The Indian state of Uttarakhand, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, is home to a vast network of rivers and tributaries flowing down from the mountains. These perennial rivers have shaped the culture and economy of the region for centuries, but today, they also present an opportunity for harnessing renewable hydropower and achieving the state’s development goals. Dams have emerged as a vital infrastructure for managing Uttarakhand’s abundant water resources – for irrigation, drinking water supply, electricity generation, and flood control. However, given the state’s unique geography and vulnerability, dams in Uttarakhand have also faced controversies related to environmental impact, rehabilitation and seismic activity.
An Overview of Dams in Uttarakhand
With over 70 completed and proposed dams, Uttarakhand has the second highest concentration of dams in India after Chhattisgarh. The first dam projects in the region were initiated in the 1960s when Uttarakhand was still part of Uttar Pradesh, with the construction of the Ramganga Dam and Dhauliganga Dam. But the real proliferation of dams began in the 1980s, which saw projects like the Tehri Dam, Koteshwar Dam and Maneri Bhali Dam taking shape. The abundance of perennial rivers flowing down the Himalayas, coupled with the steep gradient, makes Uttarakhand ideal for run-of-the-river hydropower projects.
Today, dams in Uttarakhand have a total installed capacity of 3,164 megawatts (MW), with an additional 6,000 MW capacity in the pipeline. According to official estimates by the Uttarakhand government, the state has the potential to generate over 25,000 MW from its rivers. When completed, these projects are slated to increase Uttarakhand’s hydropower generation from the current 32% of India’s total hydroelectric output to over 50% – cementing its position as the nation’s hydropower hub. But elaborate planning is required to ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of these projects.
Major Dams in Uttarakhand
Some of the most important dams in Uttarakhand are:
- Tehri Dam: Touted as the tallest dam in India and ranked among the highest on earth, the massive 260.5 meter high Tehri Dam was constructed from 1978 to 2006 on the Bhagirathi River. Its reservoir supports a 1,000 MW hydropower plant, provides irrigation to Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, and drinking water to Delhi. However, the project faced stiff opposition from environmentalists and locals.
- Koteshwar Dam: Located just downstream of Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi River, the 400 MW Koteshwar Dam works as a tailrace dam regulating water flow and enabling additional power generation. Its construction was completed in 2012 after long delays.
- Vishnugad-Tapovan Hydropower Plant: Currently under construction on the Dhauliganga River in Chamoli district, this run-of-river project will have a 520 MW installed capacity from four turbines. It is scheduled for commissioning in 2023.
- Asan Barrage: Built in 1967 on the Yamuna River near Dehradun, the Asan Barrage diverts water into the East Yamuna Canal to feed downstream power stations. Its reservoir is also a popular birdwatching site.
Several other notable dams in Uttarakhand include the Dhauliganga, Ramganga, Maneri Bhali, Srinagar, Chibro, and Kishau dams, along with under-construction projects like Tejam, Bhaonta-Kulhal, and Kishau. But missing from this list are several controversial proposed dams that have faced stiff opposition from local communities and environmentalists.
The Vital Role of Dams in Uttarakhand
With a vast untapped hydropower potential, dams present Uttarakhand with the prospect of energy self-sufficiency and security. The state currently generates over 16,000 MW of hydroelectricity through dams and run-of-river projects – accounting for 33% of India’s total hydroelectric output. Hydropower is a renewable, non-polluting source of energy and allows the state to export surplus power to the national grid. The 1000 MW Tehri hydroelectric plant alone powers several states in North India. Upcoming projects like the Vishnugad-Tapovan plant (520 MW) aim to further boost clean power generation through dammed reservoirs.
Irrigation and Drinking Water Supply
Dams in Uttarakhand irrigate nearly 250,000 hectares of agricultural land, supporting the livelihoods of farming communities. The East Yamuna Canal originating from the Asan Barrage near Dehradun is a prime example. Dams also augment drinking water supply to major cities like Dehradun. The controversial Tehri Dam provides 600 million litres daily (MLD) of water to Delhi. Smaller dams like the Maneri Bhali feed local towns. Proper water storage through dams is especially crucial for Uttarakhand’s water security in the dry pre-monsoon months.
