Stop the Dam(ned) Project: Outrage over the Bursar Hydroelectric Project

View of the Marusudar River in Kashmir
View of the Marusudar River in Kashmir (Source: Johann/Instagram).

The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEFF) has approved the construction of a dam for hydropower on the Marusudar River, a tributary of the Indus River in the northwest portion of the country. The approval comes without the site visits required by Indian environmental law. Coined as the Bursar Hydroelectric Project, the 800MW dam is located in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In an interview, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation speaks positively of the Bursar Project, indicating that “the flow of water can be regulated not only to the benefit of this project, but all downstream projects. This will enhance the power generation potential of all these downstream projects during the lean flow months.”

Concern has been expressed over impacts on biodiversity and villages which will be flooded. Based on the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project conducted in July 2017, the project will effect 18 hamlets across 14,000 hectares that house over 17,000 people. About 1,150 hectares of forest land will also be cleared. The project site is within 10 kilometers from the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park, a nationally protected park with rich biodiversity and glaciers. The EIA indicates that the dam could impede the seasonal migratory path of fish, affecting endemic fish species and spawning grounds. This necessitates a site visit and an environmental clearance from the MoEFF. However, the project was approved without the site visit, sparking public outrage.

Since the Marusudar basin contains many glaciers, issues of climate change and glacier retreat should also have been considered for planning the project. Thakkar, who is coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), said in an interview that “there is no options-assessment or the assessment of how the project will perform in the changing climate and how the project will add to climate change effects and destroy adaption capacity in changing climate.”

According to research, projections indicate greater warming in the upper Indus, and greater warming in winter than in the other seasons, suggesting a possibility of increased meltwater. In terms of rainfall, the change is not uniform with a forecasted increase in precipitation over the upper Indus basin and decrease over the lower Indus basin. Overall, there seems to be much uncertainty with regard to changes in future discharge and whether it will affect the dam operations.

View of the Kishtwar Town located near the site of the dam
View of the Kishtwar Town located near the site of the dam (Source: The Chenab Times/ Instagram).

Moreover, the dam is tied up in the tense negotiations between India and Pakistan over the Indus River basin. Based on the Indus Water Treaty, India must allow 80 percent of the water flow into the lower riparian state of Pakistan. The Bursar Project might further reduce discharge flowing into Pakistan. However, an Indian official, who prefers to remain anonymous, is confident that the project will not violate the principles of the Indus Water Treaty and reduce river discharge to Pakistan. In an interview, he explains that “according to the treaty, we would start storing water, after the dam’s construction, during the June and August period when the water level remains very high and does not affect the flow.”

According to Athar Parvaiz, a writer from The Wire, “Worldwide, hydropower projects are running into problems and being scaled back, but India is doing the opposite in what appears to be a determination to maximize the benefits of the Indus Waters Treaty.” While dams prove to be a potent source of renewable energy, there is still a need to consider how dams are changing the local environment and will fare in the changing climate – as a warmer climate has already accentuated glacier shrinkage at the river source.

Leave a Reply