The sinking of the Himalayan town Joshimath in Uttarakhand is a reminder of the devastating climate-linked disasters that have hit the region all too frequently over the past decade.

In January, residents of Joshimath said several homes had developed cracks. Within weeks, more homes, buildings and roads had developed cracks and residents had to be moved out. Environmental experts said that this was the result of land subsidence or the sinking of land.

While much attention has been on the immediate human aspects of the tragedy, as residents were forced to abandon their homes, the long-term financial repercussions must be taken into consideration.

Joshimath is only the latest in a string of disasters in the Himalayas in India, with heavy financial and human costs. According to estimates from the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, widespread destruction from high-intensity rainfall in the June 2013 floods had caused public infrastructure losses to the tune of Rs 13,844 crore. The August 2019 Uttarkashi cloudburst and landslides resulted in losses of Rs 260 crore.

A landslide in Chamoli district in February 2021 caused losses of Rs 1,600 crore to the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project there, while heavy rainfall in October 2021 caused damages of Rs 2,000 crore in the Kumaon region and Rs 7,000 crore across the state.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg as there is no accounting of private losses, apart from the many lives lost.

In Joshimath in January. Credit: PTI.

The government’s National Thermal Power Corporation has insisted that tunnelling work for the Tapovan-Vishnugad project near Joshimath is not to blame for the sinking of the town. But this drives home the fact that the financial consequences of environmental mismanagement and destruction are real, more so given the multiplier effects of the unfolding climate crisis. The rehabilitation of Joshimath’s residents is estimated to cost crores, with the initial relief package already at Rs 45 crore.

If it is later established that the National Thermal Power Corporation’s work is to blame, will the company and its shareholders bear the cost? Will courts enforce the law when it comes to an influential public sector enterprise? What about the financiers of the Tapovan-Vishnugad project? Clearly, due diligence for the project’s environmental impact assessment was not ensured. Questions must be raised of the consultants tasked with preparing the environmental impact assessment report and the Union environment ministry’s officials who granted clearance to the project more than 15 years ago?

Why were the required geological and geotechnical studies never done before the project was granted clearance, or even after being recommended by the committee led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra in 2014? Have the other 80-odd small and large projects, under construction or proposed, in Uttarakhand and neighbouring Himachal Pradesh undergone similar assessments? How many more such projects are there, whose impact on the surroundings were never assessed fully before clearance was granted?

The Indian Himalayan region, a geologically fragile and seismically active region whose vulnerabilities are amplified by the climate crisis, is said to have the world’s highest density of dams. Uttarakhand alone has 18 large hydropower plants with an operational capacity of over 4,000 megawatts and 42 more under construction that will add a capacity of 9,600 megawatts.

The June 2013 flash floods, triggered by cloudbursts and landslides in the Alaknanda valley, had severely damaged more than 35 small, mini and micro hydropower projects of the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency and seven projects of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited.

The floods had also affected large projects like the Vishnuprayag hydropower plant in Chamoli district and the Dhauliganga hydropower plant in Pithoragarh district. In Rudraprayag district, the Phata-Byung hydro project, still under construction, and the Singoli-Bhatwari project, which was commissioned in 2020, on the Mandakini River were also affected.

The 400-megawatt Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project, upstream from Uttarakhand’s Srinagar city on the Alaknanda River, was buried under rubble. This plant, commissioned in 2006, was built at the cost of Rs 1,900 crore. In Pithoragarh district, the National Hydroelectric Power’s 280-megawatt Dhauliganga plant that was built at the cost of Rs 1,578.31 crore and commissioned in 2005 had to be shut down after its turbines and other powerhouse equipment were affected by the flood.

Rescue teams at the site of the destroyed Rishi Ganga hydroelectric power station, close to the Tapovan-Vishnugad Project, in Raini village of Chamoli district in February 2021. Credit: Reuters.

What makes the sinking of Joshimath more tragic is that there was sufficient warning that all was not well. In December 2009, during excavation for the National Thermal Power Corporation’s 520-megawatt Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydropower plant, the tunnel boring machine punctured an aquifer leading to a massive discharge of water– estimated at 800 litres per second.

