[In-depth report on the Uttarakhand floods and their impacts on dam
building on Circle of Blue, with stunning images and a video feature by
Uttarakhand's Furious Himalayan Flood Could Bury India's Hydropower Program
Circle of Blue, Wednesday, 02 April 2014 06:00
The Uttarakhand flood exceeded every previous high-end boundary of water
surge, infrastructure failure, and survivability. At the Vishnuprayag
Hydroelectric Project on the Alaknanda River, floodwaters surged over
the 55-foot tall dam and boulders buried it in 60 feet of rubble. Click
image to enlarge.
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue
SRINAGAR, Uttarakhand, India – On May 24, 2003, as part a national plan
to generate more electricity from sources other than coal, Prime
Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directed India to pursue one of the most
daring energy production campaigns in history.
Vajpayee called on his nation of more than 1 billion people to break
through corruption, bureaucracy, and its own doubts and build 162 big
hydroelectric power projects by 2025. The dams and power stations would
be capable of generating 50,000 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent
of 50 big coal or nuclear-fired power plants.
At the time, India's utility sector had the capacity to generate 108,000
megawatts – one-tenth as much as the electrical sector in the United
States. Some 27,000 megawatts, or a quarter of India's total energy
production, came from hydropower.
Vajpayee's announcement was robed in the formality and national
determination comparable to U.S. President John Kennedy's 1960s plan to
land a man on the moon and bring him back safely within a decade. Energy
sourced from moving water, Vajpayee said, was desperately needed in a
country demoralized by hourly supply disruptions, daily brownouts and
"Power is a critical input for any economic activity," the prime
minister said. "Its sufficiency is a prerequisite for speeding up
India's economic growth and improving the living standards of all our
citizens. Without power, we cannot empower our people in the economic
dimension of their lives. It is a major determinant of the quality of life."
And just like the American space program, not much was discussed in
public by the government about the extraordinary risks. Meeting the
prime minister's vision would be technically challenging and extremely
Almost all of the new projects — 113 dams and power stations capable of
generating 40,000 megawatts of electricity —- were planned for five
Himalayan states. Of those, 33 of the new hydropower schemes were
targeted for the high mountain valleys in Uttarakhand.
A Himalayan state north of New Delhi that 9 million people call home,
Uttarakhand shares borders with China and Nepal. The state, a little
smaller than West Virginia, is rich in perpendicular slopes, ample
water, turbulent rivers and a history of ecological chaos.
The Mountains Respond
The Himalayas are still forming, still rising — producing one of the
most active earthquake zones in the world. The fierce drenching from
annual summer monsoons erupt in regular flash floods that undermine the
soils of vertical slopes, cause monstrous landslides, and episodically
lay waste to big stretches of the region's serpentine one-way-in,
one-way-out highways. In a typical year, dozens of people drown, are
buried, or swept away by floods in India's Himalayan states.
Hubris, Climate Change Magnifies A Flood's Rampage
The Uttarakhand flood, according to the Wadia Institute for Himalayan
Geology and other scientific agencies, was caused by a convergence of
hydrological events, several of them linked to the region's changing
First was the early arrival of the annual monsoon that accelerated snow
melting, produced higher than normal rainfall, and then unleashed a
cloudburst that dumped at least 300 millimeters (12 inches) of rain on
June 16 on the Himalayan ridges that fed the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi
The second event, a direct result of the cloudburst, was the collapse of
the banks that retained the waters of Chorabari Lake, a glacial lake fed
by rain and snowmelt that was located at 3,960 meters (13,000 feet) and
two kilometers (1.2 miles) upsteam of Kedarnath, in the Mandakini River
floodplain. Chorabari Lake, 400 meters long by 200 meters wide and up to
20 meters deep (1,300 feet long, 660 feet wide and 60 feet deep)
released all of its water in 10 minutes.
Like packs of wild dogs clamoring for blood, floodwaters tore down the
steep valleys, bounded out of the river channels, and lashed at
everything in their path. Kedarnath, Rambara, Gaurikund, much of
Sonprayag, and other villages disappeared under the deluge of water,
boulders and mud. The rivers clawed at the banks and bluffs, causing
over 100 landslides that brought down or damaged more than 1,000
kilometers of highways and caused an unknown number of hotels, homes,
shops, and government buildings to fall into the torrent.
