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Report highlights lacunae in sanctioning of dam projects

The provisions for statutory clearance for building dams and hydroelectric projects on rivers, especially in the Northeast, are often circumvented and compulsory environmental safeguards not adopted, a report has said.



Itanagar: The provisions for statutory clearance for building dams and hydroelectric projects on rivers, especially in the Northeast, are often circumvented and compulsory environmental safeguards not adopted, a report has said.

The hazards of indiscriminate construction of dams, especially in the Himalayan region, were brought into sharp focus by the recent flood disaster in Uttarakhand.

In a report prepared for the "International Rivers Network", the world`s biggest water governance advocacy NGO based in California, environmental activist Urmi Bhattacharjee highlighted how dam sanctioning took place in India.

Titled "Dam Planning Under the Spotlight: A Guide to Dam Sanctioning in India", the report says how construction agencies often flout rules to get around the bureaucratic tangles and seeks to bring dam safety issues to the fore.

The central government has identified 168 potential large dams with an installed capacity of 63,328 MW in the Northeast. However, these mega dams are causing conflicts and crises in the region, particularly in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, Bhattacharjee, also a journalist, said.

"Dam engineering in the Himalayas is fairly recent. All aspects of dam building in the Himalayas are not yet fully understood and the risks not fully appreciated. Inadequate studies, lack of expertise and haste in dam building make the situation even worse," she pointed out in the report.

Other areas, including safety of the dams, suitability of their location, seismicity of the region and the impact of climate change were not properly taken into consideration, the report pointed out.

The total hydropower potential of identified river basins based on a reassessment study of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) in 1987 was 94,000 MW.

In a 2001 study, the CEA further classified the sites based on certain criteria and increased the total potential to 107,000 MW.

To achieve the ambitious programme of hydropower capacity addition in the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2012-2017), the CEA in 2006-07 identified hydropower projects with an aggregate installed capacity of 58,573 MW.

These projects include some very large dams identified in Arunachal Pradesh: Etalin (4,000 MW), Demwe (3,000 MW), Dibang (3,000 MW), and Lohit (3,000 MW).

Of the planned capacity addition of 90,000 MW at the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan, about 30,000 MW is planned from hydropower, the report said.

The report also highlights transgression of rules while sanctioning dams in the country. Until recently, the cumulative impacts of dams on forests, environment, wildlife and environmental flows were not considered important, Bhattacharjee pointed out.

She said that several dams were sanctioned without any cumulative impact assessment. Neither was any importance given to a comprehensive study of river basins.

The Himalayan belt is a highly seismic zone. The entire Northeast region is a highly earthquake-prone belt (seismic zone V) experiencing small to medium earthquakes every month.

In 2011, India`s Planning Commission constituted a Technical Experts Committee to ascertain the safety and stability of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project.

The committee revealed numerous findings that the large dam project could turn out to be an impending disaster unless its structure, design and other aspects were reviewed.

It even reached an agreement on the uncertain seismo-tectonic environment of the project.

The committee`s report mentions that since earthquake science is an emerging field, a lot needs to be studied.

After observing the geology of the foundation rock and its engineering properties, the committee reported that the construction of the project is based on "weak science", and more innovative techniques are required to enable it to support a 123-meter-high concrete dam, especially in view of the seismic environment.

The dam is scheduled to be commissioned in 2014.

"So far, no steps have been taken by the Environment Assessment Committee (EAC), ministry of environment and forest, Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Electricity Authority (CEA) to scrap projects which face risks associated with climate change and earthquakes," the report highlighted.

Under the EIA Notification, 2006, there are provisions for a public hearing at project-affected sites. However, the implementation of such provisions is neglected. There is no active monitoring of such hearings by neutral authorities, the report alleged.

For instance, in the case of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation`s Ranganadi Hydropower Project, and the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation`s Lower Subansiri Project, there was no proper advertisement for the public hearing, the report alleged.

The report suggested initiating cumulative impact assessment and carry out capacity studies in all river basins before sanctioning a dam and to put a stop to hydropower projects that are planned and under construction.

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