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Not worth a dam

JANAKI LENIN
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The MoEF's conditional clearance of the Lower Demwe dam in Arunchal Pradesh indicates a profound lack of environmental insight. JANAKI LENIN

Invisible damage:Fish like the Golden Mahseer face extinction because of dams like this one in Arunachal Pradesh.Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
Invisible damage:Fish like the Golden Mahseer face extinction because of dams like this one in Arunachal Pradesh.Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Ministry of Environment and Forests gave wildlife clearance to the 1750 MW Lower Demwe Hydroelectric Project in Arunachal Pradesh. It ignored protests from indigenous tribals, people living along the river, and wildlife groups. It even dismissed the concerns of the majority of the members of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife. Of the three approvals the dam requires, it has received the environmental, and now, the wildlife clearances.

By issuing the clearance, is the Ministry being sanguine that Lower Demwe will not badly affect river fauna, the nearby Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary, the downstream Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam, and equally importantly, the people dependent on the River Lohit for their livelihoods and existence? Apparently so.

The Ministry says the Standing Committee examined the project on the orders of the Supreme Court. But there was a more immediate and specific reason for the Committee's deliberation. The National Environmental Appellate Authority passed an order on May 10, 2011 asking the Standing Committee to study the dam's impact on the downstream bird conservation areas and Ganges river dolphins. The wildlife clearance does not mention this because it would then have to recognise an uncomfortable fact: the project is sub judice . The dam's environmental clearance was challenged at the Appellate Authority, now reconstituted as the National Green Tribunal.

The application placed before the Standing Committee wrongly and specifically declares the project is not sub judice . Despite this error being pointed out by civil society organisations, it was never corrected. Acknowledgment of this fact could have been held against the project. In the end, the Standing Committee did withhold clearance but the Ministry bulldozed its objections. Its justification for doing so is riddled with more half-truths and falsehoods.

The clearance claims the dam is 8.5 to 9.3 kilometres from the nearest boundary of the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary. However, it omits the fact that the reservoir created behind the dam will submerge forests up to 50 metres from the Sanctuary's edge. Is the Ministry denying the reservoir is part of the dam? Elsewhere in the clearance, it acknowledges that the reservoir will extend close to the sanctuary and proposes to declare it a protected area. Submerging a forest and protecting an artificial reservoir makes a mockery of conservation principles.

Ignored clause

To bolster its case, the Ministry says the Forest Advisory Committee recommended granting forest clearance on May 20, 2010. While that is true, the Committee declared, in March 2011, that forest clearance will not be given unless the National Board of Wildlife investigated the complaint from Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, an activist group fighting for farmers' rights. Considering the Forest Advisory Committee was set up by the Ministry, this development could not have escaped its notice.

In November 2011, WAPCOS Ltd., a consultant on water resources, power and infrastructure projects, published the results of its computer modelling study of the effects of three dams, Lower Siang, Lower Demwe and Dibang Multipurpose, on Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, Assam. It computed the difference between the minimum and maximum flow of water caused by all three dams to be 2.34 metres (7.7 feet) in a single day. The Ministry is confident this variation would be tempered by other tributaries joining the river. But every one of those tributaries is going to be dammed too.

In fact, Arunachal Pradesh has a bad case of dam pox. There are 147 projects (as of July 2011) planned across every river in the State. Under these circumstances, the impact of every river basin's dams has to be considered together. Otherwise, as in this case, the Ministry can claim the worst impact of one dam will be offset by other tributaries.

For the last 19 years, between 300 and 700 cumecs (cubic metre per second) of water flowed in the Lohit for 80 per cent of the three-month-long winter. The river touched a high of more than 1,000 cumecs and a low of 200 cumecs for two per cent of the time, respectively. But once the dam is commissioned, it will hold water in the reservoir allowing only 70 cumecs to trickle down the Lohit, and when the dam goes into power generation mode, its sluice gates will release a flood of 1,729 cumecs every day during a low-water season.

Drastic variations

How will aquatic and river-dependent creatures, used to a more even-tempered flow of water, adapt to this drastic oscillation between drought-like conditions for 18 to 21 hours and a flood for three to six hours within a 24-hour period? For example, islands on the Lohit will be hit by a veritable tsunami when power generation begins, while Ganges river dolphins will struggle to find adequate water to stay submerged when the gates close.

Jagdish Krishnaswamy, an ecohydrologist from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, says, “Minimum flow is a dynamic variable that changes from year to year. It cannot be a fixed constant. What we really need to maintain is a flow regime which ensures that daily and seasonal fluctuations are compatible with the biological needs of aquatic biodiversity, and important ecosystem functions and services. The WAPCOS study has no conceptual framework for integrating aquatic ecology and river flow regimes.”

The Ministry further believes the dam will have “relatively a fewer environmental and societal impacts (sic)”. When the downstream impact of the project is yet to be completed, it is premature to jump to that conclusion. It's precisely because of suspected deleterious downstream effects that people in Assam are protesting the construction of this dam.

There is much else wrong with the justification for providing the clearance. One problem is the evaluation of trade-offs between “development needs” and “environmental sustainability.” Typically, such compromises are made after detailed impact assessment studies are conducted.

In their absence, the Ministry plans on asking IIT- Roorkee to conduct a comprehensive study of the ecological impact of the dam. Presumably this Institute has the capacity to study the engineering aspects of the construction, but does it have ecological expertise?

Besides, this clearance specifically states that such studies will be conducted in tandem with dam construction. Impact assessments are carried out not only to prescribe any damage prevention measures but also assess the environmental costs of the project. By clearing the project first and then commissioning studies assumes the dam is infallible at the first instance. Such conditional clearances are largely a fig leaf covering the lack of environmental insight. With so many unresolved problems, this clearance leaves itself open for a legal challenge.


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