Chenab Valley finds itself at a crossroads where political decisions wield the power to either fortify or jeopardize environmental sustainability. Striking a delicate balance between economic progress and ecological preservation demands a nuanced and judicious approach.
As a resident of the enchanting district of Doda in Jammu and Kashmir, the mere mention of our locale sparks thoughts of breathtaking landscapes, majestic mountains, meandering rivers, distinctive vegetation, and an array of delightful recreational spots that grace our region. Of course, nature had blessed us with a variety of serene surroundings. However, just as India changed with the arrival of the British, this region also changed with the emergence of the mighty hydropower projects! Turning the landscapes into maleficence, mountains into termitarium, rivers into dreaded reservoirs, and vegetation into barren land. Not to mention the fear that people have to surrender themselves- of frequent earthquakes and other environmental problems that these projects posed. In the current year only above 150 earthquakes have occurred and in the last two weeks, about 10 earthquakes have struck the region, ranging from magnitude of 2.8 to 5.2 on the Richter scale.
Despite the heightened seismic risk in Chenab Valley, classified under the precarious seismic zone 4, the government appears notably unconcerned. The region has become a focal point for ambitious hydroelectric projects, with a total count reaching 10, a mix of operational facilities and those currently under construction. Notably, seven of these projects are concentrated in the Kishtwar district: the formidable Dul Hasti Hydroelectric plant (390MW), the substantial Ratle (850MW), the colossal Pakal Dul (1000MW), the imposing Kiru Dam (624MW), the substantial Kwar (540MW), the expansive Bursar (800MW), and the intimidating Kirthai-2 Hydropower project (930MW). Despite the evident seismic vulnerability, the momentum in hydroelectric development persists in the region.
While the surge in hydroelectric projects might be hailed as a potential boon for the future, the narrative takes a divergent course when viewed through the lens of the residents. The seemingly positive trajectory holds a shadowed counterpart discernible only to those who call this region home. The toll is evident, ranging from the loss of lush vegetation, disruption of natural habitats, and the jeopardizing of river wildlife to the conversion of vast agricultural lands into industrial zones. The establishment of numerous power plants, though promising energy, brings with it an unwelcome companion—pollution—an assailant that casts a pervasive impact on the delicate ecosystem of the region. However, the most ominous menace posed by these dams looms large— the undue pressure exerted on the land, a silent precursor to seismic activity.
In 2022, during an interview with Mongabay-India, Professor G.M. Bhat, a distinguished geologist from Jammu University, voiced a compelling caution against the unbridled proliferation of dams in the region. Prof. Bhat, a seasoned researcher specializing in seismic activity, underscored the perilous nature of this unchecked development. His research has brought to light a concerning reality — a significant number of dams in Kishtwar are situated perilously close to fault lines, amplifying the seismic risk in the region. This impending threat of induced earthquakes stands out as the most disconcerting consequence of the relentless pursuit of hydroelectric ventures in the area. The potential environmental ramifications echo the complexity of balancing progress with the preservation of the region’s delicate ecological equilibrium, prompting a reconsideration of the true costs concealed behind the guise of development.
As we collectively acknowledge the inherent peril of excessive meddling with nature, the potential consequences loom ominously, and heaven forbid if such a catastrophe were to unfold. The magnitude of destruction that could ensue is beyond fathoming. However, the poignant question persists: why must we bear such a hefty cost? Merely by inhabiting this space? Or perhaps because we failed to mount sufficient resistance against the relentless march of construction, a consequence of people being enticed by the allure of fleeting job opportunities. Behind the seemingly virtuous curtain of clean energy and economic progress, the government shrouds the ominous environmental repercussions. The looming sword of uncertainty hangs precariously over our heads, prompting profound introspection. In the unfortunate event of a calamity, who bears the mantle of responsibility? Is it the government, orchestrating these projects without due consideration for ecological consequences, or the individuals who, enticed by incentives, unwittingly became complicit in this trajectory?
The absence of accountability is a disconcerting reality. Governmental blame games, perhaps pointing fingers at survey teams, and vice versa, become a predictable aftermath. The Prime Minister may express condolences on social media, and a national day of mourning might be declared. Yet, these symbolic gestures do little to alter the irreversible course of events. This is not a mere indulgence in pessimistic musings, but a genuine apprehension about the tangible and impending disaster towards which we are hurtling.
Numerous incidents from the past have significantly heightened our apprehensions regarding the intricate relationship between dams and seismic activities. The earliest documented case dates back to 1932 when the Oued Fodda dam in Algeria became a focal point, correlating with an alarming escalation in seismic events in the region. Subsequent occurrences have further underscored this concerning association.
In 1967, a devastating earthquake of 6.3 magnitudes struck Koynagar, Maharashtra, leaving an indelible mark on the discourse. The epicentre, as well as the fore and aftershocks, were concentrated near or beneath the Konya Dam reservoir. The tragic aftermath claimed nearly 200 lives and left around 1500 people injured, serving as a stark reminder of the potential seismic repercussions associated with dam structures. The Vajont Dam in Italy stands as another poignant illustration. Seismic shocks were recorded during the initial reservoir fill, subsequently triggering landslides that led to massive flooding, claiming the lives of over 2000 individuals. The resonance of these events echoes through various global instances. Research indicates that the building of a dam close to a fault line may have contributed to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, which claimed almost 70,000 lives. This incident adds weight to the argument that dam construction, particularly in seismic zones, poses substantial risks and can potentially induce seismic activity. Other pertinent instances include the Oroville earthquake in California, USA, the Xinfengjiang dam in China, the Kariba dam in Zambia, the Aswan dam in Egypt, and the Kremasta dam in Greece. Each of these cases contributes to the growing body of evidence highlighting the complex interplay between dam infrastructure and seismic events, urging a critical examination of the potential hazards associated with such undertakings.
The paramount question that demands urgent attention is how we can mitigate the looming consequences in the Chenab Valley. Are the existing policies sufficiently robust to shield the delicate ecosystems, or do they inadvertently set the stage for an ecological disaster? Navigating the intricate nexus of politics and environmental governance in this valley, a resounding call to action echoes through the landscape.
A crucial starting point lies in a stringent evaluation of hydroelectric projects’ cumulative impact. If a project is already operational and has left an indelible mark on the ecosystem, approving additional ventures signals a blatant disregard for the region’s ecological equilibrium. The perplexity intensifies when one contemplates the approval of seven projects within a single district. It raises a stark dichotomy — either those making decisions are detached from the region’s welfare, or their sole allegiance lies with economic development.
Another imperative facet involves heightening awareness among the masses regarding the repercussions of these projects. Often enticed by meagre compensations and ephemeral job prospects, communities unwittingly become pawns in a larger game. Restricting the number of dams within a region and curbing their capacities emerge as pivotal strategies. This necessitates the adoption of policies advocating for a transparent, participatory decision-making process that places environmental sustainability at the forefront.
As of now, the Chenab Valley finds itself at a crossroads where political decisions wield the power to either fortify or jeopardize environmental sustainability. Striking a delicate balance between economic progress and ecological preservation demands a nuanced and judicious approach. The pivotal question remains — will the decisions made in this critical juncture prioritize the long-term well-being of the region’s ecosystem, or will they contribute to its gradual degradation? The answer lies in the hands of those shaping the policies and the collective consciousness of a community standing at the intersection of development and environmental stewardship.
(The author is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected])