An Embattled Green – Reconsidering the Hydro-power projects in the Himalaya after Joshimath crisis | 6th February 2023 | UPSC Daily Editorial Analysis

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What's the article about?

  • It talks about the reconsideration of the Hydro-power projects in the Himalaya after Joshimath crisis


  • GS1: Geography of India; Important Geophysical Phenomena;
  • Prelims


  • The Joshimath crisis has led to conversations on the relevance of hydropower in the Himalayan region.
  • Though hydropower is considered a clean source of energy, it does have huge environmental and social costs that must be considered while planning them.

What is the Joshimath crisis?

  • Wide Cracks have appeared on the roads and on hundreds of residential and commercial buildings in the Joshimath town.
  • Many structures have been declared unsafe, and the residents have been asked to vacate them.
  • The Authorities have declared Joshimath as a landslide and subsidence-hit zone. The whole town is sinking.
  • Joshimath is a town situated in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. It is located in the Middle Himalayas at an altitude of 1875 m.
  • Joshimath is a religious and tourist place, and is situated near the holy shrine of Badrinath – one of the Char Dhams in Uttarakhand.
  • The Town is situated in a geologically unstable region (Seismic Zone V).
  • It is situated north of Main Central Thrust of Himalayas near Tapovan Fault.
  • Also the Vaikrita Thrust and Panduksehwar Thrusts are very close to Joshimath.
  • Its location near a fault is one of the reasons making it susceptible to subsidence.

Causes for the Joshimath Crisis?

  • Anthropogenic causes includes:
    • Development Projects: Various development projects are being undertaken nearby the sinking region. These include NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydro Power Project and widening of roads under the Char Dham Project.
    • Unbridled Tourism: Unbridled tourism in this ecologically sensitive area has become a cause of trouble for the local environment, which is losing its natural form and being distorted by continuous commercial activities.
    • Unplanned Urbanisation: Most of the buildings have been constructed without proper studies about the underlying soil.
    • Water Withdrawal: Subsidence occurs when large amounts of groundwater are withdrawn from specific types of rocks, such as fine-grained sediments.
    • Absence of Proper Drainage: It leads to landslides. The existence of soak pits, which allow water to slowly soak into the ground, is responsible for the creation of cavities between the soil and the boulders. This leads to water seepage and soil erosion.
  • Natural or geomorphological causes includes:
    • Joshimath is located in seismic zone V which is more prone to earthquakes besides gradual weathering and water percolation which reduce the cohesive strength of the rocks over time.
    • The Mishra Committee Report states that Joshimath is situated on a sand and stone deposit. A majority of the town has been constructed on the debris of landslides, leading to smooth and eroded rocks and loose soil on the surface.
    • The Mishra Committee Report has also pointed out that subsidence in Joshimath might have been triggered by the reactivation of a geographic fault where the Indian Plate has pushed under the Eurasian Plate along the Himalayas.
    • Undercutting by Alaknanda and Dhauliganga river currents is also contributing to landslides in the region.

Mishra Committee:

  • It was appointed by the Central Government almost 50 years ago to look into why Joshimath was sinking.
  • It was headed by the then collector of Garhwal – MC Mishra.
  • The report submitted by the 18-member committee clearly explained that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated, and recommended that construction be prohibited in Joshimath.

Importance of Himalayan region to ensure water and energy security:

  • The Himalaya is a major water source for much of South Asia.
  • Most countries in the region, including India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan, have built or are planning to build hydropower projects in the Himalaya.
  • In India, the government has identified hydropower as a key renewable energy source.
  • Nepal has also identified hydropower as a major source of energy.
  • In Bhutan, hydropower is the main source of revenue, and the government has set a target to export surplus electricity to India.

The cost of hydropower:

  • Hydropower is often considered green energy because it generates electricity from the natural flow of water without releasing any emissions or pollutants. It also does not rely on fossil fuels.
  • However, the environmental impact of hydropower can vary depending on projects and the ways in which they are implemented.
  • Large-scale hydroelectric dams impact local ecosystems and communities — they displace people (social cost) and result in loss of habitat for fish and other wildlife.
  • The building and maintenance of large hydroelectric dams can also have a significant environmental impact.

Negative impacts of hydropower on the environment:

  • The construction of dams can disrupt the flow of rivers, leading to changes in water temperature and chemistry.
  • It can also cause erosion, landslides, and sedimentation which can have a negative impact on the local environment.
  • Dams also disrupt the migration patterns of fish and other aquatic species and impact the local wildlife, particularly if the dam’s construction leads to habitat loss.
  • Large-scale hydroelectric dams displace local communities, affecting their livelihoods and cultural heritage and impacting the overall well-being of the local population.

Solution lies in Micro hydro systems:

  • Micro hydro is a small-scale hydroelectric power generation system that typically generates up to 100 kilowatts (kW) of electricity.
  • These systems use the energy of falling water to turn a turbine, which, in turn, generates electricity.
  • They can be used for various applications, including powering homes, businesses, and small communities.
  • They have a smaller environmental footprint.
  • They can be located even in inaccessible areas where it is difficult to transmit electricity from larger power stations, and they can provide a reliable source of energy to communities that are not connected to the grid.
  • Micro hydro systems can be classified into two main types: run-of-river and storage systems.
    • Run-of-river systems use the natural flow of water in a stream or river to generate electricity.
    • In contrast, storage systems use a reservoir to store water and release it as needed to generate electricity.

Way Forward:

  • The  recent Joshimath crisis in the Himalaya necessitates a relook at the present development model. The Micro hydro systems can be a viable solution.
  • However, it’s important to note that even micro-hydropower projects can have some impact on the environment and local communities.
  • A detailed assessment should be carried out to evaluate the potential impact before proceeding with the project.

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