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“Myth of power” by Down to Earth, Ravleen Kaur, Tom Kendall

Kaur, R., Kendall, T. “Myth of power.” Down to Earth. 15 September 2008.

Myth of power

By Ravleen Kaur and Tom Kendall

September 15, 2008

Nourisher of an ancient civilization, the Ganga could be gasping for its survival. Every few kilometres the water of its tributaries will be diverted to produce power. While there may not be enough flow to run the turbines, there’s enough incentive for investors to set them up.

While going up the meandering road from Tehri to the holy town Gangotri during the thick of monsoon, the Bhagirathi appeared to get uneasily quieter with each hairpin bend; until Chinyali Sor village near Dharasu, 45 km from new Tehri town. The Tehri reservoir ends in the village. The river thereafter springs back to life and the roar of the gushing waters fills up the valleys. But the landscape gradually changes. Some of the mountains are bare and dotted along the road, every 500 metres, are graffiti, posters and signboards, giving out ominous messages. “Blasting Site” in bold, “Bandh Ganga ki hatya hai” (dams will kill the Ganga) and “Ganga ko aviral behne do” (let the Ganga flow unobstructed) are most common along this main stretch of pilgrim route where devotees go to pay their respects to Goddess Ganga, believed to be the daughter of heaven who came down on Earth through the matter locks of lord Shiva.

That apart, the river is fast becoming a favourite destination for hydroelectric projects, several of which are coming up on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins, tributaries of the Ganga river. The highest of them, Bhairon Ghati, is 27 km from the Gangotri glacier. The Uttarakhand government claims it needs the projects. “We do not have many resources except the rivers. Power from these rivers is the only source of revenue for the state. Besides, we can also control floods and have water for irrigation round the year,” said Yogendra Prasad, chairperson of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (ujvnl) and adviser to the chief minister. Fifty five hydropower projects are in different phases of construction and planning. The 162 km stretch of the river from Gangotri to Devprayag will have 11 big dams while the 145 km stretch of Alaknanda from Badrinath to Devprayag will have more than nine big dams apart from several other small projects.

But things came to a head in June this year when G D Agarwal, former member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, sat on a nine-day fast. His demand was that no hydropower projects should come up on the 125-km stretch between Uttarkashi and Gangotri. He contended that it would affect the flow of the river and impact its purity. “Run of the river dams are the ones where water will be stored and released periodically through tunnels at locations on which the powerhouse will be built. If this goes on in a series, over long stretches there will be no flow in the channel,” says Agarwal. Following the protest, the state stalled two projects, Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati. The Union Ministry of Power has set up a committee to look into the questions raised by Agarwal. In response, B C Khanduri, chief minister of Uttarakhand, is reported to have said that “the state respects Agarwal’s sentiments and that he should also understand the state’s energy requirements”.

According to Anupam Mishra, environmentalist with Gandhi Peace Foundation, “Engineers feel that a river meeting into the sea without being of use for irrigation or power is a waste of the water in it. If we disrupt the natural flow of a river, it can create havoc. Merging into the river prevents large quantity of saline water ingress. This is crucial but is considered unscientific. Also, they cannot predict that a strong earthquake won’t happen in the Himalaya. How will they save the downsteam areas from flooding if the dam breaks?” Experts also say that the ecology of the area will be adversely impacted, the qualities that make the Ganga what it is will be gone and the river may dry up.

The debate how much is minimum

Run of the river dams involve diverting the river into a tunnel, ranging from 3 km to more than 15 km long. Since it will be a cascade of dams throughout the river, most of it will flow through either tunnels or small reservoirs. The place from where the river is diverted into a tunnel to the point where it is released back into its natural stream tends to have very little water, especially during the lean season, winters for instance. The water is important to sustain the ecology and nearby groundwater aquifers. This has led to a debate on how much flow is needed to sustain these.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) says there is no use of having a designated minimum flow for all rivers.”It is different for different rivers and depends on how much flow is needed for ecological sustenance in that area. Earlier, the exact amount of flow needed was not mentioned in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports but now we do give a specific figure in the clearance,” said S Bhowmik, additional director, Impact Assessment, MoEF. In the clearance letters to the recent hydroelectric projects on the river basins, the ministry has said that the projects should maintain a minimum flow of 30 cusecs (<1 cumec) in the lean season. “No one knows the basis of this 30 cusecs,” says Ritwick Dutta, the lawyer fighting cases against some of the hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand.

