The news coming out of India about the widespread flooding is devastating. ActionAid reported earlier today that “The situation here is catastrophic. People’s houses and animals have been washed away and many roads have simply disappeared. Our partners in the region have reported that nearly 5,000 people are still missing in Kedarnath, presumed dead.”
The international development charity highlights the fact that the impact of the massive dam building programmes across the state has compounded the disaster. With a lack of trees and other vegetation (due to prolific deforestation) to hold the earth, the mountain slopes have become destabilised, causing the land to slip into the rivers and reservoirs.
dam building programmes
India is one of the world’s biggest dam building nations. It is estimated that, since 1947, over 4,000 reservoirs have submerged a land area of 40,000 square kilometres, displacing at least 42 million people. The construction at Tehri, Uttarakhand, for example, is India’s highest dam and one of the world’s largest. It is also one of the most controversial, not least because it is situated in the middle of a Himalayan seismic fault zone. I’ve visited the area on several occasions and interviewed people who live in the vicinity of the dam and the huge, 42 kilometre, reservoir.
Over 25 years in the construction, the project, managed by Tehri Hydro Development Corporation was conceived as a partnership between the Indian government and, as it was then, the state of Uttar Pradesh. Receiving approval as far back as 1972, it gained a massive boost in 1986 when an Indo-Soviet agreement secured Soviet expertise and aid valued at over $400 million.
Many people opposed the project, condemning it as a humanitarian and environmental disaster waiting to happen. The most vocal opponent is a staunch Gandhian activist called Sunderlal Bahaguna. He described it as “a dam built with our tears”.
Expectations that the land surrounding the reservoir would settle down after a few years have not been realised: it continues to slip regularly, causing roadblocks and other dangerous hazards for people living in the dam’s vicinity. The area has developed its own micro climate, crops are failing and farmers now have to walk tremendous distances to gather grass and fodder for their cattle.
impact of dam construction
The World Commission on Dams report, November 2000, states that large dams have fragmented and destroyed the world’s rivers with up to 80 million people having been displaced by reservoirs: ”The widespread impact of large dams is one of the most hotly contested issues in sustainable development today.”
The Himalayas are one of the youngest and most fragile mountain ranges in the world. Still growing, they currently rise at a rate of five millimetres per year. The Garhwal region of Uttarakhand has experienced eighteen major earthquakes since the devastation in 1803 that wiped out a third of Uttarakhand’s population. The most recent, the Uttarkashi tragedy in October 1991, reached 6.6 on the Richter scale, killing over 2,000 people. Most of those who died were crushed under the collapsed slate roofs of their homes.
The Tehri Dam has been designed to withstand tremors of up to 7.2 on the Richter scale, though some scientists have predicted that future quakes of a higher magnitude are not inconceivable. Should the dam collapse, campaigners fear that the impact of the reservoir emptying could have a catastrophic impact on a number of major towns and villages in the vicinity. Other commentators maintain that there is nothing to fear.
Thankfully there hasn’t been a major earthquake in the region of this scale yet, but the immediate impact of the dam-building is having a devastating effect. The floods, as a result of torrential rains earlier in the week have washed away roads, houses and, in the case of Kedarnath, engulfed the whole town.
It’s not as if the landslides weren’t predicted. But, in many cases, warnings have been ignored. When I was last in North India 18 months ago I interviewed Dr Ravi Chopra, Director of the People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, and an advisor to the Indian Government on its water management programmes. I remember him saying clearly that the three key water management issues that need urgent consideration are “governance, human rights and environmental impact.”
Perhaps this is not the right moment to point the governance finger. The immediate priority is to provide relief, through development charities such as ActionAid and other relief agencies for the thousands of people who have been affected by this latest disaster.