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Of Himachal's incessant rains, reservoir-induced seismicity, hydro-electric projects

By Bharat Dogra* 

Following excessive rain in many parts of Himachal Pradesh on August 20, the situation deteriorated rapidly and flash floods as well as landslides were reported from many areas. In a particularly sad incident, 8 members of a single family in Gauhar ke Kashan village were buried under their collapsed house and died.
In the same district nearly 900 students and their teachers who had gathered in Mandi district for a sports event were trapped for some time due to a flash flood, spreading a lot of anxiety.
Nearly 27 persons died in various incidents whole some others were injured or missing. Several hundreds were rescued, or had a narrow escape. In Bariara village of Nurpur area, several houses developed cracks and had to be deserted.
The Chakki railway bridge on the Pathankot-Jogindernagar narrow gauge railway track collapsed. This was a known danger zone as repair of pillars had been taken up in recent times but the more extensive repair or reconstruction work needed was not taken up.
The Pathankot-Mandi highway also suffered extensive damage. Indiscriminate construction and road cutting has led to the creation or aggravation of many permanent landslide zones here and the situation worsens at the time of heavy rains.
Other reports say that those who had suffered serious harm in earlier flash floods and landslides during this monsoon season have not been rehabilitated properly yet. To give an example, flash floods had caused extensive damage in Karpat village of Lahaul and Spiti district in the last week of July this year ( as well as earlier in 2017).
Fearing more harm from floods, they have to start living in tents some distant away. More recently they have sent a strong plea to the administration for rehabilitation at a safer place.
The cumulative impact of several such disasters has led to a situation in which a large number of families have been devastated over the years and another significant number live with increasing fear in danger zones. A recent report by the state government has stated that Himachal Pradesh is vulnerable to 25 out of 33 hazards identified by the Government of India. Overall, the districts of Chamba, Kinnaur and Kullu, as well as parts of Kangra and Shimla fall in the ‘ very high’ vulnerable status.
When looked at in the context of earthquakes, the districts of Kangra, Hamirpur and Mandi fall in the ‘very high’ vulnerability category.
In this context the extent to which risks can be aggravated by the location of several hydro-electricity projects in high-risk areas and high seismicity areas has been frequently debated.
There are several aspects of this debate. One aspect relates to the extent to which these structures are safe in high seismicity areas. Another aspect relates to the extent to which threats and risks increase in the course of the construction process which frequently involves not just the use of heavy machinery but also often blasting work and serious problems relating to disposal of mounds of rubble. Yet another aspect of controversy relates to reservoir induced seismicity.
Have all these risks been taken care of while approving these projects? Given the sensitive ecology and fragile as well as complex (from the point of view of dam-construction) geological conditions of the region, is it really advisable to go ahead with several of the controversial hydro-electricity projects of the region?
Are these projects even desirable and viable in economic terms, given the long delays and cost overruns? A parliamentary committee on energy has reported recently that the 800 MW Parbati-II project earlier billed at Rs 3,900 crore has a cost over-run of Rs 5,400 crore so that it is now estimated to cost Rs 9,300 crore. 
Where is the guarantee that a project found viable at the cost of Rs 3,900 crore is still viable following a 139% rise to Rs 9,300 crore?
Such questions can be raised also about the 100 MW Uhl-III which has experienced 197% cost rise, or the Sawra Kaddu project which has experienced cost rise of 111%.
In the case of several highway construction and highway widening projects there have been many cases of indiscriminate cutting of slopes, excessive tree felling, unsafe practices of rubble disposal and other factors leading to the emergence of many more landslide zones as well as aggravation of the threat from floods.
Indiscriminate mining, particularly in and round rivers and water-sources for sand, has also led to increasing the threat from floods during rains (while at the same contributing to rapid depletion of water during the dry season).
These times of climate change are identified with several kinds of adverse weather situations, including concentration of rainfall in a few very heavy rain events. In such a situation there is need for more ecologically protective policies but the actual situation appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
Therefore there is clear need for corrective actions in favor of an ecologically protective path which will also protect people from disasters.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include ‘Planet in Peril', ‘Protecting Earth for Children' and ‘A Day in 2071’

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