- Chenab is an important river in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region and currently has over 12 hydropower projects either commissioned or under construction.
- Environmentalists and experts in the region also warn that the unchecked growth of such projects may lead to disasters such as earthquakes.
- Many of these dams are located either on or near fault lines. Water can percolate into the fissures, triggering earthquakes.
More than half a dozen hydropower projects are under various stages of development on the Chenab river in the Kashmir of India, even though there have been repeated warnings from environmentalists, geologists, and other experts about the dangers of unchecked growth of such projects.
The Chenab river originates in Baralacha pass in Himachal Pradesh and flows through Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban, Reasi and Akhnoor districts in Jammu and Kashmir in India, for over 500 kilometres, before flowing to Pakistan. In Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir together, more than two dozen hydropower projects have been planned on the river and its tributaries.
One such place is Chenab Valley in Kashmir, which is an active seismic zone and has a history of earthquakes. On May 1, 2013, an earthquake of magnitude 5.8 on the Richter scale hit the Chenab Valley resulting in two deaths and injuring 69 people. Subsequently, the seismic activity continued in the valley throughout 2013, prompting teams of seismologists to study the area.
G.M. Bhat, a geologist at Jammu University, who has been conducting research on earthquakes in the region, warns against the unchecked development of such dams. “Earthquakes and cloudbursts have been more frequent in Chenab Valley over the past few years, and if they happen close to lakes or dam sites, the combined volume of water will wash away the downstream habitation,” Bhat told Mongabay-India.
“Chenab Valley is located in seismic zone 4, which is extremely vulnerable to powerful earthquakes and occurs regularly … The government should construct small hydroelectric projects with tiny reservoirs, the water of which can be easily controlled, rather than creating big dams,” he emphasised.
According to a 2018 study by seismologists from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru, Karnataka, an earthquake of a magnitude 8.5 or greater, on the Richter scale, is overdue in the central Himalayas covering parts of India and eastern Nepal.
Resistance against dams
The Kishtwar district in Kashmir, has at least seven dams, including under-construction dams. These include projects in Rattle, Dul Hasti, Pakal Dul Project, Kiru, Kwar, Bursar, and Kirthai.
According to Bhat, many of these dams in Kishtwar are located either on or near fault lines. “As a result of their structure, water may percolate into the fissures, triggering the earthquake,” he said, while noting that there also exists the threat of glacial lake breach due to an earthquake or a cloudburst.
In some cases, problems are emerging even in the construction phase. For instance, in the Dul Hasti project, tunnels were dug below the town and that dried up the natural springs, leading to a water crisis in the area.
Similarly, the Baglihar project on the Chenab river in the Ramban district impacted several areas including Pul Doda, which is an important part of Doda town. The local people allege that Pul Doda is slowly sinking into the Chenab river. During a visit, Mongabay-India found that less than 10 houses are left in Pul Doda.
Now, there is growing opposition against the construction of dams in the Chenab region, especially against the 800-megawatt (MW) Bursar hydropower project in the Marwah area of the Kishtwar district. According to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, the development of the Bursar dam will result in the displacement of 336 households (1,673 people) across seven villages. Overall, at least 1,052 families will be impacted including 716 households (4,659 people) on account of land acquisition.
Sheikh Zafarullah, who led a strong agitation against the Bursar dam and currently is an elected representative of the Marwah area in the Kishtwar district, said that the “people of the Chenab region are being misled for the sake of jobs in these projects.” He told Mongabay-India that people don’t understand that they are inviting an environmental disaster just for a job for 6-7 years and are destroying their children’s future.
During excavation work for such projects, thousands of trees have been extracted. The local people raised concerns that the projects may harm wildlife and cause earthquakes in this seismically active zone. In January 2022, an earthquake of magnitude 4.0 on the Richter scale struck the Chenab valley, with Doda district being the epicentre, and in April 2022, another earthquake of 3.4 magnitude on the Richter scale with Kishtwar district as the epicentre.
“We have become the largest water laboratory in the world,” said Zakir Bhat, a member of the Kishtwar District Development Council (DDC), while highlighting that some of India’s biggest hydropower projects are being built along a 70-km stretch in the Kishtwar and Doda districts.
“The construction of power projects comes at the expense of people, who give up their resources without receiving compensation from the government. All decisions regarding how to utilise the water resources of our area should involve us,” Zakir Bhat demanded.
In 2018, local people, largely farmers, labourers, and students, began protesting and opposing the proposed construction of a power project on the Marusudar river, a tributary of the Chenab river that runs through dozens of villages in Marwah. The project envisioned was an 800 MW storage project on the river Marusudar at an estimated cost of Rs. 246 billion. The dam will be India’s first storage project under the Indus Waters Treaty, an agreement between India and Pakistan that details the sharing of waters from the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum rivers.
Pakistan has objected to the designs for the 1,000 MW Pakal Dul and 48 MW Lower Kalnai hydropower projects on the Chenab river. However, India has dismissed Pakistan’s objections claiming that both meet the requirements of the Indus Waters Treaty.
Banner image: Chenab river at Ramban in Jammu and Kashmir. Chenab is an important river in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region and currently has over 12 hydropower projects either commissioned or under construction. Photo by Shoaib tantray111/Wikimedia Commons.