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Going against the flow

The people of the Brahmaputra Valley within India will laud Delhi’s efforts to protect their downstream riparian rights vis-à-vis Chinese plans on the Brahmaputra. But what about the dams in the northeast? Neeraj Vagholikar elaborates.

india Updated: Nov 24, 2009 21:58 IST

India’s concerns about the downstream impacts of dams proposed by the Chinese on the Brahmaputra in Tibet are justified, as we need to ensure that our social and ecological security is not compromised by developments upstream. But it is indeed ironic that we continue to ignore serious downstream impact concerns within our own country as we proceed with plans to build no less than 168 large hydropower projects in the geologically and ecologically fragile, seismically active and culturally-sensitive Brahmaputra river basin.

Recently, a wide array of civil society representatives from Assam sent a memorandum on large dams in the Northeast to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In the MoU, they expressed concern that livelihood and ecological impacts in the downstream in the Brahmaputra flood plains are being ignored even as many mega hydroelectric projects in the region go through clearance processes. Arunachal Pradesh alone plans to build 135 hydropower projects for an installed capacity of 57,000 MW. Till June 2009, the state has signed agreements for 103 projects with companies.

The memorandum from Assamese civil society says that the Centre seems to be in denial of a basic fact of nature: that a river flows downstream. This is evident from Terms of Reference (ToR) for Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) studies granted by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) for at least 30 large dams in the Northeastern region in the last two years. While the ‘baseline data’ collection has been asked to be restricted to only 10 kilometre downstream, the actual ‘impact prediction’ has been asked to be restricted to an even smaller distance downstream in most cases: only between the dam and powerhouse! There is only one aspect that needs to be studied beyond 10 kilometre downstream: the ‘dam-break analysis’, which predicts what will be flooding downstream in case the dam actually breaks. But dam-break is not the only downstream risk a dam poses.

When large dams block the flow of a river, they also trap sediments and nutrients vital for fertilising downstream plains. Recent downstream impact concerns raised in the Northeast include loss of fisheries; changes in beel (wetland) ecology in the flood plains; impacts on agriculture on the chapories (riverine islands and tracts) and increased flood vulnerability due to massive boulder extraction from river beds and sudden water releases from reservoirs in the monsoons. While the ability of dams to effectively moderate floods in the Eastern Himalayas is debatable, even as per official plans only one out of the 103 hydropower projects for which an agreement has already been signed by Arunachal Pradesh is a multipurpose project with a flood moderation component.

In the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project, under construction on the Assam — Arunachal Pradesh border, an expert committee from IIT Guwahati, Dibrugarh University and Gauhati University is currently conducting a post-clearance downstream impact study of the project. Even though downstream studies were demanded before environmental clearance by locals, these studies were finally commissioned only after construction had started and that too because of a major people’s movement in the downstream. The expert committee in its February 2009 interim report has expressed concerns about the very location and foundation of the dam on geological grounds and recommended that all construction work on the project be stopped till their downstream study is completed. But the Central and State governments have failed to act on these recommendations and allowed work on the project to continue, leading to widespread public protests in the downstream areas in Assam.

A resident of the Brahmaputra floodplains in Assam has legally challenged the environmental clearance granted to the 1,000 MW Siyom project in Arunachal Pradesh on grounds that the downstream impact assessment had not be done. Both the project developer and the MoEF have shown their disregard for downstream issues by arguing that he is a resident of Assam, while the project is coming up in upstream Arunachal Pradesh!

The people of the Brahmaputra Valley within India will certainly laud New Delhi’s efforts to protect their downstream riparian rights vis-à-vis Chinese plans on the Brahmaputra. But as far as India’s own large hydropower projects in the Brahmaputra river basin are concerned, locals still require to ask a very basic question to the government: “A river flows downstream, doesn’t it?”

Neeraj Vagholikar is a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group

The views expressed by the author are personal