Hydropower and India’s “Sinking Towns”: How Should Development Continue?

On January 2 and 3 of this year, residents of Joshimath, a town located in northern Uttarakhand, India, awoke to discover cracks sprawling through the walls and floors of their homes. Several roads running through the town had caved in, causing many residents to fear for the health and safety of their families. The cause? The recent hotel “construction boom” and tunneling for a state-run hydroelectric power project in the area.

Joshimath is located in the Himalayan Hindu Kush mountain region, an area often referred to as the “Third Pole” due to its large glacial ice repository. The cracks and cave-ins are not the only natural disasters experienced by the residents of Joshimath in the past few years. In 2021, a large section of glacier and rock came tumbling down a slope, causing a deadly flood and killing over 80 people. According to experts, the incident was caused by climate change — a factor that also compounded the severity of Joshimath’s recent “sinking.” 

Families and other residents with houses located in the “danger zone” were evacuated in early January by authorities and relocated to hotels and government schools in other parts of the town. While many locals blame the recent hotel construction boom for the disturbances, officials point to a breach in one of the underground water reservoirs, which caused muddy water to come spurting from the ground.

The tunneling that caused the breach is a part of a state-run project operated by the Indian power utility NTPC. NTPC works with the Indian government to increase hydropower production in the country in an effort to meet a 2030 clean energy capacity target of 500 gigawatts. 

The state of Uttarakhand is, due to its geological composition, already at a greater risk of landslides and flash floods. Despite this, it has 10 fully operational hydropower projects along with the additional 75 that are currently underway. Experts caution that Joshimath’s fate is a warning sign for governments to reconsider plant-building projects in mountainous areas.

Anjal Prakash is the research director of the Bharati Institute of Public Policy at the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business. According to him, “Ninety percent of this problem is because of hydropower projects. The tunnel-making process has created havoc.[…] India needs to do a rethink and hydropower projects in the Himalayan region should be stopped” 

Joshimath also has cultural and religious significance for many Indian people. The town is a large administrative and military hub, as well as a crossover point for the millions of Hindus that journey every year to visit Badrinath, a holy Hindu religious site. Its continued destruction would therefore have religious and social consequences in addition to the environmental impacts.

On January 16, a local religious leader submitted a plea to the Supreme Court of India to protect Joshimath, declare the events there a national disaster, rehabilitate and provide an insurance cover for the residents displaced by the chaos, and create a committee responsible for enquiring into the government’s progress in upholding the agreement. However, the Supreme Court refused the plea, instead encouraging the leader to file a case with the High Court.

In addition to the physical damage, residents of Joshimath and experts alike are concerned about the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the sinking towns. The displacement of residents can disrupt local communities and cultures, as families are separated and traditional ways of life are lost. The loss of homes and businesses also devastates the local economy, as it decreases the tax base, reduces the number of jobs, and contributes to poverty. This destruction then harms surrounding natural habitats, releasing pollutants that seriously impact local flora and fauna and the entire ecosystem. Subsidence may change the flow of rivers and streams, which can have negative effects on the water quality and quantity available for both human and animal consumption.

Following the protests in the first few weeks of January, all construction and tunneling in and around Joshimath was halted. Though officials reported that scientists assigned to the case to determine the cause of the disaster were hard at work, very little information has since been publicly released. Despite the lack of official statements, Prakash and several other experts insist that the state conducts the hydropower projects without factoring the fragile ecology of the Himalayan region into plans.

So how can things move forward? While there are several possible solutions, each must be approached with caution, as any “solutions” also have the potential to cause further harm to the surrounding environment and communities. One possibility is to reduce the amount of water stored in the reservoirs, which would minimize the pressure on the underlying rock formations and slow down or prevent the subsidence. This potential fix requires careful consideration, however, as reducing the water levels could have negative impacts on the electricity generation and irrigation capabilities of the dams.

Another answer is to use engineering techniques that counteract subsidence. This could include the use of grouting or other reinforcement methods to stabilize the rock formations, as well as the construction of retaining walls and other structures to protect buildings and infrastructure from damage. These solutions can be effective, but they are also expensive and require significant investments of time and resources.

A more sustainable alternative is to move towards alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, that do not require large-scale storage of water. This shift would reduce the demand for hydroelectric power and thus reduce the need for new dams, which would help to mitigate the problem of sinking towns. Additionally, it would have the added benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change, as well as creating new jobs in the growing renewable energy sector.

The case of Joshimath and other, similar “sinking towns” in India is a pressing issue with far-reaching potential impacts for both the environment and local communities and economies. Addressing the problem and protecting the future of Joshimath will require a multi-faceted approach that could potentially include reducing the demand for hydroelectric power, using engineering solutions to counteract the subsidence, or turning to other forms of alternative energy; however, with each solution comes a somewhat costly downside. 

While the best answer may not be immediately apparent, the future of the residents of Joshimath and similar communities around the world depends on its speedy discovery and implementation.

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