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Why India 'lacks' decommissioning policy for ageing, unviable, eco-destructive dams

By Parineeta Dandekar* 

The recently-concluded World Fisheries Congress in Seattle in March 2024 discussed several themes relating to the health of our rivers, dependent communities and fish. Of the several interesting sessions, the symposium on ‘Dam Removal as a River Restoration Tool at the Water-Energy-Food Nexus’ was of particular interest. 
 I was simultaneously at two parallel sessions and hence was unable to attend some of the presentations but have tried to provide an overview of the presentations and discussions, in addition to the session where I presented a paper.
The symposium organizers asked:
“The dam removal movement has taken hold in the United States, Europe, and other developing countries, leading to thousands of dams being removed worldwide. A combination of improved scientific understanding, economic necessity, socio-political coalitions, and aging infrastructure built for bygone purposes has driven the dam removal trend. In the face of climate change, shifting alternative energy portfolios, and the global loss or decline of migratory fishes and the fisheries they support, what role will dam removal play globally at the water-energy-food nexus?"
The symposium turned out to be hugely interesting and educational as it included presentations from several countries, each at a different stage of the dam removal discussion. USA has decommissioned more than two thousand dams so far and the largest dam decommissioning till date is now ongoing at the Klamath Dams on the border between Oregon and California. 
One of the biggest drivers behind this process are the Pacific Salmon which faced a near 97% population decline post-damming and the indigenous Klamath basin communities who hold the salmon in high regard for livelihood as well as for its deep cultural significance.
The symposium was opened by Jeff Opperman from WWF with a talk on ‘Rivers of Food: Dams, Tradeoffs and Food production from Rivers.’ Mr. Opperman put forth a compelling case for flowing rivers, especially river deltas as major food producers of the world contributing to about 4% of global food production. River deltas strongly depend on freshwater flows from upstream. He highlighted water shortages affecting 3/4th of the world’s irrigated acreage, the majority lying in Asia. 
He also highlighted a very important and often ignored synthesis that 77% of the total marine fish species are dependent on river flows for at least some part of their life cycle. This means flowing rivers are important not only for the freshwater fish but also marine harvest. 
He highlighted the recent hydropower boom concentrated now in Asia and the rapid decline of long free flowing rivers in the world, with Asia looking at 75% rivers dammed according to the Zarfl database. He talked about the work WWF and its partners are undertaking for protecting the last free flowing rivers across continents.
Next presentation was from Katie Schmidt, Associate Director, National Dam Removal Program, American Rivers titled, ‘Exploring the Removal of Hydropower Dams in Policy and Practice: Removing FERC regulated Hydropower Dams’. 
American Rivers is a stalwart non-government organization spearheading dam removal in the United States and has been working closely and coordinating with scientists, communities and various government agencies to bring down non performing and ecologically damaging dams. There are several private hydropower dams in the US and the session was only about licensed dams. 
The standard term for FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) license is 40 years after which all FERC regulated projects have to go through a license renewal process. This is the most important stage where interventions can be made about: Economics: primary driver of most dam removals, Safety: a growing driver for removing ageing infrastructure in face of changing climate, and Ecology: the underlying driver of most dam removals. 
The license surrender, decommissioning, and removal of a FERC-regulated hydropower dam entails years of process and regulatory hurdles contributing to an average timeline of more than five years. As of May 2023, FERC oversees 1,383 licensed or license-exempt conventional hydropower projects, comprising 1,729 dams. Over 500 hydropower licenses are set to expire by 2038.
According to American Rivers, most uneconomic dams are those below 10 MW installed capacity and dams most likely to be evaluated soon are the ones whose license will expire in the coming 15 years.
This was followed by a presentation on the River restoration and multi dam removal case study of Pataspo River, Maryland by Jessie Thomas Blate of American Rivers. Historically, river herring and shad were a major fishery resource in the Chesapeake Bay and a common food staple for Indigenous tribes. In the 18th to 20th centuries, many mill dams were constructed to provide power to early industries. In 2018, the state-owned Bloede Dam was removed from the Patapsco River. 
Formerly used for hydropower, the 34-feet high by 220-feet long dam was no longer serving a useful purpose and created a safety hazard for the local community. I missed the next two presentations: 'Dam Removal on America’s Working Lands' by Rachel Maggi and 'Predicting Fish Community Response to Dam Removal by Henry Hansen.'
Then was an interesting presentation titled ‘Estimating Dam Removal Cost at Regional Scales in the Southeastern United States’ by Suman Jumani (The Nature Conservancy) et al. US has more than 2 million dams with less than 50 acre-feet water. It is estimated that by 2050, approximately 30,000 dams will be removed. 
The tools developed by the researchers looked at multiple considerations and scenarios for dam removal, helping the decision makers prioritize dam removals with maximum impact. The research combined estimates of dam removal cost with data on imperiled aquatic biodiversity to examine the potential for restoration at watershed-scales and included guidance for incorporating cost estimation into dam removal decision-making processes.
