A river, for now
THIS is a story about one mountain river – the Gori – and about what is happening to her, in real time, today. A vignette perhaps to a wider drama unfolding in the Himalaya. The Gori is a tributary of the Kali, which goes on to join the Karnali, one of the largest tributary rivers of the Ganga.
Accelerated urban and industrial demand, we are told, is the stimulus for increasing the output of energy. Global warming has resulted in the creation of a carbon bazaar, involving a heated give and take by nations, corporations and moneylending institutions for, among others, the creation of infrastructure for alternative sources of energy. Hydroelectric power is seen as ‘clean’ energy. The Himalaya, with many perennial rivers cascading down from ice caps and glaciers, is seen as an appropriate site to build dams for power. On the southern divide of the Himalaya, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan are all set to build dams to generate over 150,000 megawatts (mw) of power by 2030.
The state of Uttarakhand, like every other Himalayan state, is going into high rev, and plans to build a series of dams on almost every single river and tributary. The existing hydro-power capacity of 1,400 mw is to be augmented with an additional capacity of 12,784 mw of energy currently under various stages of development.
‘Clean’ energy usually means clean only in the carbon sense ignoring other, more immediate impacts that the deployment of alternative, relatively carbon-neutral technology has on nature, as also human communities.
The Gori is perhaps the last large river in the western Himalaya that still runs free today. ‘Running free’ refers to rivers whose flow has not been so radically altered by humans as to disrupt its natural processes and eco-system functions. All forms of life that have co-evolved with these rivers depend upon these functions for their survival.
In a sense, a river is the sutradhar, the central narrator of all that transpires in the basin. Around 32 glaciers on the slopes of some of India’s highest mountains give birth to the Gori river. Altitude gradients in her basin range from the icy summit of Nanda Devi East at over 7,400 metres elevation, down to humid forests at 590 metres elevation at the confluence with the Kali. This enormous range gives rise to climate types and corresponding life zones that range from the frigid polar to the hot subtropical. A spectrum typically found across entire continents, is contained in the length of 120 km within one sub-basin.
The basin also holds transitions of biogeographic zones such as the lesser Himalaya, the greater Himalaya, as well as the cold desert realms of the trans Himalaya. Floral and faunal elements of the eastern and the western Himalaya also overlap here. All this accounts for an unusually high diversity of habitats and species. One statistic tells it all. The Gori river basin hosted, at last count, 2190 species of flowering plants. Compare this to one of the most biodiverse places on earth, the northeast Himalaya, and discover that the Gori basin has 40% of its species richness (number of species) in less than 2% of its area.
Today there are plans to build six large dams (> 100 mw) and two medium dams (= 25 mw and <100 mw) on the main stem of the Gori river within a stretch of around 70 km. Further, on every tributary possible, are also planned eight medium dams (=25 mw), 14 small dams (one mw to 25 mw), and three mini dams (< one mw). Involved with the building are not just government enterprises such as the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) or the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), but also a host of private companies with registered names such as Chandigarh Distillers and Bottlers, and even Krishna Knitwear. Of the ten hydro-power projects in the state being funded by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), three are in the Gori basin. All of these are so-called run-of-the-river (ROR) projects.
Run-of-the-river. Sounds like something out of a nostalgic blues song. The term really implies that while some water will be diverted for use, the river will keep running its course, so that all will be well downstream. However, in practice and up close, what does a run-of-the-river project really imply?
Dams that impound water to be channeled to the power house will hold the river sufficiently to divert it entirely into steel-lined tunnels and, in most cases, also store some water to generate peak requirements for electricity. So, between the point where they divert the water, and run it down a slope in tunnels deep in the mountain, sometimes for tens of kilometres, to a point where it has sufficient force to turn huge turbines and is flushed out again into the channel, the river bed is dry. There is no river. Not unless they allow some water to flow over the spillway of the dam, which, as per their designed capacity, they cannot allow for most of the year. This diversion into tunnels is repeated for successive power stations downstream, each time water from the upstream project has finished turning turbines and is flushed back into the river channel.
How do such projects qualify to be designated run-of-the-river projects when the river is not running along the river bed? These are diversion dams, or are diversion and storage dams. Save for a very few large storage dams, most Himalayan projects use this diversion technology. They go under the benign garb of run-of-the-river projects.
Is such idiom unwitting or deliberate? Since large storage dams today symbolize controversy, this benign sounding technology is currently preferred by moneylending institutions.
