‘No’ to Hydropower*

Bharat Lal Seth

Alot has been written on how dams obliterate fish habitat, displace human populations and affect river flows downstream. But little is available in public domain as to how they impact the water quality. Keeping this in mind, Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a retired professor from IIM-Bengaluru, now litigator and activist, decided to compile and edit the book: *"Water: Impact of Dams on its Qualities."

Jhunjhunwala who started living on the banks of the river Alaknanda in 2003, so as to be in solitude and pursue spiritual growth, found himself drawn into the anti-dam struggle a few years on. His retirement years coincided with a concerted push by hydropower lobbyists and water resources engineers to impede Himalayan Rivers such as the Ganga and Brahmaputra with hundreds of large hydroelectric dam projects. This latest effort seeks to add body to the increasing volume of evidence that dams and hydropower are not only harmful to the environment but to the well being of humankind.

Proponents of hydropower maintain that obstruction, diversion and tunnelling of water to run turbines do not alter the quality, much anyway. But water is made to flow through the tunnels depriving it of contact with air and earth. "The velocity is reduced drastically and friction with stones is removed altogether". Jhunjhun-wala has compiled some limited yet compelling evidence that such dams and tunnelling do in fact alter the molecular structure of water. The research follows the work of Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto who has photographed molecular clusters of water, which show that crystals made from springs and flowing rivers are beautiful while those taken from polluted or impeded waters are not so.

But such arguments would seem far-fetched to the water resources engineer, and to many others. The government has held the argument that the cost of zero or reduced hydropower generation is too high compared to the limited socio-cultural benefits of allowing the water to flow freely down to the delta. The dam building community likes to call it 'wasted water', although it is well known that this flow serves many purposes beyond spiritual needs, from recharging groundwater in the floodplains, maintain a healthy water and silt balance as well as deltaic ecology. Ensuring flows downstream of a dam has been a growing area of research, although few credible studies have been conducted in India, yet.

In chapter 16, an attempt has been made to maintain free flow whilst generating hydropower. These methods include storing water off the stream in tanks, as well as half structures that are not constructed across the entire width of the channel. Undoubtedly this would involve a compromise in generation of electricity, something planners and policy makers are unwilling to negotiate on.

Jhunjhunwala presents more evidence of subtle quality of water in later chapters. But perhaps the most interesting tidbits of information in the entire compilation lie in the first three chapters, which describe the association and use of water in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.

Jhunjhunwala says: "I have come to believe that waters of the Ganga have special spiritual and psychic qualities; and that these are irreparably harmed by making the water flow through the tunnels, reservoirs and turbines". He is persuasive when he says "the gain to the people's happiness from taking dip in the Ganga may be much more than the loss of happiness from less generation of electricity". This statement however is in contadiction to modern lifestyles, which undeniably more and more seem to be enamoured by. This takes one full circle to the binary of believer or non-believer, pro-dam or anti-dam. The answer surely lies somewhere in between.

*Water: Impact of dams on its quality
Editor: Bharat Jhunjhunwala
Publisher: Kalpaz Publications, Price : Rs 695

Vol. 47, No. 5, Aug 10 - 16, 2014