Since EIAs require projects to maintain a minimum flow in the river at all times, they calculate it by tracing 30-40 years of old flow data of a river, provided by the Central Water Commission. But the EIAs in the case of most projects show that they have not taken any of these concerns seriously. Only two projects’ EIAs – Alaknanda and Pala Maneri – say that 10 per cent of the lean season flow and 2 m3 /second should be released respectively. For Alaknanda though, the minimum flow has not been mentioned. In the case of Pala Maneri, it works out to just 6.7 per cent of lean season flow.

Himachal Pradesh is the only state to have come out with a notification on minimum flow. The state government said that a minimum flow of 15 per cent of the lean season should be maintained by hydroelectric projects. “Diversion of huge quantities of water (from the Sutlej and Chenab rivers) by hydel projects has minimized water flow or even dried up the main river bed…which consequently is not only damaging the water course but also causing irrigation problems, health hazards and waterborne diseases. Decreased volume of water is a cause of pollution of water streams,” the notification states. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd (NHPC) challenged this notification in the Himachal Pradesh High Court. “We challenged the notification because it is not possible for us to maintain the criterion in projects that are already operational. They have not been designed like that. So, the high court stayed the notification for the existing projects,”Usha Bhat, chief of environment department at NHPC, said. The court has constituted an expert committee to look into how much minimum flow is needed for the upcoming projects, she added.

Criticizing the move, Vidhya Soundarajan, senior coordinator, Policy and Programme Development, WWF, said “10-15 per cent flow of the lean season is a trickle.  India has just picked up figures from rivers like Mississippi and Amazon that are usually flooded.” Calling minimum flow a “dubious term”, Soundarajan adds, “Minimum flow is calculated from the point of view of human needs. What we need to deliberate on is the environmental flow which takes into account the groundwater recharge potential of the river, irrigation, urban needs, ecology, dissolved oxygen and silt load factor.”

For example, otters, an endangered species, and mahaseer are found in the area where the Kotli Bhel I b project (near Devprayag, the meeting point of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi) is proposed. “A mahaseer needs a fast flowing river for laying eggs while the habitat of otter is in the riparian groves near the Alaknanda river. If the dam comes up, their population will suffer due to very little change in the water levels,” Dutta said.

The National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), which has heard cases against Pala Maneri and Loharinag Pala projects, is currently hearing the Kotli Bhel I b petition. ” NEAA did cite the need for a cumulative assessment of all dams and their impact on the flow in case of Pala Maneri. In Loharinag Pala, the authority directed the MoEF to monitor the environment and ecology of the area,” Dutta added. The ambitious Kotli Bhel EIA proposes to catch otters from their natural habitat between Dev Prayag and Srinagar and resettle them in the area between Kirti Nagar and Srinagar, which will be declared a Protected Area. There are dime-a-dozen errors in the EIAs done for the projects.

Little awareness

The first sentence in the chapter on prediction of impacts in the EIA of Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydroelectric Project in the Alaknanda basin reads “Based on project details and the baseline environmental status, potential impacts as a result of the construction and operation of the proposed Teesta- III HEP have been identified.” Teesta III is a project in

Sikkim, the eia of which was done by Water and Power Consultancy Services Limited (WAPCOS), the company that has also done the eia for Vishnugad Pipalkoti project.  Numerous such examples exist.

Another problem with the EIAs is dated data. The EIA for Pala Maneri, prepared in 2005, used data from the project report of 1986 which says that the average minimum (non-monsoon) discharge of the river at the dam site is 30.87 cumecs. Currently, at the Loharinag Pala site, the project above Pala Maneri, the average minimum discharge in the river is about 18 cumecs, according to NTPC. The EIA of Pala Maneri mentions names of villagers who participated in the public hearing. “Of those, two people were already dead. This shows how credible the hearing was,” said R Sreedhar of Environics Trust, New Delhi.

