Bhutan · Himalayas · Hydropower

Flow for Worship, Flow for Money: Water Wheels and Hydropower in Bhutan

Countries like Bhutan, Nepal, parts of Tibet and parts of India like Sikkim have some lovely Buddhist traditions linked to the nature. On the edges of forests, overlooking valleys and atop majestic mountains flutter tiny colorful prayer flags. Inside Dzongs, fixed prayer wheels spin by the tug of a pious hand. While spinning and fluttering, the prayers are supposed to be disseminated in the universe, reaching every sentinel being.

But there is a third kind of fascinating prayer wheel. It worships not only the creator, but also flowing water. Today, as naturally flowing waters become rarer, it is strangely reassuring to see these wheels spinning away, as the stream pushes the small wooden turbines round and round. These wheels are more fascinating for their symbolic significance: In these regions where water wheels worship the flow, the same flow is being harnessed for generating money and power: Hydropower. In Bhutan, the 10,000 MW + hydropower initiative supported by India and financial institutions like ADB & other foreign players will dam almost all of the big river systems in the country.

In fact, institutions like ADB are so over-enthusiastic in pushing hydropower in Bhutan ( ADB is ‘administering‘ Hydropower grants to Bhutan from countries like Norway and Japan)  that they see Bhutan’s strong environmental conservation practices as ‘hurdles’ in this development. ADB says: “Bhutan’s strong environmental conservation policies have affected the pace of implementing power projects because of the time required to complete procedures such as environmental impact assessments, public consultations, forestry clearances, and road planning.”

What follows is a short photo feature on Water Wheels in Bhutan as well as the hydropower development in the Punatsangchu Basin, through the 1200 MW Punatsangchu I HEP. Just a few kilometers downstream is the proposed intake and dam of Punatsangchu II which is also underway.

Bhutan is the only country in the world which measures its development not only in terms of GDP, but through Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is an aggregate of a number of things, including environmental conservation and preservation of culture.

Let us hope that this dense hydropower development does not affect the Bhutanese tenets of happiness…

A majestic three tiered prayer wheel in Paro, on way to Tigers Nest Monastery Photo: SANDRP
Majestic three- tiered prayer wheels in Paro, on way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery Photo: SANDRP
A tiny water wheel in agricultural fields of Paro Photo: SANDRP
A tiny water wheel in agricultural fields of Paro Photo: SANDRP
One more water wheel on way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP
One more water wheel on way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP
A water prayer wheel in a village near Paro Photo: SANDRP
A water prayer wheel in a village near Paro Photo: SANDRP
A water wheel on a flowing stream in a dense forest, on way to Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP
A water wheel on a flowing stream in a dense forest, on way to Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP
The wooden wheel blades
The wooden wheel blades Photo: SANDRP
A roadside Prayer wheel with steel blades Photo: SANDRP
A roadside Prayer wheel with steel blades Photo: SANDRP
A roadside water wheel on way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP
A roadside water wheel on way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP
On way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP
On way to Thimpu Photo: SANDRP
On way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP
On way to Taktsang Monastery Photo: SANDRP
Cascade of three water wheels in Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP
Cascade of three water wheels in Phobjikha Valley Photo: SANDRP
Different ways of using the flow: A storehouse for Apples and other seasonal fruits, built on the top of a stream, which acts like a natural AC Photo: SANDRP
Different ways of using the flow: A storehouse for Apples and other seasonal fruits, built on the top of a stream, which acts like a natural AC Photo: SANDRP
Fresh fruits, preserved in a storehouse on the stream! Photo: SANDRP
Fresh fruits, preserved in a storehouse on the stream! Photo: SANDRP


At the same time, huge, unprecedented hydropower developing is also challenging the tiny nation. Much of it is pushed by India.

Planned, underconstruction and commissioned hydropower projects may cover all the river systems in Bhutan. Photo: Down to Earth from CEA
Planned, underconstruction and commissioned hydropower projects may cover all the river systems in Bhutan. Photo: Down to Earth from CEA

Bhutan was in news as it was the first foreign country to which the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit in June 2014. While he laid the foundation stone of the the 600 MW Khonglongchu Project, protests erupted in downstream Assam, India. Assam had suffered flood losses mainly in 2004 when the 60 MW Kurichhu Project, built by NHPC, released flood waters which reached Indian territory. Same fears are now expressed for Mangdechu and Konglongchu Projects. On July 9, 2014, The Times of India reported that Assam state BJP unit (BJP is in power at the centre), “They (BJP state leaders) also told Pandey (BJP all-India chief for morchas and cells Mahendra Pandey) that even Modi’s foundation laying for a 600-MW power station in Bhutan last month was not taken with enthusiasm by the people in Lower Assam districts because they were already affected by the impact of existing power projects in the Himalayan country.”

In 2006, India and Bhutan signed an agreement to “facilitate and promote development and construction of hydropower projects and associated transmission systems as well as trade in electricity, through both public and private sector engagements”. Under this agreement, India has agreed to minimum imports of 5,000 MW of hydropower capacity by 2020. The agreement will be valid for a period of 60 years and can be extended. In addition to this agreement, a protocol between India and Bhutan was signed in 2009 through which India will develop 10,000 MWs of hydropower in Bhutan for export of surplus power to India by 2020. This has been going on through a mix of soft loans and grants. This also means services for Indian engineering and design consultants like WAPCOS and Indian developers & contractors like L and T, NHPC, Gammon India, JP Associates, BHEL, SJVN, THDC, Tatas, HCC, Jindal, etc.[1] Indian companies like NHPC, WAPCOS are also involved in Detailed Project Reports, while other Indian companies are bagging the construction and equipment contracts.[2]

Already, three hydro projects funded and built by India are operating in Bhutan which include 336 MW Chukha, 60 MW Kurichu and 1020 MW Tala HEP.  Under-construction projects funded mainly by India include 1200 MW Punatsangchhu HE Project Stage-I, 1020 MW Punatsangchu Stage II and 720 MW Mangdechu HEP. News reports indicate that Bhutan and Indian government have together identified 10 HEPs with a total capacity of 11,576 MW by 2020 for development. In addition the country has about 16 operating HEPs[3].