But we know that the river will not be ‘running over’ such dams, and that even minimum vital flows essential to sustain life in the rivers will not be allowed over the spillway, except in the monsoon. Nevertheless, the authorities accord approval to these designated ROR projects despite the data on seasonal flow volumes and designed capacity. It is clear that to use even 40% of their capacity (as is the case of the Rupsiabagar-Khasiabara hydroproject currently being built on the Gori), they will not be in a position to allow any water to flow over the spillway, except during the monsoon flush. One such project already built and functioning in the neighbouring Dhauli river, provides clear evidence.
What does hydropower have in its favour? Barring methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) from large storage dams, they do not add to carbon in the atmosphere. Water sources are renewable, and water is ‘free’. So the question is a not whether or not we should use hydropower, but how far we ought to go? Is water really free, and if not, what are the actual costs and who pays for them? Have we allowed science to raise the right questions about how much is too much? Is the present state of our knowledge of river ecosystems adequate to answer some of these questions? Or is it that the proponents of such technologies on a large-scale are ignoring what is already known?
Our current state of river science tells us at least this: Rivers are a single entity along their entire continuum, from origin down to the sea. All life in rivers is influenced and determined by interactions with the terrain they originate from and flow through. Lateral interactions of the main river channel with the groundwater domain under it, and the alluvial corridor alongside with its year-round and temporary wetlands, are critical for the entire food chain.
Connectedness is crucial for the flow and movement of living organisms (migrating fish, for example), energy and matter (nutrient and silt loads) within the entire riverine landscape. Disturbance is also important in river ecosystems and its absence can limit biodiversity. Flow variability and floods are critical for habitat formation and renewal, and provide the physical connections for the lineal, lateral and vertical flows of a river.
Rivers then must be seen in their entire continuum. The everchanging mosaic of flowing waters, pools and still waters, the riverside habitats of the adjoining flood plains and alluvial aquifers, are all integral parts of a total river ecosystem.
All this adds up to a simple point – that connectedness and critical interlinkages of natural flows along the entire river continuum can guide our decisions on what we can do or must not do with our rivers.
Let us now consider some probable impacts of the proposed dams in the Gori basin. The volumes and seasonal rhythms of water flowing in the river and its tributaries will be radically altered by the building of such run-of-river dams and diversion tunnels. How much will they be altered?
Water flow data for any of the Himalayan tributaries of the Ganga in India is classified. Think about that! Fortunately, flow data for the Gori river was already in the public domain before such restrictions came into place, so we have some idea of how this river flows and its seasonal flux. We can also understand how these are likely to be affected by the hydropower projects along the river. It is these flows and their predictability, even in cycles, that have determined the co-evolution and population structures of all life forms in and alongside the river.
The volumes of flow along Himalayan rivers are highly variable between seasons. While the average rate of flow of the Gori mainstem is less than 200 cumecs, the variation between the minimum flows in the lean season and the maximum discharge in the monsoon can be enormous. The minimum discharge of the river at Jauljibi can be as low as 14 cumecs in the lean season (December to February), and the maximum discharge can be as high as 601 cumecs in the monsoon (June to September). That is a ratio of 1:43. The flows in the glacier-fed tributaries of the Gori, as well as the snow-fed tributaries, have normal peak discharges of around 20 cumecs or more, but lean season discharges are as low as one cumec.
Episodic floods, however, can be of magnitudes difficult to comprehend. Statistical extrapolations of NHPC’s flow data indicate that flood episodes every hundred years can result in a flow of up to 3,021 cumecs in the Gori, in storm events lasting from a few hours to a few days. That is a ratio of 1:215 between minimum flow and a statistical prediction called a design flood peak.
Such natural variations of flow are integral to the functioning of river ecosystems. It is in the presence of such flows that the river creates and renews deep pools and riffles, sand and shingle beds that form the habitat of all life in it. It is these flows, and the temperature and turbidity variations that they cause, that are the impulse for fish such as the mahseer to migrate upstream, sometimes over a hundred kilometres, into the clear tributaries to spawn. And it is these volumes of flow that enable the carriage of nutrients, silt and bedload that structure and determine life in the river all the way down to the sea. When we drastically change natural flow variability, we disrupt all of the functions of a river.
How much will these hydropower projects underway actually disrupt these functions? For information on what to expect, we have in hand the Comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment Report of the NTPC for their Rupsiabagar-Khasiabara project that is currently coming up on the Gori. It has been drawn up by the Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS), an enterprise of the Ministry of Water Resources.