The EIA of Srinagar has taken the flow data from 1971 to 1994, which gives only the average flow over those 23 years. The three Kotli Bhel eias and the Srinagar EIA have not quoted the source of this flow data while that of Loharinag Pala says it is taken from the detailed project report. The Central Water Commission (CWC) refused to divulge the flow data saying the Ganga is a “sensitive river”.

“There has certainly been a change in is charge of the river over the past few years. Even the silt content in the river has gone up due to deforestation,” said A K Bajaj, chairperson of CWC.

According to Ishwarchand, assistant engineer of Maneri Bhali II, the silt load at the barrage site there is 90 million tonnes per annum. There is no estimation of the silt in the Ganga downstream of Tehri. “Tackling silt takes up to 20-30 per cent of the project cost. Projects now use the latest technology to tackle silt,” said Bajaj. But EIAs are silent on the silt problem. “Increase in silt is also due to constructions upstream,” a guard there said. “This indicates that none of the dams can work properly till all construction is over,” said R S Jamwal, who runs a school in Uttarkashi. Parts of generation units underwater in Maneri Bhai I have been damaged because of silt.  The section on fish management in the EIAs of Tapovan Vishnuagad, Lata Tapovan and Vishnugad Pipalkoti, all done by WAPCOS, reads the same. The Kotli Bhel EIAs have an identical statement “Operation Phase Improved habitat for birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and plankton due to reservoir creation.” Claiming that “nothing could be further from the truth”, scientists of Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), USA, who conducted an evaluation of these EIAs, said, “The kind of habitat surrounding a reservoir, in terms of types of vegetation and biological diversity, is vastly diminished and altered compared to the types of riparian vegetation and diversity that surround free-flowing river segments. The Loharinag Pala EIA mentions that the total forestland that will come under the project will be 60 hectares (ha). According to the Uttarkashi Forest Division, it is 139 ha. “Most EIAs have picked up secondary data. No direct study, just a copy and paste job. In effect, there has been no impact assessment,” said Sreedhar.

There are several more reasons to be concerned about the feasibility of run of the river projects, say experts, for the EIAs have completely ignored some important aspects such as laying of transmission lines, flashflood possibilities and glacial melt. Heat generated by high-voltage power transmission lines is enough to destroy agriculture in the areas from where they pass and cause extensive loss of forests and habitat fragmentation. Flash floods caused because of landslides could be a major problem. The 1978 flash flood of Kanodiya Gad, upstream of which the Loharinag Pala is coming up, serves as an instance. The gad (stream) was blocked by a huge rock that fell from the mountain. When the water pressure built up, the rock moved towards Bhagirathi and created a huge lake there.

Downstream impact

Silt, crucial for farmers downstream, getting trapped in these dams will adversely impact downstream areas, mainly the Indo-Gangetic plains. “Gangetic rivers erode bulk of the sediments from upstream areas in the Himalayas and deposit part of it in the alluvial plains and a significant part in the Bay of Bengal,” Jhunjhunwala quotes a study.

The EIA of hydropower projects ignore this impact on downstream areas. The EIA of Srinagar hydroelectric project says “The annual silt load in the dam is 7.62 mm3 and in due course of time (9.184 years) the dead storage will be silted up. However, as the spillway gates will be frequently operated, the accumulated silt behind the gates will be flushed out.”

Jhunjhunwala argues that the silting up of the dead storage implies that downstream areas will be deprived of this huge amount of sediment. “Flushing will only remove silt behind the gates, leaving silt in the larger dead storage trapped perpetually,” he added.

According to the ELAW report, trapping of silt would make the Ganga a “hungry river” in the downstream. “As the dams will dramatically decrease sediment supply in the water, they will behave as “hungry waters” scouring sediment from the riverbeds and river banks downstream of the dams to restore the natural sediment levels of this water. Fisheries several kilometers downstream will be adversely affected because of impairment to the biological food chain that is fortified by the muddy sediment layer.”