Punatsangchu I Project, 130 mts high dam, envisages submergence of 673 acres of Reserve forest land, 78 acres of private land (involving 116 land owners) and 6 acres of Institutional Land (2 institutions) till the end of April 2013 for the project construction. Punatsangchu II project with 80 mts high dam, involves 479 acres of reserve forest land, 14 acres of private land (involving 17 land owners) and 5 acres of Institutional Land (3 institutions) till the end of April 2013 for the project construction.

In 2014, India and Bhutan also signed an agreement for 2120 MW hydropower capacity through four projects which include 600 MW Kholongchu project, 180 MW Bunakha project (with 230 MW downstream benefits from Tala, Chukha and Wangchu HEPs), 570 MW Wangchu project, and 770 MW Chamkarchu-I project.[4]

SANDRP visited the site of Punatsangchu I Project which has witnessed serious geological issues, which include severe sinking of the right bank, throwing the project off schedule and also increasing its cost. Similar geological surprises are also feared at Punatsangchu II Site. 

Following are some pictures from Punatsangchu I Site.

Riparian farming on a tributary of Punatsangchu Photo: SANDRP


Coffer dam and diversion of PSHP I Project Photo: SANRP
Coffer dam and diversion of PSHP I Project Photo: SANDRP
Dam Axis of PSHP I Photo: SANDRP
Dam Axis of PSHP I Photo: SANDRP


Diverted River, dry and without flows Photo: SANDRP
Diverted River, dry and without flows Photo: SANDRP
Huge muck disposal next to the river bank near the intake chambers Photo: SANDRP
Huge muck disposal next to the river bank near the intake chambers Photo: SANDRP
L and T India is the main contractor for Dam Wall
L and T India is the contractor for construction of Diversion Tunnel, Dam, intake and Desilting Chambers Dam Wall Photo: SANDRP
Gammon India is contractor for 7.48 kms Head Race Tunnel. Bharat Heavy Electricals and HCC are also contractors in PSHP I Photo: SANDRP
Gammon India is contractor for 7.48 kms Head Race Tunnel. Bharat Heavy Electricals and HCC are also contractors in PSHP I Photo: SANDRP
Stretch of Punatsangchu River that will be diverted through the tunnel when the dam is commissioned Photo: SANDRP
Stretch of Punatsangchu River that will be diverted through the tunnel when the dam is commissioned Photo: SANDRP
Baso Chhu River, entirely dried as it is diverted for the 66 MW BasoChhu Power Project of Druk Green  Photo: SANDRP
Baso Chhu River, entirely dried as it is diverted for the 66 MW BasoChhu Power Project of Druk Green Photo: SANDRP
The concept of Six Longevities celebrated in the Bhutan: They include Man, Animals, Birds ( black Necked Cranes!), Montains, Trees and Rivers! Let us hope all these components are indeed conserved for long Photo: At Punakha Monastery, SANDRP
The Six symbols of Longevity celebrated in Bhutan ( also Tibet). Photo: At Punakha Monastery, SANDRP


In almost all Dzongs, as well as hotels and homes rests a picture of Six Symbols of Longevity ( see picture above), all of them are interlinked, hold symbolic significance and are supposed to be auspicious.

They include Man, Animals, Birds ( The Black Necked Cranes, incidentally threatened by an Indian Dam: 780 MW Nyamjangchu, close to Bhutanese border), Mountains, Trees and Rivers!

Let us hope this synergy is long-lived in Bhutan!

-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (

( All pictures by author)


END NOTES and References:





[5] Samir Mehta’s blog on Hydropower Challenges in Bhutan:

[6] Emmanuel Theophilus’s article on Fish Ladder in Kurichhu Dam in Bhutan published on SANDRP Blog:

[7] Sector Study of Bhutan’s Hydropower by World Bank:

[8] ADB pushing for Hydropower in Bhutan, also for storage projects, which have huge impacts!



Bihar · Embankments

Response to SANDRP blog: On Sediments & Rivers

Satellite image of Brahmaputra River From: Wikimedia Commons
Satellite image of Brahmaputra River From: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra (

Read the article by Thakkar and Dandekar[1] on sediments with great interest. The basic duty assigned by nature to any river  is to build land (nearest word is delta formation), transport the water falling on its catchment to the master drain or the sea and keep the ground water level intact besides saving its fertility. Scriptures define river in many other ways. The basic reason for that was, probably, to discourage tempering with the river. The rivers flow for the good of all the living beings (paropakaray bahanti nadyah), they are cited as an example for continuity. Our ancestors used to bless the younger ones that their name and fame will last till the rule of forests, mountains and rivers are there. There are strict restrictions about polluting rivers and the punishment is also prescribed for doing so. That provides enough food for thought about rivers to us. When we recall our rivers to grace any religious or social ceremony, the emphasis is never forgotten as to what should be our attitude towards rivers. Most of our festivals are held on the bank of the rivers (barring Karmanasa) in Bihar which is called tirthas i.e, the sacred places.

We care too hoots about our rivers now.

An engineer or a trader looks at the rivers about the profits that can be made by the existence of the rivers and they rightly use the word ‘exploitation’ which we all know what it means. As engineers, we all are trained to look into the Benefit Cost ratio and are never taught about the social costs. That is not our job. We tell the politicians where the profit and votes lie. They, in turn, tell all others that they have a team of world class engineers who have advised this or that. The implementers (the contractors) intervene in the mean while. Then there may be financers, promoters, consultants and what not, each with some vested interest or the other. Some of them are for money, some for power, some for name and fame and some for merely impressing others of their proximity with the sources of power.

Each one of them has an insurance that by the time the ill effects of their wrong doing come to the fore, they will not be there in this world. That sets the tone for discussions now.

