Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why Case Against Dams Is Overblown In Uttarakhand?

By Ritu Bharadwaj (Guest Writer)

After the Uttarakhand disaster, every NGO worth his or her jhola has got 15 minutes of fame on TV channels for telling their “I-told-you-so” stories. Predicting disasters about dams and floods is something in which you can never go wrong – if you wait long enough. Some time, some day you will have an Uttarakhand happen whether you build dams or not. Why, even Mumbai had horrible flooding in 2005.
I would believe an NGO’s apocalyptic vision if it can predict roughly when a disaster could happen – and not merely that it will happen. Scare stories on dams have been around since the time of the Bhakra Nangal in the 1960s. But we have not seen more than the usual share of catastrophes. It’s a bit like predicting that the Sensex will hit 60,000 (as I have predicted here, and have yet to live it down). It will happen 100 percent because, over five years or 10 or 15, the natural growth of the markets will ensure that. The value of a prediction lies in having some kind of time-frame.

That is why we need to take the Uttarakhand NGO talk with a bag of salt. Whether it is big dams or the ban on construction near river’s edge – which many of the state’s CMs have opposed – there are risks and rewards to both carelessness and overcaution.

The collapse of several river-edge buildings in Uttarakhand tells us that the risks were probably underestimated, but they also don’t take into account the fact that these same development gave people better livelihoods and other benefits from tourism, et al.

Take the case of big dams. No one should deny that big dams in seismic zones can be a danger. But this danger is a risk that can be mitigated and something we can be prepared for. The tragedy in Uttarakhand is that we were not prepared for it. Human ingenuity lies in acknowledging a risk as real and being prepared for it, not in avoiding it at all costs.

The truth is there is a cost to be paid for big dams; but there is also a cost to be paid for not having big dams. For example, it is now crystal clear that the Tehri dam, by holding excess flows this week, actually prevented Haridwar and Rishikesh from being inundated. There could have been a catastrophe if there was no dam. So the risk of the dam accentuating seismic activity has to be weighed against its ability to prevent the big flood – as it did this time.

As Anand Sankar, a journalist from Dehradun writes in Business Standard, “It would have been truly disastrous had the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda combined in spate at Devprayag; it could even have led to serious damage in the plains of western Uttar Pradesh. Refusal to acknowledge this is a stunning failure of the environmental lobby.”

So, there is a point to saying that dams are risky, but as much of a point in saying that dams bring benefits, too.

Then there is the larger question of livelihoods. As a hilly country, Uttarakhand is ecologically sensitive. But its two main sources of income and business are tourism and hydel energy – both capable of damaging the environment. Stop either, and you are condemning the people to poverty.

Sure, Uttarakhand can stop building dams, and de-promote tourism. But is the rest of India then willing to ensure larger income transfers for the privilege of keeping this hill state in pristine glory? The argument is the same as in the Amazon rain forests. The world wants these forests to remain as they are to help in the fight against climate change, but is it willling to pay for it?

All human decision-making is about tradeoffs. Do we want to take the risk of the once-in-a-decade flood against 10 years of better incomes and more hydel power? If the answer is yes, we need more dams. If the answer is no, we should be clear that we have traded off growth for safety.

The sensible thing to do is to measure risks more carefully. Anand Sankar, for example, believes that the real problem with hydel projects is not that they are not efficient, but that they lead to a large human cost in terms of people displaced – and Indians are notoriously lax in compensating people for the loss and rehabilitating them.

On the other hand, there are dams and dams. Run-of-the-river hydel projects, says Sankar, tap energy directly from the force of the river’s flows, and do not need to store large amounts of water in dams. These can effectively churn out the same power from a small storage solution.

It’s ultimately not about dams or no dams. It’s about which is the better solution in a given situation. The case against dams is often a case against development – the price of not developing is paid by some, and the benefits are disproportionately shared by outsiders.

This is the real issue, not dams.
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