Inducing vulnerabilities in a fragile landscape: The implications of hydropower development in a seismically active zone - An article in EPW

After the earthquake that shook Sikkim in November 2011, the safety of the dams being constructed on the Teesta is being questioned by the communities that live along it

Close to 30 hydroelectric projects are being planned on the Teesta and its tributaries. Not only is this river an essential part of Lepcha identity and life, but it also flows through a fragile zone. In this article first published in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Kanchi Kohli examines the ramifications of this policy.

'Run of the river' projects
Diversion projects such as those being planned in Sikkim divert the river waters through long tunnels before the water is dropped back into the river at a downstream location after passing through a powerhouse. While they do not cause large scale displacement, they still disrupt the flow of the river. The intensive tunnelling in the fragile Himalayan landscape leads to several environmental and social impacts including cracks in houses above long tunnel alignments, drying up of water resources and major landslides. Construction activities cause further pollution and infringe on scarce cultivable land.

Induced vulnerabilities
Large scale construction of hydropower projects has increased the area's vulnerability or seismic events. A report by the department of mines and geology prepared in April 2010 confirms that blasting and other construction activities have led to distress in RCC structures. Sikkim being in Earthquake Zone 4 is already victim to frequent earthquakes and landslides. Hydropower projects and resultant construction activities put more stress on this fragile landscape than it can withstand.

The story of regulatory collapse
Earlier, MOEF had determined that the Teesta V project (part of a six-stage cascade plan) should not be carried out until a comprehensive carrying capacity evaluation of the river Teesta was carried out. However, Teesta V and Teesta III were granted clearance in violation of this decision. After completion of the study, the MoEF asked the state government to scrap five projects – Teesta I (300 MW), Teesta II (480 MW), Bhimkyong (99 MW), Bop (99 MW) and Lachung (99 MW) hydro-electric power stations (HEPs).However, projects were later allowed to procure environmental clearance. As of today, at least 17 large hydropower projects on the Teesta and its tributaries have their environmental clearances in place.

The people's struggle
The members of 'Affected citizens of Teesta' have been fighting for their rights through the medium of hunger strikes, marches,and extensive campaigning. The campaign was not only fighting for Lepcha identity, but also for the ecosystem.

The article ends with an appeal for a conservative assessment of the risks from extensive construction in a fragile zone.

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