Let us look at the physical characteristics of river water. The river water contains sediments of all kinds and their shape and size depends on the locations that they are transported to by the river water. The ultimate destination, however, is the sea.  I have read considerable literature about sediments and floods and I know that at least since middle of the 19th Century, the British engineers in India have been telling that water is not the problem and it is the sediment that is responsible for flooding. This should be treated first if the floods are to be avoided.

Unfortunately, we are not taught how to deal with sediments and we read about it as a passing reference.  Water flows downstream but the sediments remain where the water no more is in a position to push it further down.

Structurally, if you intercept water by a dam, the sediment will collect in the reservoir area.  I had read a report of Central Water Commission a few years ago (I should be having a copy of it somewhere in my collection) wherein they had studied the sedimentation of  64 reservoirs in India but only in two of them their prediction of sedimentation was near to reality. Rest all the dams were in pathetic situation. Trap the river within embankments, the sediment will settle within the embankments and raise the bed level of the river. Kosi is a good example of mishandling of sediments. This river was flowing in 15 different channels some 60 years ago. The engineers embanked just one of these channels and forced all the water and sediments into that channel. The result is that the bed of this channel is higher than the adjoining ground. In lower reaches, the river is aggrading at a rate 12.03 centimeters every year. The engineers and the State is busy raising the embankments without realizing that they are ‘storing disasters for the future generation.’ Construct a ring bundh round a settlement to protect it from the floods of river, the sediment will settle outside the ring to the detriment of the community in future.

Many settlements in Bihar were encircled by such rings in the past.  These are all a false security for the people. There is sand casting within the protected area and boats ply there during the rainy season. Some of these rings do not exist anymore because the river has wiped them out. Every step of mishandling sediments leads to a disaster situation which we do not know how to cope with and do away with the sediment.

Look at any silt laden river. It used to spread the sediments free of cost all over the area which is what we call the land building by a river. You disturb a river and this quality is lost.

Then starts the famous debate on forests. The engineers are again confused over the issue and they are not sure whether restoration of the forests can be of any use. Once the ground is saturated due to rains, the role of forests is over, they say. Fortunately such conclusions are not available freely in vernacular. I shudder to think how the masses will react to such wisdom.

I had a chance meeting with the Minister of Water Resources of Bihar before this election and he wanted me to suggest something to combat floods. The discussion boiled down to sediments and the quantity of sediments that passes through Bihar every year.

Irrigation Commission Report of Bihar (1994) talks vaguely about sediments and no inference can be drawn out of it. This may be willful that a reader may not decode the information contained in the report.

Now, if it is understood that sediments are the problem, do we know the amount of it? The answer in ‘No’.

Or, even if it is available, it is not in public domain. We keep on telling that rivers have become shallow but its extent is not known in most cases. I suggested to him that if the government was really serious about the issue, let us take cross section of the river at strategic points that the WRD must have been taking before independence or after the establishment of the Planning Commission and check what is the extent of aggradation of the river bed and what have been the change in the cross section. This will tell us the sediment retained in the river bed and give a hint about its transportation to the sea. It will also tell us that if we pursue the policy of flood control as we are doing at the moment, what will be the fate of the river after say 50 years. He very kindly phoned his principal secretary who, probably, told him that this was possible.

Two questions arise from this discussion, (i) does it require an outsider like me with little access to information that these august bodies dealing with rivers have to tell the minister what should be done to assess the sediments? And (ii) what on earth the responsible engineers of the WRD have been doing all these years? Do they know their job and responsibility well?


Former chief minister of Bihar had announced in May 2009 after the breach at Kusaha on the Kosi (in Aug 2008) was plugged that the embankment is not going to breach for thirty years, at least. Everybody interested in the Kosi issue knows that the breach had occurred because the river was pushed towards eastern embankment of the river by sediment deposition on the west and this was not given the attention it deserved.

I wonder since when the rivers have started taking command from the chief ministers. Even if they do, what will happen in thirty first year?

I am of the opinion that a peon in government is more powerful than a Noble Laureate outside for the peon can get something done through his contacts but the latter can only make a request. It is up to the establishment whether it heeds to his/ her advice or not.

3rd July 2014. Jamshedpur



Jammu and Kashmir

NHPC’s “controversial child” URI II Hydro Project: Some Facts

Full page advertisements in most  National newspapers in the national capital and possibly in Jammu & Kashmir announced on July 4, 2014 that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will dedicate to the nation the 240 MW URI II hydropower project on Jhelum River near Salamabad village of Uri Tehsil in Baramulla district in J&K, about 18 km upstream from the LOC. The project was aptly described by in its update on May 27, 2013: “NHPC’s controversial child, Uri has always made the news for all the wrong reasons. Earlier, various natural calamities, law and order problems, frequent bandhs and blockades, and agitation by local residents demanding employment with NHPC” have plagued the project.

The Prime Minister’s dedication of the project to nation has led to a controversy since according to Jammu& Kashmir state government’s minister for health and medical education Taj Mohiuddin, NHPC is operating the project illegally since it does not have consent to operate, which is required as per law. Taj said, “NHPC was supposed to obtain the license under Jammu and Kashmir Water Resources Act but they have not completed the formalities. NHPC authorities have no respect for the local laws.” When asked that what action the state government will take if the NHPC has violated the state laws, Taj said: “The government can close the project.” He added that people of Uri will now approach the High Court through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the NHPC very soon.