The estimated death toll ranged from 6,000 (Government of Uttarakhand)
to 30,000 (residents and the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology). The
Indian Army and emergency and rescue crews transported tens of thousands
of stranded people to safety, many by helicopter. Under rolling masses
of clouds, it was dangerous work. Twenty rescuers died when one of the
The torrent produced consequences that no engineer anticipated and no
Uttarakhand resident had ever seen. A joint study by the World Bank and
the Asian Development Bank estimated that damage to public
infrastructure — roads, water transport, buildings — amounted to nearly
$700 million. There has been no formal estimate of the financial damage
to the state's hydropower projects.
Despite the inherent risks, India's hydro-entranced prime minister and
his aides were determined to join China, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan in
turning the Himalayas into the Saudi Arabia of hydroelectric energy. In
the decade since 2003, India's hydropower ambitions magnified: 292 big
hydro projects are under construction or planned for India's Himalayan
region, according to the Central Electric Authority.
The most turbulent stretches of many Himalayan rivers are scheduled to
support five or six new dams, one every 10 kilometers or so. That's more
utility-scale installations than are planned for the world's other new
hydropower production zones – the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia,
the Amazon Basin, and the Andes mountains, according to assessments by
power authorities in those regions.
"The government wants to put dams on every river in the Himalayas," said
Prakash Nautiyal, a fisheries biologist and for decades a professor of
zoology at the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in this
Alaknanda River city of 150,000 residents. "You know the car culture of
Delhi and Mumbai? Bumper to bumper. That's what they want to do in the
Himalayas with dams. Bumper to bumper."
The unavoidable challenge that India's engineers and contractors
recognized but largely ignored, according to a flurry of government and
university studies dating to the early 1990s, was whether the truculent
mountain range would accept such intensive industrial intrusion. Late
last spring, at the start of the heaviest monsoon season in memory, the
Himalayas answered that question.
On June 16 and June 17, 2013 the mountains unleashed two days of
monstrous floods that killed about 6,000 people, according to estimates
from the Uttarakhand government. Survivors and researchers at the Wadia
Institute for Himalayan Geology put the death toll at 30,000. Some 800
battered bodies were recovered and 5,200 others were declared missing.
India defends the estimated death toll of 6,000 based on the
applications it reviewed and approved for compensation to families that
lost loved ones.
Residents of the Mandakini River Valley interviewed by Circle of Blue
said the number of people who died was much higher, perhaps 30,000. That
figure is supported by Kapil Kesarwani, a senior research fellow at the
Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, a prestigious government-supported
research center in Dehradun, Uttarakhand's capital.
The flooding wiped away at least six villages, buried dozens of others
in mud, wrecked over 1,000 kilometers of highways, and dumped hundreds
of buildings into the furious waters.
Maharaj Pandit, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies
at the University of Delhi, and one of India's independent authorities
on hydropower development, was on a field research trip in mid-June when
the rains intensified along the Bhagirathi River near Gangotri, a Hindu
sacred site high up in a Himalayan pass.
Pandit heard the grind and crash of boulders knocking against each other
in the boiling water. It was a new sound, an alarm signaling urgent
danger. He gathered his team, terminated the trip, and descended as
quickly as he dared out of the mountains where bridges were washing away
and roads were vanishing in landslides.
"I had never seen the river in such a rage," Pandit said. "The river
didn't feel well that day."
Flood's Effects on Dam Construction
The June flood also may have drowned India's long campaign to diversify
its energy production with big Himalayan hydropower projects.
Circle of Blue was able to document that the flood seriously damaged at
least 10 big projects in operation and under construction in
Uttarakhand. Another 19 small hydropower projects that generate under 25
megawatts were destroyed.
The findings are based on Circle of Blue's field reporting in December
and January, state and national media dispatches, independent news
services, and trade journal notices. We were assisted by the South Asia
Network on Dams and Rivers, a non-profit advocacy group, and reports
posted on Down to Earth, an online New Delhi-based environmental news
site affiliated with the Centre for Science and Environment.
The Central and state government authorities, and private dam
developers, have said next to nothing about the extent of the damage in
news releases, on their Web sites, or in public statements. Repeated
efforts by Circle of Blue to reach business executives and government
regulators by email and phone calls were ignored.
The most heavily damaged projects, according to our findings, include:
• The 400-megawatt Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project, upriver from
Srinagar along the Alaknanda River, was buried beneath 20 meters of
rubble that also filled its water storage lake and likely wrecked the
mouth of the penstock, the pipe that transports water to the powerhouse
• A second dam under construction on the Mandakini River, the
76-megawatt Phata-Byung Hydroelectric Project, washed away.
