpersons of CWC and CEA did not really participate in the way they were required to, and rather functioned in violation of the Supreme Court order.
Scanned version of last part of the letter of 27.03.2014 from Dr Shekhar Pathak and Dr Hemant Dhyani, members of EB
Scanned version of last part of the letter of 27.03.2014 from Dr Shekhar Pathak and Dr Hemant Dhyani, members of EB
Role of MoEF: One had expected that the EB would take a critical view of the functioning of the MoEF around HEPs and contribution of MoEF’s failures in increasing the disaster proportions. Unfortunately we are disappointed in this. Possibly, with the committee having been appointed by MoEF and member secretary of the committee being MoEF official this was a difficult ask. However, not being able to take a critical stand on the role of MoEF (and other institutions like CWC, CEA, state environment department, state disaster management department etc) imposes a limitation on the EB report and provides a free reign to guilty party. The consequences of this became apparent when on April 28, 2014, during the Supreme Court hearing, we are told, the MoEF presented erroneous picture that there are two reports of the committee, one by 10 members(wrongly called activists) another by Vice Chair B P Das, with CWC and CEA chair persons, when at best the note from these three persons can be considered dissent note, that too in violation of SC orders. We hope the Supreme Court will take strong view of this misleading picture presented by MoEF and reprimand the responsible officials to ensure that this does not happen again.
Conclusion: In spite of certain weaknesses, most of the recommendations of the committee need to be immediately implemented and till they are implemented in letter and spirit, the Supreme Court should order a status quo on any further hydropower projects. The EB headed by Dr Ravi Chopra should be congratulated for this report in spite of difficult circumstances under which the committee operated.
Þ     We also hope the Supreme Court would ask MoEF to order stoppage of work on Lakhwar and Vyasi projects that has been started recently, violating the Supreme Court order in letter and spirit, and also as pointed out by the EB.
Þ     The work on 24 hydropower projects that was part of explicit TOR of the committee should be ordered to stop immediately. The EB should have made this explicit recommendation, but even if they have not done that, it is implicit in its recommendation.
Þ     The Supreme Court should ask MoEF to provide a time bound action plan on implementation of the various recommendations of the EB. The SC an also possibly appoint EB (minus Dr Das, CWC and CEA persons) to oversee the implementation of the action plan and continue to provide independent feedback on adequacy of such implementation.
Þ     The Lessons from Uttarakhand are relevant for all Himalayan states of India from Kashmir to all the North East states and we hope Supreme Court to ask the follow up committee to ensure that these lessons are taken note of and necessary steps flowing there from are implemented in these Himalayan states. These will also provide guidance to our Himalayan neighbouring countries.
Þ     The failure of environmental governance is one of the clearest stark message from this episode and we hope MoEF will put its house in order in this respect, revamping its entire environmental governance.
Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)
END NOTES:
[1] http://sandrp.wordpress.com/?s=Uttarakhand
[2] http://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/uttarakhand-flood-ravage-and-the-dams-short-film-english/
[3] http://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/uttarakhand-disaster-moef-should-suspect-clearances-to-hydropower-projects-and-institute-enquiry-in-the-role-of-heps/
[4] http://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/uttarakhand-flood-disaster-supreme-courts-directions-on-uttarakhand-hydropower-projects/
[5] http://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/expert-committee-following-sc-order-of-13-aug-13-on-uttarakhand-needs-full-mandate-and-trimming-down/
[6] By Dr. Hemant Dhyani, Member, EB
[7] Reuters report on this issue: http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/04/29/india-flood-idINL6N0NL0VC20140429
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