In a historic judgement, the High Court (HC) of Bangladesh has said that river encroachers cannot run in any elections or get bank loans. The HC also ordered the government to make a list of every grabber in the country and publish the list in the media to expose them to the public. The grabbers include powerful individuals, businesses and, ironically, government offices. The Gazipur City Corporation is among the grabbers, a judicial inquiry has found.
After the verdict, the government now will have to amend the National River Protection Commission (NRPC) Act 2013 with provisions for punishment and fine for river grabbing. The current NRPC Act does not have provisions for punishment. The government must report to the court in six months on its action in this regard. The HC also declared the NRPC as the legal guardian of all rivers and act like their “parents”.
The landmark verdict comes when river grabbing by influential groups seems unstoppable. Often, grabbers return to steal river land soon after being evicted. The HC delivered the judgment in response to a petition by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh. The writ petition was filed on Nov. 7, 2016.
On occasion of World Water Day 2018, SANDRP put together reports of remarkable water conservation work done by individuals, villager community and organizations across the country.
Good that UN report this WWD says[i]: “The efforts by local communities in India to improve water availability have been lauded in a UN report that highlights the importance of finding nature-based solutions to meet global water challenges…. The report notes that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at disposal. It also cited the example of China’s Sponge City which aims to recycle 70 per cent of rainwater.”
But the UN report[ii] does not mention that local options should be the top priority and should be exhausted before going for large projects. Unfortunately, Indian water resources establishment’s priority is Large dams and river linking. The UN report also does not say that local systems are bound to be neglected and destroyed in the shadow of large projects and where the governance is top down, unaccountable, non transparent and non participatory.
This is about the proposed Brahmaputra Festival being planned by the Assam Govt from March 31 to April 4, 2017. The five-day festival will witness significant participation from China. Various other countries such as Vietnam and Singapore are also reported as attending the program. It is scheduled to be inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee.
It is true that the word business appears four times on the opening page of this festival website, but the word flood, erosion and people do not appear even once. This is relevant since for very large sections of people of Assam, the river also means floods, erosion, displacement and disaster on regular basis and not just “lifeline of Assam” or “life-giving prosperity and countless blessings”.
The festival website also errs in many ways, including when it claims “India’s only male river”, since there are several male rivers, including Damodar, Ajoy, Pagla, Gadadhar, among others. It is true that even the word Nemami is copied from the Nemami Gange, but that should not be such a big issue?
It is true that people also suffer when river dries up or is polluted or is encroached or unsustainably mined, and none of these issues are highlighted by the festival website. It is true that the the Assam also means all the communities, including the bodos and mishing and many others, not just Guwahati or Dibrugarh or Majuli. The festival organisers may argue that we are taking the festival to all 21 districts, but it is important to recognised all communities of Assam.
This is in addition to the fact that Brahmaputra includes all the states of North East India, and more. The Brahmaputra, 2,900 km long, is an international river with 918 km of it flowing in India, 1625 km in China and 337 km in Bangladesh.
It is true that the festival is more about attracting tourists, business and transport along the river. And so it is not even giving a comprehensive picture of the rivers of Brahmaputra basin in Assam, nor is there attempt to do anything to improve the state of the rivers. Similarly, the destruction of the rivers of Guwahati and Assam needs to be halted and reversed, and may be this occasion can be used to push that advocacy?
A perennial river that does not flow is no river. This is because flow enables a river to fulfil its various ecological functions of which completion of the water and nutrient cycles; maintenance of aquatic and riparian flora and fauna and recharge of ground water through aquifer action is the most evident and critical. The recharged ground water also helps meet a number of human dependencies like irrigation and drinking water supplies.
The theme of this World Water Day, 2014 is Water and Energy. The occasion gives us an opportunity to take a look at the hydropower rush going on in the country at this moment.