• The 99-megawatt Singoli-Bhatwari Hydroelectric Project downstream
on the Mandakini, a major tributary of the Alaknanda, was so
aggressively pummeled by boulders that big chunks of concrete were
gouged out of its base and the patches of steel reinforcing rods of two
support towers were bent like broken fingers.
• The powerhouse and turbines of the 330-megawatt Alaknanda Hydro
Power Project in Srinagar were inundated with mud and silt just weeks
before it was scheduled to begin operating.
• A landslide blocked the end of the water discharge tunnel at the
280-megawatt Dhauliganga project near the border with Nepal. The plug
caused a backup that submerged the entire turbine room constructed deep
inside the hill near the dam, causing at least $50 million in damage and
a shutdown that has still not ended, said dam operators. (See sidebar
for more damaged hydropower projects.)
The Uttarakhand flood surprised India with its fury. Energy authorities
in Asia and in North America have said the flood caused the most damage
to a nation's hydropower infrastructure since 1975, when rains from a
typhoon overwhelmed the Banqiao Dam and 61 smaller dams in central
China, killing 171,000 people.
In the history of energy disasters, the Uttarakhand flood struck the
global hydropower industry with the same force that the reactor
meltdowns at Three Mile Island (U.S. 1979), Chernobyl (Soviet Union,
1986), and Fukushima (Japan, 2011) battered the nuclear power sector.
Uttarakhand: India' s holy land
Uttarakhand is a land of religious pilgrimage. The Ganges River, India's
most sacred, forms where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers tumble off
the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and meet in Devaprayag, 35 kilometers
(22 miles) downriver from Srinagar, a university and tourist city of
Upriver, at elevations that are snow-covered and frozen most of the
year, are the 1,000-year-old Badrinath and Kedarnath temples. They are
situated in the headwater floodplains of the Alaknanda and Mandakini
rivers. Both shrines are as holy to Hindus as the Wailing Wall is to
Jews and the Dome of the Rock is to Muslims.
The high mountain temples, difficult to reach on dangerous roads and
open just a few months a year, serve as sentinels to the magnificence
and the treachery of Uttarakhand's vertical geography.
Tens of thousands of people were in the Mandakini flood plain at the
height of the annual pilgrimage to Kedarnath temple. The hotels and
shops in the villages leading up to the shrine were filled with Hindu
pilgrims. Pilgrims also jammed Rambara, and the long footpath from that
Mandakini River town to Kedarnath.
In addition, some 7,000 to 10,000 workers were in the area carrying
pilgrims to the shrine on their mules, serving in the restaurants and
hotels, working in the hundreds of religious stalls along the way. Many
of those workers were from Nepal or neighboring countries, said
residents, and had no documentation.
They were in the direct path of the floodwaters. The destruction
unfolded quickly, and was catastrophic.
Sonprayag, a tourist village just downstream from the Kedarnath shrine,
was swept nearly clean away by floodwaters and boulders. Vicky Bhatt,
the 22-year-old owner and manager of a guesthouse, said 500 cars were
carried into the Mandakini River. At least 25 people who were hiking
down from Kedarnath and crossing a hillside just upriver were buried
when it slipped into the river.
What's left of Sonprayag now sits directly on the Mandakini's banks. The
riverbed is a new geography of immense boulders. Before the flood,
Sonprayag perched on a high bluff, and the river lay so far below — 75
meters (250 feet) by Bhatt's estimate — that it took half an hour to
reach the river's waters by foot on a narrow and steep path.
The tourist trade that supports Sonprayag has essentially dissolved to
nothing. "It's going to take three, four, five years to get back to
normal," Bhatt said. "We can't believe what happened here. All these
stones around us. The river is right there. We're still stunned by it."
Residents of the Alaknanda basin said there was a religious dimension to
the June flood. The Hindu gods, they said, were angry with the tourist
trade, intense and growing, in a region of such splendid spiritualism.
The case for the religious connection also is strengthened, they said,
by two events involving sacred shrines.
North of Srinagar, the lake filling up behind the new Alaknanda
hydropower dam required the owners to build a concrete platform high
enough to keep Dhari, the goddess of power, dry. Dhari is named for an
Alaknanda River village and is a noted Hindu shrine. On the day that
Dhari was placed on the new platform, June 16, the cloudburst opened on
the Himalayan ridges above the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers, setting
off the calamitous flood.
