- While India has been pushing for hydropower development, a latest study in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh on forest land diverted for hydropower projects has revealed that construction activities for hydropower are threatening biodiversity, impacting indigenous people and fragmenting critical wildlife habitats.
- The researchers revealed a poor state of compensatory afforestation carried out in Himachal Pradesh, with some of the plots, where compensatory afforestation had been apparently carried out, with no saplings.
- The researchers demanded a hold on further expansion of hydroelectric projects in the Himalayan region until a detailed, independent and multidisciplinary inquiry is done into the alteration of the ecosystems.
India has pushed for renewable energy to tackle climate change, with hydropower touted as one of the green solutions. A recent study, however, shows that such projects in the Himalayan region have negatively impacted the environment. The study, which looks at forest land diverted for such projects in Himachal Pradesh, has revealed that construction activities for hydropower projects have not only impacted existing land-use, disturbed forest biodiversity and fragmented the forest landscape, but the related compensatory afforestation plantations are also ridden with problems.
The study, published in the journal ‘Land Use Policy’ in September 2020, used government data and ground research to examine the extent, nature and impact of forest diversion for hydropower projects in the remote, ecologically vulnerable Kinnaur Division of Himachal Pradesh in the Western Himalayas. It also analysed the compensatory afforestation undertaken as a mitigation strategy as part of this forest diversion process.
Under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, forest areas are diverted for non-forest activities like hydropower projects and then plantation has to be carried out to compensate for the loss of the forest. The study revealed that in the area examined for the study, the plantations have so far, “only been undertaken over 12 percent of the planned area, and even these had a survival rate of less than 10 percent.” It said such compensatory afforestation only means more physical interference in natural landscapes whose “long-term consequences remain under-researched.”
The study was conducted between 2012 and 2016 by Manshi Asher and Prakash Bhandari, who are associated with the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, an advocacy and research group working on issues of environmental justice and forest rights in the Himalayan region.
Kinnaur, the study area, touches the international border of Tibet on its northeastern side and is spread over an area of 6,401 square kilometres. The Satluj is the main glacial river flowing through this district, with tributaries like Spiti and Baspa. The Zanskar, Great Himalaya and Dhauladhar mountain ranges run parallelly across Kinnaur with altitudes ranging from 2,320 meters to 6,816 metres. It has diverse natural vegetation ranging from subtropical pine forests to moist and dry temperate forests, from alpine birch forests to alpine meadows, from cold desert vegetation in the arid zone to grasslands and scrublands.
For the study, the researchers carried out a detailed secondary literature review including data of all forest clearances and compensatory afforestation activities including the extent of forest land diverted, specie-wise trees felled, plantations carried out (numbers, species, funds expended) for the operational and under-construction projects. They also studied the forest clearance proposals and environmental impact assessment reports of projects. The authors also conducted a ground-truthing exercise to assess the implementation of compensatory afforestation.
Based on this research, the study concluded that Himalayan ecosystems, recognised as diverse and fragile, have “borne the brunt of extensive and rapid land-use change with modern development” and in “recent years climatic hazards, such as landslides, floods and forest fires, have further destabilised mountain slopes and forest landscapes.”
However, an unprecedented scale of land-use change in Himalayan river valleys is now clearly attributed to the proliferation of hydropower development, which has, in turn, unleashed a new set of challenges such as deforestation, fragmentation, soil erosion and loss of forest biodiversity for the local terrestrial ecosystems over a short period of two decades, the study said. These are causes for serious concern for local communities, whose lives and livelihoods stand adversely affected by hydropower projects, it added.
Asher, a co-author of the study, stressed that government agencies in charge of environmental regulation and forest governance have failed to credibly assess the nature and magnitude of the impacts that a series of these projects are having on entire forest ecosystems. She explained that their study suggests that both hydropower projects as well as compensatory afforestation plantations, carried out in lieu of the forest land diverted for these projects, in the name of ‘mitigation’ have altered land-use and are negatively impacting forest ecosystems.
