‘We need policy on right kind of dams’

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Environmentalist Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), is a keen proponent of green and sustainable development across the country. Excerpts from an interview with Rashme Sehgal:

The scale of the disaster that occurred in Uttarakhand is unprecedented in terms of its ferocity and devastation.

The floods in the Himalayas have been both ferocious and deadly and have left people battered, bruised and dead.
The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range and are prone to landslide and flash floods. Two factors have made this already vulnerable region more hazardous.
The first is climate change-related extreme weather events.
The Indian monsoon has become more intense. Studies show extreme rainfall is becoming more frequent as compared to moderate rains. Rainfall is also becoming variable and unseasonal. This is what happened in Uttarakhand on that fateful day of June 16 when it rained continuously — with over 200 mm of water pouring down within the span of a few hours in several places, including Kedarnath.

Is climate change responsible for the changing rainfall patterns in the Himalayas?

Scientists now feel certain that rainfall in India will become more and more extreme. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, which has extensively studied monsoon trends, finds that moderate rains are on the decline and intense rainfall is increasing. This is bad news for the Himalayas as it means there are increased possibilities of cloudbursts and unprecedented high rainfall.
Rainfall is also becoming unseasonal. June is still not considered the beginning of the monsoon season, so pilgrims and tourists thronging the region were caught unawares. But what really compounded the disaster has been the scale of unchecked construction activity matched with unscientific road-building. In Kedarnath — from where the Mandakini originates — large-scale construction has been done on the land evacuated by glacier.
It is small wonder that the water, moraine and stone came crashing down destroying everything that lay in its path. This is the price we had to pay for
environmental mismanagement.

Landslides and floods are frequent occurrences in the Himalayan region. Why have we failed to learn from past disasters?

We need to come up with a Himalayan policy, which will take into account the fragility and vulnerability of the region. There is no doubt the region needs economic growth but development cannot come at the cost of the environment, otherwise this environmentally fragile region will become even more vulnerable.
The Himalayan states need to build a viable forest-based economy. Standing forests in this region are an important reservoir of biodiversity protecting against soil erosion and increased flooding.
The 12th and 13th finance commissions have included the concept of compensating states for standing forests but funds provided for these services remain meagre. Himachal Pradesh is presently assessing ecosystem and carbon sequestration services of its standing forests but we need to develop a common policy across all states.

Water remains the key issue for all Himalayan states.

Water in the form of its rivers is a key resource. Unfortunately, the debate on hydro-projects has become so polarised with one group pushing for dams and the other insisting there should be no dams. We don’t have a policy on the right kind of dams (we need to have) or on the right number of dams.
Dam-builders are hell-bent on building as many dams as possible while the “no dam” lobby has pushed for the eco-sensitive notification that no dams should come up above Uttarkashi.
Currently, there is a “mad” rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams at breakneck speed. There are 70 dams being built bumper-to-bumper on the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers. These projects unfortunately do not release water in the river during the lean months. As a result, large stretches of the river are rendered completely dry for many months thereby impacting riverine ecology and societal needs. Also, the combined impact of blasting and building tunnels and barrages is
causing mountains to collapse. We see landslides blocking rivers and
the creation of natural dams.
We did a study for the B.K. Chaturvedi report looking at ecological flows in dams to show that it is possible to provide 50 per cent ecological flow in the river during the six months of lean periods and 30 per cent during the monsoon and still be able to generate energy. The Chaturvedi report was looking at a 20 per cent ecological flow. We are not against dams per se. What we are emphasising is that you need to work out the distance criterion and how you plan to construct the dams.
The Chaturvedi report is presently with the environment ministry who has to take a call on this key issue. This e-flow regime, if accepted, would mean re-evaluation and scrapping of several projects under construction.

What are some of the lessons learnt from the Uttarakhand disaster?

Several steps need to be taken. My suggestion is to ban the construction of roads for the movement of pilgrims within 10 km of a high-altitude pilgrimage area in order to create an ecological and spiritual buffer. We need to have buffer zones around all our pilgrimage sites like we do around our national parks and sanctuaries. These should be maintained as special areas with minimal human interference so that it can help us connect with nature.
I also believe that we need to promote homestead tourism instead of five-star tourism. We also need to increase the rate of entry tax charged by all hill towns. This tourism tax can be used as a corpus to increase facilities
for tourists. Also, impose high charges for the parking of private vehicles in our hill stations to reduce pollution and congestion. The other point I would like to make is that since the cost of reaching conventional energy to remote households in Uttarakhand is prohibitive, there is a need to develop alternative energy models.
But, most importantly, our Himalayan cities are facing the same rot as the cities in the plains. They have mountains of garbage and plastic, untreated sewage, chronic water shortage, unplanned urban growth and severe air pollution especially during the summer months.
Buildings must take into account seismic fragility and aesthetics. Municipal bylaws must provide for ban in
construction activities in hazardous zones or areas close to rivers and springs. Only then will the Himalayan tragedy not be repeated again.

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