The same day, the torrent of water pushed a huge boulder down the
Mandakini valley toward Kedarnath. The rock, as big as a truck trailer,
slipped sideways and stopped mere feet from the rear of the Kedarnath
shrine. The boulder was long enough and heavy enough to serve as a
floodwall, diverting the water and debris around the shrine; it saved
one of Hinduism's most sacred sites and dozens of people inside who'd
"The disaster is a costly wake-up call," said Peter Bosshard, the policy
director at International Rivers, a California based non-profit research
and river protection group that primarily operates in Asia, Africa, and
Latin America. "It shows that nature will strike back if we disregard
the ecological limits of fragile regions like the Himalayas through
reckless dam building and other infrastructure development. We can only
expect such disasters to happen more frequently under a changing climate."
India's Supreme Court reached essentially the same conclusion. Last
August 13, eight weeks after the flood, two Supreme Court judges, ruling
in a case involving the 330-megawatt Alaknanda Hydro Power Project,
issued an order that indefinitely prohibited the Central and state
governments from granting any more permits for hydroelectric projects in
Uttarakhand. The order essentially shut down new hydropower development
in India's 27th state.
"We are very much concerned about the mushrooming of a large number of
hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and its impact on the Alaknanda
and Bhagirathi river basins," wrote Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and
Dipak Misra. "Various studies also indicate that in the upper Ganga
area, there are large and small hydropower projects. The cumulative
impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, muck
disposal, mining, deforestation, etc. on the ecosystem has yet to be
The Supreme Court's intervention also came with a directive to the
Ministry of Environment and Forests, the principal regulatory agency, to
form a special commission to study the safety and merits of continuing
with constructing dams in India's most important hydropower state.
The commission, appointed last year, is unlikely to issue its
conclusions until after the national election results are announced in
mid-May. Those findings, and their implementation, also are likely to be
overseen by the National Green Tribunal, a four-year-old panel of senior
jurists that rules on India's big environmental cases.
In August, two weeks after the Supreme Court order, the Tribunal said it
would hear a case involving flood damage that citizens in Srinagar said
was amplified by the Alaknanda hydropower dam. The Tribunal also is
monitoring repairs and construction at the damaged Vishnuprayag dam. The
Tribunal's presence is a clear indication that its jurists will closely
follow other legal and regulatory aspects of the disaster.
A Long History of Water-Powered Electricity
India's experience with hydroelectric energy is among the longest in the
world. In 1897, just two years after the world's first hydroelectric
power station opened at Niagara Falls, in the United States, British
engineers built the 130-kilowatt Sidrapong Power Station near
Darjeeling, in northeast India near the border with Bhutan. It was
India's first water-powered electrical generating plant.
In 1947, when India gained its independence, 508 megawatts of the
country's 1,362 megawatts of electrical generating capacity were gained
from hydropower, or 37 percent. Most of the remaining 756 megawatts of
generating capacity, or 55 percent, came from coal combustion.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minster from 1947 to 1964, encouraged
dam construction as a symbol of modernization and rapid
industrialization. The Hirakud Dam, completed in 1957 along the Mahanadi
River in eastern India, has 307.5 megawatts of generating capacity and
is one of the longest dams in the world.
Other Damaged Dams
Along with the operational hydropower projects damaged by the 2013
flood, a number of big projects under construction were bullied by the
furious waters, some so badly they may never be built.
The 520-megawatt Tapovan-Vishnugad dam, under construction on an
Alaknanda River tributary and seriously damaged last year by a flash
flood, was hit again. The tunnel carrying water to the powerhouse,
finished in April 2013, was washed away in June, according to a report
in a hydropower trade magazine.
Just upriver, the 171-megawatt Lata Tapovan project, under construction
and approaching its 2017 opening, was overrun by floodwaters that
damaged concrete work and forced at least a year-long delay in its
commissioning. The delay could grow longer because the highway network
is so broken and unstable it is unsafe to transport heavy equipment that
is needed for repairs.
Both of the Maneri Bhali projects on the Bhagirathi River were damaged.
The 25-year-old Maneri I dam, with a 99-megwatt generating capacity, and
the 304-megawatt dam that opened in 2008, were hit hard enough for walls
Heavy rains also affected dams in other regions of Uttarakhand including
the Banbasa project on the Sarda River in eastern Uttrakhand near Nepal.