Consider now what just this one hydropower project will do. The river will be dammed and diverted at Rupsiabagar at an elevation of about 1,700 metres above sea level, from where it will flow in a tunnel for 9.4 kilometres after which the water is dropped into turbines and released back into the river bed. The river is to be dammed again soon after, and diverted for the next tunnel. There will be two large dams upstream of this, and four medium ones on the Ralam gadh, a tributary upstream. The storage and volumes of flow of this water, depending on seasonal flows, will be determined by the peak requirement of electricity. By this, everything about the river changes. The river is fragmented, loses linear connectivity because it has been diverted and the bed is dry for 9.4 kilometres, the length of the diversion. In the case of sections where there may be some basal flows and seasonal flows in small tributaries en route, there will be some flow, but a greatly reduced one, thereby losing much lateral and vertical connectivity as well.
There will be three turbines that can generate 87 mw each where the discharge per turbine is rated at 23.04 cumecs. That is more than the average lean season flow rate of the entire river in that section, flowing through just one turbine. So how much water can they allow to flow in the river bed when all three turbines are to function? The EIA report, of course, show great concern for the fish in the diverted section, and recommends that a continuous flow of 2.5 cumecs be allowed over the spillway at all times. 2.5 cumecs? Even if the corporation complies, that is about a tenth of the minimum flow at this point in the river. Will this be enough water to even saturate the sub-surface zone, let alone permit above ground flows?
Pan to the whole-river scenario. What will be the cumulative impact on just flow volumes and connectivity by the construction of six such large dams, 10 medium dams, 14 small and three mini dams all along the Gori and on most of her tributaries?
Volumes of flow will be greatly altered. River habitats will be fragmented in multiple places. Drastic changes in the way silt load is deposited on river bottoms will rapidly alter habitats. There will be no water flowing through the river bed for about two-thirds of the length of the river. This will break up lateral connectivity through moisture regimes in the adjoining alluvial banks and riparian zone.
Disruption of vertical connections with ground waters is inevitable. This will affect basal flows well beyond local reaches. Consequently, links in food chains will also be broken. Even where the water does continue to flow – water that has been stored in reservoirs, desilted, dropped under high pressure through tunnels, unexposed to sunlight, nutrients and riparian influences, and through turbines at high pressure – the temperature, dissolved oxygen and turbidity of the water (the determinants of all aquatic life in it) will be radically changed.
The building of multiple dams and tunnels all along this river and its smaller streams will also lead to the loss of other kinds of connectivity, for instance, for fish from the main stem to their breeding pools and nurseries in clear streams. These smaller streams, apart from being the main breeding areas, are also critical refugia of fish populations during catastrophic episodes such as floods and landslides. It is they who provide rivers with their dynamic resilience, which we take so much for granted.
There will be other environmental impacts. The Gori basin has 120 species of orchids, the richest site in the western Himalaya. Many occur nowhere else; some are recently described species. Almost 60% of these orchid species are concentrated in the riparian forests between Balmara and Madkot (600-1,200 m asl), along the Daphia Dhura Reserve Forest and the Baram-Rachia gadh area. About two-thirds of these orchids are epiphytic, growing mostly on toon and engelhartia trees along the left bank of the river. They get the high atmospheric humidity they need from the moisture laden mists that rise from the river. This is precisely where three of the large hydropower projects will come up. There will soon be no river in long stretches for these mists to rise from.
The volumes of flow are what shape rivers and their banks. They carry and deposit rocks, sand and gravel in predictable patterns, which in turn create and renew habitats. The shape and condition of a river bank determines whether otters will live and whelp there at all. Submerged sand bars and gravel beds are spawning areas for many fish species.
However, building material for the dam, the power house and appurtenances of just one project, the Rupsiabagar-Khasiabara HEP for example, will require about 130,000 m³ of coarse aggregate, 50,000 m³ of fine aggregate and 115,000 m³ of sand. Rock for this will be taken from two quarries on the river, and boulders, cobblestones, gravel and sand will come right from the river bed.
Another 1.6 million cubic metres of debris that will be removed from tunnels and other excavations will be stored in landfills along the river. This will add to silt loads in the river over many years. Consider the cumulative impact of the quarrying and debris disposal from 33 such projects in one small sub-basin.