Broad Features of the project: (Source: CEA)

  • Concrete Gravity Dam – 52 m High (43.7 m above riverbed), 172 m long,
  • Head Race Tunnel – 8.4m diameter; 4.27 km long;
  • Power House – Underground; 4×60 = 240 MW; net heat 118 m; annual generation 1123 MU in 90% year
  • Turbine – V. Francis
  • Tail Race Tunnel (TRT) – 8.4 m dia, 3.78 km Long;
  • Cost Overrun: Original: 1724.79 Crores; Next: 2081.00 Crores (Rs 8.68 cr per MW, likely to cross Rs 10 Cr per MW); Latest: 2290 as per PIB Press Release on July 4, 2014 after PM dedicated the project to the nation.
  • Time Overrun: Original commissioning date: 2009-10; actually commissioned: 2014-15.
Layout of the URI II project as given by NHPC website
Layout of the URI II project as given by NHPC website

HCC demands mean cost could go up further The reported on July 6, 2014: “NHPC involved in Rs 608.99 crore arbitration case with HCC: Civil works contractors HCC has made a claim of an additional Rs 608.99 crore from NHPC over execution of civil works in the Uri-II hydroelectric project in Jammu & Kashmir.
–The demand made by HCC pertains to two claims of Rs 379.30 crore and Rs 229.69 crore.
–The claim for Rs 379.30 crore is sought as compensation for additional time & various costs being incurred on account of various disruptions and deviation from the original contract. For this case, the Arbitral Tribunal has scheduled a series of hearings in August, 2014.
–The second claim made by the contractor is for payment of compensation for un-recovered elements of costs due to reduction in scope of work. The hearing on the case was conducted in May, 2014, however, the final order is yet be given by the Tribunal.”

Alstom Hydro provided turbines for the project claimed[1], this much delayed project that also suffered from serious flaws in construction and social unrest, “this project is certainly amongst major references for Alstom Hydro in India”!

Major Social unrest The project affects 521 families including 173 displaced families and 348 partially affected families, as per the Sept 2012 six monthly compliance report. Strangely, the project was allowed to acquire 124 ha of private land when EIA had stated need for 83 ha of private land. The project had such severe impacts and local people were so agitated by the non responsible attitude of the developer NHPC that they actually stopped work on the project for months. CEA has reported:

  • Works stopped on all fronts for 105 days from 19.03.2012 to 30.6.12 due to local unrest for demanding jobs in NHPC. Strike called off by local residents on 30.06.2012.

Major construction problems The project saw major construction problems, some of them, as reported by Government of India’s premier power sector technical body, Central Electricity Authority in their various reports are list below. Very few projects would have suffered so many problems. This also shows how poor were the site selection, appraisal, assessments, management and performance of developer (NHPC), government and contractor:

  • 21.09.2005: Civil works awarded to HCC
  • 8.10.2005: Earthquake
  • March 2007: Flash floods: Coffer dam washed away after river diversion in Jan ‘07
  • Jan 2008: Massive landslide on right side of dam
  • Nov 2008: Under construction bridge on Jhelum collapses. HCC and JC Gupta were required to pay a cumulative sum of Rs 4.39 crore against the damage reimbursable from the Contractor All Risk (CAR) policy and the collapse of the Bandi bridge, respectively, but four years later, the NHPC was yet to recover the money from them.
  • May 2010: Flash floods
  • 17.04.11: Dam overtopped in April due to heavy rains and snowfall!
  • Sept 2011: Flooding of Tail Race Tunnel due to flash flood, cloud burst on 16.09.2011
  • Aug 21, 2012: Calling it “civil contractor`s inefficacy”, blamed HCC for not starting work for 37 days after the agitation against the project was resolved.
  • Sept 2012: Slush was deposited in D/s portion of Power House and TRT area due to flash flood on Sept. 17, 2012 in Golta Nallah located at the tail race tunnel (TRT) site. This led to excessive flooding of the TRT with water levels reaching up to EL 1,112m. The dewatering pumps, deployed at the TRT outlet, Adit IV and the downstream surge gallery, got submerged in water. The access road to the TRT outlet also got damaged. All this also shows the mismanagement at the project site. This occurrence impacted the completion of the balance invert work in the downstream surge valley and cleaning and finishing work in TRT.
  • Oct 10, 2012: holds “shoddy performance of the involved contractual agencies – HCC and Alstom” for the serious technical flaws in the construction work of the project.
  • Nov 2012: Contractor HCC claims financial crunch, asks for assistance
  • April-May-June 2013: Water seepage of 500 litres per minute was observed during filling of Upstream Water Conductor System and Mechanical spinning of units. Seepage was also observed in Power House area: Alstom, the E&M contractor, blamed the civil contractor (HCC) for the seepage in the water conductor system.
  • July 2013: Cracks in Power Channel have been observed
  • Sept 2013: After refilling of the water conductor system, high flood occurred in River Jhelum which started erosion of left bank of dam and some cracks were also observed along left bank hill slope downstream of dam.
  • Dec 2013: Seepage from water conductor system in Power House, Surge shaft area.

Wrong Claims: The industry website reported on May 14, 2014 that the project achieved “finishing just before the finish line”, when the project was delayed by close to five years! The site was actually contradicted its own repeated earlier updates quoted above.

Environmental noncompliance The project was given environmental clearance on Aug 13, 2004. As per the EIA notification, the project was supposed to submit compliance report to Union Ministry of Environment and Forests every six months. A look at the MoEF website in this regard shows that the latest compliance report available is for Sept 2012[2], clearly violating the EIA notification. The NHPC website though has the six monthly compliance report of March 2014.

Interestingly, the project has seen an unprecedented five monitoring visits by the regional office of MoEF, that is in April 2007, May 2008, July 2009 and June 2011 (all in summer months, not a bad time to visit Kashmir!) & Dec 10, 2013. However, NONE of these monitoring reports are available on MoEF website, another violation of EIA notification.

The project do not seem to be required to release any environment flows, which will dry the river  for long stretch & kill all the biodiversity. The Jhelum basin has about existing, under construction or approved projects, but has no cumulative impact assessment. The project has neither done downstream impact assessment, nor have they done any downstream mitigation plans. The upstream 480 MW URI hydropower project, also of NHPC, and funded by SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency), has a fish ladder on 30 m high dam, but was found to be non functional during site visit. Even if that were to function, now with Uri II in the downstream without any fish ladder or downstream management plan, there is little possibility of the fish in Jhelum or Uri to survive. Local people will also suffer in the process, but there is no possibility of any compensation for their losses.