Devandra Singh, an assistant engineer with the National Hydroelectric
Power Corporation, told reporters that dam operators opened the
floodgates after water upstream swelled to 544,000 cubic feet per
second, higher than the previous record of 522,000 cubic feet per
second. Officials said 48 people died in villages in Nepal and in Uttar
Pradesh, an Indian state that shares a border with Uttarakhand. Half a
million people in Uttar Pradesh also were driven from their homes by the
Nehru was enthralled by the 225.5-meter (740 feet) Bhakra Nangal dam in
Himachal Pradesh, for decades India's tallest dam. During a visit to the
dam in 1956, one of 10 he made to view construction and to dedicate the
dam in 1963, Nehru declared, "Bhakra, the new temple of resurgent India,
is the symbol of India's progress."
Yet building dams at the pace India's government long sought proved
elusive. It wasn't that India's leadership lacked resolve. In the 1970s,
India established the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation to focus
the national government's technical and financial attention on building
hydroelectric dams. Between 1975, when the agency was founded, and 1985,
water-generated electricity capacity grew to 14,460 megawatts, almost
7,500 megawatts more than when the new agency was formed. Still,
hydropower fell to less than 30 percent of the country's generating
Not satisfied, India's energy and finance authorities approved a more
aggressive hydropower development policy, approving a new Electricity
Act in 1998 that led in 2003 to an updated law and Prime Minister
Vajpayee's hydropower initiative. Both were established as India was
opening its economy to foreign investors and as its leaders eyed the
energy-sucking whirlwind in neighboring China as an economic growth
model to emulate.
The Central Electric Authority estimated that 50,000 new megawatts was
just a third of India's potential hydropower generating capacity of
150,000 megawatts, more than all but three other nations – China, Brazil
New financing, subsidies, and permitting protocols were established to
encourage the construction. India's prime minister and The Ministry of
Power, the energy development agency, promoted the idea that hydropower
would account for 40 percent of India's total generating capacity. On
paper, and in the glare of intense media attention, the development plan
seemed ambitious but achievable.
Uttarakhand – Land of Big Water Projects
More than half of the hydropower generating capacity announced in 2003
was to come from just two states. Uttarakhand, then named Uttaranchal
until it became India's 27th state, was the focus of 33 projects and
5,282 megawatts of generating capacity. Arunachal Pradesh, which borders
China, Bhutan, and Myanmar in India's Northeast region, was set for 42
projects and 27,293 megawatts.
The first four years of the hydropower expansion, 2003 through 2006,
went well. Generating capacity nationally jumped sharply to 34,654
megawatts, an increase of 7,654 megawatts in capacity. That was close to
the 11,000 megawatts of new generating capacity from coal-fired power
plants during the same period.
Global Confrontation Over Water and Energy
Intense national programs designed to meet growing global demand for
energy are creating a number of mammoth and dangerous energy production
zones. As Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center have reported since 2010
in our Global Choke Point Project, tapping those zones yields urgent
contests over fresh water supplies, environmental and economic security,
and public safety.
India is a player in the swirl of these new global energy, water, and
food trends. Last year, in our first reports from the Choke Point: India
project, Circle of Blue described how India's policy of providing free
energy and water to farmers produced massive grain surpluses that rot in
storage facilities in the northwest Punjab region. Meanwhile, so much
energy is wasted moving water with electric pumps that the country is
unable to mine enough coal in its eastern states, causing fuel shortages
in thermal electrical power industry.
India's response to that is not to ask farmers to pay for water and
electricity, a change that would temper demand for energy and for water,
and ease food surpluses. Rather, India is building highly complex
hydroelectric production facilities in the treacherous alpine valleys of
the world's tallest and most perilous mountains.
Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center, its Global Choke Point research
partner, also have reported on the fierce global contest for energy and
water in these production zones:
Tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada, and fracking deep shales in the
U.S. to produce new streams of oil and natural gas come with manifest
evidence of serious damage to land and to water.
So much oil-fueled power is needed to convert seawater to fresh water in
the Arabian Gulf that several studies, including one by the Qatar
Foundation, predict that desalination is a factor in the enormously
unsettling economic prospect that Saudi Arabia will cease to be an oil
exporter by the early 2030s.
A serious contest for scarce water between livestock herders and mining
companies has developed in Mongolia's energy-rich South Gobi desert.
China's Yellow River Basin, a desert region that produces most of the
nation's coal and a fifth of its grain, will run out of water by the
early 2020s unless energy and farm production practices undergo
Australia was gripped by a 12-year drought in the Murray-Darling Basin,
its primary food production region, that started in the late 1990s.
