In the wake of the recent flash floods that ravaged Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, questions are once again being raised on the suitability of hydropower or hydroelectricity projects (HEPs) in the Himalayan region. It is alleged that such projects are hindering the flow of the Ganga river immensely and their water discharge is inadequate, which adversely affects the health of the river.
These claims are not just made by experts and activists, but are supported by a report compiled by the Central Water Commission (CWC).
Documents obtained by The Wire under the Right to Information (RTI) Act reveal that in July 2019, a committee of experts said in its report that the HEPs built on the Ganga are not releasing adequate amounts of water for monetary gains.
In October 2018, the Modi government issued a notification enacting a law on environmental flow (e-flow) under which a provision was made to release 20% to 30% water from all HEPs on the upper stream of the Ganga between Devprayag and Haridwar in different seasons.
According to the notification, the e-flow should be maintained at 20% between November and March, 25% in October, April and May and 30% between June and September.
In addition, all the irrigation barrages constructed on the lower stream of the Ganga between Uttarakhand and Unnao were ordered to release 24 to 57 cubic meters of water per second during monsoon and non-monsoon seasons.
Experts believe that the prescribed environmental flow is inadequate and recommend about 50% e-flow to protect the river and the aquatic organisms. The notification regarding e-flow has been challenged in the Uttarakhand high court based on such arguments.
However, the documents obtained by The Wire reveal that the water discharged from the projects is even less.
On May 10, 2019, a meeting was chaired by the secretary, Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, to address the issue. During the meeting, it was decided that a committee of experts should survey the projects and assess why the rules are being flouted.
The expert team visited five HEPs between June 12 and June 16, 2019 and submitted its report on July 11, 2019.
The committee reported that these projects are flouting e-flow regulations and discharging less water due to commercial considerations.
The report states, “All the existing projects have provisions for releasing the mandated E-flows through controlled gated spillways/waterways, and structural modifications in the body of projects may not be required for the same. The release of mandated E-flows is not being maintained by some of the projects, mainly HEPs, due to commercial considerations.”
The report further states, “Most of the projects have not installed the automatic data acquisition and transmission system till date. However, project authorities have promised to explore the installation of the automatic monitoring system at the earliest possibly by December 2019.”
The existing monitoring network of CWC can be utilised for checking/validating the flow data supplied by the project authorities, the report adds.
The report recommends strengthening the network at some locations by installing GSM-based water level sensors.
However, according to a recent report released by the ministry of Jal Shakti in July 2020, the ministry is only relying on the data received from these projects for the implementation of environmental flow and not separately monitoring whether rules are being implemented or not.
Which projects were surveyed?
The expert committee comprised of Bhopal Singh, chief engineer of Upper Ganga Basin Organisation, CWC, Lucknow; Pradeep Kumar, scientist, National Hydrological Institute, Roorkee; Balwan Kumar, deputy director, Central Electricity Authority; Ashish Kumar Sinhal, Upper Ganga Basin Organisation, Dehradun.
The team visited dams, barrages, diversion systems, canals and powerhouses, etc., and held detailed discussions with the project authorities.
The panel surveyed Rishikesh’s Pashulok Barrage, Srinagar HEP, Chamoli’s Vishnuprayag HEP, Haridwar’s Bhimgowda Barrage and Chamoli’s Vishnugad-Pipalkoti HEP.
In addition, the Ganga Barrage of Kanpur was inspected by the chief engineer of the Upper Ganga Basin Organisation and the executive engineer of the Central Ganga Division-2.
According to the report, water was being discharged from the Pashulok Barrage as per the e-flow standard. However, the quantity of water was being assessed manually.
Apart from this, no system or sensor was installed by the government to verify the data and confirm the project officials’ claims regarding water discharge.
Meanwhile, grave irregularities were found at the Srinagar HEP regarding the environmental flow. According to the report, the project was releasing only around 13 cumecs which is highly inadequate.
It stated, “Project authorities told that they are releasing e-flows as per provisions given at the time of clearance of the project. Release of additional e-flows as per latest gazette notification will lead to power and revenue loss to the project.”
The project authorities were advised to take necessary measures to operationalise the low-level under-sluice gates to minimise the siltation in the reservoir of the project.
A similar situation was reported at the Vishnuprayag HEP.
According to the report, the provision in the barrage for releasing the uninterrupted flows downstream is not working. The under-sluice pipe provided for releasing the uninterrupted flows has choked. The project authorities stressed that many streams are joining Alaknanda downstream making adequate flows in the river.
According to the report, the project authorities insisted that following e-flow norms as per gazetted notification would lead to huge power and revenue loss to the project.
As per the report, the project authorities intimated that one cumec of the additional release of water would lead to a loss of 8 MW of power.
The committee recommended that for monitoring the inflows at the project, CWC may install a velocity sensor-based automatic discharge measuring device.
During the inspection of the Bhimgoda Barrage on the Ganga river, it was found that they were following the environmental flow rules prescribed by the government. The Bhimgowda Barrage is a barrage on the Ganges River at Har ki Pauri near Haridwar. The barrage is 455 m long. It is diverting the water through Upper Ganga Canal from right and Eastern Ganga Canal from left.
What is the current status?
The Central Water Commission, a unit of the ministry of Jal Shakti, monitors 10 out of 17 major projects on the Ganges (up to Unnao) to assess how many of them are releasing the prescribed quantity of water into the river.
Based on the report of July 2020, the government has claimed that most of the projects are releasing the mandated e-flow except the Srinagar HEP.
However, a lot of questions are being raised on the credibility of such claims because the ministry does not collect the data through any agency of its own but relies on the data submitted by the projects.
The report states, “As per the flow data supplied by the project authorities, most projects have complied with the e-flow standards.”
According to the report, the frequency of data should be on an hourly basis from Tehri and Kanpur barrages. However, while the frequency of data from Tehri is per day, from Kanpur Barrage it is every two hours.
The project authorities so far have not installed automatic data acquisition and transmission systems at Tehri, Koteshwar Dam, Bhimgoda and Narora Barrages, required to assess the e-flow, even though the project authorities were directed to complete the installation till December 2019.
Why is e-flow necessary?
To put it simply, the minimum flow required to sustain a river is called environmental flow. It refers to the minimum amount of water required for the health of the river and its aquatic organisms, such as fish, crocodiles, dolphins, etc.
According to the definition of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (2003), an environmental flow (e-flow) is the water provided within a river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits where there are competing water uses and where flows are regulated.
But the construction of hydroelectric projects on rivers affects the amount of water in the river. With e-flow, the uninterrupted flow of a river is ensured.
After a mushrooming of hydropower projects, there have been demands for ensuring adequate environmental flow in the rivers across India during the last few years. Between 2006 and 2018, at least 12 reports were prepared at various levels in this regard but a consensus could not be reached as experts had different opinions about the amount of e-flow.
In a previous report, The Wire had explained how the government did not accept the recommendation of the committee to increase e-flow in the river, even though the then Union minister Uma Bharti had approved it.
Besides, the government has formulated these laws based on a paper policy that does not assess any primary (new) data. Instead, it was recommended after analysing various earlier studies on e-flow.
In short, four reports for hydropower projects have recommended about 50% environmental flow while three other reports have suggested maintaining the e-flow at 20-30%. The ministry of Jal Shakti considered the latter worth implementing.
According to another report published by The Wire, the Uttarakhand government had advocated for reducing the e-flow limit and claimed that the current e-flow discharges would make the project in the state incur losses to the tune of Rs 3500 crore.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.