Cleansing Ganges

Jul 28th, 2011 | By | Category: Advocacy, Energy, Experts Speak, Financing, Government Policies, Hydropower, M-20 CAMPAIGN

Dr. Shankar SharmaShankar Sharma: As per media reports Indian officials have recently signed an agreement with the World Bank (WB) to use a $1 billion loan to finance the first major new effort in more than 20 years to cleanse river Ganga.

While the decision by the concerned authorities to cleanse river Ganga is wholly welcome, what is also essential is a holistic look at all the associated problems. It should be highly relevant here to note that a similar effort to cleanse river Ganga in the recent past at huge cost to the society has not resulted in any appreciable qualitative change in the river, basically because the primary reason for the pollution in the river was not properly addressed. In this regard it is also necessary to note what the environment minister has said recently in this regard. “Most of India’s rivers have become sewers,” said the former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. “We have to now really bring water into rivers.” In this context it is essential to emphasise that the proposed $1 billion loan can be put to maximum use only if all the attendant problems of the river in the upper reaches are also adequately addressed.

It is a well known fact that the river Ganga has been revered by Indians for thousands of years because of its purity and medicinal properties. One can notice that these two qualities of the river were not only due to copious and unhindered flow of water in the upper reaches, but also due to less amount of waste that was entering the river. While the proposed $1 billion loan may be able to ensure that the waste water entering the lower reaches of the river is free of human and industrial wastes, the fact will remain that the quantity of water flowing from the Himalayan Mountain ranges will continue to decrease drastically due to a large number of hydro-electric dams planned to be built on the river and its tributaries over next few years. The state of Uttarakhand, where river Ganga traverses its entire mountain path, is reported to be planning to build more than 100 dams on India’s most respected river and its tributaries. Even if 50% of these planned dams, if allowed to come up, will drastically reduce the amount of water entering the plains, because of which no amount of spending to clean the river in the plains will have any discernible effect on the river.

It is well known that a river is of maximum benefit to the human beings and fresh water creatures only when it is flowing freely without any sort of obstruction to its natural course. With a number of dams on its length the river water is likely to become stagnant at many stretches, because of which it’s natural ability to cleanse itself will be seriously impacted, as we have seen on all other rivers with multiple dams. Additionally, the large number of dams will also reduce the thick vegetation cover in the upper catchment areas because of which not only silt loading will increase enormously, but also the medicinal properties due to vastly reduced vegetation will make the river water much less pure.

The large number of hydel projects across the river and its tributaries will also lead to many types of effluents, such as machine lubricants and transformer oils, entering the river. The large number of human settlements which will come up on its banks in the form of townships to manage these hydel projects will add considerable pollution loading. Various activities associated with the construction of hydel projects will lead to a lot of construction related debris entering the river at different points. The construction of approach roads may lead to landslides.

It is also a well known fact that submerged vegetation drowned in the dam water gives raise to Methane, which is a highly potent Green House Gas (GHG). Since Global Warming and Climate Change are critical issues impacting the Himalayas, which is the source of the river Ganga, Methane emission form these dams should be seen as a serious threat to the overall health of the river. On the basis of intractable evidence of retreating glaciers on the upper reaches of Himalayas, the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already predicted a much reduced inflow to Himalayan rivers, including Ganga. With so many dams impounding water behind them, it is any body’s guess how good water flow in Ganga will be.

Taking all these and many more other well established concerns associated with the large number of dam based hydel projects of Uttarakhand into objective consideration, one can clearly visualize how ineffective will be the proposed $1 billion loan by the WB, unless corrective steps are also taken simultaneously to eliminate/ minimize the need for such hydel projects in that state.

While it is the primary duty of a country to make the best use of WB loans, it is equally important that WB itself make sure that such loans are used to create infrastructure/systems leading to sustainable benefits. This loan should be seen by the Ministry of Environment & Forests as an opportunity to prevail upon the Uttarakhand govt. through Govt. of India to reconsider its decision to harness its rivers to earn revenue by building large number of hydel projects on its rivers. It is credible to consider even dedicating a substantial portion of this loan amount to ensure steady revenue to the state of Uttarakhand to compensate for the loss of so called revenue from exploiting its rivers. Since river Ganga has huge role in the social, economic and emotional lives of the Indians, an out of the box thinking is essential to save it.

Whereas it is being projected that the state of Uttarakhand has huge limitations for industrial/ agricultural development because of the fragile mountain ecosystem of the state, and that the only revenue earning option available is to tap the vast water resources for power generation, it should also be noted that the overall economic loss to the state and the country as a whole because of various issues associated with a large number of hydel projects in the state can be inestimable. An objective analysis of costs and benefits to the society of these dams will go a long way in such a decision making process.

Hence it becomes essential that the disbursal of the proposed $1 billion loan by the WB to cleanse river Ganga is linked to the clear and unambiguous condition that the state of Uttarakhand must ensure that the cumulative impact of these hydel projects is studied objectively under adequate supervision of a competent civil society team; that the number of such hydel projects should be kept to the barest minimum; and that adequate quantity of river flow is ensured at all places in the Hills. The disbursal of the proposed $1 billion loan should be possible only after WB completely satisfies itself with these requirements, and in effective consultation with the local Civil Society groups, who are the most affected parties.

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Author: This article has been written by Mr. Shankar Sharma for Climate Himalaya’s Guest Column. Mr. Sharma is a Power Policy Analyst based in Thirthahally (India). 

Mr. Shankar Sharma graduated in electrical engineering from Mysore (India) and hold diploma in technology management from Australia. He has over 30 years of professional experience in electricity industry in the areas of generation, transmission and distribution. Mr. Sharma worked in different capacities with various agencies like; Karnataka Electricity Board (Govt. Of Karnataka India), Ministry of Power in Government of India, Electric Corporation New Zealand, Queensland Electricity Transmission Corporation Australia, and now work as Consultant to various power sector agencies in India. He is a power policy analyst and has great interest in issues related to energy efficiency and impact on environment, ecology of Western Ghats & Himalaya, climate change adaptation & mitigation, energy reform, governance and urban-rural issues. He travelled extensively in India, Australia and New Zealand for his work. Email

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.

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