The Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat is one of the largest dams in India across the Narmada river. The result of the Narmada Valley Project makes it the world’s second-largest concrete gravity dam. Every time the dam’s height is raised, people get displaced. Does the sociological, ecological, and environmental damage overweigh the benefits. Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) estimates 40,000 households have been affected in Madhya Pradesh. There is a debate raging on the touted benefits of such a huge project. So much so that it is one of the hot issues in the Gujarat Assembly Elections 2017. Let us find out the myriad ways in which a dam affects or destroys a river.

Throwing caution to the winds and without considering the damaging impact of unfetter dam building activity, central and state governments approved hundreds of hydroelectric dam projects in several Himalayan rivers. However, after several ecological disasters such as the massive Uttarakhand floods of 2013, the Supreme Court of India had to intervene and it directed that no further clearances should be given and that a committee must look into whether existing or under-construction projects are exacerbating the crisis.

Although many people may be of the view that dams can play a key role in the development of India, however, such a view is faulty on many counts. Project implementation is surrounded by several problems. Several studies have noted that destructive impacts of big dams usually outweigh the benefits. And the biggest impact is on the rivers themselves, which are damaged beyond recognition.

How big dams destroy rivers and environment

Dams destroy the environment and bring about environmental catastrophes. Dam projects usually result in significant losses of arable land, flora, and fauna. The flow of the river, on which a dam is built, changes irreparably. Dams severely affect the continuity of river flow and bring about total or partial change in natural river hydrograph. Changes in the flow of a river should be of paramount concern when a dam is being built. This is together with several other complex changes. However, the entire process of sanctioning dams usually turns a blind eye to the environmental disasters that are in the making.

Dam proponents, including the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF or the EAC and Central Water Commission (CWC) have a completely lackadaisical attitude to maintaining environmental flows or eflows in the rivers. Experts and even government officials accept that proper eflows in the rivers must be ensured since “a river should look like a river” aesthetically as well. eflows must be considered crucial criteria for any dam projects. However, the reality on the ground is grim. Dams have already irreversibly damaged and altered river flow.

In a conversation with me in 2013, Rakesh Nath (Chairman of the EAC) said that it wasn’t possible to change what had already been done but that the EAC should be more cautious in the future. Justified concerns about eflows from the existing dams are thrown into a limbo. Moreover, proponents and nodal government bodies claim they try to ensure minimum changes to the water flow by taking care of the dam design and choosing the best site or location.
However, even such vague assurances are seldom followed. For example, Nath said the EAC follows a thumb rule for considering a cascade of dams. According to the rule, the river should freely flow for one to two km between the tail race of upstream dam and tail end of reservoir of the downstream dam. Although experts maintain there is no scientific basis for such a conclusion, the EAC itself doesn’t follow the thumb rule. This can be observed from a number of cases. For instance, this minimum distance criteria wasn’t ensured in the case of 240-MW Kuther and 180-MW Bajoli hydropower projects on the River Ravi.

No guidelines followed for dam building

The EAC recommends release of river water in the following pattern: 20 per cent of the average lean season flow for the lean months; 30 per cent of average monsoon flow for monsoon months; and between 20 and 30 per cent of average flow for non-lean and non-monsoon months. However, such rules exist only for the books. When dam developers claim they can’t release the waters, which are inadequate in any case, the nodal body happily negotiates with project proponents.

The standards that get prescribed and followed thereby end up being highly arbitrary, without scientific, ecological, or sociological basis. In spite of several environment groups such as the Wildlife Institute of India recommending greater environment flows in select rivers, EAC doesn’t pay any heed. Moreover, it is not even clear how dam developers as well as the nodal bodies such as the CWC and CEA are able to ensure minimum water flow that is prescribed in the environmental clearances as there are no clear cut guidelines governing the monitoring of minimum water flow.

No monitoring of river water flow after dam construction

Changes to significant river flow have been a big concern for environmental activists. Even members of the EAC itself accept the river flow gets altered. The government must take all possible steps to ensure that the alterations are kept to a minimum. As rivers are the lifelines of communities, alterations in their flow adversely impacts people’s livelihoods.

Non existence of guidelines for dam building

The maximum number of dams that can be permitted on a river is also still not clear. There is no limitation to the maximum number of dams that can be built on a single river. Even Terms of Reference of basin studies fail to include such a rule. Environmentalists suggest that basin studies must include the following:
• Number of dams that can be allowed on one river
• The location of dams
• The installed capacity of dams
• The type of dam (run-of-the-river or storage)
• Type of operations (that is, base load, peaking power, or a combination of the two criteria)
• The impact of operations on downstream communities and ecology, particularly the effect of peaking power operations

Dam building States not adequately compensated

For example, in the case of hydropower dams, the states in which the dams are built are meeting power needs of the other states. In this process, forests get destroyed, ecology is impacted and the displaced people lose their homes, livelihoods, and villages. However, they hardly get properly compensated.

Moreover, ministries and nodal bodies that are involved in building dams continue to focus on optimum utilization of water resources for power generation, irrigation, as well as drinking. The state governments are also eager to sanction projects without even considering the detrimental future impacts that the projects can have for the environment. The Central Government’s approach towards the environmental as well as social concerns is lackadaisical.
In conclusion: Dams killing India’s rivers and people

Increasing power and irrigation demands and state government pressure is now resulting in the fast-tracking of clearances, which is sure to become a trigger for ecological and environmental disasters as well as climate change.
What is most ironical is that the people for whom the stakes are the highest have no say in the process. The project-affected victims and families, who have to bear the brunt of such development, lose everything: their land and livelihood without even getting their voices heard.

Photo credit: Livemint

About Urmi Bhattacharjee

Associate editor at Urmi Bhattacharjee has worked with several mainstream media houses such as NDTV and others. She is a committed environmentalist and feels very connected to nature. The Northeast Woman Journo has been conferred with the Prestigious Red Ink award