Development And Environment

Locals in Sikkim are fighting to save their community and the environment from hydropower projects

Indigneous Lepchas hope they can block yet another large dam at a UNESCO world heritage site.

While the government of Sikkim is determined to convert its rivers into so-called “white gold” by exploiting its vast hydropower resources, indigenous Lepchas of the state in India’s Northeastern Himalayas hope their opposition will halt construction of the proposed 520 MW Teesta Stage IV hydropower project.

If successful, this will be the fifth project the community has successfully stopped in Sikkim – part of a growing wave of anti-dam movements across Northeastern India where hydropower developers are struggling with angry protesters and falling profits.

India’s National Hydro Power Corporation got clearance to build the dam on the Teesta River near Chandey village in Dzongu in 2012. Since then, Lepchas have challenged its construction in various forums including the National Green Tribunal. So far they have succeeded in putting it on hold, though the Sikkim government continues to try to win over other local people.

Lepchas, who are recognised as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group” and protected within the Dzongu community reserve, are at the forefront of anti-dam protests in Sikkim because they worship mountains and rivers.

Future powerhouse

Considered the “future powerhouse” of the country, Northeastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have witnessed a lot of hydropower activities in recent years.

While Arunachal Pradesh has signed over 150 memorandums of understanding over the past decade, the Sikkim government has signed letters of intent or MoUs with the government-owned and private power production companies for the construction of 27 small and large power projects, with a total capacity of 5,494 MW on the River Teesta and its tributaries. Four of these projects have been scrapped following sustained protests from the Lepcha community.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to visit Sikkim on January 17 to launch the largest of these power projects in North Sikkim near Dzongu – the 1,200 MW Teesta Stage III – but he could not make it. This project will be the country’s second-largest dam and a government official in Sikkim said that the formal inauguration of the project will now take place in February or March.

One of the dams on River Teesta. Image Credits: Athar Parvaiz
One of the dams on River Teesta. Image Credits: Athar Parvaiz

Don’t desecrate our homeland

Buoyed by their previous success of sustained protests and hunger strikes, the Lepchas have resolved to fight against the implementation of Teesta Stage IV, one of a series of projects planned in the state’s main river and its tributaries.

UNESCO protection

UNESCO’s recognition of Khangchendzonga National Park as a world heritage site in July has bolstered the case of the protesters.

“Located at the heart of the Himalayan range in northern India, the Khangchendzonga National Park includes a unique diversity of plains, valleys, lakes, glaciers and spectacular snow-capped mountains covered with ancient forests, including the world’s third highest peak, Mount Khangchendzonga,” states the UNESCO website.

“Mythological stories are associated with this mountain and with a great number of natural elements (for example caves, rivers, lakes, etc.) that are the object of worship by the indigenous people of Sikkim,” it continues.

The Lepchas argue that this recognition shows the Environmental Impact Assessment report as well as Expert Appraisal Committee report, which cleared the Teesta Stage IV project, have ignored the sacred nature of the Kanchendzonga and its importance in the culture and value system of indigenous groups in Sikkim.

“We are now waiting for the government to announce the scrapping of Teesta Stage IV against the backdrop of UNESCO’s observations and on the basis of rejection of the project by the Lepcha community of Dzongu and the elected gram Panchayats of Dzongu in all their meetings with the government so far,” Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta , told thethirdpole.net.

“If we feel that the government is dilly-dallying, we will submit a written representation to UNESCO to convey how its listed sites are being treated in India,” Gyatso said.

The people of North Sikkim have already suffered a lot of environmental damage from two other mega projects on the Teesta (Stage III and Stage V) which produce over 1,700 MW of energy, even through Sikkim only needs around 112 MW, said Gyatso. Under the project agreement for Stage IV, Sikkim will get 12% of the electricity for free and the remaining power will be exported to the rest of India.

Lepchas also see the construction of power projects, which bring a lot of new workers flooding into the remote area, as a demographic threat. “We Lepchas are like tigers; an endangered species in India,” Gyatso said. There are only about 4,000 remaining Lepchas living in Dzongu.

The needs of local people in North Sikkim are being ignored as the projects steam ahead, according to Gyatso. “For example no one cares whether we have desirable road connectivity and health facilities. Just look at the pathetic condition of our roads,” he said. “They are only interested in constructing the power projects at the cost of the destruction of our environment and disrespect to our religious beliefs.”

Government’s justification

Sikkim government officials say the new power projects will bring development to the remote and scarcely populated state and prosperity to the people.

Namgyal Tshering Bhutia, secretary of Sikkim’s Energy and Power Department, claimed that the government has the support of some gram sabhas (elected village committees). “Some sections of people are in support of the power project and we are hopeful that all will agree in the end,” Bhutia said.

Lepchas say that their religious beliefs are at the core of their opposition to the power projects in Dzongu. “Dzongu is the place where our race (Lepcha) was created and Khangchendzonga is our mother mountain where our souls ultimately get salvation,” said Sonam Lepcha, a farmer in Dzongu. “Our religious belief is that our souls, following our death, are taken to Khangchendzonga along the Rongyo (River Teesta). And they are telling us that they are constructing the project on this river.”

The environment is also under threat, said Sonam: “What is going to happen to fish and other small creatures when they divert the river?”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.