Why project developers aren’t worried about flow

The way the Centre has designed tariffs for hydropower, the power-generating company does not bear the risks of hydrological changes like less flow or more silt in the river. They can get away with almost no generation, while  conveniently pocketing an annual fixed charge for having a plant in place. The buyers–usually state electricity boards (sebs)–have to suffer the loss because they have to pay the fixed fee even if they do not get the desired electricity.

The company setting up a hydroelectric plant does not have to generate huge funds on its own because it is required to invest only 30 per cent of the capital as equity in the project. The rest is taken as loan from banks. The government not only pays the interest on loan but also a return of 14 per cent on equity. These payments are part of the annual fixed charge paid to the investor.The fixed charge also takes care of the cost of operation and maintenance, depreciation and interest on working capital. “For private companies states have their own norms but usually they follow Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) norms. We do not regulate tariffs of private companies,” said a cerc official.

The company setting up a plant gets the entire annual fixed charge if it has achieved a desired capacity index. Capacity index indicates actual power a plant generates as percentage of the maximum power it can generate with available flow. If a run of the river project achieves a capacity index of 90 per cent–85 per cent for storage  projects–the company can claim the annual fixed charge. And if it exceeds the capacity index, the company is paid an incentive called capacity incentive. If it generates extra energy, called secondary energy, then it is paid for it also.

But capacity index is defined in such a way that the target can be achieved even if power generation is low due to less flow. If generation is low on account of machinery the company loses a part of the fixed charge. “Therefore, capacity index is just an indicator of machine availability. It is possible for a generating station to achieve a high index and thereby claim full capacity charge as well as incentive even when the actual generation has been low due to low water availability. In effect, the hydrological risk gets passed on to the beneficiaries,” says the explanatory note for amendments in tariff regulations put up on the CERC website. The daily capacity index is on the basis of deemed generation as per the forecast of the water situation in the morning.

CERCis considering a change in tariff regulations. The amendments are said to propose equal sharing of hydrological risks between the power-generating company and the beneficiary. The new regulations will be implemented by 2009.

Energy loss

The current tariff structure makes hydel projects a good investment option but does not encourage maximum power generation or efficient use of resources. Take the case of Tehri. The dam is not able to generate energy as per its installed machine capacity because the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation claims the Central Water Commission has told it to maintain a lower storage level for safety. But the corporation is entitled to recover full charges from the sebs as it has the requisite installed machinery.

The Assam seb asked for a review of the tariff policy in 2006 after it faced shortage of energy.

The state had monsoon failure for two consecutive years due to which the North East Electric Power Corporation was not able to generate much energy. But as per the policy, it was supposed to pay the corporation full annual fixed charge.

Small wonder then that hydel project developers do not insist on accurate assessment of river flow or siltation rate? Since the flow data used at the planning stage is old, the actual generation is less than estimated (see graph Lost in generation). “Over 25 per cent of the storage capacity created in the monitored reservoirs (in India) has remained unfilled during the past 12 years and actual units produced per mw of installed hydro capacity are lower by over 21 per cent compared to 1994. Yet most dams and hydro projects are designed based on flows over the past 50 years rather than simulations of likely flows in line with observed changes in flow and climate,” says Surya Sethi, principal adviser,energy, government of India, in a 2007 paper titled “Dialogue on Himalayan Hydrology”.

“Projects are given clearance based on the promise of certain generation at 90 per cent dependability level (that is, they should generate that much power for 90 per cent of their estimated life), also called design generation. Based on the data for the past 23 years obtained from the Central Electricity Authority for the actual generation of power from existing projects, we found that 89 per cent of the existing projects generate at below the design level,” says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People.

