“I grew up watching the hills, forests and rivers of the Western Ghats and elephants were always a part of these forests,” said 62-year-old Boranna, a farmer from Maranahalli village in Karnataka’s Hassan district, through a translator. “I have never seen our villagers so petrified of them.”

According to Boranna, conflicts between humans and elephants have increased since the construction of small hydel power projects in the region. Four hydel power projects were constructed between 2005 and 2010 on the river Yettinahole and its tributaries that drain into Gundia River basin on the Western Ghats. These are the 18MW scheme on Kempu Hole stream, a 9MW and 15MW project each on Kadamane Hole and Nayakan Hole (both tributaries of Kemphole), besides another 3 MW project on Yettinahole.

During this time, there were several instances of man-elephant conflicts – Jayraj from the neighbouring village of Hosagadde lost his 38-year-old brother Veeraj two years ago in an elephant attack. Nagesh Thammegowda from Mankanahalli village lost 8 quintals of paddy last year after a herd of elephants marauded his fields. Everyone in the area has taken to returning home before dark.

A short film, by researcher Suman Jumani, on the rising concerns due to small hydropower projects. The film was based on a study conducted by Jumani and others around the upper reaches of the Gundia River basin in Karnataka.

Small hydel power projects are considered the least environmentally harmful option to harness water energy. “Since these projects do not call for construction of dams, there is neither submergence of land nor the issue of relief or rehabilitation of local communities,” said Sanjay Kumar Shahi, a scientist with the small hydel power project division of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

Unlike energy from fossil fuel, there is no polluting emission during the process of power generation from small hydel power projects or SHPs. These projects generate up to 25 MW of power from the natural run or flow and elevation of a river. The system requires little or no water storage, and SHPs are exempt from environmental clearance or any monitoring from the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The responsibility of developing such SHPs across the country rests with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. SHPs are eligible for subsidies from the MNRE and Carbon Credits (permits that allows SHPs to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions, which can be traded if the full allowance is not used) from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and are mainly set up in the Himalayan and Western Ghats, due to an abundance of rivulets and streams in these regions. But while SHPs might the best option available, they are far from ideal for the environment.

Encroaching forest space

SHPs have four components – a weir for diversion of the running stream, a penstock channel that conveys its water to the power station or waterwheel, a powerhouse with turbines that generates electricity and a tailrace canal that carries water from the turbine to release it back to the stream.

In Sakleshpur, in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, the construction of associated structures like weirs, the laying of canals or pipes for carrying water and installation of transmission lines has led to the clearing of forest in the region – leading to the increase in conflicts between villagers and irate pachyderms.

A field study, that first highlighted this conflict, states that between 1999 and 2004, local villagers along the Gundia River basin submitted to the forest department 248 claims arising due to losses by man-elephant conflicts. This was prior to the construction of SHPs. After the construction was over, the number shot up to 2,030, between the years 2005 and 2013.

An upcoming SHP in Western Ghats near Sakleshpur. Photo credit: Shishir Rao

“Linear intrusions have severely fragmented the traditional and important routes for elephant migration – causing increased straying of pachyderms to nearby villages, and aggravating man-elephant conflicts,” said Ramki Sreenivasan, an ecologist from the non-profit Conservation India.

The forests and bed of a stream littered with rubble and boulders after construction. Photo credit: Suman Jumani

Shishir Rao, a key researcher of the field study, said that the disturbances caused by sound, light, the movement of people in forests during construction and the operation of SHPs might have triggered elephant movement towards villages. SHPs also potentially destroy riparian vegetation, especially bamboo – a critical food source for elephants – hence compelling them to move towards human habitations in search of food.

Water shortage

In Himachal Pradesh, where generations of farmers have relied on a low-cost, indigenously-devised, community-managed irrigation system called kuhl, SHPs have begun to cause a water crisis.

In the traditional system, glacier-fed streams are diverted through weirs built upstream, which in turn are connected to distribution channels constructed along the hilly gradient of the landscape. The water running through these channels thus irrigates the agricultural fields located downhill. But mini-hydel power plants have disrupted the flow of water.

Distribution Irrigation Channels from kuhl water agricultural fields. Photo credit: Akshay Jasrotia

“The rains are erratic and unpredictable in our villages, making the region vulnerable to drought,” said Ranja Ram, a farmer from Nagan village in Kangra district. “Rivulets such as the Binwa [locally known as Khad] have been the lifelines of our hill communities. The water obtained through kuhls is often the primary source of drinking water and irrigates kharif and rabi crops.”

Jaduhal Kuhl, for instance, provides water to 140 hectares of agricultural land in 10 villages, including Nagan. This benefits more than 300 farmers who are small landholders. A typical community kuhl also runs water-powered mills (locally called gharats). A sustainable source of livelihood for its owners, these mills grind wheat, maize, grams, livestock feed other grains and spices. Jaduhal Kuhl alone used to feed 10 water mills, said Ranja.

View of a typical gharat or kuhl driven water mill for grinding wheat and spices. Photo credit: Sumit Mahar (Himdhara Collective).

Disrupting the flow

While the Irrigation and Public Health Department and heads of village panchayats issued No-Objection Certificates prior to setting up the SHPs, assuring villagers that they would be recompensed for any loss of livelihood, in the past years, petitions and pleas by farmers have received no attention from the state.

The SHPs have disrupted the flow of the river and water-powered mills and caused a decline in 289 species of river fish (of which 118 are endemic, including rare species of mahseers like the tor khudree and tor mussullah), thereby diversely affecting the livelihood of farmers and fisherfolk. The quality of water has suffered too – villagers said the water accumulated sediment when stagnant and became muddy during release, making the rocks slippery due to sediment deposits.

Farmers protesting against the SHP in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Akshay Jasrotia

According to Parineeta Dandekar, Associate Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, allied constructions of SHPs, such as hydro-power turbines, weirs and tunnels have an impact on the population of fish and affect local fishing communities. When SHPs divert water, vast stretches of streams dry up especially in summer. Many fish get stranded in such dry stretches and die off, she said.

A fish found dead in a muddy stream in Karnataka. Photo credit: Suman Jumani

Dandekar, who is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Freshwater Fisheries Specialist Group in South Asia, added that many species of riverine fish spawn in hilly rivulets and streams – migrating in large numbers upstream, to lay eggs in oxygen-rich waters. But SHP constructions block the migratory paths of fish, resulting in their disappearance from the stream. She stressed on the need to have fish ladders or “steps” low enough for the fish to migrate upstream and downstream.

Since most SHPs are being commissioned in dense clusters, the states should be asked to conduct basin-wide cumulative impact assessments of all existing and proposed SHPs. With no monitoring of such projects, their cumulative effects are no less than the impact of large hydro projects.

Data: Ministry of Non-Renewable Energy