While the big dry unfolded Australia installed courageous, expensive,
and pioneering water conservation equipment, farm production practices,
and policy designed to limit the consequences of the next big episode of
In the United States, a severe drought in Texas prompted voters last
November to approve a $2 billion bond to support water conservation and
water supply measures. The federal and California state governments this
year agreed to spend $2 billion in relief to aid farmers and cities
affected by a three-year drought, and state lawmakers are proposing a $7
billion to $9 billion bond for equipment and construction to improve how
the state stores, transports, and conserves fresh water.
Uttarakhand emerged as the most important state for new dams and power
stations. In 2005 and 2006, three big hydropower facilities opened, with
generating capacity of 1,680 megawatts, or more than a fifth of the
country's new hydro capacity.
But the years from 2007 to 2013 were much more difficult for India's
hydroelectric construction sector. Generating capacity rose to 39,941
megawatts by the end of March 2013, an increase of 5,287 megawatts in
six years, or less than 1,000 megawatts of new generating capacity
annually. During the same six-year period, India's overall generating
capacity from utilities grew to 223,343 megawatts — a 90,000-megawatt
jump, driven principally by 60,000 megawatts of new coal-fired
The causes of the slowdown in hydropower development are numerous,
according to assessments by the Central Electric Authority, the Ministry
of Power, engineering studies and hydro trade association journals. The
difficulty in securing financing for projects that typically range from
a low end of $500 million to well over $1 billion, and to move proposals
through India's suffocating permitting bureaucracy, added time and
expense. The size of the projects, the extent of land needed for water
storage, the numbers of people to be moved, along with the considerable
harm to fisheries and local ecology, generated a fierce civic opposition
movement, particularly in Uttarakhand and in Arunachal Pradesh.
Then came the forbidding technical difficulties of building and
operating big hydroelectric schemes in the Himalayas. They baffled
engineers and managers. Constructing a big dam in the Himalayas, it
turned out, was as difficult a feat of engineering, design,
construction, and industrial management as exists on the planet.
Flash floods wrecked construction schedules and added costs. Landslides
buried equipment. It has taken years for engineers and designers to
fully understand and deal with the exceptionally high concentrations of
mud, silt, and grit carried by Himalayan rivers. The load of
ragged-edged grains of quartz and feldspar constantly overwhelm settling
basins, and chew up pipes and turbines.
Stories of epic episodes of engineering and construction have become
part of the Himalayan narrative. In Himachal Pradesh, west of
Uttarakhand, the owners of the 1500-megawatt Nathpa Jhakri Power scheme
on the Satluj River finally opened six generating turbines in 2004 after
11 years of construction.
The project was a study in Job-like calamity and persistence. In 1993,
just as construction began, a rockslide caused by the monsoon demolished
the construction site. Flash floods struck in 2000. In its first years
of operation so much silt clogged the dam's power turbines that the
plant was shut down for weeks at a time. New coatings on metal parts, an
increase in the height of the dam, and revised operating procedures have
India's power authorities and engineers insist they recognize and can
manage the risks. Hydropower sector executives say opponents of dam
construction are exaggerating the potential harm.
"There has been considerable environmental awakening in India during
the past 25 or so years," wrote Chetan Pandit, a hydropower specialist
and former official in India's Central Water Commission, in an email to
Circle of Blue. "We did realize that there was a need and scope to
improve the performance of our river valley projects on environmental
and social counts. India responded to this requirement by enacting
several laws and rules that stipulated an exacting scrutiny of the
project design before it was granted environmental clearance. This was a
welcome move. But the downside of it was, some enterprising young people
saw in this an opportunity to earn a livelihood by opposing all
infrastructure, and that includes river valley projects."
Concern about the safety of the new Himalayan dams didn't come just from
uninformed opponents. In 1996, a report on the Himalaya's changing
ecology by the Center for Science and Environment, the New Delhi-based
research group, said: "The Himalayan mountains constitute an ecological
system naturally primed for disaster. The deep gorges through which the
Himalayan rivers flow convey the impression that the Himalayan valleys
would never face floods. Yet these very channels often fail to contain
the fury of disastrous floods. Among the most affected valleys are the
Alaknanda and Bhagirathi valleys of the Garhwal Himalaya."
In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
noted that the Himalayas were among the regions most affected by the
warming atmosphere, a point supported two years later by India's
Ministry of Environment and Forests.
