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Himalayan Rivers and Communities in Crisis
Sikkim’s mega Teesta Dam collapse an ominous sign of things to come
By: Gregory McCann
The sudden, explosive collapse of the Chungthang dam, a unit of the Teesta-III hydroelectric project in the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim on October 4, has come and gone from the world’s news pages. But the failure of the dam and its large cement hydroelectric station, which was washed away in less than 10 minutes, killing at least 22 people and leaving more than 100 missing from a tidal wave that crashed down from the high Himalayas after a cloudburst near the Tibetan border, is an ominous warning of things to come, environmentalists say.
Local communities in Sikkim had long been opposed to the dam, which the Indian government considers to be “green” and “renewable” energy. But community leaders say they now have to worry about at least three more “mega Teestas” in the Indian Himalayas, all of which have been shrouded in controversy, bankruptcy, and unfeasibility. Similar projects, all of which are threatened by glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs, earthquakes, climate change, and landslides are in the works in Arunachal Pradesh on the Upper Siang and Dibang rivers, as well as in Kashmir and Himachal states. Some of these dams, including the Teestas, will involve diverting the river down through massive underground pipelines while construction is underway, with still-unknown ramifications for the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.
With Teesta III already destroyed, Teesta V has been damaged, and Teesta VI was declared bankrupt by India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) but is apparently being resurrected and is considered by locals to be a “zombie dam.” And then there is Teesta IV, another “zombie dam,” which has not yet been approved but is in an area where recent mysterious land sales are fueling speculation that it will proceed.
As disturbing as the fate of the Teesta III was, it thus possible that additional devastation could be wrought by mega dams in geologically risky areas, especially in the Himalayas. As long ago as 2003, Arunyan Sharma, director of the Center for Ecological Engineering in Malda. West Bengal, was warning of such disasters on the Teesta River even before the series of dams were built.
International organizations share these concerns. “Climate change and extreme weather events are making mega-infrastructure in the ecologically sensitive Himalayas more dangerous. Frontline communities have been warning about this for decades and are paying the high price with lives lost, community infrastructure destroyed, and wasteful projects. We strongly urge the Government of India and all those concerned to reconsider their plans to construct even more dams and recognize that hydropower is neither climate-friendly nor an energy solution," said Josh Klemm, co-director of International Rivers, a human rights organization focused on protecting rivers and the rights of river communities.
The Teesta, like many rivers originating in the Himalayas and in Tibet, is fed by glacial lakes which, when swollen by climate change-induced melting, also known as Glacial Lake Outburst Floods or GLOFs, or tipped over the brink by a sudden cloudburst, have the potential to unleash massive deluges that race down steep mountain canyons at tremendous speed and velocity, leaving even the best built hydroelectric stations susceptible to annihilation, with tragic results for those located downstream. And yet more plans for big hydro projects are in the works.
Villagers, including the indigenous Lepcha people, were always opposed to Teesta III, and they are equally adamant in their stance against all of the others in planning, including Teesta V, which reportedly experienced landslides of massive boulders falling onto its construction site during the recent monsoon season – proof, they say, if any more were needed that what happened to Teesta III could easily happen to Teesta V and others being planned.
Throughout much of the developing world and especially in Asia, Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) appear to be little more than a formality, a mild annoyance for local governments and construction firms, and perhaps even a smokescreen for greenlighting dangerous and unviable projects. The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) issued a statement published in The Sikkim Express, saying: “All investigators observed that North Sikkim is geologically, seismically and biologically extremely sensitive and fragile. Any proposed development activity in this region would have adverse impacts and would cause damage to the nascent ecosystems, alpine meadows and forested slopes as well as some critically endangered flora and fauna inhabiting these ecosystems. The glacial moraines, temporarily forming glacial lakes and debris cones are potential hazards in North Sikkim.”
The specter of global lake outbursts, the ACT citizen group alleges, was deliberately left out of the Teesta III EIA, with horrific consequences -- a thunderous torrent of silty gray water which destroyed bridges, roads, villages before dam employees could even begin to react to open the floodgates that might have saved it.
In addition to the danger of dam collapses, other noticeable concerns include numerous landslides on steep valleys, which destroy roads and bridges and plug the river, creating their own new mini-dams, as well as cracks in homes and threats to the natural ecosystem, which is home to the endangered red panda and the magnificent Mahseer fish, whose migration routes and nesting areas disrupted by the dams and their torrential releases and breeches. The dams also destroy the potential for ecotourism, including rafting, trekking, birdwatching and homestays in this neverland world of mountains, valleys, forests, glaciers and tribal communities.
Some local communities benefit financially by agreeing to allow these dams to move forward, as they are essentially paid off by the construction firms, critics say. One elderly grandmother told an informant that she and her children could live comfortably from the compensation—but what about the next generation, she wondered? The Lepcha people believe that when they pass away, their souls swim up the Teesta to their sources in the highest Himalayas or in Tibet, and some worry their spirits will never reach their destinations in the afterlife as a result of these dams.
The Teesta Rivers troubles don’t stop in India. Downstream in Bangladesh, China has presented a “Teesta River Masterplan” detailing a cascade of dams on that nation’s final stretch of river, with apparently no community consultation whatsoever. The future of the river, from its source in the high Himalayas all the way down the Bay of Bengal, is in peril, and the same can for its tributaries. This, sadly, is likely the future of most if not all of the majestic rivers born in the Himalayas.
Locals have scrambled to rebuild, in many cases with ingenuity. A source familiar with the matter stated: “there are fantastic efforts by the community to rebuild bridges and restore connectivity. They’ve successfully done it in many places with bamboo and logs issuing traditional knowledge. People might say oh how resilient. But why should they have to be?” It may be something they need to get used to.
Gregory McCann writes on environmental issues and is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.