Proliferation of hydropower development in the Himalayas is leading to extensive land use changes in the river valleys and threatening the diverse and fragile Himalayan ecosystems leading to deforestation, fragmentation, soil erosion and loss of forest biodiversity. These are a cause for serious concern for local communities, whose lives and livelihoods depend on these forests.
The paper 'Mitigation or myth? Impacts of hydropower development and compensatory afforestation on forest ecosystems in the high Himalayas' published in the journal Land Use Policy states that while run of the river projects have been touted as socially and ecologically alternatives to hydropower development, these involve construction of dams and diversion of river waters through channels and underground tunnels that can be extremely harmful to the ecology and biodiversity of the region.
Hydropower in the Himalayas
Hydropower development in the Himalayas has involved construction of bumper-to-bumper projects on a single river basin for optimum utilisation of the energy potential, which has spelled doom for the sensitive and fragile ecology of the region.
Hydropower development has been the highest in Himachal Pradesh with Kinnaur district, located in the upper reaches of Satluj basin, being the state’s hydropower hub with 53 planned hydropower projects, of which 17 are large projects. As high as 90 percent of forest land has been diverted for hydropower projects and transmission lines in Kinnaur. For every hectare of forest land, double the area of ‘degraded’ lands have been used as sites for ‘compensatory afforestation’ activities.
However, there is no information available on the impacts of these invasive activities on the forest ecosystems in the region. State-led agencies in charge of environmental regulation and forest governance have failed to genuinely assess the impacts of these projects on the forest ecosystems.
The paper discusses the findings of the study that examines the impacts of rapid hydropower development and forest land diversion on the forest ecosystems in Kinnaur district.
Kinnaur and its biodiverse forest ecosystems
Kinnaur, is spread over an area of 6401 sq. km with Satluj being the main glacial river flowing through the district, with tributaries like Spiti and Baspa. The district is surrounded by Zanskar, Great Himalaya and Dhauladhar mountain ranges with altitudes ranging from 2,320 meters to 6,816 meters.
Variable altitude and climatic conditions enrich the district with diverse vegetation patterns that range from subtropical pine forests to moist and dry temperate forests; alpine Birch forests to alpine meadows and cold desert vegetation in the arid zone to grasslands and scrublands.
These forests support a range of wildlfe that include endangered species like snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and the Himalayan Brown Bear. Forests cover about 10.24 percentage of the landscape in the district, grasslands 31.04 percent, scrublands over 2.95 percent and 52 percent includes bare rocky areas and cold desert. A large part of the land has a slope gradient of 30 to 80 percent that makes it prone to erosion. The region is also vulnerable to cloudbursts, flash floods and landslides and is also seismically fragile.
The forests are inhabited by local tribal populations who depend on the forests for their survival and while the state owns land, indigenous laws and state policies grant rights and concessions to tribal populations to use the forests for their livelihoods.
The study finds that:
Forest diversion has threatened the ecology of the region
Large areas of forests (a total of 984 hectares of forest land) have been diverted for construction of roads and other defense related activities. About 867 ha ( 90 percent) of forest land has been transferred for 10 big projects, 12 small HEPs and 11 TLs.
Forests with tree cover are found at lower altitudes - mostly along the banks of the Sutlej river while the rest of what constitutes as forest land mostly includes pastures and barren rocks located in the higher altitudes. These areas at lower altitude that harbor most of the forest tree cover are the ones that are the most contested areas for different human activities i.e. habitation, agriculture, basic infrastructure, as well as defense infrastructure. Local communities too have stake in the legally classified forests and pastures, for free grazing, timber, collecting and selling minor forest produce and grass.
This has brought the forests of the area under severe pressure due to change of land use and fencing of common lands for compensatory afforestation plantations. Official data on diverted ‘forest land’ does not reveal the true impacts of land-use changes as these extend over a far larger areas than those included in the documents.
Cutting of trees has led to a massive loss of biodiversity of the region
The forest land in Kinnaur had 11,598 trees from 21 species that were cut down as a part of the projects. Majority of the trees that were cut down were coniferous, dominated by cedar and chilgoza pines, which is a rare and endangered species that provides nuts and forms an important part of the village economy.
Other species of valuable but less known trees, shrubs, herbs etc. have been destroyed too, although they have not been mentioned in the governmental documents as they are classified as ‘inferior’ and referred to as kokat in local forest department terminology.
Land use changes have led to fragmentation of habitats
The whole basin has been converted into a network of inter-connected roads and transmission lines, leading to massive fragmentation of the natural landscape due to the multiple projects planned in different parts of the district.
This has had a great impact on plants and animals and their survival leading to rapid loss of biodiversity in the region. The loss of forest and biodiversity on account of diversion of forest lands for construction of hydro projects is required by policy to be compensated by carrying out plantation 'compensatory afforestation' activities.
However, the study reveals that the 'compensatory afforestation' plantations are done in a haphazard manner without taking into consideration the local conditions leading to poor survival rate of the saplings due to dry conditions and the absence of irrigation facilities. The plantations are often located in areas used by locals for fodder/grass collection and for grazing and many are uprooted by the locals. Local indigenous species are cut down and replaced by exotic species that are highly aggressive and pose a threat to the local composition of the forest.
The paper argues that hydropower projects as well as compensatory afforestation plantations, carried out in the name of ‘mitigation’ are negatively impacting forest ecosystems. This top-down kind of bureaucratic governance process is rooted in the colonial past and is based on the assumption that ecological damages in one region can be compensated by repair measures in another and needs to be confronted urgently.
A detailed, independent and multidisciplinary inquiry into the eco-systems alteration due to hydropower projects, especially in the fragile Himalayas, is the need of the hour!