Hydropower projects are being incessantly pushed from the highest quarters ( including the Prime Minister’s Office, through the formulation of Cabinet Committee on Investment, Ministries like Power, Private dam lobbies, etc.,) . Some environmentalists do not seem to bat an eyelid while labelling ALL hydropower as “Green”. (Director General of CSE was a part of the Kasturirangan Committee report which certified all hydro as green, did not object to two of the most destructive projects: Gundia and Athirappilly, did not stress that mini hydel projects should be appraised for their impacts)
Despite its far reaching impacts, the general perception about hydropower, consciously pushed by developers, funders like World Bank and ADB and also institutions is that they are ‘clean, green and sustainable’. ( The overall understanding of institutions like World Bank on the water-energy nexus is itself limited, as is highlighted by this critique by Shripad Dharmadhikary.)
With impacts of HEPs and protests from local communities increasing, we need to check these premises which blindly give a “Green and Clean” certificate to all hydropower, without qualification. On the occasion of the World Water Day, we attempt to look at some impacts of HEPs planned across India on ecosystems and local communities, the existing environmental governance and the justification behind pushing these projects.
Whither River? A typical HEP impounds water behind a dam, transfers it through a Head Race Tunnel (HRT) to the powerhouse where electricity is generated and transfers water back into the river through a Tail Race Tunnel (TRT). Prima facie, supporters of hydropower claim that water is returned to the river and hence hydropower is a renewable and green. However, the tunnels that carry water from dam to the powerhouse and back tend to be kilometers long, effectively drying the river between. Even for one project, this can be a long stretch. 588 MW Luhri HEP in Himachal Pradesh, on Sutlej will have Asia’s longest tunnel of 38.14 kms bypassing the river for 50 kms. Upstream Luhri, there are 3 dams bumper to bumper: 412 MW Rampur, 1500 MW Nathpa Jhakri and 1000 MW Karcham Wangtoo. Effectively, the entire river will flow through tunnels made by blasting fragile Himalayan Mountains or through stagnant waters behind dams. Same is the case of the Teesta basin in Sikkim and many other rivers.
Along with rivers, the aquatic biodiversity, specialist riparian forests, forests in submergence zones, groundwater recharge zones, habitats to numerous wild animals, watering holes of wildlife and communities too are being destroyed. Seventy hydroelectric Projects in Uttarakhand will submerge more than 3,600 hectares of forests. Dibang Multipurpose HEP in Arunachal alone can submerge 5,056 hectares of forest while the Tipaimukh HEP in Manipur can submerge an unbelievable 25, 822 hectares of forest, providing 1 MW installed capacity for 16 hectares of forest submerged.
Diurnal fluctuations and impacts of peaking When the releases from power houses eventually meet the rivers, there is a huge fluctuation on a daily basis in the water level in the downstream. For example, in case of the 1,750 MW Demwe Lower HEP on the Lohit in Arunachal Pradesh, the water level fluctuations 100 kilometers downstream in the Lohit River at Dibru Saikhowa National Park will range from 70 cumecs to 1920 cumecs, each day in the lean season. This is a level fluctuation of 3-5 feet every day in the plains! In case of the Siang River, if all dams on the main stem and tribuataries are constructed, water level in the downstream DErring National Park will flucatute beween 23 feet everyday in the lean season!
Run ‘with’ the River Projects? Project Proponents, industry and even official committees are claiming that Run of the River (ROR) Projects are green as they do not involve major storage and do not alter the rivers flow over a 10 day period. ROR thus get an official tag of sustainability. In reality, most of the ROR Projects involve massive dams and massive storages behind these dams. They involve reservoirs which run upto ten or more kilometers.For example, the reservoir og Luhri will be 6.8 km long; Kotli Bhel IB will be 27.5 km, Kotli Bhel 2 will be 31.21 km and Lower Demwe will be 23 kms long.
At the same time, for the riverine ecosystem and downstream population, the daily fluctuations in the river levels is devastating. Over a hundred people have died in India due to sudden release of water from upstream hydro projects in non-monsoon months.
