India’s Hydroelectric Plans Threaten Local Comunities

Posted by on Sep 22, 2015

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Indigenous Buddhist tribes in northeast India are protesting government plans to build fifteen new hydroelectric sites along their settlement region. The Monpa tribe, which lives along the Tawang river basin in over 234 scattered settlements in Arunachal Pradesh, fears that the hydroelectric projects will affect their religious sites and monasteries, as well as the region’s springs, and biological diversity, which carry large cultural significance for the tribe. The region is also at risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which could have hazardous impacts on hydroelectric projects.

Black Cranes

Black-necked cranes by a lake in Tibet. Courtesy of Purbu Zhaxi/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The government is proceeding with the construction of one particularly contentious hydroelectric site: a 780MW station along the Nyamjang Chhu river that threatens a cultural and religiously significant migration site of endangered black-necked cranes. This site will occupy the middle of a 3-km stretch of the Nyamjang Chhu river, which is partially fed by the region’s glaciers and along which eight black-necked cranes reside during their winter migration.  The Monpa eagerly await the birds’ arrival, and revere their species as the reincarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama.

In late July of 2015, the Save Mon Region Federation sent a letter to the Expert Appraisal Committee of the ministry, accusing NJC Hydropower, the independent company building the Nyanjan Chhu hydroelectric site, of purposely concealing information about the black-necked cranes’ wintering site. Allegedly, the company didn’t cooperate with the study’s researchers until the end of winter, when the black-necked cranes had left their wintering site.

A Monpa monk spins prayer wheels at Tawang monastery

A Monpa monk spins prayer wheels at Tawang monastery. Photo courtesy of Anupam Nath/AP

“The hydroelectric projects will totally destroy natural habitats in the region,” Asad Rahmani, scientific adviser of the Bombay Natural History Society, told the Guardian. “When planning such projects, we’re not paying attention to their impact on local culture. The electricity is for people like us in the cities, but all the damage is suffered by the local people.”

In addition to going ahead with the highly disputed site placement, the Dehli government has plans for another fourteen proposed hydroelectric projects in the Tawang region. These projects are part of major government efforts to bring power to the 300 million people living without electricity by 2022. The government will also increase solar, wind and coal generation in the next seven years.

“We don’t need so many hydel projects to meet the electricity demand of our people,” Save Mon Region Federation’s general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, told the Times of India. “Small hydro-projects would suffice. All these large dams are meant to generate electricity to be sold outside, at the cost of our livelihoods and ecology.”

To express concerns about the new hydroelectric plans, villagers in the Tawang region organized a large rally in December of 2012. The protesters alleged that the government had developed hydroelectric projects with private utility developers without proper consent from the residents in the region. The region currently maintains a ban against public gathering.

In addition, the relatively unexplored, mountainous region in the Eastern Himalayas is especially prone to the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), as are most regions of this type, which poses risky problems to hydroelectric development.

GLOFs are one of the major hazards of mountainous, glacial regions, especially those susceptible to climate change. Tawang’s lakes and rivers are mainly supplied by snowmelt and the melting glaciers of the Himalayas. The lakes, while usually dammed by end-moraines, have a tendency to flash flood, which induces large volumes of flowing water, large quantities of sediment runoff, as well as potential flowing boulders and the risk of washing away mountain valleys. GLOFs are often responsible for catastrophic flooding, large losses of property, and human life.

While the region’s dams have a combined capacity of about 2800 MW of power, a recent study stated that GLOFs and their associated risk are likely to have a “direct impact” on the commissioned hydropower projects in the region, as well as on the Monpa population living downstream of the glacial lakes and hydroelectric projects.

The study aimed to detect potential dangerous lakes to proposed hydroelectric sites, as well as to quantify the volume of water discharge and to predict the hydrograph, or rate of flow versus time, at the lake sites at risk of GLOFs.  The researchers estimated that at peak flow, flooding at one particular dammed lake likely of flooding would take as little as an hour and ten minutes to reach a downstream hydroelectric site, posing great risk to the site. Despite promises from the governmental parliament, no public consultation on the Tawang river basin study report has yet been held.

The Monpa protestors remain focused on the threats the hydroelectric sites pose to their cultural and religious traditions. Each of the 234 Tawang settlements along the river will be affected by at least one hydropower plant, and construction for the sites will demolish roughly 615 acres of forest. Monpa residents also fear the disruption of sacred pilgrimage sites and springs.

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