Dams or no Dams!

Holy or Barbaric!

By- Priyankan Goswami

The issue of Big Dams needs no introduction to our readers. There has been enough hue and cry made, it’s become a bread and butter section for every newspaper in Assam. Be it be Krsihak Mukti Sangram Samiti’s strong anti-dam public rallies, AGP’s new found mantra to drum public support or Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s pro-dam remarks, the controversial big Dam is no longer something which can contain water and generate electricity. The dam has grown much bigger now; it has now the potential to be the decider of the fate of 2011 elections in Assam, thanks to all our political and non-political parties indulging in the Dam-factor.

The concern over Big Dams is not something new. Various research work done throughout the world to study the cumulative effects of hydrological alterations due to construction of big dams (viz water diversion, exploitation of groundwater aquifers, stream channelization, and interbasin water transfer, etc ) has shown more adverse effects than the bright side. In fact various studies have proven large dams and river diversions to be primary destroyers of aquatic habitat, contributing substantially to the extinction of species, and the overall loss of the ecosystem services on which the human economy depends. The fact that earthquakes can be induced by dam and that globally, there are over 100 identified cases of earthquakes that scientists believe were triggered by dams-reservoirs does not help too. When at one end our Government is busy citing examples of China’s proud Three-Gorges Dam, the same people are overlooking China’s 7.9-magnitude Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, which killed an estimated 80,000 people. This earthquake is reported to be caused due to Reservoir-Induced Seismicity (the phenomenon of earthquake due to dams) of the Zipingpu Dam. The environmental issues such as sedimentation, change in flooding pattern, etc associated with Big Dams is worth mentioning. A short study of various big dams constructed across the world especially the third world countries proves this well. For example, before the Aswan High Dam, the Nile River carried about 124 million tons of sediment to the sea each year, depositing nearly 10 million tons on the floodplain and delta. Today, 98% of that sediment remains behind the dam. The result has been a drop in soil productivity and depth, among other serious changes to Egypt’s floodplain agriculture. This single example is enough to shut mouths of people making a mockery of KMSS as to why the farmer’s organization is raising concerns over the big dams.

With the adverse sides coming to light, it has now become very difficult to build destructive river projects in the developed countries. However the Indian hydro industry and financial institutions continue to export this obsolete technology, much in the same way the chemical industry continued to export pesticides long after they had been banned in the country of origin. At dam conferences, the talk these days always centers on finding “fresh markets” to exploit and new ways to sell dams to a skeptical public. And of course when we talk about exploitation, there can be no better place in India than the North east!

Let’s come to the Point. What Congress, AGP and other non-political organizations are doing seems to be mostly political. AGP,– the same party who rose historically opposing illegal immigrants in Assam never succeeded in their battle cry. Many oldies mock that the ones who formed AGP knew to oppose and shout, but did not know to implement solutions! We now fear the same with dams. If AGP comes to power in next elections, will Assam get any solution to the energy sector which we are so dependent on other states? If the big dam project is shelved due to public outcry, there is little chance Centre will invest on another project in the energy sector. Private investments are of course out of question. Congress, on the other hand, seems to be adamant in keeping the dam, rightly so for their party’s sake which has already become a haven of capitalists. But if the dam is kept, will it solve Assam’s need of electricity is another question. Before anything else, they would have to convince people on why the dam is indeed required. Probably some good Risk Assessment and Mitigation based on the severity & detection of all risks associated with the construction of big dam would help, if all risks are mitigated with a proper plan and action.

There are often better, cheaper, less-destructive alternatives to building a large dam, whether to meet energy or water needs, or to reduce the impacts from floods. These alternatives – from small-scale, decentralized water supply and new renewable, to large-scale efficiency and conservation options – have frequently been ignored or dismissed out of hand when a large dam project is on the table. Two such sectors of hydro power which are getting vast attention in the developed countries are wave power and hydrokinetic turbines that capture energy from the flow of water in rivers, estuaries and ocean currents. In fact such turbines can even produce power from irrigation canals and water supply and disposal pipes. Hydrokinetic turbines, if assessed properly can be huge boon to Assam and North eastern states with our fast flowing rivers in abundance.

Whatever the people of Assam now has in its hand, dam or no dam, one plain fact remains the same,-  we need a boost in the energy sector. Any modern schemes by the government for agriculture, education, medical facility, etc is null and void if we have to keep depending on electricity from other states. It’s high time we put up a comprehensive, participatory process to first evaluate exact needs for water, food and energy followed by a similarly open public process to assess the full range of options for meeting those needs.

Shouting, protesting and staging against problems will continue to keep us in the same pace, if not take us back. In fact, shoutings & protests are seen to be increasing with politically motivated or intended for publicity, instead of resulting out the solution in proper manner. What we really need is to get into the action mode, work out solutions and move forward. But will our leaders do so!

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