On August 25-27, 2021 the most of hilly districts in Uttarakhand witnessed intense rainfall events causing widespread destruction. Media reports and local people suggest at least seven cloud burst incidents occurring in quick succession over Binhar range in Pacchawadoon and Mussoorie hills dividing Ganga and Yamuna basins in Dehradun district. The resultant deluge has also affected the under construction Vyasi Hydro Electric Project (HEP) areas in Vikas Nagar tehsil highlighting that the project is unprepared to cope with existing & emerging disasters.
Vyasi Hydro Electric Project
Vyasi HEP[i] is first big project being built on the main stem of Yamuna river in Himalayan segment. The 120 MW (60X2) ‘run of the river’ project was originally part of 420 Mw Lakhwar Vyasi Multipurpose Project, the Lakhwar Dam is proposed some 5 km upstream from Vyasi HEP head. The now separate 300 MW Lakhwar dam project is under legal scrutiny before National Green Tribunal (NGT) while government has completed public hearings in September-October 2020 just to tick the box, without any credible process or information sharing or consultation amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The erstwhile National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (now NHPC Ltd) got controversial Environment Clearances (EC) in September 2007 to develop the project. In June 2008, the government of Uttarakhand allotted the project to Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd (UJVNL). The agency paid[ii] Rs. 74 crore to NHPC as part of liabilities in 2009 and in April 2010, NHPC transferred[iii] the EC to UJVNL which bifurcated the 420 MW multipurpose project into 300 MW Lakhwar dam and 120 MW Vyasi
Around 30 percent of Vyasi HEP work had reportedly been completed during 1990s for remaining part, UJVNL selected[iv] National Projects Construction Corporation Limited (NPCC) for building the power house and Gammon for the construction of the dam in October 2013. Next month, UJVNL took[v] a loan of Rs 656 crore from Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) Ltd for the project while state government was supposed to invest the rest 30 per cent equity.
UJVNL started working on Vyasi HEP early in 2014 with estimated budget of Rs. 950 crore and commissioning[vi] target by December 2018. The current projected completion date as per the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) figures is 2022-23. The completion of project has already been delayed by over four years while construction cost has escalated to Rs. 1777.30 crore. A November 2020, two page note[vii] by CEA mentions the project would likely be commissioned by April 2022.
The project involves construction of 86 metre high and 207.2 m long concrete gravity dam and 2.7 km long circular head race tunnel (HRT) in earthquake sensitive and landslide prone[viii] area. During construction, the developer has been found dumping muck[ix] along and in the river irresponsibly and causing excessive riverbed mining in the project area among other violations. However, in absence of adequate compliance monitoring mechanism in India’s environment and hydro sector, UJVNL has managed to escape accountabilities for the violations.
Cloud Bursts and Flash Floods in Vyasi HEP area on Aug. 26-27
In the intervening night of August 26-27, the Pachchwadoon region in Vikas Nagar tehsil saw intense rainfall spell causing flash floods in local streams around Vyasi HEP. Locals report of flash flood and cloud bursts near Dinjal, Bhadeli, Jakhan villages under Binhar area flooding human settlements at Juddo and Hathyari located just downstream of Vyasi HEP dam site and power station. Two similar cloud burst incidents have been reported in Mussoorie region in Dehradun district around same time.
In the Juddo incident, several homes, shops were buried[x] under huge muck and debris after flash flood spell around mid-night on August 26. Local people narrowly escaped the deluge but could not save their belongings from the sudden deluge. They blamed PWD for dumping road construction muck carelessly just uphill the Juddo habitation. Juddo is mall market area located on either bank of river Yamuna just downstream of the Vyasi HEP dam site.
The road is named Late Suresh Tomar motor marg connecting Dinjal and Gasti villages. The muck dump yard was created close to stream. As per villagers the small bridge built during road construction had insufficient passage. Following heavy rainfall the muck, debris blocked the stream at the bridge diverting the flash flood towards human population settled across Juddo bridge en-route Yamnotri shrine. The downpour also damaged[xi] Yamnotri highway severely at several places between Juddo and Lakhwar bend.
Then a cloud burst incident around 02:00 am on August 27 in Bhadeli panchayat area created flash flood in Ratoi stream which joins Yamuna river downstream of the Vyasi HEP power station. The water deluge flooded[xii] several homes in Gaddha colony located about 50 metre downstream the project power station. The farm lands and crops along the Yamuna and Ratoi stream suffered significant damages in the incident.
The power station area at Hathyari was flooded with muck and debris burying several vehicles and machines. Power generation was stopped in Dhakrani (33.75 Mw), Dhalipur (51 Mw), Kulhal (30 Mw) hydro projects based on Shakti canal emanating from Dakpathar barrage due to increase in silt.
On the same day, a cloud burst[xiii] occurred around 07:30 am in Jakhan village under Pashta area located about 1.5 km uphill Yamuna river from Katapathar. Following heavy rainfall a home collapsed, killing[xiv] an elderly villager. Several farmlands of village were filled with silt, sludge destroying the crop. There was severe flash flood in Been stream trapping some 30 villagers which were rescued[xv] by SDRF. Been as a tributary joins Yamuna river at Katapathar where a barrage is proposed. The location is about 2 km downstream of the Vyasi power station at Hathyari.
