New Delhi: After a massive flash flood triggered by a glacial lake burst wreaked havoc in the Rishiganga valley of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district recently, serious concerns are once again being raised over hydropower and hydroelectricity projects in the region.
Experts have demanded a ban on heavy infrastructure work carried out under such projects in the fragile eco-sensitive zones of the Himalayas. Deep concerns have also been expressed over the adverse effects on the health of the Ganga river as these projects restrict water flow.
Environmental activists fear that if the government does not properly ensure minimum water flow in the river, also known as environmental flow, it will not be long before the river dries up and we may witness a spate of similar disasters in the future.
In October 2018, the Modi government enacted a law on environmental flow (E-Flow), after extensive demands were made for several years, under which a provision was made to release 20-30% water from the upper stream of the Ganga between Devprayag and Haridwar in different months.
However, environmental activists and experts claim that this amount is not adequate to maintain minimum E-Flow and if the Ganga is to be truly revived, the hydro projects must provide for the release of more water.
In this regard, various official documents were obtained by The Wire which reveal that the government did not conduct enough deliberations before issuing notifications on the environmental flow of the Ganga. No consultations were held between concerned ministries, departments or bodies, nor was the report of the committee, which had recommended release more water, implemented despite the consent of the Union Minister.
Besides, the report on the basis of which the government has formulated these laws does not assess any primary (new) data. Instead, it was recommended after analysing various earlier studies on E-Flow.
What is environmental flow?
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 2003 definition of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, environmental flow (E-Flow) is water provided within a river or wetland to maintain ecosystems and the benefits they provide for people.
“A useful and simple way of thinking about eFlows is that of ‘ecological water demand’, similar to agricultural or industrial water demands. eFlows is effectively a balance between water resources development and the need to protect freshwater-dependent ecosystems,” the IUCN’s website notes.
With E-Flow, uninterrupted flow of a river is ensured. The Union Ministry of Water Resources had even coined the slogan of ‘aviral se nirmal Ganga’ (‘continuous Ganga is clean Ganga’) for it.
An environmental flow is both critical for the human and river ecosystem, as it ensures the proper usage of limited water resources and prevents environmental degradation to a water management system, which in turn reduces poverty, ensures healthy rivers and shares water equitably.
River experts claim that governments should focus on ensuring continuous flow of a river before concentrating on spreading widespread awareness regarding cleanliness. If continuous flow is obtained in a river, cleanliness will soon follow suit.
After the 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.
The Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (now Ministry of Water Power) constituted a committee in April 2014 to take the final decision in this matter and for the rejuvenation and development of the Ganga. The members of the committee included then additional secretary, Ministry of Environment, Shashi Shekhar; then additional secretary, Ministry of Water, Amarjeet Singh; the principal author of the report jointly prepared by seven IITs on the Ganga River Basin Management Plan; and the convener of the group, professor Vinod Tare.
There were a total of five meetings of the committee and consultations were held with experts and departments from across India and abroad. Nearly a year later in 2015, the committee submitted its report, recommending that the environmental flow of Himalayan Ganga should be between 42% and 83% between December and March, 37-71% between October and May, and 35-59% between June and October.
However, while the recommendation was approved by two members, the third member, Amarjeet Singh, vetoed it. Singh submitted a dissent note arguing that there was a considerable difference in environmental flows in this committee’s report as compared to other reports. He withheld his opinion on the factual aspects of the report. Later, Singh was appointed the secretary of the ministry, succeeding Shashi Shekhar.
Interestingly, the committee presented its final report on November 17, 2016 to the then minister of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, Uma Bharti, who approved and accepted it.
But it was never implemented nor was any reason provided for it.
The records show that a meeting was held on April 5, 2017, chaired by the then joint secretary (policy and planning), Sanjay Kundu, in which it was decided to reverse the decisions of this committee but no concrete reason was given for it.
The meeting was attended by N.N. Rai, director of hydrology department of the Central Water Commission, and S.K. Sharma, senior joint commissioner. According to the minutes of the meeting, the joint secretary said that several fresh aspects have surfaced, and therefore, more work needs to be done in this direction.
“E-Flow is a quasi-judicial and technical matter and the issue should be considered by a five-member committee consisting of experts from the departments of hydrology, environment, hydropower and agriculture,” he said. The minutes do not contain any details about why this recommendation could not be accepted and whether the assessment is correct or not.
Commenting upon the failure to implement the committee’s report, former secretary of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, Shashi Shekhar, said it is a subject which is not unanimously agreed upon by all the ministries, especially the Ministry of Power. The Ministry of Water views environmental flow as a means to revive the Ganga, but the Ministry of Power believes that if E-Flow is increased, the hydropower projects will suffer.
“If the government is really committed to it, then it will have to bring all the departments on one platform,” he said. “The situation is such that it could not be implemented despite being approved by a Union minister. It seems that after my retirement from the ministry, the department has not paid much attention to it.”
“There should be enough water in the river for one to say ‘the river has life’,” Shekhar added further. “Our engineering community is unable to accept it. They believe in making money from every drop of the river, but accumulation of water in a dam only wastes it. To take a decision in this regard, an expert from the department of ecology should first be consulted. All animals and plants have an equal right on water and not just humans.”
On January 12, 2017, a three-member committee was formed after the then water minister Uma Bharti gave a presentation on the environmental flow of the Himalayan Ganga, which included Sharad Jain, scientist, National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee; professor A.K. Gosain of IIT Delhi and N.N. Rai, director of hydrology, Central Water Commission (CWC).
