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Death of a River: How Hydro Power Plants Have Sucked the Life Out of Yamuna, the Lifeline of Delhi

Environmentalists are worried that Lakhwar and Vyasi projects will further damage the little untouched part of Yamuna and perish the aquatic life and biodiversity of the watercourse.

Hridayesh Joshi |

Updated:July 24, 2019, 9:18 AM IST
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Death of a River: How Hydro Power Plants Have Sucked the Life Out of Yamuna, the Lifeline of Delhi
Environmentalists are worried that Lakhwar and Vyasi projects will further damage the little untouched part of Yamuna and perish the aquatic life and biodiversity of the watercourse.

Around 50 kilometers from Dehradun, at the Himachal Pradesh-Uttarakhand border, lies the first major human intervention on Yamuna. With almost all the water diverted into the massive Shakti Canal, the river runs dry next to the canal.

The point is also where the Yamuna’s problems with pollution begin, as does the intrinsically linked question of Delhi’s water woes. And it could get worse, with projects, first planned in the 1980s, presently under construction.

The river’s flow is a critical factor in ensuring that it remains free of pollution -- a fact, flagged by an NGT-appointed committee last year. But, the river’s health is also critical in Delhi’s relationship with its water. As the city has grown, so has its demand for water, and with groundwater resources dwindling, Delhi’s hopes now rest in recharging the river’s floodplains.

As one moves downstream, with the mighty canal on one side and a near-dead river on the other, one finds a streak of power stations over it. The first power station is a 33.75 MW hydroplant located at Dhakrani, 8 km from Dak Pathar; the next is a 51 MW power station at Dhalipur, a few more kilometers after.

“In the quest for power generation, they have sucked every single drop of water (from the river). There is no life left in Yamuna beyond Dak Pathar,” says Manoj Misra, a river expert and former bureaucrat. “The Yamuna was known for its Mahseer fish, but how do you expect any biodiversity or species to survive in the absence of water.”

The Yamuna originates from Yamunotri glaciers in Uttarkashi and flows uninterrupted for almost 150 km. Unlike other major rivers in the state, it has no hydropower dam built over it in the initial stretch until it reaches Dak Pathar near the state capital since it has a small watercourse in comparison to Bhagirathi, Alaknanda or Mandakini.

“There is no feasibility for a hydro project as the discharge is very low in the upper part of river. Projects are only possible downstream in this river,” said a senior engineer engaged in a hydropower project on Yamuna.

In spite of this, there are two projects, first planned in the 1980s, under construction upstream on the Yamuna -- the 120 MW Vyasi power project at Hathiyari, around 15 kilometers upstream from Dak Pathar, and the 300 MW Lakhwar power project.

While construction of Lakhwar project is at a very preliminary state, Vyasi hydro project is at a much advanced stage, with power production like to start in the next year. “Work at the Vyasi project started in 1987. It faced many financial and bureaucratic hurdles. In 2008, the project was handed over to UJVNL. Now the work is expected to be completed by the end of this year,” said a source in Uttarakhand government.

Photo by  Hridayesh Joshi Photo by Hridayesh Joshi

Yamuna is India’s sixth longest river and the longest tributary of Ganga. The survival of the Yamuna is critical to the success of projects like Namami Gange. But the river finds it difficult to survive as a result of the many interventions in its flow. At the Hathinikund barrage in Haryana, 80 km from Dak Pathar, all the water of Yamuna is diverted into two major canals and the river runs empty again. By the time it reaches Delhi after Wazirabad, it virtually becomes a sewer.

In December 2018, an NGT-appointed monitoring committee submitted to the Delhi government that a small stretch of the river, less than 2 percent of its length, accounts for nearly 76 percent of its total pollution and said that the river was “fighting to stay alive”. It added that it would not be possible to rejuvenate the Yamuna unless the minimum environmental flow is provided.

Environmentalists are worried that Lakhwar and Vyasi projects will further damage the little untouched part of Yamuna and perish the aquatic life and biodiversity of the watercourse.

“Until now Yamuna was safe at least above Dak Pathar. There was no major obstruction up there. Now we know that big power projects like Lakhwar and Vyasi are coming just 15 km above (Dak Pathar). Therefore, river and jungles are bound to be ruined in that 25-km area. This will have a serious impact on the riverine ecology,” says Dr Anil Gautam of People’s Science Institute in Dehradun.

Uttarakhand environment minister Harak Singh Rawat, while advocating the need for power projects for “electricity and development” of state, admits that big hydro dams are not good for the health of rivers.

“They take long time to get completed and adversely affect the ecology of river,” Rawat told News18.

Officials in the Uttarakhand government say they follow the ‘norms’ set by National Green Tribunal (NGT). “In 2017, the NGT had given direction (to central and all the state governments) to maintain minimum 15% of ecological flow in all the rivers. In line with that, on June 5, 2018, we gave orders to all developers to release 15% minimum flow in all the rivers of our state. We maintain that (minimum flow) in Yamuna as well,” says Manoj Kesarvani, executive engineer of UJVNL.

The situation is worsened by the danger to its tributaries. Deforestation and destruction in the Himalayas has dried up the many streams that feed the Yamuna. Its mighty tributary, Tons, that has a large catchment area spread in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, is burdened with two power stations – the Ichar and Chibro hydel projects with a total capacity of 360 MW. Asan, another tributary that meets the Yamuna near Dehradun, sees almost the entirety of its flow diverted into the Shakti Canal and the Yamuna remains dry. Asan also has a power station of 30 MW on it.

“It’s a pity that our engineers never studied ecology. For them, a river is water and nothing else. They do not understand that there is an ecosystem on the bed of the river, on the banks of the river and on the floodplains. They just do not have any idea about it. For them, if you remove all the water, then you have utilised something. If the water is flowing, it is a waste,” says Ravi Chopra, environmentalist and water management expert.

(The story is part of News18’s special series on the acute water shortage stalking India)

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