Impacts on the aquatic ecosystem: HEPs alter the master variable which governs major riverine processes: its flow. Dams physically block upstream and downstream migration of fish species crucial for their spawning. Fragmentation of rivers, water fluctuation, dry river stretches and passage through turbines have a disastrous impact on fisheries and fish diversity which has been collapsing in all major rivers in country, mainly due to dams.
Himachal Pradesh Fisheries Department has a ‘Negative list’ of rivers and streams rich in biodiversity where in situ protection of fisheries should take place. Ironically, even in this region, hydropower plants are being sanctioned and set up, sometimes in cascades.
There are no provisions for fish migration like fish passages and ladders, eflows. For example the 300 MW Baspa II HEP on Baspa River, in the negative list for fisheries does not have a fish ladder, and has been drying the river without e-flows. Fisheries Departments in Himalayan as well as Western Ghat States have become rubber stamps for providing No Objection Certificates to HEPs while taking monitory compensation. Himachal Fisheries department charges Rs 50,000 per kilometer and additionally, Rs 50,000 Per MW electricity generated as compensation. This means windfall profits to Fisheries departments and nothing to actual fish diversity that is being destroyed.
Hydel Power Dams coming up in the Western Ghats like the 163 MW Athirappilly and 200 MW Gundia will affect endemic and endangered fish diversity in the region, which is not mentioned in the cut paste EIAs of these projects. While WGEEP report categorically rejected both these projects, the HLWG headed by Dr Kasturirangan did not reject them. Instead it simply asked for a revaluation.
The 780 MW Nyamjangchu Project to come up in Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh threatens one of the last remaining wintering sites of the Black Necked Crane and habitat of Red Panda, though the EIA of the project did not mention this fact. While the Cumulative Impact Assessment report on Upper Ganga HEPs submitted by Wildlife Institute of India recommended dropping 24 HEPs for their irreversible impacts on ecology, but the report of the IMG on Ganga Projects headed by B K Chaturvedi rejected this without giving any reasons.
Disaster potential A critical issue left unaddressed in the environmental clearance, forest clearance and even report of committees like IMG on Ganga and HLWG on Western Ghats is the assessment of disaster potential of hydropower projects. Deforestation, building activities, boulder mining, tunneling and blasting, integral with hydropower projects in the Himalayas make the young mountain more prone to landslides and rivers more flood prone. Impoundment and water level fluctuations play a major role in landslides.
EIAs of mega projects like Luhri, which plans to have world’s longest tunnel does not even include impacts of this tunnel in EIA Report submitted by CISHME team. In the recent Uttarakhand disaster, projects like 400 MW VishnuPrayag, 330 MW Srinagar, 76 MW Phata Byung, 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari, 304 and 90 MW Maneri Bhali I and II & 280 MW Dhauli Ganga hugely increased the damages and loss of lives. If more projects on Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, cleared by MoEF and IMG, were present, losses would have been higher. However, there are studies after studies which do not mention the disaster potential of projects, like the recent Siang Basin Study.
Muck disposal – an example of impacts of non-compliance Throughout the Himalayan states, rivers are littered and changing courses due to millions of tonnes of muck illegally dumped by the HEPs in the riverbed itself. This muck dumped by 330 MW Srinagar Project in Alaknanda bed hugely increased the disaster in Srinagar Town. Muck disposal plans of HEPs remain resolutely on paper, whereas on ground, muck is dumped at the most convenient sites: the riverbed. MoEF has refused to take action even when presented with evidence. The IMG report missed most of these ground realities.
Major struggles From Lahaul Spiti in the glacial north, Singoli Bhatwari & Phata Byung in Uttarakhand, to Subansiri Lower and Tawang in the North east, to the Athirappilly in Western Ghats of Kerala, most of the large (and also small) HEPs are being opposed strongly by local communities. India is witnessing one of its largest anti dam stir against the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri HEP in Assam where construction on the project has been stalled for 20 months. Why are the communities resisting at this scale? Why are litigations surrounding HEPs increasing? Do the communities have any role while decisions are taken in Delhi and private proponent’s offices about destroying their rivers? The answer is no.
