The recently announced loan by the World Bank will not make much of difference to River Ganga unless long term policies are put in place to protect its natural flow in the Himalayas.
It would be impossible to clean the River Ganga if its natural flow is blocked
Government of India has recently signed an agreement with the World Bank (WB) for a US$ one billion loan to finance a major project to cleanse River Ganga.
While the decision to cleanse River Ganga is welcome, the concerned authorities need to look at all the associated problems in a holistic manner. A similar effort, at huge cost to the nation, to cleanse river Ganga in the recent past has not resulted in any appreciable qualitative change in the river, because the primary reason for the pollution in the river was not properly addressed.
The environment minister Jairam Ramesh recently made a critical comment on the condition of rivers. He said, “Most of India’s rivers have become sewers. We have to now really bring water into rivers.” In this context it is necessary to emphasise that the proposed one billion dollar 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. 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 billion dollar 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 due to a large number of hydro-electric dams coming on the river and its tributaries.
The environment minister Jairam Ramesh recently made a critical comment on the condition of rivers. He said, “Most of India’s rivers have become sewers. We have to now really bring water into rivers.”
The state of Uttarakhand, where Ganga traverses its entire mountain path, is reported to be planning to build more than 100 dams on it and its tributaries. These dams will considerably 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. 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 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. Several human settlements which will come on its banks in the form of townships to manage these hydel projects will only add considerable pollution loading. Further, various activities associated with the construction of hydel projects will lead to a lot of construction related debris entering the river at different points, which may lead to land slides.
It is also a well known fact that submerged vegetation drowned in the dam water gives rise to Methane, which is a highly potent Green House Gas (GHG). Since Global Warming and Climate Change is a critical issue impacting the Himalayas, which is the source of the Ganga and many other rivers, Methane emission from these dams should be seen as a serious threat to the overall health of the river.
Taking all these and many more issues concerned with the large number of dam based hydel projects of Uttarakhand into objective consideration, one has reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the proposed loan by the WB, unless corrective steps are also taken simultaneously to eliminate/ minimize the need for hydel projects in the state.
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, should be considered.
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 government to reconsider its plan to harness its rivers to earn revenue by building large number of hydel projects on its rivers. It seems 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 impact on the social, economic and emotional lives of the Indians, an out of the box thinking is essential to save it.
The state of Uttarakhand has limitations for industrial/agricultural development because of the fragile mountain ecosystem of the state. While state’s revenue earning options include tapping the vast water resources for power generation, it can not be ignored 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 will be immense.
Hence it becomes essential that the disbursal of the proposed loan made conditional on the objective study of the cumulative impact of these hydel projects under adequate supervision of a competent expert team with civil society members. In addition, the number of such hydel projects should be kept to the barest minimum, and adequate quantity of river flow must be ensured at all places in the hills. The disbursal of the proposed billion dollar loan should be possible only after the World Bank completely satisfies itself with these requirements, and in effective consultation with the local people, who are the most affected parties.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are
personal and do not necessarily reflect the
views of d-sector editorial team.
The author is a power policy analyst based in Shimoga district of Karnataka state. He remains passionate about renewable energy and environment.
Other Articles by Shankar Sharma in Environment Development
> Conservation > Water and Water Sources
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