Himachal Pradesh important for hydropower development
It is estimated that India has a potential of about 145,320 megawatts (MW) of hydropower and around 78 percent of that is in the Himalayan states, which have the potential for over 112,000 MW. At present, the total hydropower-based installed capacity in the country is 45,699.22 MW. In 2019, the government declared that large hydropower projects would have renewable energy status even as they have been severely criticised for having a huge impact on the area where they are planned.
The study noted that of all the Himalayan states in the Indian subcontinent, the pace and magnitude of hydropower development in Himachal Pradesh has been the highest. It said that the highest identified potential of hydropower amongst the five river basins of Himachal lies in the Satluj valley and if all planned projects materialise, 22 percent of the river would be dammed and 72 percent flowing in tunnels.
Kinnaur, located in the upper reaches of Satluj basin, is the state’s hydropower hub. It has 53 planned hydropower projects, of which 17 are large projects (above 25 MW). Fifteen projects of varying capacities, totalling 3,041 MW, have already been commissioned (are operational) — which is highest among all the districts in the state, the study said.
The study revealed that the total diverted forest land in Kinnaur had 11,598 standing trees, belonging to 21 species – all of which had been cut down for the construction of projects and the majority of the trees felled were coniferous, dominated by cedar and chilgoza pines.
“Other species of trees, shrubs, herbs etc. are classified as ‘inferior’ find no mention, even though they may be valuable,” the study noted.
The chilgoza or neoza tree, impacted by these projects, is a rare and endangered species of evergreen pine that is indigenous to the western Himalayan region providing edible nuts and its loss is a cause for concern in this region. The study emphasised that while chilgoza’s contribution to local income has decreased, with apple and off-season vegetable cultivation being the primary contributors, it still forms a substantial part of the economy in villages well-endowed with chilgoza forests, with fewer orchards.
The poor state of compensatory afforestation
The researchers undertook a ground-truthing exercise on 22 plantation sites under Compensatory Afforestation (CA) and Catchment Area Treatment Plan (CAT) to understand the extent of work carried out. As per the study, as of March 31, 2014, the total area of land demarcated for compensatory afforestation was 1,930 hectares, in lieu of 984 hectares of forest land diverted for non-forest activities, which includes roads, hydro-projects, transmission lines etc.
The study found that from 2002 to 2013 the forest department has carried out plantation work in 44 sites in an area of 241.67 hectares (12 percent of the total plantation), for the forest land diverted for hydro-projects and transmission lines under compensatory afforestation. It also established that of the average number of total saplings reported under CA and CAT, only 10 percent of saplings were found in the plot, which is notably low.
“In three of the 22 sample plots, not a single sapling was found. In Demarcated Protected Forest (DPF) Manoti, an old barbed wire fence found in a few sections of the plot was the only proof of the plantation’s existence. After thoroughly examining the whole plot, not a single planted sapling nor any sign of digging was found,” revealed the study.
The plantations situated in mid and upper Kinnaur showed a “very poor survival rate of approximately 3.6 percent in four plots, due to acute dry conditions and the absence of irrigation facilities – a state of affairs that is well-known to the forest department and has even been cited as a reason for the failure of plantations under the desert development project,” said the study.
At another site, the study claimed that the forest guard informed them that a fire had wiped out the whole plantation. “This was also verified in the field. At plantations in Undemarcated Protected Forest (UF) Baspa, Landhar, Thong Shong Thikroo and Hurba, either landslides or avalanches had destroyed the plantations. The plot at Plingcha was full of stone boulders; there was hardly any space left for plantation while the Thach plot was located on a steep slope, and inaccessible for plantation activity. Over 50 percent plantation sites were in such terrain,” said the study.
Asher said, “global green growth agendas are driving and legitimising them in the name of mitigation causing more harm to fragile local ecosystems and indigenous local people.” “We emphasise the need to confront the current idea of mitigation relying on the fallacy that ecological damages in one region can be simply compensated by repair measures in another.”
At some locations, the plantations are located in areas used by locals for fodder/grass collection and for grazing. According to the study, the locals do not want to convert these grasslands into plantations and so uproot the saplings once they are planted by the forest department.