Given Uttarakhand’s vulnerability to erratic rainfall and flash floods due to its mountainous terrain, dams play an important role in harnessing flood waters. Well-designed reservoirs act as basins to capture monsoon runoff and regulate discharge. The Tehri Dam, for instance, moderated 2013 flood damage by absorbing peak flows. However, dams have also allegedly exacerbated flood damage when releases from overflowing reservoirs were mistimed – underscoring the need for effective operation.
Tourism and Livelihoods
Reservoirs created by dams in Uttarakhand have developed into popular tourist attractions, offering scenic vistas, boating, angling, and water sports. The Tehri and Maneri Bhali lakes draw enthusiasts for trekking, camping, rafting, and bird watching – creating economic opportunities for locals. However, tourism activities need regulation to prevent environmental strain. Further, dam construction itself creates direct and indirect livelihood opportunities during the building phase.
Environmental and Social Concerns Around Dams in Uttarakhand
While dams drive Uttarakhand’s economic progress, they also carry complex socio-environmental repercussions that need redressal.
Impact on River Ecosystems
The dams and diversion barrages along Uttarakhand’s Ganga river system have fundamentally altered natural water flows in the region. Reduced river flows between dams affect sediment transport, fish migration and biodiversity – damaging fragile Himalayan ecosystems. For example, the 330 MW Lohari Nagpala hydropower project on the Kali river was shelved following warnings about ecological harm. Ensuring minimum ‘environmental flows’ downstream of dams remains a challenge.
Loss of Forests and Wildlife Habitat
The reservoirs created by dams in Uttarakhand have often involved submergence of significant forest and wildlife areas. Part of the Rajaji National Park was lost while constructing the Tehri Dam. Conservation efforts are also hampered by dams restricting animal movements. Maintaining fish ladders and protecting upstream forest areas around dams is difficult but vital. The cumulative habitat destruction caused by dams is further exacerbated by roads and power infrastructure built alongside.
Seismic Risks and Climate Change Implications
Uttarakhand’s high seismic zone increases the earthquake and landslide risks associated with large dams. A moratorium on hydropower projects was imposed after the 2012 Uttarkashi earthquake. The changing climate poses added challenges like increased siltation rates shortening dam life spans, and unpredictable precipitation patterns stressing reservoir operation. Proper site selection, structural safeguards, sediment flushing and maintenance regimes are essential to mitigate these risks.
Displacement of Local Communities
While precise figures vary, it is estimated that over 100,000 people have been displaced in Uttarakhand owing to dam construction. The Tehri dam alone displaced over 100 villages. Issues like inadequate compensation, loss of livelihoods and cultural detachment from ancestral lands have plagued resettlement programs. Though rehabilitation policies have evolved, effective social impact management remains lacking. Giving project-affected families a stake through equity sharing may offer a way forward.
Balancing Dams and Development in Uttarakhand
The dams debate in Uttarakhand entails finding solutions that advance economic growth and meet energy demands without compromising ecological sustainability and social justice. Here are some steps that can achieve this balance:
- Carrying out scientific environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for all dam proposals and ensuring compliance with forest conservation and environmental protection laws. Rejecting projects that may cause irreversible ecological damage.
- Publishing EIAs to bring transparency, and holding public consultations with project-affected people to address their
- Enforcing strict seismic design regulations and regular safety audits for dams in seismically sensitive locations. Monitoring hydrological data and sedimentation levels to formulate adaptive dam operation procedures under climate change.
- Legally mandating minimum environmental flows to sustain river ecology and biodiversity downstream of dams. Maintaining fish ladders and protective infrastructure.
- Developing robust Resettlement & Rehabilitation (R&R) frameworks to safeguard interests of displaced communities. Linking R&R entitlements to project progress, and providing displaced families alternative livelihood options.
- Promoting small, decentralized hydro projects using existing infrastructure to minimize ecological impact and submergence. Scaling up investments in solar and wind energy to reduce over-dependence on large hydro dams.
- Leveraging dams as sustainable tourism assets by regulating activities, imposing entry fees and involving locals. Using revenues for conservation and community development.
- Framing dam projects as participatory public-private partnerships and offering equity shares to affected families. Ensuring transparency and accountability at all stages.
In conclusion, dams in Uttarakhand require a nuanced cost-benefit analysis weighing national development priorities with local ecological and human considerations. With mindful planning and cooperation, dams can steer the mountain state towards a more secure and sustainable future. But this would need continuous dialogue between all stakeholders.