Jammu and Kashmir has a hydropower potential of 20,000 MW of which around 3,500 MW is being generated. Construction of seven new hydropower projects on the Chenab river and its tributaries, is underway and that has got villagers in J&K worried.
Chenab River meandering through the hills in Reasi district of Jammu region in J&K. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal
The seven members of Raja Sultan Khan’s family at Chak Manthrigam in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, take turns in staying awake at night. They live in fear that the dam at Gurez from where water flows 24 kilometres, through a mountain tunnel to the Kishanganga hydro-electric project near their village, may breach. They fear this may result in a tragedy like the recent Uttarakhand disaster, where a landslide and flash floods in the Dhauliganga river left over five dozen people dead and around 150 missing.
Two run-of-the-river hydropower projects in Uttarakhand were washed away while a tunnel was blocked when debris, flood water and boulders rushed inside.
“We live under constant threat. Now we fear the mountain may burst and there could be flash floods in our village or the mountain will bury us,” 30-year-old Khan, a social activist, told Gaon Connection.
Over 5,000 residents of Chak Manthrigam aren’t the only ones having sleepless nights since the Uttarakhand disaster on February 7 morning. At least five villages including Kanzalwan, Zalindora, Chuntiwara, Dachi and Gulshanpora lie in the plains and fall under direct threat of the dam of 300 mega watt (MW) Kishanganga project built at Gurez. Water for the powerhouse of this run-of-the-river project in Bandipora is diverted from this dam in Gurez through a 24-kilometre tunnel.
“We live on the lower reaches of the dam. God forbid, if the dam bursts. The water will wash away the houses in five villages,” Mushtaq Ahmad, from Gurez, told Gaon Connection.
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has a hydro power potential of 20,000 MW of which around 3,500 MW is being generated. Like Kishanganga, seven run-of-the-river projects are proposed on the Chenab river in the union territory. Among them, three are under construction while work on four is yet to begin. Besides, four projects are already operational on the Chenab.
However, officials dismiss such fears and assure the villagers that there is nothing to worry about. “When we built the Kishanganga project, some orchards were affected. However, at present, only a small percentage of orchards continue to be affected as water is emanating through springs there,” a spokesperson of Kishanganga hydropower project told Gaon Connection.
He added that there was no threat to the people of Bandipora. “Our teams continuously check the site and it is totally safe. There is a very slow flow of water through the tunnel,” he assured.
“Similarly, there is a small reservoir at Gurez which is spread over two kilometres. There is no threat to people living by the Kishanganga power project eiter, and they need not feel unsafe,” he added.
When approached, P K Pole, divisional commissioner, Kashmir said he would look into the matter. “I will check how the orchards are getting affected and what safety measures have been taken for the people,” he said.
More dams coming up
The Union government has proposed the construction of seven new hydropower dams on the Chenab river and its tributaries with a total capacity of over 5,000 MW. Construction work is already underway on three of them.
The projects are being executed by the Chenab Valley Power Projects Pvt. Ltd, a joint venture of NHPC Limited, The Jammu & Kashmir State Power Development Corporation, and Power Trading Corporation (India) Limited, formed at the initiative of the government of J&K and the central government to harness the vast hydro potential of Chenab.
In 1983, the Union government commissioned the 390 MW Dul Hasti dam. Thirteen kilometres upstream Dul Hasti dam, is the 624 MW Kiru hydropower project being constructed on river Chenab, in Kishtwar district. For this, a 135-metre high dam and an underground power house are being constructed.
Similarly, Pakal Dul hydro electricity project (1,000 MW) is being constructed on river Marusudar, a tributary of Chenab, also in Kishtwar, with a 167 metre high dam, an underground power house with four units of 250 MW each.
The Kwar hydroelectric project (540 MW) in Kishtwar district is also under construction on river Chenab for which a 109-metre high dam, and an underground power house with four units of 135 MW each are being set up.
The Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change recently cleared construction of Ujh hydroelectric project in the Kathua district of Jammu for which thousands of trees will be cut. Under the project, a 116 metre high dam will be constructed on Ujh river, which is tributary of river Ravi and it is expected to produce around 200 MW of electricity.
Residents in the vicinity of Ujh river are worried about the environmental impact of cutting down so many trees for the projects. “It will create devastation and there are high chances of soil erosion. The government seems to be in a hurry to construct power projects without assessing their impact on the local environment,” Jitendar Singh, a resident of Kathua told Gaon Connection.
Meanwhile, more than 250 kilometres away from Kathua, people of Kishtwar and Doda in Chenab valley in Jammu region, are also living in fear after watching the visuals of the Uttarakhand disaster.
“Due to the frequent earthquakes and blasting to build tunnels, what if the dams in the Chenab valley breach?” Muzafar Ahmed, a worried resident of Kishtwar asked Gaon Connection. “A dam burst here could kill hundreds of people,” he pointed out while referring to the recent flash floods in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand where two dams got washed away. Villagers claim their houses have already developed cracks due to the blasting while the power projects were being constructed.
“The continuous construction of dams will only increase the possibility of flash floods and landslides. A large number of trees have also been cut to pave way for constructing these projects,” he added.
The environmental consequences
Geologists and climatologists have always opposed the construction of dams in the higher Himalayas, especially where avalanches are a common occurrence.
“When we construct any dam, we dump steel and iron, and these retain heat leading to an increase in temperature that disturbs the environment,” R K Ganjoo, geologist at Jammu University told Gaon Connection. The Chenab valley is particularly vulnerable as rocks here have developed cracks, he claimed.
“The area has also witnessed a huge damage to the environment thanks to ill-planned construction,” Ganjoo lamented. “All projects in Chenab are in narrow valleys,” he observed. A better alternative would be to build smaller dams in broad valleys, he said.
Geologist G M Bhat who teaches at the Jammu University, said the Chenab valley was vulnerable to cloud bursts. “Major dams have been constructed here on the upper reaches. If there is a cloud burst, there will be devastation due to flash floods,” he warned. Earthquakes are also creating cracks in dams, he said.
The Chenab valley falls in seismic zone 4 and 5 which is highly vulnerable to major earthquakes and can lead to breaching of dams, Bhatt pointed out. “The only solution is to build small hydroelectric projects with small reservoirs, where water can be controlled,” he added.
Gaon Connection tried to contact authorities at Chenab Valley Power Projects Pvt. Ltd over phone calls and emails but they did not respond. Once they respond, the story will be updated.