Another important finding was the discrepancy in the types of trees planted when compared to the species of trees that were felled as part of the forest diversion. “While the trees that were cut down were mostly of local and indigenous species, the plantations consist of a proportionately higher number of exotic species, such as Ailanthus and Robinia. The prime reason for the same was the survivability of the species. The survival of Ailanthus is far better compared to any of the local species planted. Moreover, we observed that the survival and growth of Ailanthus and Robinia saplings are faster in comparison to local species, across all plantation sites.”
The study noted that the changing composition of the forest is posing a threat to the existence of native species, which now risk being overpowered by the new exotic species as Robinia is a particularly invasive species and many local farmers complained of it spreading to their farmlands.
Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, said the study is a “welcome effort” and “what it concludes for Kinnaur is likely to be true for the rest of the country.”
“Most compensatory measures proposed for the adverse impacts of development projects provide scandalous results, be if compensatory afforestation, rehabilitation of people, environment flows, catchment area treatment, muck disposal, catchment area treatment, fisheries plan to name a few. This is because both government agencies and developers are least interested. There is no independent oversight or consequences when such compensatory proposals do not get implemented as required. Until and unless we can put in place a credible independent compliance mechanism in place that will involve consequences when compliance is not achieved, there is little hope for improvement,” Thakkar told Mongabay-India.
Soumitra Ghosh of the All India Forum for Forest Movement (AIFFM) said it is not just Himachal Pradesh but all the Himalayan states where biodiversity is being hampered, communities are impacted and critical areas are being fragmented due to hydropower projects.
“It is happening rampantly across the Himalayan region. For instance, it is the same story of hydropower projects creating havoc in states like Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and parts of North Bengal. These projects are not only fragmenting the critical wildlife habitats but destroying it … they are also disturbing the indigenous people living in those areas. The priority of government agencies is not biodiversity or indigenous people or critical wildlife habitats,” Ghosh told Mongabay-India.
On the state of compensatory afforestation, Ghosh remarked, “Compensatory afforestation does not do anything … it compensates nothing but the forest department officials. We have seen examples across India … and at many places, there are ghost plantations (on paper but not in reality),” Ghosh told Mongabay-India.
Hydropower projects fragment the landscape
The study highlighted that a total of 13 hydropower projects fall within 10 kilometres of the buffer zone of the Rupi-Bhaba Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh while another five projects are in the area of the Lippa-Asrang Wildlife Sanctuary, while another project is 6.5 km from the Rakcham-Chitkul Wildlife Sanctuary.
“All three WLSs are in the Greater Himalaya, where the winters are fairly severe and heavy snowfall is commonplace. During the winter months, wildlife tends to migrate to lower altitudes in search of food and water. It is in these lower areas that projects are springing up,” it said.
The study observed that to gain access to different components of the project, a network of roads is constructed from the diversion structure to the access tunnels to muck dumping sites, to the de-silting chamber, stone crusher plant, storehouse, powerhouse and finally, connecting to the project colony. Similarly, patches of forest land are acquired for the erection of transmission towers through villages and mountain ridges. This means fragmentation of forests and habitats due to disruption of landscape connectivity and contiguity, provoking the dispersal of animals, and creating new edges that expose forests to exploitation and further degradation, said the study.
The lead researcher of the study Prakash Bhandari said what is needed is a detailed, independent and multidisciplinary inquiry into the alteration of the ecosystems due to hydropower projects, especially in the fragile Himalayas, while their further expansion is put on hold. “The planning and environmental governance need to put at the centre the local ecologies and impact on communities who inhabit these ecosystems. Gram Sabha participation and consent under FRA 2006 is imperative,” he said.
Asher, M., & Bhandari, P. Mitigation or Myth? Impacts of Hydropower Development and Compensatory Afforestation on forest ecosystems in the high Himalayas. Land Use Policy, 100, 105041.
Banner image: Damsite of the Tidong project shows the extent of the land-use change due to forest land diversion. Photo by Sumit Mahar.