Much has been written on how dams obliterate fish habitat, displace human populations and affect river flow downstream. But little is available in public domain as to how they impact the water quality. With 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 began living on the banks of river Alaknanda in 2003, in pursuit of solitude and 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. His 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 tunneling of water to run turbines do not alter its quality much. However, when water is made to flow through tunnels, deprived of contact with air and earth, “the velocity is reduced drastically and friction with stones is removed altogether”. Jhunjhunwala 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 obtained from springs and flowing rivers are beautiful as against those taken from polluted or impeded waters.
But such arguments would seem far-fetched to a 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 to maintaining a healthy water and silt balance as well as deltaic ecology. Ensuring flows downstream of a dam has been a growing area of research, though only few credible studies have been conducted in India so far.
In Chapter 16, Jhunjhunwala explains how attempts have been made to maintain free flow of water 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, such methods 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 a dip in the Ganga may be much more than the loss of happiness from less generation of electricity”. This statement however is in contradiction to the modern lifestyle. It brings us full circle to the binary of believer or non-believer, pro-dam or anti-dam. The answer surely lies somewhere in between.
Bharat Lal Seth is the South Asia Program Coordinator, International Rivers
(The views expressed are the author’s own)