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The Sutlej river is the longest of the five rivers that flow through the historic crossroads region of Punjab in northern India and Pakistan.

(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Himachal’s Water Sources are Drying Up Thanks to Dams, Say Experts

But these dams and the environment degradation they cause find almost no mention in the run-up to the polls.

5 min read

Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh is home to seven hydropower projects on the river Sutlej, where experts suggest the picturesque views are hiding the harsh realities of irreparable environmental damage.

The Quint travelled to Kinnaur district where the Sutlej river flows in Himachal Pradesh and found out that while four dams were already in operation, at least three more were currently under construction.

The dams already in operation include Nathpa Jhakri dam, Karcham Wangtoo dam and BASPA dam, and those under construction include Tidong dam, Shongtong Karcham dam, Kashang dam and another 450 MW dam in Rekong Peo.

What’s the Damage?

Experts suggest that dams are causing damage to the environment that is hard to notice and administer. Members of the Him Lok Jagriti Manch travel to interior villages along the Sutlej to create awareness.

The Quint spoke to RS Negi, a retired IAS officer who leads the Manch, and he outlined the issues with constructing dams in the region.


Concerns about Dam-Building

  • 1. Blasting for tunnel construction are drying up water sources
  • 2. Area becoming prone to landslides due to deforestation
  • 3. Dust due to construction is causing pollution
  • 4. Meagre relief offered to affected families
The first concern is around the tunnel construction for setting up dams. Tunnels are needed for the dam to function and are used as diversion routes or to help with access routes in the project. How is a tunnel dug in the Himalayas? Through blasting. Negi said:

“The bursting is a big problem. There are plenty villages which are on these mountain ranges and this construction is causing irreparable damage to water sources.”

Now, in Kinnaur, irrigation is dependent on natural springs and small nalas and when you have heavy blasting, then these springs either dry up or the quantity of water is reduced due to possible diversions.

Due to the Katchoo Wangtu Dam, four panchayats – Chagaon, Urmi, Miru and Yula villages – are facing this problem.

Another concern Negi raised was about how there are more and more landslides in the area due to the deforestation caused by dam construction.

Negi said that due to the Karchoo Wangtu Dam in Urmi village, and the Kashand hydropower project which is under construction in Pangi village, a total of 66 families have been affected by landslides. He says officials say this isn’t due to the project and is instead due to natural calamities, but that they are lying. This helps them get away with providing meagre relief, rather than the compensation running into lakhs they’d have to offer if they admitted the truth.

But Dams Don’t Feature At All in the Polls

An analysis of speeches made by Congress and BJP leaders shows no mention of dams and the damage they cause. The attention is on loan waivers for farmers, MGNREGA and employment – all important, but environmental degradation has escaped any mention at all.

The Him Lok Jagriti Manch, based out of Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh, has been fighting the construction of these dams in Kinnaur and neighbouring Lahaul-Spiti district too. Negi says there is inadequate awareness in the government or among locals about the problem.

Pointing out the political apathy, he refers to the BJP vision document released recently before the upcoming assembly polls. He says the document says nothing about the dams on the Sutlej and harm that is caused by it.

An analysis of news reports of the Congress manifesto, released on 1 November, also doesn't bare any mention of the dam construction and its environmental consequences.

'Dam Profits Help With Development’

The Quint met with a engineer from the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation who has been workiing on the 450 MW dam by the government in Rekong Peo.

This is the first time the government is undertaking to build a dam of this magnitude on its own. Before this, they went up to 125 MW on their own. The construction of the dam should have been completed by 2018 but will take another 4-5 years due to delays.

39-year-old Kalyan Singh Chauhan, engineer in the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation, told us the dam construction has been 20-25 percent completed. Chauhan outlines the benefits being given to the locals because of the dam.

For the 6 panchayats affected and relocated by this particular dam, they will get free electricity for 10 years upto 100 units a month. And of the Rs 600 crore profit the dam will make after functioning begins, 1% will be spent on panchayats every year, which means Rs 6 crore a year.

Responding to accusations of water sources being affected downhill and landslides that are caused due to construction of dams in the region, he says that is untrue for this particular dam. He adds that blasting is being regulated and strictly within norms.

Whether the dams are net-positive or net-negative, one thing is settled; the ramifications of dam construction is an issue that is being ignored by politicians across the board in the run-up to the Himachal Pradesh elections.

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