There is another impact often less spoken of. The loss of terrestrial refugia along the riparian zone. Riparian areas function as corridors for movement of wild animals. They are also filters in the sense that they allow movement only for some animals. The Gori flows in many sections through steep gorges and cliff sections that form corridors for ungulates such as the tahr and ghoral. It is futile for a hunter even within shooting range to drop an animal here, because it will be lost to the river. The river also prevents domestic ungulates such as goats from reaching and competing for grazing on these few remnant slopes. This filter will be lost in sections where the river bed will be dry.
Terrestrial protected areas are among the last refuges for many threatened species, but hydropower projects are only pushing them further to the wall. 13 of the 33 hydropower projects currently proposed in the Gori basin fall within the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary. There are 10 more large and medium dams planned along the neighbouring tributary, the Dhauli, and on the Kali main stem that also fall within the Askot Sanctuary. We know that both hydropower projects inside or within 10 km radius of a protected area can only be cleared by the Supreme Court. Is it any surprise then, that the Government of Uttarakhand has proposed to ‘rationalize’ the boundaries of the Askot Sanctuary and exclude all these rivers from it?
Any expectation that the above concerns would be raised in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes, is belied by the assessment report by WAPCOS for the Rupsiabagar-Khasiabara project on the Gori. Given limited space, I will only state that the reports prepared by such agencies are a fait accompli. They are written only to facilitate such projects regardless of their true impacts – written, in fact, to obscure the true impacts. Look at this EIA document and you will see that their species inventories are fictitious. Their fish list is a wish list, even featuring schizothorax kumaonensis, a fish found only in the Nainital lake. Then there are pages of scientific argot and statistical hieroglyphics measuring parameters that are entirely irrelevant (even measuring for faecal coliform and heavy metals) to the impacts of a hydropower project. The idea being simply to flash the lab coat, as their scientific credentials.
They show in great detail, for example, measurements of seasonal, even hourly, gross primary productivity of microscopic diatoms and plankton from water samples on the one hand (with absolutely no discussion on its relevance in the assessment thereafter), while on the other, provide sloppy lists of the larger, better integrators and indicators of ecological health. After a whole year of study, they come up with a list of eight birds (three of which were two crows and a myna) in an area that is designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) of the country!
Under mitigation measures for loss of fish due to diversion of the river, WAPCOS strictly recommends that snow trout fry be stocked 10 km above and below the dam. But guess what? No fish inhabit the river at the dam site let alone 10 km upstream, nor up to a point six km below the dam site, above that being too cold for them. And this stocking is proposed at rupees of 16 million over six years.
This, then, is the story of the damming of the Gori – a tale of political and bureaucratic hubris. It is still a partial story because we have not even begun speaking of the nature of displacement and breaking down of human communities here. But leave that for another day.
If this sounds alarming, then what is happening a little further down the continuum, along the Kali main stem and her other tributaries, is even more so. In all, 58 dams are planned and are in various stages of development in the Kali basin, of which just one of them, the giant Pancheshwar storage dam will be for over 6,000 mw. This will dwarf any other dam in our country. Its submergence area will come so far upstream as to drown the lower sections of the Gori river basin too. Already, with the barrages and dams built on the Kali farther downstream, the river dolphin has been cut off from its upper range, and little glass elvers no longer complete their long journey from the sea to the Terai, where the river gushes to the plain.
A sorry story, but is it a hopeless one? Perhaps not. Not if in the hard negotiations that are underway in the political sphere, there is use for a more honest science, and for weighing the true consequences of our choices on the energy question.
We know that while hydro-power is clean in the carbon sense, dams have serious environmental impacts. We also need to acknowledge the nature of disruption, and decide how many dams are reasonably possible, where to locate them, how much water to abstract, and how much to let flow.
Environmental impact assessment protocols must be abreast of current science in the field, and be conducted for at least the entire sub-basin to make any ecological sense. They must be nested in a larger assessment of cumulative impact along the entire river basin, down to the sea, and not just look at a radius of seven kilometres of the dam. The Union government must conduct a holistic and long-term assessment, and not via consultancy shops hired for the purpose.
Conservation calls for both representation and persistence. There is a need to adequately conserve the full range of biodiversity features in a river system, and persistence requires the maintenance of the natural processes that generate and support this biological diversity.
For this, the least that we would need to do is to leave some rivers to continue to run free, and a connected link of representative streams on every river system to also run free. Free of dams and diversions. Free to continue with their evolutionary story.