Study flags ‘unfortunate location’ of power projects, climate crisis
The severity of the February 7 glacial overflow that triggered a flash flood and swept away two hydroelectric plants in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district can be attributed to the “unfortunate location” of the power projects downstream, the effect of climate crisis, and the topography of the mountain, according to a study authored by 50 scientists.
The paper, published in the journal Science on June 10, underscored the risks of rapid expansion of hydropower projects in unstable regions that are already affected by global warming, which leads to the melting of glacial ice — an issue several environmentalists have repeatedly pointed out before and after the February disaster.
A glacial breach in the upper reaches of the Himalayas on February 7 and led to a flash flood that swept away the Rishiganga hydel dam project and the National Thermal Power Corporations’s Tapovan Vishnugad project — killing over 200 people, mostly workers at the two sites.
Researchers found that the height of the overflow, at 5,500m above sea level, provided ample gravitational energy while the rock and ice ratio resulted in near-complete melting of the ice, making the flow of the debris faster and easier downstream. “The unfortunate location of multiple hydropower plants” in the direct path of the flow of the debris and water was the third reason for the severity of the flash flood, the paper said.
“The disaster indicates that the long-term sustainability of planned hydroelectric power projects must account for both current and future social and environmental conditions while mitigating risks to infrastructure, personnel, and downstream communities,” said the study based on research led by the geoscience department of the University of Calgary (Canada).
Researchers noted that a majority of the casualties, 190 out of 204, were workers of the two plants who had little to no warning.
“This leads us to question what could have happened if a warning system had been installed. We estimate that a suitably designed early warning system might have allowed for 6 to 10 min of warning before the arrival of the debris flow at the Tapovan project...,” the study said, adding that a new flood warning system has since been installed near Raini, where the impact was felt.
Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar on March 15 said that the 7 under-construction hydel plants along the Ganga will be allowed to go ahead, but no new project will be given authorisation in the ecologically sensitive region. The Centre’s stand will be communicated to the Supreme Court, which is hearing on the issue, said a senior ministry official, on the condition of anonymity.
Reseachers also warned of more such disasters in sensitive areas such as the Himalayas as the impact of global warming is increasingly felt. “The Chamoli event may be seen in the context of a change in geomorphological sensitivity and might therefore be seen as a precursor for an increase in such events as climate warming proceeds,” the paper said.
Experts and activists agree. “We also conducted research on the February 7 disaster... It demonstrated very clearly that the barrages of Rishi Ganga and Tapovan hydropower projects acted as force amplifiers for debris...The Ravi Chopra committee have argued again and again that hydropower projects in the paraglacial zone above 2,000 m height obstruct river flow and are dangerous,” said Navin Juyal, a retired geologist at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.
“...To save investments in a few hydropower projects are we willing to lose more lives and destroy the river? I don’t understand their stand. If another such disaster happens in monsoon, we have had it,” said Mallika Bhanot, member of Ganga Ahvaan, an Uttarakhand-based NGO.