Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lethal change of course

by Arshad H. Abbasi
THE Kishanganga hydroelectric project is being developed on the Kishanganga (Neelum) river, a tributary of the Jhelum, in the Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir. The project involves the construction of a 37-metre-high concrete faced rock-fill dam and an underground powerhouse to generate 330MW of hydroelectricity.
The river water will be diverted to a 22km-long tunnel into the Wullar lake. The tunnel is about to be completed in spite of the protest of the people of the Gurez valley. This diversion will change the course of the Neelum by around 204km. It will finally join the Jhelum through Wullar lake near Bandipore town in the Baramulla district of Indian-administered Kashmir.
At present, the Neelum and Jhelum join each other near Muzaffarabad at Domail. As a consequence of this diversion, Pakistan’s Neelum valley is likely to dry up and become a desert. The most important issue here is the diversion of the Neelum river waters to the Wullar lake.
The justification for the project is that it will propel the Kishanganga dam to provide hydroelectricity to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand besides Jammu and Kashmir. Both Indian states benefiting from the project are already rich in hydropower and known as the hydro-basket of India. In fact, Himachal Pradesh is exporting hydroelectricity to other Indian states.
The Kishanganga dam is located in the remote area of Gurez located in the Himalayas 123km from Srinagar. India knows that financially this project is not viable and is, it would seem, determined to destroy the ecology of the Neelum valley.
The project initiated in the Gurez valley is accessible only via jeep track and is open for two months a year to the outside world. An all-weather road to this remote part of the valley is under construction with a vengeance. This threatens to spoil the pristine environment and is a great threat to wildlife, especially endangered species. The construction of the road is seeing heavy equipment being brought in to destroy the Gurez valley and the river waters forever.
More than 1,000 families — translating into several thousand individuals — will be evicted and seven villages in the area have already been issued notices: Badwan, Wampora, Khundeyal, Fakirpora, Dawar (the old and present capital of Gurez), Mastan Khopri and Markot. Once the project is completed, approximately 25,000 Dard Shin people will be forced to leave the Gurez valley. The plan is also to curtail the flow of the water; this would be a death sentence for the lush green Neelum valley all the way to Muzaffarabad.
The basin/watershed area is already overburdened due to environmental degradation in both parts of Kashmir. Massive deforestation has decreased the annual water yield. This has caused less snow accumulation in the mountain area. In 1979 the snow-covered area in the watershed was 4,725sq km, that is 64.92 per cent of the total water yield. It has now been reduced to 2,900sq km. This shows a 40 per cent reduction in snow during the last 25 years. Construction of the dam and other activities would further decrease the water arability of the basin. The Indian authorities are acquiring more than 16,000 kanals of land, including thick conifer forest. Cutting of the forest is bound to affect the local climate and disturb weather patterns.
The most serious concern is the drying up of the 204km-long Neelum river that is yet to be addressed by Pakistan’s ministry of water and power. Most probably it is unaware of the fact that India had already diverted the Ganges river at Farrakka by building a barrage, which has brought environmental and economic disaster to Bangladesh.
The diversion of Ganges waters is also known as an engineering blunder in the history of water engineering. Arsenic contamination in Bangladesh began after the dam’s construction and diversion of the water in 1975. The lowering of the water table resulted in exposure to air in the zone of aeration. This exposure resulted in the oxidation of arsenic minerals previously present below the water table. The arsenic oxides made their way to the groundwater and remained there in their poisonous form. What will happen to the Neelum valley and the water quality of the river Jhelum is yet to be scientifically assessed by either country.
Diverting the Neelum river is not only a violation of the Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960, it also grossly violates the Helsinki Rule signed in 1966 regarding water rights pertaining to international rivers. According to this international water law, all basin states of an international river have the right to access an equitable and reasonable share of the water flow.
Knowing that environmental threats transcend national boundaries, there is an urgent need to conduct a trans-boundary Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as per international protocols regarding this project.
The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

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