This incident was reported by MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela, then geologists at the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre in Uttarakhand, in the May 2010 issue of Current Science, a scientific journal. The article warned of the consequential impact of the sudden outpouring of water from the aquifer, including the drying up of local springs and, presciently, land subsidence.

In subsequent years, residents did indeed report the drying up of several natural springs in the region and cracks in buildings. In 2011, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People or SANDRP raised the issue of the project reports missing crucial geological aspects.

A petition filed before the then National Environment Appellate Authority against the environment clearance was rejected because it was filed too late. As is now clear from the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, between July 2020 and March 2022, Joshimath and its surroundings sank by 2.5 inches during the study period. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s National Remote Sensing Centre showed that Joshimath sank by 5.4 centimetres between December 27 and January 8.

Since construction began on the Tapovan-Vishnugad project in November 2006, its cost has ballooned by more than 450% from the initial budget of Rs 2,978.48 crore to over Rs 13,500 crore today. The first unit of the project was supposed to be operational by September 2012.

The project has suffered damages from floods in August 2011, 2012 and June 2013. In 2009, work was delayed when the aquifer was punctured while in 2012, the tunnel boring machine was again trapped in an underground landslide leading to work being suspended for over six years from 2012 to 2019.

After the February 2021 flash floods nearly sounded the death knell for the project, the National Thermal Power Corporation pegged damages at over Rs 1,500 crore. As a result of repeated damage from floods and landslides, the insurance cost of projects in the region has increased by up to four times.

In Joshimath in January. Credit: PTI.

Further, Joshimath is not the only town to report subsidence in Uttarakhand. Karanprayag has also witnessed land subsidence. The construction of the Rs 16,200-crore broad-gauge railway link between Haridwar and Karanprayag, requiring a 14-km underground tunnel upstream of Devprayag, is underway in that region.

The crowded tourist towns of Mussoorie, Nainital, Landour, as well as Bhatwadi, Munsiyari, Purnagiri, Gopeshwar and Srinagar have all witnessed subsidence. In Himachal Pradesh, environmental research collective Himdhara has documented frequent landslides, cracks and fissures in roads and buildings, drying up of local springs due to tunnelling and underground work in hydropower project areas.

In the region affected by the Karcham Wangtoo hydropower plant over the Satluj river in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, 50% of the springs in the area have seen a 90% reduction in water discharge, according to the Himdhara assessment.

Clearly, large infrastructure projects are high risk interventions in the Himalayas. Yet, there is little willingness to accept the basic fact that perhaps not all engineering “solutions” are universally applicable.

In September 2021, citing the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 60 scientists had written an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop all hydel projects in the Himalayas, whether under construction, new or proposed.

Even the National Disaster Management Authority, in its report on the February 2021 disaster in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, had asked the Ministry of Power to identify alternative sources of energy in the long run as further hydropower development in the region was not viable.

Paid for by taxpayers

The share of the private sector in the hydropower projects under construction in Uttarakhand is about 20%. The fact that private sector finance has largely steered clear of hydropower projects in the Himalaya, even as it ploughs money into wind and solar power, is telling. Compared to solar and wind energy, large hydropower plants are no longer cost competitive and have a much higher investment risk profile.

Most of the finance for new hydropower projects in the Himalayas is coming from state coffers, through public sector banks, state governments or other public sector units. In the event of a disaster caused or exacerbated by these projects, the cost for rehabilitation and compensation will also come from public money.

India can ill afford such a waste of public funds, which in effect are being transferred to a small dam-building lobby, with little discernible benefit to the country. Given the success and scalability of solar and wind projects, planned investment in energy storage technologies and the decline in power storage costs, new investment in hydropower in the Himalayas are a high-risk low-return bet.

Ashish Fernandes is CEO, Climate Risk Horizons. Chandra Prabha is Communications Specialist, Climate Risk Horizons.

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