The committee prepared a policy paper on implementing environmental flows, recommending that the E-Flow should be maintained at 20% between November and March (when the river has very little water), 25% in October, April and May (when the water level in the river is normal) and 30% during June and September (rainy season).
This means that every month, all hydropower projects should release this amount from the total water that reaches them.
After Uma Bharti’s departure, the government led by Nitin Gadkari announced the current E-Flow on the basis of this report.
Significantly, no fresh assessment of E-Flow was presented in the committee’s report. It was recommended on the basis of various studies conducted earlier. It is mainly based on the report of the Wildlife Institute of India, released in 2012.
It is noteworthy that the method suggested in this paper to assess the environmental flow was also adopted by many earlier committees, including the report of the seven IIT groups.
It states that ‘hydraulic cum habitat simulation method’ should be adopted for estimating E-Flow. This means the environmental flow must be assessed based, for instance, on the amount of water a species of fish found in the Himalayas, the Golden Mahseer, requires to survive.
For this, a group of seven IITs recommended different water depths, that is, 0.5, 0.8, and 3.41 metres respectively for different seasons (drought, normal and rain) in their report.
The CWC also accepted a depth of 0.5, 0.8, and 1.8 m in its report. Clearly, the IIT and CWC have agreed on the depth of water for two seasons.
Later, however, there was a huge difference in the recommended environmental flow figures. But the policy paper did not state the reason behind it.
Committee member and CWC director, N.N. Rai, said, “This conclusion is not based on any one study but the same result was obtained in several other reports. The IIT group increased the depth in their assessment, which was wrong. Had the report been worth accepting, the government would have approved of it.”
When asked why there is no assessment of any data in the policy paper, Rai said, “We presented the figures before the minister and the ministry but they were not included in the report. Policy papers do not include such aspects.”
The documents reveal that the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), whose main responsibility is to ensure the ecological flow of the Ganga and its tributaries, had responded to this report by stating that the rainy season was between June to September. The recommended 30% environmental flow should be based on the overall assessment done during this season.
The NMCG said that in view of the flood-like situation during this period, this amount of water must be released so that the river continues to flow smoothly. However, no new study was conducted by the Ministry in this regard.
E-Flow from Haridwar to Unnao
On July 13, 2017, while preparing the E-Flow standard for hydroelectric projects on the Ganga’s upper streams (Devprayag to Haridwar), the National Green Authority (NGT) in one of its orders said that a committee should be set up to formulate a law regarding release of water from irrigation barrages between Haridwar and Unnao.
A committee was formed headed by the chairman of CWC, who assessed the amount of water flowing into and released from Bhimgowda barrage, Haridwar, Bijnor and Narora barrage and submitted its report.
The committee said in its report that sufficient water is being released from Haridwar and Bijnor barrage, even though a petition was filed in the NGT against these barrages. Meanwhile, separate standards were set for Narora and Bhimgowda.
The government accepted these recommendations and approved it as the environmental flow of the lower Ganga river.
According to the report, 36 cubic metres of water should be released per second from Bhimgowda (Haridwar) barrage, 24 cubic metres per second from Bijnor barrage, 24 cubic metres per second from Narora barrage and 24 cubic metres per second from Kanpur barrage, between October and May during the non-monsoon season.
On the other hand, provision was made to release 57, 48, 48 and 48 cubic metres of water per second respectively between June and September during the monsoon season.
Experts allege that since the ministry itself is not monitoring these rules and these projects send data on their own, it is highly likely that the recommendations are not followed.
Bharat Jhunjhunwala, who was a member of the report prepared on Ganga by seven IITs, said that this E-Flow is not even 6% of the annual flow. “These environmental flows are too inadequate to sustain the river. Several other reports have recommended environmental flows of more than 50%,” he said.
“They (the committee) suggested a methodology similar to the IIT group, but without making any change, added in the end that 20% environmental flow is sufficient instead of 50%,” said Jhunjhunwala. “It was totally baseless. It is as if they promised to bake the cake in the oven but instead roasted it in the sun.”
What do the other reports say?
In 2006, the International Water Management Institute said that the Ganga is a C-class river. If it is to be made an A-class river, the environmental flow should be increased to 67%.
In 2011, the Allahabad high court said in one of its orders that 50% environmental flow should be ensured for the irrigation barrages of Uttar Pradesh.
In 2012, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recommended 45-47% environmental flow in the Kachla Ghat plains and Bithoor.
Similarly, with respect to hydroelectric projects, the Wildlife Institute of India had recommended 20-30% E-Flow for the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin in the upper reaches of the Ganga.
In 2012, the WWF recommended 72% environmental flow in the mountains of Kaudiyala. There are many hydropower projects in the area.
In March 2013, an inter-ministerial group recommended 20-30% E-Flow for hydroelectric projects.
In December 2014, seven IITs together recommended different environmental flows for separate locations. It included 47% flow for the mountainous region of Ranari during monsoon and the same applies to hydropower projects.
Later, in March 2015, the water ministry released a report, which approved this recommendation. In 2018, the NMCG also released a report, which gave a nod to both these reports.
In short, four reports for hydropower projects have recommended about 50% environmental flow while three other reports have suggested to maintain the E-Flow at 20-30%. The Ministry of Water Power considered the latter worth implementing.
The notification of the government regarding E-Flow issued in October 2018 was termed “inadequate” and challenged in the Uttarakhand high court.
On January 11, 2021, the court directed the petitioner, Bharat Jhunjhunwala, to give a presentation before the Ministry of Water Power incorporating his views and the ministry was asked to consider them and file a report in the court.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.