'No more dams in the Himalaya: Sikkim disaster, Uttarakhand & Himachal catastrophes show mega infrastructures fuel disaster-risk in mountains'
In the wake of the Sikkim floods, community activists and environmentalists have yet again highlighted the precarity of dams in the Himalayan regions. Underscoring the threat of the dams in the Himalayan regions, Youth for Himalaya, an autonomous platform of individuals, community organizations and representatives of people’s movements from different Himalayan, trans-Himalayan, and North-East regions of India organized an online conference on the state-sponsored disasters across Himalaya with a focus on the recent flood in Sikkim.
While the role of Last week's Glacial Lake Outburst Flood(GLOF) at Lhonak Lake that caused the tremendous disaster has been highlighted, greater attention needs to be paid to how the disaster, which is still plaguing the area, got fuelled by the series of dams built on the Teesta River. South Lhonak was noted as a glacial lake that might erupt, according to many reports. The Himalaya's glacial melt has accelerated due to rising global temperatures. Additionally, the outburst may have been nudged by a sudden cloudburst and earthquake that struck a day earlier in neighboring Nepal. The flood's impact and intensity were exacerbated severely by the dams on river Teesta triggering a cascading effect downstream. Tonnes of concrete muck were discharged as the massive Teesta III dam collapsed under the weight of the flood, compounding the flood’s ferocity. The largest hydropower project in Sikkim, the 1,200 MW Teesta III, is also culpable for storing high water levels and the failure to open the spillways to control the situation.
Gyatso Lepcha from Affected Citizens of Teesta said “The 1200 MW Teesta III was completely washed away. This dam was built only 30 km away from Lhonak Lake. Right now there is only a single narrative - that this is a natural disaster but we don't believe that. The current government is blaming the previous government for substandard construction. The previous government is blaming GLOF but nobody is questioning the construction of the dam in such a fragile area. This disaster is not a natural disaster and we are now demanding accountability plus cancellation of the proposed Teesta IV dam."
Everyone had been forewarned of this tragedy by advocacy groups like Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT). For the past two decades, ACT has resisted the proposed dam network in the Dzongu and nearby regions. However, the authorities have consistently disregarded local opposition and ignored all social and environmental rules. The administration was specifically aware that the South Lhonak Lake posed a threat to the Teesta River dams.
“Dams are force multipliers in times of disasters. Most casualties occur near dam sites. Dam authorities at Chungthang were informed by ITBP and from 10:40 to 11:40 they had an hour to open up the spill gates of the dam. Electronically operated takes minutes to open. Even hydromechanical gates take only about 15 minutes to open. There is clearly no accountability of bodies like the CWC,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). He further added that the “Dam Safety Act (2021) only looks at the structural integrity of the dams; it doesn't talk about the operational integrity of dams. Safety audits need to be a public exercise.” In the case of the decades-old dams that have become structurally weak over time, Thakkar said that the DSA 2021 was to include decommissioning of dams but that was later omitted from the law. ‘There will have to be public pressure to decommission the aged dams which pose a threat’, he said.
Similar occurrences were reported earlier this year in other Himalayan regions, starting with the announcement of the Joshimath land subsidence crisis in January, the Doda land subsidence crisis in February, the havoc caused by the monsoon in Himachal, and finally the destruction in Sikkim last week. Despite early warnings from the local communities living in the area, significant dam development, road widening projects, the promotion of uncontrolled tourism, and rapid concretization resulting in land use change have gone ahead in the Himalayas leading to such disasters. Sunder Negi from #NoMeansNo movement in Kinnaur said “We witnessed two major landslides in Nigulsari and Batseri in 2021 that took the lives of 30 people. This year we witnessed a landslide in the same area as before, at NH-05 near Nigulasri. It was during the peak time of transportation of apples to the markets. The people of Kinnaur are primarily dependent upon apple farming for their livelihood. But due to this landslide, Kinnaur was cut off for so many days and we had to transport our produce via Kaza which is twice as long. Everyone says these disasters have been occurring in the region. But if we know that the region is prone to disasters then why build all these dams without considering the local population?”
The Sikkim flood much like the other disasters that unfolded in the Himalayan region this year is unquestionably the outcome of a development paradigm that blatantly disregards the geological complexity and the cultural heritage of the Himalayan region. The authorities also procrastinated in providing relief despite the plight of the people of Sikkim. This is evident by the Central Government's delay in sending NDRF teams to the most severely affected areas. So far the relief efforts initiated are inadequate. Commenting upon the lack of accountability Atul Sati who is the convener of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti said “It’s been two years since the Tapovan dam incident occurred. People are still waiting for fair compensation and rehabilitation. Similarly, leaders talk about the re-establishment of Joshimath but it is in name only.” He further went on to add that they had after the Tapovan disaster gone to the High Court with regard to the threats posed by the NTPC dam to Joshimath but “the court questioned our intention and imposed fines.”
Ebo Mili an advocate and a prominent human rights and environmental activist from Arunachal Pradesh said “ We have 1500 glacial lakes in Arunachal Pradesh and the number is highest in my district. The attitude of the government and proponents of dams within is despicable. A lot of money is being pumped into our region not for compensation or rehabilitation but to influence people. 12 MOUs were signed to commission 12 dams. When the dams are constructed disaster is inevitable. We have been witnessing disaster throughout the year, be it in Joshimath, in Sikkim, or anywhere and we will continue witnessing it in the future.”
People from some of the Impacted regions of Sikkim have highlighted that it will take them a long time to get back on their feet. Youth for Himalaya in an earlier statement has put forth the demand that the Sikkim flood along with other recent Himalayan disasters be considered a National disaster. No new mega dam projects must be built in the Himalayas and an immediate safety audit of existing projects is a must.
Contact information of the speakers:
Gyatso Lepacha, Affected Citizens of Teesta (Sikkim): 83483 32721
Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP): 99682 42798
Sunder Negi, #NoMeansNo Campaign, Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh): 70182 63931
Atul Sati, Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Uttarakhand): 96393 38433
Emo Mili, Save Dibang (Arunachal Pradesh): 98119 40454
Contact Youth For Himalaya: 9459021415 & 9582612492