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Energy and Water from Himalayan Rivers-Need for Prudent Sharing of Benefits and Opportunities

Authors:
  • Technical and Vocational Training Institute

Abstract

The Himalayan rivers, such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra, are the chief sources of energy and water to most of the major cities in India. The Himalayan communities have a major role in the maintenance of these river systems. In this regard, Dr Yashwant S Rawat feels that Himalayan states must also be considered judiciously while providing energy and water supply from the Himalayan rivers as it is very essential for an inclusive development of the Himalayan states to combat climate change and poverty. It would help to build buoyant Himalayan communities as they are highly susceptible to climate change and natural disasters.
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The Himalayan rivers, such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra, are the chief sources of energy
and water to most of the major cities in India. The Himalayan communities have a major role
in the maintenance of these river systems. In this regard, Dr Yashwant S Rawat feels that
Himalayan states must also be considered judiciously while providing energy and water supply
from the Himalayan rivers as it is very essential for an inclusive development of the Himalayan
states to combat climate change and poverty. It would help to build buoyant Himalayan
communities as they are highly susceptible to climate change and natural disasters.
Need for Prudent Sharing of Benefits and Opportunities
Energy and Water from
Himalayan Rivers
The Himalaya is one of the youngest
mountain ranges in the world. It
is a source for a large number of
rivers and their tributaries. It acts as an
elixir for nurturing the lives of millions
of people, many of whom also associate
these mountains with mythological
and religious values. The Ganges, the
Brahmaputra, and the Indus are the main
transboundary rivers originating from
the Himalayas. Their spiritual values are
often cited; for instance, the River Ganges
is a holy river in Hinduism. According
to myths, the Ganges was brought by
Bhagiratha to the earth from the heavens
to wash sins, provide salvation, and
supply water to the communities for their
agricultural and economic activities. The
Ganges has mainly been accessed to
maximize food production and provide
livelihoods, water, and energy supply. In
no uncertain terms this river is a lifeline
for millions of people. Mythologically, the
water of the Ganges is considered pure
and liberating. Additionally, the river also
acts as a crematory for Hindus as the
performance of last rites in this river is
considered auspicious.
The Ganges is, however, ranked as the
fifth most polluted river in the world. This
pollution is a threat to the well-being
of humans and the river ecosystem. In
this regard, the Ganga Action Plan was
an initiative by the Government of India
(GoI). However, this programme has not
yet achieved significant success due
to red-tapism, and a lack of expertise
as well as optimal public participation.
Significantly, the GoI has recently signed
a Memorandum of Understanding with
the European Union (EU) to support
the development of the programmes
that facilitate adaptation of the EU’s
best practices, governance, business
solutions, and research and innovation
opportunities in the water systems.
Water and Energy
The Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus
rivers are a reservoir of energy and
water supply to the major Indian cities.
Unfortunately, headwaters states (e.g.,
Uttarakhand) of these rivers, where dams
are located, are hardly considered in the
plans for the consistent supply of water
and energy. Hence, headwaters states
must be taken into consideration wisely
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and conscientiously for an inclusive
development to combat climate change,
poverty eradication, prevent migration,
entrepreneurship development, and
livelihood options. It would help to build
a resilient Himalayan community and
natural resource management because
Himalayan communities are highly
sensitive to climate change and
natural disasters.
For local communities, the supply
of energy is inconsistent, as often
nobody has a clue about the timings
of availability of power. This has
negative effects on the economy
and communication and hinders the
intellectual development of the people
in the affected areas. In particular, the
rural areas often go for periods of a
week or more without electricity, and
regrettably, a large number of villages are
still not connected to the electrical grid
and water supply lines. In the Himalayan
towns and cities, water is generally
supplied at specific time in the evening
and morning, sometimes only in the
morning. However, such water supply
schedules are largely inconsistent for
the rural areas. Although a large number
of villages and village clusters are still
not connected to the water supply
lines, the ‘Swajal’ scheme, for instance, in
Uttarakhand, has done remarkable work
to supply water to the villages from the
natural water sources. However, these
natural sources of water have been
greatly affected due to climate change,
resulting in diminishing of the natural
sources of water. Many of the traditional
wells have dried up and traditional
watermills (gharats: a pair of millstones)
have been closed off due to scarcity of
water in the streams.
While it is commendable that mega
cities would largely benefit from the
Himalayan rivers, however, the Himalayan
villages and towns should not suffer
at the cost of mega cities’ benefits.
Therefore, holistic mechanisms and
plans are required to share the benefits
and opportunities. A large number of
stakeholders need to be engaged at
various stages ranging from the planning
stages to the stage of fair sharing of the
benefits. Best practices are required to
be adopted from the countries that are
leading in the best kinds of innovation in
energy and water conservation initiatives.
For example, many towns in South Africa,
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Special Report
in spite of the country being water scarce,
provide 24x7 water and energy (power)
supply to its people. As a result, the
citizens prefer using advanced energy-
saving electric appliances (e.g., electric