A 2009 report on the risk of floods in Uttarakhand by India's
Comptroller and Auditor General warned that "audit scrutiny of project
records revealed that no speciﬁc measures had been planned/designed in
any project to cope with the risk of ﬂash ﬂoods. The adverse
consequences of such ﬂoods are acute as they cannot only damage the
project structures, but can cause loss of life in low-lying downstream
In 2012, a study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests
recommended that 24 of 39 hydropower projects proposed for Uttarakhand
be suspended because of the havoc they would cause for fisheries, and
the region's environment. The Ministry did not act on the recommendation.
Run-of-River Water Diversion Projects
Most, but not all of the new dams built and planned in Uttarakhand, are
compact in design and meant to be built in high mountain locations. They
are based on an old and familiar technology called "run-of-river."
In such projects, a dam – known in India as a barrage – diverts a
portion of a river's flow to a headpond created by the dam. A canal or
pipe (known as a head race tunnel) directs the stored water through
mountains to turbines in the powerhouse, which is often many kilometers
downstream and much lower in elevation. The kinetic energy that develops
from the falling water and the pressure in the pipe turns turbines and
produces substantial energy. The water then flows back to the river.
The commission appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests was
directed by the Supreme Court to study whether the run-of-river projects
amplified the flood's damage, as critics of Himalayan dams assert. The
blasting associated with building dams and the long water transport
tunnels, say residents interviewed by Circle of Blue, caused cracks in
the foundations of their homes and destabilized already unstable
hillsides. Indian environmental groups say that the flood scoured
riverbanks where dam construction companies stored huge piles of dirt,
mud, and stones – the spoils of excavation. The National Green Tribunal
is reviewing whether flood damage in Srinagar was heightened by spoils
piles that washed downriver from the Alaknanda hydropower station.
That same year, Uttarakhand's own Disaster Management Department
finished a report that documented the causes and aftermath of a flash
flood in the upper reaches of the Bhagirathi River. The disaster, on
August 3-4, 2012, was a virtual dress rehearsal for the much bigger
flood 10 months later.
Like the 2013 flood, the Bhagirathi flood was triggered by a big monsoon
cloudburst. The raging waters and landslides killed 35 people. The
highway and mountain road network in the Bhagirathi basin was heavily
damaged and thousands of people were stranded for weeks.
The authors of the government report found "widespread devastation in
the district and even the district headquarters was not spared by the
fury of nature. Heavy precipitation and ensuing flash flood resulted in
washing off of a number of vehicular and pedestrian bridges."
No official heed was paid to these and other studies that clarified
hazards from floods and landslides. Instead, the Central Government and
Uttarakhand authorities ardently pursued construction of big dams with
generating capacity above 25 megawatts, and of many more small dams that
generated less than 25 megawatts.
In 2008, the 304-megawatt Maneri Bhalli II project opened on the
Bhagarithi River, more than halfway up the turbulent course to its
source in the Himalayas.
In 2012, the 400-megawatt Koteshwar project, featuring a 97-meter tall
(318 feet) concrete dam, opened on the Bhagarithi River, 22 kilometers
(14 miles) downstream from the 1,000-megawatt Tehri Dam, which opened in
2006 and, at 260 meters (855 feet), is India's tallest dam.
Of the 7,200 megawatts of new hydro generating capacity that India
developed from 2006 to 2013, 2,384 megawatts was opened in Uttarakhand,
or 32 percent. Of the 21 big hydropower stations commissioned in India
since 2006, five opened in Uttarakhand. A sixth big project, the
330-megawatt Alaknanda Hydro Power Project here opened on March 5, 2014,
six months after its scheduled start. The June 2013 flood inundated its
power station and jammed the turbines with muck.
Uttarakhand also is the site of India's most aggressive plan for future
hydropower development. Five other big dams and 35 projects fewer than
25 megawatts each are under construction. If completed, they'll add
1,866 megawatts of capacity from large dams, and 180 megawatts from
small projects. Moreover, India's newest Five-Year plan (2012 – 2017)
for energy development urges Uttarakhand to build 24 more big dams by
2017 to generate 6,858 megawatts of electricity.
In short, before the flood, Uttarakhand's hydroelectric development
program was rivaled in Asia only by China's Himalayan provinces.
Whether that remains the state of hydro affairs is not at all secure.