HCC also has full page Advertisement From all the available accounts, the performance of the civil contractor for the project was far from satisfactory, called it shoddy. And yet in a full page advertisement in The Times of India of July 4, 2014, HCC amazingly claimed: “HCC has adhered to its commitment of creating responsible and sustainable infrastructure.”

Facts narrated above, all from official reports and industry websites, speak for themselves, how responsible and sustainable is this infrastructure. It is not for nothing that the project is called NHPC’s controversial child.

Very pertinently, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry has appealed to the Prime Minister to dedicate the Uri II project  to the people of J&K and also start the process of handing over  the Salal, Uri and Dul Hasti hydropower projects, all of NHPC, to J&K so that the people of state  can get the benefit from the projects as NHPC has already earned huge revenues from these projects. Going by the PIB press release of July 4, 2014 following dedication of the Uri II project to the nation, the Prime Minister did not agree to the KCCI appeal.

The PIB Press Release of July 4, 2014 (from PMO) also said: “Our objective is to tap maximum hydropower potential, the Prime Minister added… Giving the example of Bhutan, he said the economy of that country was now being built around hydropower. The Prime Minister said sufficient emphasis had not been given to power transmission lines network, and his Government will take this task forward through the PPP model… He said this project was conceived during the Government of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and we have fulfilled that vision.” These are noteworthy words!

Another PIB Press Release on July 5, 2014 (from Power Ministry) described NHPC as “a premier organization in the country in the field of development of hydroelectric projects” & “The technical capabilities of NHPC in executing hydroelectric projects are unmatched in the country.” One wishes Power ministry would have looked at  the performance of NHPC in this and other projects before giving that certificate.








Post Script: 1. According to Rising Kashmir, two people were washed out due to sudden release of water from the project in Oct 2014, local blamed the power project for the deaths. 

2. Nov 20, 2014 Fire engulfed the project early in the morning at around 4. No deaths reported, but huge damages.

brahmaputra · Chenab · Ganga · Himachal Pradesh · Himalayas

How do dams affect a river?

That sounds like a rather innocent question and I was asked to write an article, addressing it. But before we go into that, let us try and understand a few things. Firstly, what is a River? Let us first try and understand that.

There is no single definition of this complex entity. For every definition, there is something more a river does.

Take the example of the one of the most complex rivers of all, the Ganga that we think we know. Before being a religious entity cultural icon, etc Ganga is, first & foremost, a River. A perennially flowing river like Ganga flows all the time. But that flow is not constant. It changes from day to night, from one day to another, from one season to another, one year to another, from one place to another.

And then, the Ganga that we know is not only a single river but a collection of rivers. So Yamuna, Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Mandakini, Dhauliganga, Pinder, Ramganga, Kali, Tons, Gomti, Ghaghra, Sone, Gandak, Budhi Gandak, Kosi & Mahananda are some of the major tributaries that directly meet Ganga. Each of them is a river in its own right.

The Ganga Brahmaputra Basin Photo from: Wikimedia Commons
The Ganga Brahmaputra Basin Photo from: Wikimedia Commons

Take Yamuna for example. Some of its major direct tributaries include: Tons, Giri, Som, Sahibi, Hindon, Chambal, Sind, Betwa & Ken, each of them are again significantly big rivers.

Take Chambal, some of the major direct tributaries of Chambal include: Parbati, Kali Sindh (Lakhundar, Ahu, Parwan are some of the tributaries of Kali Sindh, Newaj is one of the tributaries of Parwan, Dudhi is one of the tributaries of Newaj), Banas, Ider, Retam, Sau, Kshipra, Chhoti Kali Sindh, Cham, Siwana, Kural: each of which is a river by its own right.

Take Parbati: some of the major tributaries of Parbati include: Papnaus Ajnal, Sewan Paru, Utawali, Paraparwa, Mawal, Tem, Bhader, Gochi, Gaumukh, Sunk, Negri, Chopan, Uproni, Duhral, Andheri, Beram, Kosam, Ahelil and Sukni. These are all rivers too!

We can go on like this much longer. But such is a vast network of rivers that we call Ganga.


Secondly what flows in a river is not just water, though most governments, official agencies & engineers see the rivers as channels of water. Flowing water is surely a major visible defining component of a river. But even a canal or a pipeline can claim that. But unlike a canal or pipeline, a river carries dissolved matter, suspended matter, bed load, microorganisms, many levels of aquatic flora and fauna.

Thirdly, a river is a connected entity. It is connected with upstream and downstream river, biodiversity & landmass, the terrestrial land & life, underground geology and groundwater aquifers and is also connected with the floodplain. Perennial rivers like Ganga meet the sea forming a delta and this connection is vital for the river and as well as the sea. The connections are so strong that a river provides a report card about what is happening upstream and downstream, if read carefully.

From: The River continuum Concept. Species in India will be different, but this represents how biological entitites in a river are linked to each other through a number of processes including nutrient spiralling
From: The River continuum Concept. Species in India will be different, but this represents how biological entitites in a river are linked to each other through a number of processes including nutrient spiralling

This is admittedly a partial description of a river, limited by the constraints of an article or blog. This is also a bit simplistic description of how humans deal with rivers, since there are exceptions. But this provides a broad direction of our journey with the rivers.

from :
from :

Apart from its many functions like ecological, hydrological, geomorphological ones, a river is also connected with the human society along the banks. The connection with human societies has been as long as the humans have existed. This connection is not really necessary for the river to survive, but we cannot say the same about human survival. Humans cannot survive without the rivers, though is doubtful if the human society understands or even acknowledges that reality.

More importantly, till about a century ago, our interaction with the rivers did not endanger the existence of the rivers themselves. But what we have been doing in last century has created existential threat for rivers. This threat comes in the form of big dams, diversions, chemical pollution from agriculture and industries, large dose of sewage pollution at major urban centers, encroachment on floodplains, deforestation, unsustainable groundwater use, riverfront developments, embankments, and climate change.