This was followed by a case study of Selune River in France, two years after dam removals by Laura Soissons et al where the author talked about changes in sedimentation, increased spawning grounds for Atlantic Salmon and European Eel. Dam removal reconnected the upper 60 km of the Selune River, representing about 1000 km of flowing habitats to the ocean, reinstated invertebrate colonies and helped recolonizing of Migratory fish like Atlantic salmon and the European eel in the upstream part of the Selune watershed very quickly.
Then was a presentation by Megan Lung (Save the Sound) where she empathetically pointed out that urban streams are deserving of restoration within their constraints. this was followed by a session on Evaluation of Anthropogenic pressures of river fish communities in Latvia by Andris Avotnis et al.
This was followed by SANDRP’s presentation titled ‘Dam Decommissioning: Challenges and opportunities for India’. I talked about the recent Report of the Standing Committee, Parliament of India in March 2023 which highlighted the 234 dams built over 100 years ago and hundreds over 50 years. India's Water Resources Ministry in its response stated that it has no policy for decommissioning ageing dams. 
I shared examples of projects causing severe issues like Gumti HEP in Tripura, Loktak Hydropower Project in Manipur, Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, Kal-Kumbhi Hydro Project in Maharashtra, Dams in Konkan of Maharashtra, Mullaperiyar Project in Kerala, Maheshwar Dam on Narmada etc. 
I also discussed about the goods and services from last remaining free flowing rivers in the country and the need to protect them. At the conclusion, SANDRP paper stated that India will have to consider dam decommissioning in the coming years and it will be more challenging than in countries like US or Europe.
This was followed by an interesting presentation by Serena McClain, Senior Director of American Rivers. She presented on behalf of her colleague Kathleen Hoenke from SouthEast Aquatic Resource Partnership about ‘Developing a National Barrier Inventory and prioritization tools for United States’. Aquatic barriers include more than 5 lakh dams and over sixty lakh road crossings. 
In the Southeast, over the past 10 years, this inventory developed by SARP and tool process has contributed to the remediation of 80 road crossing barriers and 20 dam removals, a positive example of success as the inventory and tool expands into the rest of the United States. She strongly advocated for a bipartisan law to protect Aquatic species and habitats.
After this was an interesting panel on Global Dam Removal moderated by Hermann Wageningen of the World Fish Migration Foundation. He shared experiences about dam removal in Europe and use of decommissioning as a tool for river restoration. He highlighted that already 325 barriers have been removed in Europe and more than 150,000 obsolete barriers are hoped to be removed. This was followed by a lively discussion.
The session after focused on Klamath Dam Removal, the largest dam removal ongoing in US and world history which includes removing 4 dams on the Klamath River between Oregon and California.
This was an enlightening session with practitioners sharing studies as well as stories as the dam removal is ongoing. Klamath river is important for the migrating salmon as well for the Yurok tribes who are playing an important role in the dam removal process. 
Along with the practitioners like Daniel Chase, Desiree Tullos, Mike Belchik (Senior Biologist, York Tribes) and Krystyna U Wolniakowski (Executive Director by the Columbia River Gorge Commission), the session also included a presentation by Senior Attorney Richard Roos Collin of the Water and Power Law Group who walked us through the process of Risk Management related to Klamath dams removal. Wolniakowski’s presentation was an eloquent story of the Klamath Dams and their ultimate removal. It was emotional as well as scientific and pragmatic.
During the Klamath Panel discussion, Mike Belchik said success of Klamath Dams Removal will be in having fish back in the river for the tribes: “When the first 25-pound Chinook Salmon is caught in the upper basin, Klamath will be a living river again.” His bucket list was, “A basin full of fish, tribes fishing again and a basin united by a fish swimming from the sea to the headwaters. Dam removal is only a beginning in the journey of a living Klamath again.”
The stalwarts from this panel have been working on removing dams on Klamath for over two decades now. They were present when the first Klamath dam came down. Each one described it as a deeply emotional experience. In a matter of hours, a session which was discussing complex scientific tools for assessing dam removals, moved to a different arena where everyone had a stake in witnessing the rebirth of a river.
The session on Dam Removal organized by several key players in the dam decommissioning landscape of the US and across the world was an enlightening, positive meeting of minds and hearts working for decades to bring down dams that have cause more harm than good. 
As the world’s third largest dam builder, which has no policy of decommissioning any of its ageing, dangerous, unviable, no longer beneficial or ecologically and socially destructive dams, we have a lot to learn. The road is arduous and uphill but we will have to tread on it one day. It will be better for our rivers and communities if we take the first step on this path at the earliest.
The symposium was organized by: Jeffrey Duda, U.S. Geological Survey; Shannon Boyle, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Nathaniel Gillespie, US Forest Service; Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, American Rivers; Herman Wanningen, World Fish Migration Foundation; George Pess, NorthWest Fisheries science Centre- NOAA.
*Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People



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