stoves, ovens, etc.), thereby, reducing the
burden on the government to import
gas, besides promoting environmental
conservation, climate change adaptation,
and socio-economic development. In
light of this, in spite of massive water and
energy resources in the Himalayas, the
respective state governments have more
or less failed to harness these resources
due to corruption, and lack of expertise,
willingness, funds, and coordination with
the Central Government and vice-versa.
Sanitation and Hygiene
Sanitation and hygiene are also
important for the well-being of society
and biodiversity conservation. The
GoI initiated a programme to develop
the riverfronts and solve the pollution
problem in the rivers. The ‘Namami Gange
Programme’ is one of the initiatives to
rejuvenate the River Ganges and its
tributaries. For example, at ‘Har ki Pauri’
ghat in Haridwar (Uttarakhand), there
is a shortage of toilets, refuse bins,
and changing rooms, particularly for
women. However, the Ministry of Water
Resources, River Development and Ganga
Rejuvenation has now released about
`315 crore for building toilets along
the rivers, particularly along the River
Ganges. It also includes the beautification
and development of the ghats along
with sewage treatment plants and civic
amenities along the banks of the river.
The social, ecological, and economic
aspects have been included in the
programme to improve the nexus with
nature, culture, and people. It is felt
that international best practices for a
proper implementation, monitoring, and
evaluation protocols of the programme is
required by setting up the standards and
quality control of the work.
Payments for the
Himalayan Ecosystem
Services and
Biodiversity
Himalayan communities have a great
role in the maintenance of these river
systems, and, therefore, conservation
of biodiversity. These rivers also bring
a large amount of soil and humus from
the forests and agricultural fields of
the Himalayan communities to the
floodplains (such as the Gangetic
plain) that improve the agricultural
production. Therefore, it is important
to have a compensation programme
for the upstream communities that
manage the biodiversity and maintain
the headwaters of these rivers and their
tributaries. Alternatively, there should
be a mechanism such as payments
for the maintenance of the Himalayan
ecosystem services and biodiversity. This
would require a developmental package
to connect the Himalayan villages and
towns to advanced roadways, health,
education, water, and energy systems.
Such kind of innovative developmental
packages and payments, like in China, will
support the upstream and downstream
linkages and cooperation.
Biodiversity and
Conservation
Pollution in the rivers, particularly in
the Ganges, has greatly affected the
river ecosystem. Reports often appear
in the media that suggest that idol
immersion during religious festivities
adds plaster of Paris and synthetic
colours to the river systems. It has been
claimed that river dolphins have become
endangered, and are on the verge of
extinction due to increasing levels of
pollution in the river. Additionally, the
pollution has greatly affected society
due to water-borne diseases and has
also destroyed the livelihoods of many
people. The sewage-sludge and factory
waste that go into the rivers needs
to be regulated and treated prior to
entering the river systems. On a positive
note, the afforestation programme (e.g.,
trees and grass planting schemes) in
the ‘Namami Gange Programme’ of the
GoI for the beautification of river banks
and preventing soil erosion is indeed a
restorative step.
Interlinking of the
River Systems
The GoI has already identified 14 links in
the Himalayan Rivers of northern India
and 16 links in the peninsular rivers of
southern India (Figure 1). The interlinking
of the river systems has its positive and
negative impacts on biodiversity and
ecosystems. However, it has a huge
advantage if surplus or a certain quantity
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of water that does not affect the pristine
ecosystem and biodiversity of the rivers
can be leveraged from the links. In
addition, it will also control the problem
of floods and droughts. The positive and
negative aspects of this project need
to be debated to avoid ecological and
socioeconomic disasters. These rivers are
also the source of livelihoods for millions
of people and as such this programme
is considered as an important project
for national interests and development.
The Ministry of Water Resources, River
Development and Ganga Rejuvenation
says that the benefits include 35 million
hectares of irrigation, raising the
irrigation potential from 140 million
hectares to 175 million hectares, and
generation of 34,000 MW of power. The
other benefits include flood control,
navigation, water supply, fisheries,
salinity and pollution control, etc.
The communities maintaining these
river systems by conserving biodiversity,
and by conserving soil and water need
to be paid royalties. Although a river is
considered as a common pool resource,
it is important to note that if upstream
communities are maintaining the river
systems and downstream communities
are benefitting largely due to their
efforts and actions, then the former must
be paid royalty and maintenance costs.
It has been said that the interlinking
of the rivers could reduce outflow and
lead to an acceleration in salinization Figure 1: A proposed inter-river basin water transfer links in the Himalayan rivers and
the peninsular rivers of India (Source: Mission Ganga Knowledge Community)
of coastal groundwater as seawater
might travel upstream, hence affecting
the freshwater ecosystem. Moreover,
the invasive species and diseases that
can damage the ecosystem might be
increased. It is against this background
that control and management protocols
are needed for inclusion in the
planning and during the early stages of
development and implementation of
the programme. Moreover, corrective
measures are required in the early stages
of the programme to avoid loss of time,
manpower, and budget. A society-
awareness programme must be in place
to encourage people’s participation in
the programme. #
Dr Yashwant S Rawat, Sustainability Research
Unit, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University,
George Campus, George, South Africa.
Email: yas_rawat@yahoo.com
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