What humans have done to the rivers in last century can possibly be described as Terraforming (one of the grandest concepts in science fiction in which “advanced” societies reshape entire planets to suit their needs). Or what some geologists describe as Anthropocene, meaning a new geological age of humans to suggest that humans are now a planet transforming force.

It seems humans have stopped valuing the rivers as they exist in nature and decided that they can stop, bend, tunnel, channelise, divert, encroach, pollute the rivers. So when we build a dam, we do not put any value to the destruction of river & destruction of the services provided by a river that entails in the process of building the dam.

But let us get back to Rivers & what dams do to them. A river, by definition, must flow freely. A dam stops the free flow of river, and impacts the river in the most fundamental ways. In India when we construct a dam (e.g. Tehri), a hydropower project (e.g. 400 MW Vishnuprayag project on Alaknanda in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand) or diversion (Lower Ganga – Bhim Goda at Haridwar, Middle Ganga – Bijnor and Upper Ganga-Narora barrages), we do not have to leave any water for the downstream stretch of river. So complete drying up of the rivers for most of the dry months by these structures is the first direct impact of these structures on the river. To put it mildly, that action practically kills the river. Upstream of the dam too, the river gets killed, for immediate upstream there is stagnant water and further upstream, the river has lost its connections with the downstream river!

Dry Baspa River downstream Baspa II Dam, Himachal Pradesh
Dry Baspa River downstream Baspa II Dam, Himachal Pradesh Photo: SANDRP Partners

This is because these structures not only stop the flow of water to the downstream areas, they also stop flow of everything else that was flowing in the river: the silt, the nutrients, the sand, the organisms, the flora, fauna, and severe every one of the connections of rivers we described earlier

And imagine when a river has to face such death every few kilometers in its journey!

Density of dams in the Upper Ganga Basin Map by SANDRP
Density of dams in the Upper Ganga Basin Map by SANDRP


That is not all. As the river continues its journey, if the tributaries are flowing reasonably freely, there is some chance for the river to recover some of its defining characteristics. But we have dammed most major tributaries too.

To top it, we also have other elements that help kill the river, like pollution, encroachment, abstraction, etc, as described earlier.

And remember just about a century back Ganga and other rivers were not in such a bad shape. This is an achievement of less than 100 years.

Chandra Basin in Himachal Pradesh depicted by Nicholas Roerich in 1932. The same Chenab Basin now witnesses one of the highest dam densities in Himalayas. From: WikiArt
Chandra Basin in Himachal Pradesh depicted by Nicholas Roerich in 1932. The same Chenab Basin now witnesses one of the highest dam densities in Himalayas. From: WikiArt

Some people will read in this a plea to go back by those 100 years. That is not possible, and we all know that. But there are other ways to deal with the rivers. Human society can take what is needed for the society, without destroying the river.

This is true of Ganga, as any other River!

Himanshu Thakkar (,


This is 200th post from SANDRP! We always look forward to your suggestions and comments for improvement.

Our 100th Blog on River Conversations:



Ganga · Hydropower

What do Rivers have to do with Silt??

Rivers are again in the news, though so far only for symptomatic reasons. The new government at the centre has renamed the charge of water resources minister to Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. There is fundamental contradiction within this name plate and we have in fact yet to see this nameplate.

There is also a lot of discussion about rejuvenation of Ganga, with the Prime Minister promising the people of Varanasi Parliamentary constituency that he will rejuvenate Ganga.  There is no clarity about how he plans to go about in achieving that. His claim during elections that Gujarat Government’s Sabarmati Riverfront Development provides a model for this is clearly a non-starter. Sabarmati has water only in 10.4 km of the river stretch that flows through Ahmedabad. If you go upstream of this stretch, you will find a dry river in most non-monsoon months and if you go downstream, you will find a river more polluted than Yamuna in Delhi. And even the water that one sees in this 10.4 km stretch is not the water from Sabarmati river basin, but is taken from Narmada River via Sardar Sarovar Canal! Pertinently, Ahmedabad or Sabaramati has no right over that water: the Sardar Sarovar Project has been built and justified in the name of Gujarat’s drought-prone areas like Kutch and Saurashtra.

The nameplate-changing business also extended to Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, its name changed to Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, though here again the new nameplate is yet to be seen. Unfortunately, all the noises that we have heard so far from this front seem to give primacy to growth rather than environment or forests or climate change! The new environment minister has yet to say anything about river protection, but he is already talking about river linking!

So is there a hope for rivers in this new establishment, going beyond the symbolic name changes? Here one is reminded of a meeting, where one of us (HT) was invited a few months before the elections, to discuss the state and fate of Yamuna River in Delhi. When HT started speaking, he started by asking what is a river? Is it just a source of water as engineers see it? Following a sudden change in program, Sushri Uma Bharati was the chief speaker at the meeting and when it was her turn to speak , she actually tried to understand that question and tried to find an answer to it: what is a river? Her becoming the Union Water Resources Minister also raises hopes since she had been campaigning for Aviral Dhara (Continuous flow) of the Ganga and against building of dams and hydropower projects in Uttarakhand. We hope that she will realize that impact of dams and hydropower projects on rivers is similar, if not same everywhere.

Ms Bharati is also minister of river development and Ganga Rejuvenation. The question, What is a river? becomes even more relevant in that context. A river is possibly the most complex ecological entity and we still do not understand fully how to define a river. But here we would like to highlight that river is a lifeblood of the ecology and carries so much more than water. One of the key elements that river carries is silt or sediment (although there is a slight difference between the two, we will use it interchangeably here).

The rivers carry silt from various points in their journey from the hills, to the deltas where most major rivers meet the sea. In this journey, the type, quantity, movement of silt varies with place and time. The silt comes in various forms, from suspended matter to fine silt to coarser sand. It is the transfer of silt from upper catchments to the plains that helps build fertile and alluvial flood plains like the Indo Gangetic plains.

Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta during Monsoons. Pcture from :
Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta during Monsoons. Pcture from :

The flow of sediment through rivers to the delta also protects the deltas, which are very highly productive & biodiversity rich ecosystems, population centers and agriculturally fertile areas. Deltas are constantly facing the threat of erosion by sea. In this fight against erosion by sea, the sediment brought by the rivers helps the deltas in a major way. Sediment flow to delta becomes even more important when sea levels are rising in changing climate.

However, when we build dams, hydropower projects and diversion structures on the rivers, we completely change the silt flow pattern in the river. The dams arrest the silt and hydropower projects and release silt free water in the downstream. The erosion capacity of the silt free water is greater, and the additional erosion they cause in the immediate downstream may not compensate for the silt trapped in the dams. The run of the river hydropower projects may release silt annually or more frequently and also on daily basis from desilting chambers, but the pattern of transport of the silt again completely changes. Moreover the dams and diversions completely change the character of flood-flow in the downstream area, when it is established that floods are the most important sediment-transporting events. All these changes have huge impacts in the riverbeds, in the floodplains and in the deltas. And most worryingly, we do not understand these impacts completely as yet.

REbuilding a flood barrier in Bangladesh Delta, destroyed due to Cyclone Aila from :
Rebuilding a flood barrier in Bangladesh Delta, destroyed due to Cyclone Aila from :

It is only recently that scientists have started work that provides a glimpse of impacts this changing silt flow is causing. For example, our deltas are literally shrinking and sinking, and several independent scientific studies are telling us that dams must take major, about three-fourths of the blame. About 80% of the sediment that rivers bring can be trapped by the dams and this means that dams are annually trapping about 40 billion cubic meter of sediment globally. That is more than five Sardar Sarovar Dams every year! In India, our estimate earlier showed that large dams are trapping at least 2 BCM of silt every year, this figure is likely to have gone up now.

Not all the sediment trapped in the dams would reach the deltas, a significant part would have been left on the floodplains and in the river channels. And sediment trapped by dams is one of the many reasons behind sinking of deltas. However, scientists are estimating that already deltas have been deprived of at least 73 BCM of sediment by the dams. In South Asia, during the past century, Indus delta sediments have been reduced by 94 percent, Ganga-Brahmaputra delta sediments by 30 percent, and Narmada delta sediments by 95 percent.

The Ganga Brahmaputra Delta, formed of rich sediment From: EO
The Ganga Brahmaputra Delta, formed of rich sediment From: EO

In 2007-08, the Ganges, Mekong, Irrawaddy and many other rivers flooded with more than 100,000 lives lost and more than a million displaced. Most of the deltas that were flooded did not receive a significant input of sediment. These major flood events lead to sediment trapping behind mega dams.

The direct impacts of delta subsidence and effective seas level rise include inundation of coastal areas, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, increased rates of coastal erosion, an increased exposure to storm surges, in addition to the threats to food security, livelihood security, water security for millions and a huge loss of biodiversity. These threats impact hundreds of millions of people who inhabit the delta regions as well as the ecologically sensitive and important coastal wetland and mangrove forests.

Sundarban Forests constitute parts of Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta from: Wikimedia Commons
Sundarban Forests constitute parts of Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta from: Wikimedia Commons

As Prof. James P Syvitski, the Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, told SANDRP, “We must learn to do better.” However, decisions surrounding dams in most regions of the world are not even assessing the impacts on deltas. Ignoring sediments when building and operating dams comes at a huge price. Someone else is paying that price right now and this price is steeply increasing. For full SANDRP report on this issue, write to us or see

This article provides a glimpse of the role that rivers play in sediment transport. It goes to show how little we know about the role played by rivers in our lives. We hope we have much richer debate around the role of rivers in our lives in days to come.

Himanshu Thakkar (, Parineeta Dandekar (

For a response to this blog by Dr D K Mishra, see:

Satellite image of Brahmaputra River From: Wikimedia Commons
Satellite image of Brahmaputra River From: Wikimedia Commons

( An edited version of this piece appeared in the Civil Society Magazine:


Free flowing rivers · Hydropeaking · Hydropower

“If its peaking, its not an ROR!” Interview with Dr. Thomas Hardy, IAHR and Texas State University

At the 10th International Symposium on Ecohydraulics in Trondheim, Norway in June 2014, SANDRP talked with Dr. Thomas Hardy, Past President of the Ecohydraulics Section of the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research (IAHR), and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment Endowed Professor in Environmental Flows at Texas State University.

Dr. Hardy holds advanced degrees (MS and PhD) in both aquatic ecology and civil engineer and has been at the forefront globally, for linking issues related to hydraulics and hydropower with ecosystems. Here he talks about issues like state-of-art mitigation measures being put to use across the world for mitigating impacts of hydropower, evolution of Ecohydraulics and the dangers of “Putting dams at the wrong place”

We see some significant mitigation measures, some of which include decommissioning, for addressing impacts of hydropower coming from over the world. How did this system evolve? What was the role of various actors and did this happen suo motto from the companies?

Since the last two decades, we have recognized the environmental consequences of hydropower. The cost benefits analyses of many projects is getting skewed, we have been witnessing the ecological costs of many of such projects are exceeding their economic benefits. For example, in the 5 dams in a cascade on the Klamath River, the economic value of the salmon fisheries being destroyed was more than the hydropower benefits from the dams. A lot of mitigation measures have come from countries like Norway and countries like US have also seen them, and we are always keeping our eyes open for better solutions.

Fish Ladder at John Day Dam (from :
Fish Ladder at John Day Dam (from :

While it’s accepted that there will be impacts of any intervention, we need to be honest about the scale of the impacts and who pays the price for these impacts.

