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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

China floods set alarm bells ringing for dams in fragile Himalayas

As China’s central Henan province received its heaviest in 1,000-years as stated by the officials there — Zhengzhou saw 624 mm of rainfall on Tuesday, with a third of that amount falling between 16:00 and 17:00 alone, the region witnessed massive floods due to the downpour killing over two dozen people and leadinCg to evacuation of thousands across many cities and villages.

On Tuesday evening, the media reports stated that the relentless downpour had caused a 20-metre breach in Yihetan dam in Luoyang, about 140 km away from Zhengzhow. The People’s Liberation Army had warned that the dam “may collapse at any time”. It was breached on Tuesday night by the army to release floodwaters, which in turn, flooded the highly populated downstream areas.

Several dams and reservoirs crossed the warning levels, and soldiers were mobilised to divert rivers which have burst their banks, a BBC report said.

Earlier on July 18, in Hulunbur area of Inner Mongolia, there was a double dam failure in Morin Dawa Daur: Yong’an Dam and Xinfa Dam. “Serious double earthen dam failure in recent years” is how Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, Dave Petley, has termed it.

Petley, who regularly blogs about important geophysical events across the globe, said, a good working hypothesis is therefore that this dam was affected by the collapse of the Yong’an Reservoir, which would have released a catastrophic volume of water. About 10 km upstream of the Xinfa Dam there is another dam.

Scientists have said many factors contribute to flooding, but a warming atmosphere caused by climate change makes extreme rainfall more likely. In India, the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh witnessed torrential rain and cloudburst leading to colossal floods just last week. Earlier in February, there was a glacier burst leading to damage to two hydropower projects near Joshi Math in Uttarakhand. The Himalayan states have witnessed an increase in extreme weather events.

Taking a cue from China’s massive floods, dam breaks and damage to infrastructure, the pertinent question is whether India should be buildings big dams in the fragile Himalayas and using ‘dams as flood regulators’ policy?

Dehradun-based Ravi Chopra, founder director of the People’s Science Institute (PSI) at Dehradun, who has been on several committees of different ministries and departments including the erstwhile Planning Commission, minces no words.

“There is an increasing evidence of volatility in the world climate. There are increasing reports of forest fires not only from Uttarakhand but as far away from the US or Australia. There are floods in Europe and in China and even in Himachal Pradesh in our neighbourhood. There are extreme temperatures; nobody imagined that a country like Canada could hit 50 degrees Celsius. All this is happening in space of few weeks.

Now, to ignore this evidence and say, ‘well this is not going to happen every year, this is unusual’ is, to my mind, like burying one’s head in the sand,” Chopra, who headed an expert panel that came out with a report ‘Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects during the June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand’, told IANS.

Since early 1980s, climatologists have been warning that climate change will take place, if we exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius increase since the industrial revolution.

Manshi Asher from Himadhara, an environmental research and action collective from Himachal Pradesh, said: “The push for hydropower in the Himalayas continues despite repeated adverse events acting as evidence of the potential hazards of these projects due to climate disasters.”

“Hydropower in the Himalayan states is projected as the only ‘large revenue source’ but looking at the damages and subsequent revenue losses from these projects, the real incentive appears to be kickbacks from large contracts involved. Private companies are shying away from investing in hydropower, so it is essentially the large public sector companies that are investing in hydropower,” she asserted.

Experts have poked holes in the government argument that dams are regulators of floods. The latest example from China has shown the adverse impact because of the dams.

Going beyond that argument, Chopra said: “The era of dams is over. It is the technology from the past century. Hydropower is vastly expensive compared to solar power.”

Solar power is distributed over every inch of the country, does not need to be transported over large areas. Also, ‘dams for irrigation’ aspects too can be taken care of by changing the cropping pattern in favour of coarse grains against water guzzling crops such as rice and wheat.

Another reason for such catastrophic events is the continuous loss of forest cover, especially in the Himalayas.

“India needs 33 per cent forest cover, where is that forest cover? Afforestation is the need of the hour. We cannot afford Char Dham type of projects which by design cut down thousands of hectares and then unaccounted cutting down is far greater. This is the Himalayan region, if forests go, then landslides and floods follow,” Chopra added.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)

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