Climate Friendly façade of Large Hydro: Large Hydro promoters, government, funders like World Bank and ADB as well as research institutions are supporting HEPs because of the claimed climate friendly nature of the projects.
This is hugely misleading. World over, HEPs are being increasingly recognized as being ‘False Solutions to Climate Change’. Reservoirs of HEPs (including RORs) emit Methane which is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than Carbon dioxide. This emission is further boosted at each draw down of the dam.
The trouble is, we have not conducted a single credible greenhouse gas emission study for any of India’s so-called ‘climate friendly’ hydros. The only project where this was a condition laid while granting a hasty environmental clearance was the 1000 MW Tipaimukh HEP. But here too, after 5 years of granting the EC the study has not been conducted. There is no logic behind labeling large hydro as climate friendly. On the other hand through deforestation, drying up of rivers, destruction of ecological services, instability, increased risks of landslides and flash floods, the adaptation and mitigation potential of local communities to Climate Change is hugely compromised.
With Climate change, Glaciers in Himalayas are receding faster than those at other mountains (ICIMOD). This is leaving moraine debris on the path of receding glacier, building up into moraine dams which can fail catastrophically, as was witnessed in Kedarnath disaster. In this scenario, hydropower dams, which depend largely on glacial melt are not only vulnerable to climate change, but have catastrophic impacts on the downstream population as was witnessed in Uttarakhand in case of 400 MW Vishnuprayag and 330 MW Srinagar Projects. Hence, claiming that HEPs in India are important from climate change perspective is unscientific.
Environmental governance: As per SANDRPs analysis, the Expert Appraisal Committee granting environmental clearance to River valley projects has not rejected a single project of the 262 project considered in last six years ending in Dec 2012. Even when local groups and organisations like SANDRP have raised concerns about impacts of HEPs on rivers, ecosystems and communities, these have been routinely sidelined. While sanctioning cascades of HEPs, no credible CIAs or basin studies or carrying capacity studies are being performed. IMG report on Upper Ganga Projects has also come across as a huge disappointment in this aspect.
MoEF has openly stated that it does not have the capacity to ensure environmental compliance of clearance conditions and environment management plan. In the absence of any enforcement, violations have become a norm. Neither has the MoEF thought of stalling Environmental and Forest Clearancesof HEPs unless streamlined compliance is enforced, like it did for the case of Goa Mines.The pressure of lobbies seems to have blinded precautionary principle or democratic governance at all levels.
It may be noted that 50% of our existing HEPs are generating at less than 50% of their designed 90% dependable generation, while nearly 89% projects generate at below the promised levels! Per MW generation has fallen by about 25% in last two decades. On the other hand, micro-hydel projects are making remote places like Anjaw in Arunachal power secure without major impacts.
Sustainable development cannot be achieved by poor environmental governance, by discouraging community participation, by excluding affected communities from decision-making while externalizing impacts on local communities, ecology and future generations. Energy security and access to energy to poor and disadvantaged sections of the society is a very real challenge and there are ways to address this challenge, which are not ecologically and socially destructive. Let us hope that the Water-Energy Nexus also upholds the rights of the rivers and its people.
This World Water Day comes in year which has been declared as the “International Year of Water Cooperation” by the United National General Assembly. In addition, the UN has proclaimed the decade 2005-2015 as the International Decade for Action, “Water for Life”.
The UN declarations would be welcome if we are able to take credible and effective steps towards water cooperation at every level in an equitable, sustainable way and through local participation. This becomes increasingly relevant when demand for water is increasing due to rising population, urbanisation, industrialisation, increased per capita use and increased losses due to climate change. The available and utilisable supply of water is either stagnant or decreasing due to increased pollution, increased temperatures, changing rainfall pattern, melting of glaciers and over exploitation. Moves towards centralised and undemocratic governance and privatisation of resources are not helpful as they do not promote cooperation, but only further conflicts. The prevailing and emerging situation is a sure fire recipe for increasing conflicts, not cooperation.
