Dams threaten farmers, fishermen in India's northeast - activists

by Amarjyoti Borah | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 15 September 2010 13:35 GMT

The Lower Subansiri dam is being built on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states.

By Amarjyoti Borah

GUWAHATI, India (AlertNet) - Hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishermen in northeastern India could lose their livelihoods if government plans to build scores of dams in the remote Himalayan region go ahead, experts and activists warn.

Authorities in the area - which borders China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar - want to construct 168 hydroelectric mega-dams over the next 10 years, generating over 63,000 megawatts to help meet the needs of the energy-starved country.

But environmentalists say the projects, planned in various states including Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, must be scrapped as they will hit the poorest people in the region who rely on local snow-fed rivers for their survival.

"There are thousands of farmers and fishermen who are dependent on the river for their livelihoods and have been doing so since generations," said Girin Chetia of the National Educational Environmental Agricultural Development Society (NEEADS), a local charity.

"Constructing dams and obstructing the natural flow of water will have serious impacts on the livelihood of these people."

With an energy deficit of about 12 percent, India is struggling to power its economic growth.

Coal accounts for more than half of India's total energy consumption, followed by oil, a bulk of which is imported. But experts say that beyond 2050 the availability of coal in India will be a major problem.

CONTENTIOUS DAMS

Harnessing the waters of major rivers that flow from the Himalayas, such as the Brahmaputra, is a contentious issue not just with bordering countries who worry about the impact of IndiaÂ?s dams on their water flows downstream, but also with local populations.

India's northeast is home to a complex web of tribal groups and more than a dozen long-running insurgencies fuelled by anger over what their protagonists view as New Delhi's plunder of local resources and a lack of meaningful autonomy.

The planned dams, experts say, could exacerbate a feeling of marginalisation among local populations, who have for years felt their rights have not been considered by the federal government.

Activists say the construction of the dams will reduce water flows - which will mean less fishing stocks in the rivers for fishermen and less water for farmers to irrigate their crops.

They add that since the dam reservoirs will need to be filled to a certain level throughout the year, there will be much less water downstream during the dry season and major flooding during the monsoon season, when water is released from reservoirs.

"Both will be critical for the ecosystem and the livelihood of the millions of people in the downstream," said Keshav Krishna Chatradhara of People's Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley, a local group opposing dam construction.

In states like Assam, the poor regulation of water levels in dam reservoirs during the monsoon season often contributes to mass floods with huge volumes of water released into rivers over a short period with no warning to local residents.

The flooding destroys crops and homes and triggers diseases such as diarrhoea and dysentery every year.

EARTHQUAKE-PRONE

Experts note that the region is also located in an active seismic zone, which could create serious problems if many mega-dams are constructed.

One of the most controversial projects - the Lower Subansiri dam - along the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states is being built in the same area where a magnitude 8.6 earthquake, one of the most powerful in history, hit in 1950.

Activists predict that if a quake of similar scale was to occur in an area where a mega-dam is located, the damage would be irreparable.

"No dam is fully seismic damage-proof," said Dr Chandan Mahanta, a member of a committee set up to investigate the impact of the Lower Subansiri dam.

"Northeastern India being in the highest seismic zone of the world, there is always a possibility that catastrophic earthquakes may occur and in that sense there is always a high risk," he added.

Authorities say they are willing to listen to concerns, but point out that power is essential for IndiaÂ?s development.

"In the past, the way we had handled hydel (hydroelectric) projects have not been environmentally sensitive. It can't be an open assault on the environment," Jairam Ramesh, IndiaÂ?s environment minister, told a recent meeting on the issue of dams.

Â?I understand that livelihood issues are more important but the bigger picture is also essential and that is: India needs to grow.Â?

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