There are five big dams under construction in Uttarakhand. It's unclear
if those facilities will be commissioned. A storm of bureaucratic
decision making, financial shortfalls, engineering challenges, and the
Supreme Court's expert commission findings can be drawn into a
convincing case that India won't meet its ambitious timeline in
Uttarakhand, or in the other Himalayan states.
"The Supreme Court of India ordered the Ministry of Environment and
Forests to constitute an expert committee to re-examine certain
environmental aspects of the hydro power projects in Uttarakhand,
including to examine whether the hydro power projects in any way
contributed to the floods," said Chetan Pandit in an email. "Pending the
report by this committee, the court has put a ban on giving further
environmental clearances, which has affected 24 ongoing projects.
Whether these projects will survive, or whether these will be
terminated, will depend to a great extent on the report this committee
The Supreme Court's intervention exemplifies the intensifying and
conflicting response to the Uttarakhand disaster by India's political
infrastructure. On January 31, 2014, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay
Bahugunah resigned at the insistence of his Congress Party leadership,
who said his inept management of the rescue and relief operations was
A month before, in December 2013, Jayanthi Natarajan resigned under
pressure as head of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. India's
senior leadership, according to press accounts, were dismayed by the
slow pace for reviewing and approving permits for big industrial
projects, including for hydroelectric schemes. She was replaced by
Veerappa Moily, a senior leader of the Oil and Petroleum Ministry, and a
proponent of hydroelectric development.
In interviews, high government officials said they anticipated that
neither the Uttarakhand disaster, nor the findings of the Ministry of
Environment and Forests study commission, would significantly alter
India's strategy of aggressive Himalayan hydropower development. H.L.
Bajaj, the former chairman of the Central Electric Authority, said the
risks of India's hydropower strategy are worth the gain of securing more
electricity. "Perhaps we will make adjustments to designing hydro
schemes," Bajaj said in an interview in his New Delhi office. "I don't
foresee that India will stop building these projects."
Ram Prasad Lal, a director in the India Meteorological Department,
asserted that until the June flood — what he called a "100-year event" —
hydro schemes had proved resilient to heavy Himalayan rainfall.
Opponents to Himalayan hydropower dams questioned that view. They said
that the numbers of dams being washed out of high Himalayan valleys is
increasing. Floods in Nepal in 1981 and 1985 destroyed new hydroelectric
projects. Two dams were lost in a 1982 flood in Bhutan. Two more dams
washed away in Arunachal Pradesh in the last decade, according to Partha
Jyoti Das, programme head at Aaaranyak, a science research organization
in Guwahati, and co-author of an influential report on the hazards of
Himalayan hydropower projects. "It's becoming more common in this
region. People just don't hear about these disasters," said Das.
Nine months after the Uttarakhand disaster, India's regulatory and power
development agencies ardently pursue construction, permits, and
financing for more big hydro projects in four other Himalayan states,
and for at least two projects in Bhutan. One hydro scheme under
construction since 2007, the 330-megawatt Kishanganga Hydroelectric
Project on the Kishanganga River in Jammu and Kashmir, prompted a
dispute with Pakistan, which is concerned about the water diverted from
the river for generating power.
Pakistan brought a case to the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration,
which ruled last year that India was entitled to just a minimal flow for
electricity. How that ruling affects India's relationship with Pakistan,
or the generating capacity of a project due to be completed in 2016, is
a new facet of the ecological and diplomatic tumult India's hydropower
strategy is now generating.
More Seasons of Menace
In December and January, the dry season in Uttarakhand, the Alaknanda
and Mandakini Rivers are clear and blue with no angry crest at all. Yet
both rivers, and several more affected by the June flood, reflect the
grimness of what happened, and the strain of what could easily happen
again later this year.
The road transport network is not fully repaired. Transportation is so
difficult, newspapers reported in February, that 1,200 tons of food
could not be distributed and rotted in place. Hundreds of people are
The gathering danger is not close to being lifted from Uttarakhand's
magnificent and hardened Himalayan valleys. So much silt and mud and
boulders washed off the hillsides during the June 2013 flood that they
filled the riverbeds. The rivers of the Alaknanda and Bhaghirati basin
run now on new bottoms that are 5 to 35 meters higher than they were
before the flood, according to residents and the Geological Survey of India.
That means that unless rubble is removed, which amounts to a monumental
and costly excavation project that has not started, the approaching 2014
monsoon this summer will easily overflow river banks and could cause
more terrible flood damage to dams and to communities. The Himalayas,
like a daredevil avenger, is exacting its vengeance with lingering
seasons of menace.
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