At the same time, UN Declaration of July 2010, declaring water as a human right remains only on paper. UN and the governments will clearly need to go beyond mere words and pious declarations.
Water: Some key characteristics Water is not just a commodity for market or an economic good. It is an ecological entity embedded in larger ecology that includes the climate, land, forests, and biodiversity. This includes, but is not limited to: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands, lakes, aquifers, soil, snow and water vapour in the atmosphere. In fact our understanding of the interplay of water in the larger eco-system is still far from complete. When we use water from any source, we should be mindful of its impact in the larger ecosystem. The UN resolution for declaring the 2005-2015 decade was not called “water for life” for nothing. Life here includes not just life of every human being but life on the entire planet.
INDIA AND NEIGHBOURS On this occasion, it would be useful to take a look at the situation in the region. India and China are locked in one-up man ship in Brahmaputra basin, India and Pakistan are competing in destroying shared rivers, ecology and connected livelihoods through hydropower projects in the Indus river basin while India and Bangladesh are struggling to arrive at an agreement on sharing the Teesta waters. When it happens, this will be only the second water sharing treaty, among the 54 rivers shared by India and Bangladesh.
Considering that the countries in this region share the Himalayan watershed on which numerous big and small rivers and millions of people and biodiversity depend, there is an urgent need to have a Regional Policy for the common good of the people of the region.
Possible Chinese diversion The Chinese government officials have often talked about China’s intention of diverting the Brahmaputra (basically Siang River, one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra) river to North China, just before the river enters India. China has officially declared its plans to build at least four hydropower projects on the river. The work on the water diversion project is yet to start and China has denied that the project is being taken up. However the Indian government is pushing more big hydro projects in Arunachal Pradesh, claiming that these will help establish India’s prior use rights over the waters of these rivers when China does decide to take up its North South diversion project.
Such a push for big hydro in Arunachal Pradesh under the bogey of Chinese plans is only likely to worsen the situation for the people of Arunachal Pradesh and also for downstream areas in India and Bangladesh. This will only create new water conflicts. Moreover, there is no international mechanism that would help India claim its prior user right. The 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses could have been of use, but India has yet to ratify the convention. The best course for India is to push China for a water sharing treaty.
In view of the crisis of climate change, this need has become even more acute. Today, there is no such policy and each country is developing multiple projects on its own, and many of the so-called development projects are actually accelerating climate change impacts and conflicts. Hundreds of hydropower projects are either constructed, are under construction or are being planned across the countries in the region. These projects, along with their paraphernalia of roads, townships, mining, tunnelling, blasting, muck dumping, diverting of rivers and dams are cumulatively having huge, though as yet unquantified impact on the glaciers, forests, aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, communities, water availability and water supply ,thereby impacting the climate as well.
Flood forecasting: One of the areas where information sharing is immediately required is in the area of sharing information about forecasts related to floods in the shared rivers. The governments in the region seem to have a number of agreements to share information in this regard, including Pakistan-India, Nepal-India, Bhutan-India, Bangladesh-India and China-India. Unfortunately, the shared information in this aspect is not in the public domain. Such shared information must be in public domain. What use is the flood forecasting related information if it is not shared among the people who are going to face the disastrous impacts of floods?
Transparency and Participation in governance in shared river basins There are elaborate, mostly bilateral inter-governmental mechanisms on governance of water and rivers in a number of cases in the South Asia region. These pertain to the bilateral arrangements of India with Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. These arrangements include basin level commissions, minister level committees, officer level committees, project specific commissions and so on. Unfortunately, there is practically no transparency in the functioning of these mechanisms, nor is there any role for any concerned actors outside the government. In governance of rivers, waters and related projects, local people have the right to know what is going on in these committees and commissions.
The need for such public participation was acutely felt in the aftermath of the Kosi Disaster on the Indo-Nepal border in August 2008. During the initial period of this disaster, it was shown how the bilateral Kosi High Level committee had failed to achieve the proper maintenance of the embankment that breached with the flow of water in the river was less than 1.5 lakh cusecs (Cubic Feet per Second) even as the design capacity of the embankment was over 9 lakh cusecs. In the days that followed, it became clear that if there had been some non government people on the Indo Nepal Kosi committees and there was more transparency with representation from local communities and civil society in the committees, it would have helped ensure the maintenance of the embankment and that possibly would have saved it from breaching at least on that particular occasion.
Conditions for water cooperation We need to understand key conditions that would help achieve better cooperation in water sector. Some key conditions in this regard include:
Clearly defined priorities for water use, rules of allocation of water to different users, water allocation mechanisms among various sectors, democratic rules of governance of such mechanisms, understanding the importance of ecosystem resources, Conservation of ecosystem resources including Wetlands, forests, rivers, lake, biodiversity; clearly defined and legally enforceable Right to Water and mechanisms to enforce the same. Good governance in this context would include clearly defined norms for key aspects like transparency, accountability and participation. There is need to have legal and institutional set up to achieve these goals.
The weaker sections (tribals, Dalits, women, marginal farmers, coastal and mountain populations) or weaker stakeholders (environment, rivers) have always been losing at the negotiating table. Centralising of authority and decision making being more and more away from local stakeholders creates possibility of more conflicts and conflict resolution becomes more difficult. Local water management can help reduce and also help address conflicts at the local level.
WORLD COMMISSION ON DAMS: Framework for cooperation in water management The report of the World Commission on Dams: Dams and Development – A New Framework for Decision Making provides a useful starting point to achieve cooperation in water management. The recommendations of the report are applicable at every level, from community to international level. It would be good if the United Nations recognises the principles in the WCD report in this year of water cooperation and provides some institutional support for their implementation and if countries in the region follow these recommendations for transboundary as well as local rivers.
THE ROLE OF UN Sixty percent of the world’s freshwaters are transboundary. So there should be little doubt that water cooperation is critical to avoid conflicts and ensure effective and sustainable use of shared resources. Over the years, the UN has been coming out with various programs and principles on water resources management. However, none of them have legal and institutional back up. Its 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is yet to come into force as it has yet to receive ratification of the required 35 countries. Significantly, India abstained from voting for the convention at the UN and also has yet to ratify it.
Another instrument in this context is the UNECE (UN Economic Commission for Europe) Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) is currently the only international legal framework in force governing the management of transboundary water resources. It turned into a global convention in Feb 2013, having received sufficient number of ratifications. The UNECE website says in this regard: “This is a ground-breaking development as the Convention was originally negotiated as a regional instrument by countries of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. It is also a major milestone of the International Year of Water Cooperation celebrated in 2013… more than 30 countries from outside the UNECE region already actively participate in activities under the Convention. Several countries have already indicated their interest in becoming Parties… will create a strong legal base for present and future Parties to the Convention to join their forces to protect transboundary waters and the benefits deriving from them… Moreover it will strengthen political support to transboundary water cooperation.”
At the same time UN needs to ensure that it does not become cause of greater conflicts as is happening now through its funding of destructive hydropower and other projects under the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism. Those projects are happening at the cost of the local communities and their environment and providing completely unjustified, unwarranted and unnecessary funding of project developers, thus fattening the bank balances of the rich and at the same time creating more conflicts.
The world leaders and media have been quoting ad nauseam the now infamous quote from the former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali to the effect that next war may be fought for water. Many would call this unwarranted war mongering, that too from a UN personnel. There is a lot the UN needs to do to achieve greater water cooperation across the world to wash off this image. May the UN succeed in this effort!
 It calls for going “beyond looking at water as a finite commodity to be divided and embrace an approach that equitably allocates not the water, but the benefits that can be derived from it”, for agreements based on principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation, no significant harm, prior information, free prior and informed consent of affected communities. The report says that “Storages and diversion of water on transboundary rivers has been a source of considerable tension between countries and within countries.” Some key strategic priorities of the report include: gaining public acceptance, recognising entitlements, sustaining rivers and livelihoods.