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Scars from 2013

The trauma remains intact even after five years when Uttarakhand was swept by devastating floods

Scars from 2013

HP Upreti, an ex-serviceman from the Shakti Vihar locality of Srinagar, Uttarakhand, vividly recalls the fateful day, five years ago, when one of the worst natural disasters struck his hometown: "The water came rushing in, it was everywhere. I will never forget that scene."

Srinagar was one of the worst-hit areas during the devastating June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. Low-lying areas of the town, like Shakti Vihar, were inundated as houses were filled with muck deposited by floodwaters.

"Nearly the whole colony was underwater, filled with muck brought in by floods. In some cases, the water had completely covered the ground-floor of the house. I suffered heavy damages and everything was destroyed," Upreti recounted. "I got only Rs one lakh as compensation and that too after a lot of haggling. I didn't want to shift from here and so, since 2013, I have spent over Rs 14 lakh to restore my house," added Upreti, who is now fighting a case for enhanced compensation. Over 1,800 days have passed since the June 2013 floods that brought widespread tragedy to Uttarakhand, but the scars remain fresh.

Hills devastated

It has been estimated that about 6,000 people were killed, found missing or presumed dead, 4,200 villages were affected, 9,200 cattle/livestock were lost and 3,320 houses were completely damaged due to the floods. Extensive relief and rehabilitation work has been carried out across the state but the scars of the tragedy are hard to erase.

Experts, both private and from government-funded institutions, unequivocally agree that the magnitude of the disaster, caused by the June 2013 floods that ravaged a part of the hill state, had increased manifold due to unabated illegal constructions on the river floodplains and the government's relentless pursuit of hydropower projects. Currently, the state plans to develop 450 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) to harness the potential of generating 27,039 MW of power.

Local communities in Srinagar town believe that the 330 megawatt Srinagar hydroelectric power project built on Alaknanda River amplified the damage. Their fears were confirmed in the 2014 report of an expert committee, formed on the Supreme Court's order and led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra.

Further up in the mountains, in the Kedarnath temple area, which was among the most damaged in the 2013 tragedy, one can still spot the signs of suffering. The town around Kedarnath temple and the area downstream were heavily damaged due to the collapse of the Chorabari Lake that lies around 1.5 km upstream of Kedarnath.

Demand for dams

Despite several expert committees questioning a large number of dams across Uttarakhand, the state government has not slowed its agenda for building more dams as it believes hydropower is an important source of revenue that will usher development into the state. In terms of hydropower potential, Uttarakhand is next only to Arunachal Pradesh and has an ambitious programme.

According to data from the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), the nodal corporation of the Uttarakhand government for managing hydropower generation at existing power stations and developing new hydro projects, the plan is to develop 450 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) across the state to harness its potential of 27,039 MW hydropower. Over 250 of these projects are still on the drawing board and growing concerns about the effect of dams on biodiversity and riverine ecosystems have not impacted their case. If completed, more than half of the 450 HEPs projects will have an installed capacity of five MW or more, and majority of them will divert rivers through tunnels to powerhouses downstream.

In its 2013 report, the Ravi Chopra committee had suggested dropping 23 of these hydropower projects but the issue has been pending with the apex court. Experts believe that the development of these projects will irreversibly affect the landscape of Uttarakhand. Local villagers too fear another disaster.

"We saw what happened in 2013 and all those mistakes are being repeated again. The dam that is being built near our village has a huge tunnel inside the fragile mountains. There will be a constant danger to our lives," said Sushila Devi, an activist from the Banswara area.

A 2015 report by the Comptroller and the Auditor General of India had noted that the "natural terrain conditions combined with climatic/weather conditions and haphazard human intervention resulted in the unprecedented disaster in the Kedar and Mandakini Valleys and in other parts of the state".

But it seems that lessons are yet to be learnt. In 2012, the 100 km stretch of Bhagirathi River – from its origin in Gaumukh to Uttarkashi – was declared as an eco-sensitive zone as a result of which the setting up of any new HEPs in the stretch was banned. Since then, the Uttarakhand government has been attempting to get the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone notification amended, seeking permission to construct 10 hydropower projects on Bhagirathi River with a total capacity of 82.5 MW. The government has argued that they were allotted prior to issuance of the 2012 notification and were under different stages of development and implementation.

More than 60 per cent of Uttarakhand is covered with forests and they are huge storehouses of biodiversity. These forests are home to about 4500 plant species, of which 116 are endemic, representing an invaluable genetic resource. Construction of dams requires huge forest area too which in-turn posing a danger to this biodiversity. Meanwhile, even as impacts of big dams are being debated, India is looking at building the country's highest dam in Uttarakhand. The mega hydropower project, the 5,040 megawatt (MW) Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project (PMP), has been planned at the India-Nepal border on the Mahakali River, known as Sarada in India, at a location where the river forms the international boundary between India and Nepal.

(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a portal for environmental news and analysis. The views expressed are those of Mongabay.com)

Mayank Aggarwal

Mayank Aggarwal

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