The intense rainfall spell caused widespread[xvi] damages[xvii] to cowsheds, homes, shops, farmlands, roads in Rudrapur, Langha, Kedarwala, Chharba, Khushalpur, Vikas Nagar, Harbatpur. Flash floods in Shitla river washed away 15 cattle in Chharba and eroded several farmlands in Jassowala.
Another cloud burst[xviii] event took place in early morning hours of August 27 near Majra Kadriyana area under Bhitareli village in Mussoorie washing away[xix] two cowsheds and causing landslips at half a dozen places in the area. Heavy rainfall, flash flood spells left behind huge trail of destruction impacting local roads, bridges and agricultural land and crops.
Major part of Maal Devta Shahastradhara link road was engulfed[xx] by Baldi river, a tributary of Song. This incident is also reported due to cloud burst[xxi]. It looks that the link road alignment had encroached river meandering curve restricting flood flows. This is the day when the Rani Pokhari bridge built in 1964 on Jakhan river collapsed[xxii] damaging several vehicles. Chandrabhaga river in Rishikesh swelled dangerously. Gangotri and Badrinath national highways were severely damaged at multiple locations.
As per reports, the Santla Devi Temple area near Khabadwala village witnessed cloud burst twice[xxiii] on August 24 night flooding[xxiv] several residential in outskirt of state capital including Kishan Nagar, Vijay Bhagat colonies along the streams originating from hills. Following heavy rainfall the Nala Ki Rao, Rispana, Bindal rivers of Ganga basin and Nun, Nimi, Tons rivers part of Asan basin were seen in spate.
Is Vyasi HEP prepared for existing, emerging disasters?
While Rajiv Agarwal, Executive Director, Vyasi HEP, UJVNL is quoted in reports accepting vehicles and machinery flooded with debris which is also shown in pictures in power station area during heavy rainfall spell on August 27, when contacted he claimed that all the impact has been outside project boundary wall and the incident has not affected the project in any manner.
When asked if there is any Early Warning System (EWS) in place to alert local people and workers of flash floods, Agarwal says EWS will be installed in project area though construction work has been going on for past seven years.
According to Agarwal, Irrigation Department, Uttarakhand in association Central Water Commission (CWC) is developing control room system in Dehradun which would have data of all the operational and under construction projects for dam safety purpose.
He further adds that unlike Chamoli incident of February 7, Vyasi HEP is located about 200 km away from glacial zone of Yamuna hence it’s in relatively safe area. However, just in the past decade, there have been devastating floods in the Himalayan segment of Yamuna basin in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2019. With it being the first major dam on Yamuna, the project must be prepared to face such deluge taking place there periodically.
It is also well known that flash flood have been damaging under construction hydro projects across Himalayan states and flood disasters are also on the increase in the region due to wrong operation of hydel projects.
Regarding landslide vulnerability of the project, Agarwal accepts the area is landslide prone with small scale incidents occurring on and off during rains and says proper maintenance of drainage system in project area can tackle the issue.
“We have been working with Geological Survey of India (GSI) to improve the natural drainage in project area to deal with the issue. There has not been any large scale landslide since 1987 when construction work on project (Lakhwar dam) started but we have seen first incident of cloud burst on August 27 in the region”, states Rajiv Agarwal.
In fact, there have been several incidents of localized intense rainfall in Yamuna basin and Mussoorie area in recent past. Even the Lakhwar dam site saw a cloud burst[xxv] incident on July 19, 2020. The unprecedented flood spell in Yamuna river in August 2019 was itself a result of multiple cloud bursts in Tons basin under Mori block of Uttarkashi bordering Himachal Pradesh. Earlier this year, the Jogiyo[xxvi] village in Chakrata on May 20 and Maal Devta[xxvii] area in Mussoorrie on June 9 witnessed cloud bursts.
August 26-27 events and above information clearly shows increase in excessive rainfall, flash flood events in and around Vyasi HEP region, however the UJVNL has put no monitoring and mitigation mechanism in place. Bausan, the only level monitoring site by CWC at Hathyari is defunct post 2010 floods.
The project also faces earthquake threat[xxviii] as the terrain falls in seismic zone IV. For past three years, officials have been talking about installation of earthquake sensors in project area. As per, Rajiv Agarwal, the UJVNL has contacted IIT, Rurkee and the sensors would be installed once the project comes in operational stage. He also informed that a micro seismic study for Lakhwar dam area has been conducted recently.
On why the project commissioning has been delayed, Agarwal says there was shortage of man power during Covid 19 restrictions in past two years. He claimed, contrary to CEA assessment, the project would be completed by December 2021 end within the revised budget. He believes the ongoing protest by local regarding Resettlement & Rehabilitation (R&R) would be resolved within this month.
In the meantime, the agitation[xxix] demanding promised rehabilitation, compensation and employment under Yamuna Ghati (Lakhwar-Vyasi) Bandh Prabhavit Samiti, Lohari has completed 103 days on September 16.
As usual amid cost escalation, delays, looming geological, climatic threats, norms violations and social injustice, the tall claims of the hydro project developers continue to be contradicted by the ground realities.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)