Chinese Dam

By Dhurjati Mukherjee


A 510 MW Chinese hydroelectricity hydroelectric dam became operational on the Brahmaputra, in mid-October, the Xinhua news agency announced. This Zangmu Hydropower Project in Tibet, just 550 km from the Indian border, has been connected to China’s national power grid.  Apart from reduced flow of water to India, the possible impact on Upper Siang and Lower Subansiri in Arunachal Pradesh will be adversely affected, warn  river experts. This apart, China is working on five more dam projects on the Brahmaputra which obviously means that India has to be vigilant as river flows to the intermittently operational turbines creates huge variations on a daily basis in downstream flows.


With water availability already a problem, this obviously could have a devastating impact on aquatic life and displace riparian population. One may mention here that way back an inter-ministerial group had advised the government in 2013 to intensify monitoring of river flows from upper to lower reaches of Brahmaputra in view of the dangers posed by this dam. Apart from the one already announced, there are two other dams – Jiexu and Jiacha – within 25 km of each other which are possibly under construction.


The Chinese announcement has triggered a fresh controversy regarding whether setting up of dams is at all necessary in view of the people’s resistance witnessed in the country. Recall, few months back the Water Resources Ministry had instructed the Central Water Commission (CWC) not to give its nod to any new dams in future if these don’t ensure uninterrupted flow of water. Apart from cleaning the Ganga, unless water flow is uninterrupted – which may be possible only after the cleaning operations are complete – dam construction would be of no use. The concerned minister, Uma Bharati, has been emphasizing the need for maintaining e-flow (ecological flow) of the river as water storage/withdrawal by dams invariably affects the flow of the river, making it vulnerable.


Bharati’s ministry is particularly against the six hydro power projects in Uttarakhand which, it thinks would affect the flow of the Ganges. The same is the case with the Brahmaputra and the dams proposed may affect the river flow which would not be sufficient to feed the dams in the North East.


Experts have warned that the government appears to be making the people of Arunachal Pradesh a pawn in the run on between India and China. It is known that there have been widespread protests and agitations in this State, Uttarakhand and others regarding construction of dams as this would lead to displacement of local communities, submerge valuable forests and the areas would be exposed to the risk of earthquakes.


Some experts believe that dams in the North East, and specially in Arunachal, may benefit cities in the plains. There is, however, no justification in the reported plans to set up around 120 dams in A.P. A group called the Forum for Siang Dialogue opposed dams on the beautiful Siang River. Moreover, work has been stalled on the 2000 MW Lower Subanisiri Project due to local opposition to its construction.


The social and environmental costs have always to be kept in mind and both dams and hydroelectric projects, wherever absolutely necessary and vetted by reliable experts, should always be of medium size. Thus, it goes without saying that dam construction in the North East and in Arunachal specifically has to be restricted.


To meet the needs of the corporate sector and the growing user classes, the government has encouraged a scramble for resources in tribal areas of Central India and the North East.  However, it needs to adopt a grassroots approach and not fall prey to the machinations of the corporate world. This would prove dangerous in the coming years as lop-sided development would automatically lead to violence and social unrest.


Take the case of Odisha which had virtually no Naxalite problem around 17 years back but the result of taking away of tribal land, sometimes forcibly, to give to mining companies triggered off the movement. Though there has been some industrial progress, at the grassroots level it is abysmal with the standard of living of tribals not seeing any improvement.


On the other hand, while there is resistance against construction of big dams, both medium and small dams may be necessary for generating electricity and increasing the irrigation network. The latter may help in increasing food output which, in turn, would facilitate the water demands in the lean seasons of the year. Thus, dams may only be constructed after a thorough review of the pros and cons.


While energy demands have to be met, the first priority should be to use modern techniques to reduce transmission losses as well as usage of less energy-intensive technologies. Hydroelectric power has little or no pollution impact but its feasibility with regard to the other issues involved has to be balanced.


The initiatives of the government pertaining to aviral dhara (continuous flow of water) and nirmal dhara (clean water) may become difficult with regard to the Brahmaputra as the water flow would get affected in the coming years when all the three Chinese dams become operational. This would add to the water woes of the entire North East which undoubtedly is a matter of grave concern.


In fact, there is need to seriously consider whether India desperately can shift from a narrow engineering-construction-centric approach to a multi-disciplinary participatory water management perspective. Experts believe that huge benefits are possible in irrigated area without the need to build more dams, adopting participatory irrigation management through water user associations (WUA), pioneered in some irrigation commands in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.


Undeniably, once farmers themselves feel a sense of ownership over water, the process of operating and managing irrigation systems undergoes a profound transformation. The WUAs collect irrigation service fees, whose structure is determined in a completely transparent and participatory manner, from their members. Collection of these fees enables WUAs to undertake proper repair and maintenance of distribution systems and ensure that water reaches the farm gate.


In such a situation, India should refrain from emulating the Chinese example and instead follow a judicious approach. As dams displace people and raise ecological problems, the approach should be to go in for smaller run-of-the-river schemes, or dams, that can take care of irrigation which is of primary necessity at this juncture. What is indeed surprising is that despite the 12th Plan allocation of Rs 6,000 crore for the National Irrigation Management Fund (NIMF), neither the UPA nor the NDA has notified the fund.


At present, the message given by the Water Resource Ministry is that it understands the perils of dam-building in the Himalayas and is committed to uninterrupted water flows in the Ganga. It is to be hoped that it will adopt an approach that could add millions of hectares to irrigated land without building a single new dam, something that becomes economically viable, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive and better alternatives to mega projects. —INFA

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