Uttarakhand: Road widening work in Almora, damages traditional water sources

The haphazard road construction and widening in Uttarakhand have been proving disastrous for local water sources in fragile mountain region for long. In the latest instance, the villagers of Bheta-Badoli under Dhauladevi block in Almora district have complained of road debris choking the natural stream and damaging the traditional water source of the village. 

As per local media report, around 1.5 km stretch of Almora-Ghat Panar, Pithoragarh National Highway (NH) 109 B is undergoing widening for about past one month. The work is happening with heavy machines like JCB, Pokland towards Almora near Dhyadi village some 10 km away from local market Danya.  The debris and muck generated in the process are simply being pushed down the slope, in violation of all norms.

The Bheta Badoli village is located along a slope. About 50 families of village secure water from a natural source known as Naula in local parlance and from forest stream which is part of Panar river system. The reckless disposing the debris has damaged the Naula and Boulder Filled Gallery (BFG) structure built to supply drinking water from the stream. BFG are run-off tanks built nearby a stream to filter and store water before supply.  

   Bheta-Badoli village and debris dumping images shared by villagers 

As per rules, dumping zones should be created for storing and further disposal or resource recovery from road construction debris. The dumping of this material downhill is not allowed as the act could pose immense threats to villager’s lives, houses, farm lands apart from impacting forest vegetation, streams and water sources adversely. 

However, the villagers allege that the contractor had paid no heed to the norms and concerned government department did nothing to stop the violations.

Notably, none other than the Drinking Water Supply Department had forewarned the executing government agency of the impacts of careless debris disposal on Bheta Bidoli drinking water supply sources.

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Copy of letter dated Feb. 13, 2020 by Jal Sansthan Engineer to PWD Department raising the concern. 

In a letter dated February 13, 2020 addressed to the Executive Engineer, NH, Public Works Department (PWD) Office, Almora, the Chief Engineer of Jal Sansthan Mukesh Kumar had raised the serious concerns regarding dumping of road widening debris down the slope and its impact on water supply sources. But even this failed to bring any change in functioning of the contractor and PWD. Also the Jal Sansthan had recently repaired the BFG structure after it was damaged partially by dumping of debris.

The work and illegal dumping continued. As a result finally on February 21, 2020 the debris chocked the local stream, damaged the BFG and thus caused disruption of drinking water supply based on it.  

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Facing water scarcity, villagers have pleaded administration to look into the issue and take corrective steps. In a letter to District Magistrate (DM), Almora on February 23, the village Pradhan has demanded immediate action against the contractor and restoration of water supply. They have also mentioned that apart from destruction of water sources the debris dumping act has affected their farms and is posing threats to their lives and houses. 

Copy of letter dated Feb. 23, 2020 sent to DM demanding actions against contractor and restoration of water supply. 

Witnessing increase in land slips incidents and massive soil erosion, the environmentalists have also been criticizing the unsustainable road building projects happening across the state. As per Manoj Matwal of HARELA Society, Pithoragarh the traditional water sources, streams are essential part of delicate watershed but the thoughtless execution have been destroying these and depriving villagers of water. “The vulnerable areas including water sources should be demarcated duly before taking up construction work and no dumping should be allowed there under any circumstances”, says Matwal.

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The issue was also covered by Hindi dailies.  

There have been multiple fatal accidents, landslides on account of Char Dham Road project[i] at several locations in the state which is being executed without any Environment Impact Assessment or management plan. The project has left large hill tracts along the major rivers filled with debris and severely affecting farm based livelihoods at several locations.

The project is sub-judice in the Supreme Court however there is no order to stop the work. Apart from Char Dham Road project there are several other big and small road projects going on in all the hilly districts. The common practice is dig the hill slop with heavy machines and dump the debris down the hill simultaneously as the machines charges are high and it is hired on hourly basis. In the process of haste the trees and other vegetation are also uprooted, cut down without assessing the impacts on soil cover, vegetation, landslide risks and water sources.

It is also observed that the number of cloud bursts[ii] incidents devastating the state has increased over the years and dumping of debris along slopes and in streams, rivers under the Char Dham road and other projects have increased the frequency and intensity of landslides and aggravating the flash flood situation in the state.

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Affected villagers protested against the debris dumping. (Image shared by villagers) 

In Conclusion A researcher in aquatic ecosystem, Manoj Matwal has recently assisted the a Supreme Court (SC) committee in assessing and understanding the impact of Tanakpur-Pithoragarh highway extension work on local flora and fauna including the water sources and aquatic life and suggested several remedial measures. (All weather road impact on environment-1)

It is now upto the committee and apex court to take cognizance of gross rule violations and adverse impact on soil, water, forest, rivers and people. At the same time, the impact of other road construction and widening projects needed to be studied scientifically to lessen adverse watershed footprints to the possible extent.

There is no denying that roads have become essential for health, education, employment and other facilities but at the same time creation of the roads should not become threat to lives and properties of locals and lead to irreversible destruction of forests, rivers and water sources.

Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gamil.com)

Post Script:- Following agitation threats, the local sources reported of no more dumping of debris into stream there.


End Notes:

[i] https://sandrp.in/2018/10/06/char-dham-highway-project-an-overview/

[ii] https://sandrp.in/2019/12/11/uttarakhand-cloud-bursts-in-monsoon-2019-no-doppler-radars-six-years-since-2013-disaster/

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