Sethi also points out in his paper that there are no optimization studies for individual river basins in India. Nor do any of the EIAs reviewed by Down To Earth take into account the performance of existing run of the river dams. All the projects are banking on maximum generation during the monsoon, whereas they say only one turbine will operate in the lean season. Maneri Bhali-I, operational since 1978, and Maneri Bhali-II, which became operational earlier this year, are facing problems due to siltation in the Bhagirathi. Guards at both the dams admitted the plants were not able to produce any electricity from July to August because of silt.

ntpc is building another project, Loharinag Pala, on the same river. Asked about the siltation problem in monsoons, an ntpc official said they would open the barrage gates of Loharinag Pala more often to flush out the silt. But flushing often will hamper electricity generation. “The Maneri Bhali-I problem is due to the fact that the barrage gates are  above a two-three-metre-high wall, so the silt is stopped there. But at Loharinag Pala the gates are till the riverbed itself,” he said. The fact is that despite having gates till the riverbed, Maneri Bhali-II had to stop operation during the monsoon.

Clearly, added capacity is not translating into more energy, but more profiteers.

Unfulfilled promises; villagers hanging loose

On July 24 this year, a school block near the Loharinag Pala hydroelectric project in Sunagarh, Uttarkashi district, gave away as the rocks under it had become unstable. The subsequent landslide kept the highway blocked for the next three days. “This happened because of road construction. People go about blasting mindlessly, without realizing that the mountain might not be able to support the structures above,” said Kamal Singh, an attendant in the school.

These mountain ranges are young and susceptible to landslides and avalanches, especially during the monsoon. Blasting, quarrying, tunnelling and dumping of tonnes of loose aggregate on these slopes increase their vulnerability. The other threat that looms large is earthquake. The projects in the state are located in areas of significant tectonic activity. But the developers say there is nothing to fear. “Technology has advanced.Nothing will happen to the dams,” said an ntpc official. Harsh Gupta of National Geophysical Research Institute (ngri), Hyderabad, asks, “What about the environment around the dams? The river will be filled with debris if an earthquake happens and the life of a dam will anyway reduce.” According to V P Dimri, also of ngri, “Himalayan mountains are loose rocks, especially on the sub-surface, so while tunneling, there might be many soft rocks in the path. If the stratum above the tunnel is less and the rock is soft, chances of subsidence are high.”

Unfulfilled promises made to villagers are another grey area. Although promises of land and employment are made, most villagers lose out. “Of the 70 families, only 35 people have got jobs as guards. We have no choice because blasting has destroyed forests on which we used to take our animals to graze,” said Sardar Singh Rana of Kujjan, a village above the Loharinag Pala powerhouse site. There are some, like Chandraprabha Negi of Lakshmoni village who don’t want compensation. Her fields will be submerged when the Kotli Bhel 1b reservoir comes up. “We have been eating of this land for generations. The money will get over in a few days. And I can’t even buy land elsewhere because our house is here. A few years ago, the administration took away our land to make a road here. Now the bus that plies on this road does not stop for us because they do not want to take short distance travelers. How can we trust the government on dams?” she asks.

Several more such voices in the state await findings of the committee set up by the Union Ministry of Power, which will assess the flow requirements of a river. Depending on its findings, the state will take a call on whether to proceed with the construction of the rest of the power projects. R S Varshney, chief engineer of the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department, heads the committee. This has raised several eyebrows. “Varshney has been behind the construction of so many dams in Uttarakhand. A chairperson should be somebody who understands flow mechanics and the gene pool. The central government is represented by NTPC here so there is little hope for objective results,” alleges Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh and a committee member. A Centre-state tussle also exists. The two projects that have been put on hold after G D Agarwal protested are state projects. The third, Loharinag Pala, is an NTPC project. “Either all the three or none, will come up. Until then, construction of Loharinag Pala will go on because if we stop the construction, we have to pay compensation to contractors,” says Prasad, the chief minister’s adviser. Some like Awdhash Kaushal of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra in Dehradun are in favour of the projects.

Kaushal has filed a petition against the state for putting the two projects on hold. He says that the state needs the two dams so that it can use the entire electricity generated by them, and not get just 12 per cent free electricity from other projects.

Energy generation, however, remains a pipedream. Flawed policies will only give incentive to inefficient projects. If the output of each project is maximized, so many landscape-changing projects won’t be required. This can happen if a project is designed on the basis of rigorous hydrological data. Factors such as climate change affecting glacier melt and detailed sediment load studies must be made mandatory even before a project is considered for approval. Planners will need to factor in that a river is a dynamic entity.

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