About the suo motto role of companies, unfortunately, I have not seen very many companies adopting better environmental standards by themselves without consistent pressures and constant monitoring from people and the government. A lot of credit to increased performance of hydropower mitigation measures goes to NGOs, civil society groups, indigenous communities and the citizens themselves for raising these issues with the companies as well as governments to adopt better standards for their rivers. The advent of social media continues to help a lot to this end.

In the US, a lot of changes were also driven by aboriginal communities who protected their fishing rights or riverine ecosystems. For example in the Klamath River, the aboriginal tribes upheld their traditional fishing rights of salmon which were affected by the dams. This led to not only changes in dam operation, but a spurt of work on fish ladders, passes, eflows and decommissioning. Having said that, we have also committed some massive mistakes, the cost of which have been great. The mitigation measures we are trying to put in now are very costly. Making wise decisions about siting dams and including mitigation measures at the level of designing itself is not only effective, but its also comparatively cheaper. In that sense, it is encouraging to see China being more concerned about the impacts of its hydropower on the environment.


It is claimed that Run of the River projects are environmentally better than storage type HEPs. There are some such projects which undertake massive peaking. How can the impacts of massive scale of hydro-peaking be mitigated?

Firstly, if its peaking, its not an ROR. [1]An ROR by definition cannot store water and cannot change the hydrographs of a river on a timescale. If it’s doing that, it’s not an ROR and should not be labelled as such. Period. If anyone is doing that, I would question their motives in being less than truthful. It’s also a matter of wrong green labels to these projects. So we need to remember that RORs do not change the downstream hydrograph and hence cannot peak.

How about the contention that ramping up and down reduces peaking capabilities of the project?

Well, there is no free lunch. There is a cost to doing business, cost of doing good business, and only this will keep it running in the long term. No one would deny that all developmental activities entail environmental costs, but we to understand the range of environmental and social costs, put them on table and then take a wise decision, taking everyone on board.

As for ramping rates affecting peaking operations, power demands do not fluctuate hugely from established patterns on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis and the companies have a pretty good forecast idea of the range of demand. Based on this, if the peaking is supposedly for 3 hours, up ramping can be started an hour earlier, so that we get the benefits of 3 hours peaking. Same goes for down ramping, you need to coordinate it that way. Of course this will mean some change of efficiency, but like I said, there is no free lunch and surely government and companies are concerned about safety of their people downstream these projects.

Safety concerns of peaking opeartions, apart from the ecological concerns, are very important to consider. In case of  the Milner Dam on the Snake River in the US, I actually had a group of students and fishermen stand and then wade in a river and we then worked on the releases from the dam which gave sufficient time for these people to get out of the river. There is no option to safety measures. They are of paramount importance.

When we develop rivers in a cascade, would it help if we maintain free flowing stretches between projects?

Well it’s a relative question, which is all about siting your projects. In the first place, don’t put a dam in the wrong place! That’s most important. After that, placing of other dams will be specific to the ecological uniqueness of that river. But we need guidelines which say at least some percentage of the upper watershed should be conserved and not exposed to impacts like peaking. It may be better to entirely protect the tributaries of a heavily dammed basin, rather than adopting a cut and stitch approach. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) is now routinely including impacts of hydropeaking on fish and other organisms like benthic macroinvertebrates while relicensing and also licensing.[2]

Decommissioning of the Glines canyon Dam on the Elwha River From
Decommissioning of the Glines canyon Dam on the Elwha River From

How is the monitoring mechanism around mitigation measures developed in the US? Do communities have a role to play here?

Monitoring is well developed and an important part of the licensing process. The company can do annual monitoring themselves, or they can outsource this to an external entity.  Monitoring advisory Committees are mandatory for projects and this committee includes representatives from the company, wildlife groups, aboriginal groups, regulators, etc. The membership to this committee is pretty flexible. If a group has significant reasons and wants to be a part of the monitoring committee, it can do so. This committee monitors environmental management plans and also guides the company in this process.The issue is about making the companies and government accountable to the society.

There has been a flood of eflows methodologies, Which one would you describe as the state of art methodology at this moment?

ELOHA is robust and well developed for this moment, but there is no one size fits all method, the assessment method depends on the data, time and resources available. The main point is that even eflows entail consensus generation and equitable sharing of resources and here too, the community should be playing a main role.

When the dam building pressures are too high, there is little point in hurrying through studies. In extreme cases, it is wise to put a moratorium on on-going development, try and fathom what we have lost and will be losing, look at the environmental and social consequences of this loss and then decide on the way forward. These things cannot be hurried into.

At places like Columbia River systems, we realize that we have changed the entire river basin, but the mitigation measures have been developed, put in place and are working. So, that’s good. But in other places, we realize that the social, ecological and even economic costs we are paying for developing dams are just not worth the costs. In those cases, we need to bring them down. This has happened too.

Interviewed by Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

(The trip was possible due to generous support from Both ENDS)


[1] Text book definition of ROR: ““Run-of-river” refers to a mode of operation in which the hydro plant uses only the water that is available in the natural flow of the river, “Run-of-river” implies that there is no water storage and that power fluctuates with the stream flow.”

NOTE: Contrast this with the Indian Bureau of Standards definition of ROR, which allows pondage for even weekly fluctuations of demands and then claiming that this “does not alter the river course materially”. This is a blunder as that sort of pondage and resultant peaking hydrograph changes the downstream character of the river completely. even weekly storage and then peaking as ROR!

[2] The Turners Falls Project is currently operated with a minimum flow release that was not based on biological criteria or field study. Further, the project generates power in a peaking mode resulting in significant with-in day flow fluctuations between the minimum and project capacity on hourly or daily basis. The large and rapid changes in flow releases from hydropower dams are known to cause adverse effects on habitat and biota downstream of the project. Effects on spawning behavior could include suspension of spawning activity, poor fertilization, flushing of eggs into unsuitable habitat due to higher peaking discharges, eggs dropping out into unsuitable substrate and being covered by sediment deposition and/or eggs becoming stranded on de-watered shoal areas as peak flows subside.