Breaking the ice on Siang project

Opposition to the proposed 11,000 megawatt Siang multipurpose storage project by several organisations in Arunachal Pradesh has revived the issue of the downstream impact of mega dams in the state.
Breaking the ice on Siang project

Opposition to the proposed 11,000 megawatt Siang multipurpose storage project by several organisations in Arunachal Pradesh has revived the issue of the downstream impact of mega dams in the state. Ecological concern over the mega dam project in ecologically fragile Arunachal Pradesh is real and cannot be overlooked. Heavy landslides triggered by heavy monsoon rain disrupting surface communications in seven districts of the state, including Siang, East Siang, West Siang, and Upper Siang, show that such concern is legitimate. For India, the Siang project is of significant strategic importance to counter any potential threat by China to weaponize dams constructed in the upper reaches of the river in the Tibet region. The Brahmaputra River is called Yarlung Zangbo in the Tibet region and Siang from the point where it enters Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet to the point where it enters Assam. The argument put in support of the Siang project is that it will protect Arunachal Pradesh from potential catastrophe from the sudden release of water from dams built by China in the Tibet region. Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu informed the state assembly last year that China has decided to build a 60,000 MW dam on Yurlung Zangbo and stated that the proposed Chinese project is a matter of serious concern as the release of excess water from it would have cascading effects on the Siang belt and downstream Assam in India and Bangladesh in the future. Khandu, however, has been maintaining a clear position that the government would not push the proposed Siang project against the wishes of the people if they do not want it. This has assured space for dialogue on the issue between the government and those opposed to the project. Khandu also asserted that hydropower generation is a secondary objective, and the primary objective of the proposed “Siang Barrage” is to save water from its tributaries within Arunachal Pradesh to maintain the natural flow of Siang and protect its basin from flash floods. The organisation opposed to the project has flagged sustainability and environmental concerns over the project. They have cited the example of the catastrophe of Chungthang Dam, a 1200 megawatt Teesta Urja Phase-III hydropower plant in Sikkim, being washed away by the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood of South Lhonak Lake in North Sikkim to substantiate their argument. The catastrophe triggered apprehension over the safety of dams built in the cascade of the Himalayan Rivers and revived fears of similar devastation in the event that the proposed Siang project met a similar fate. An increase in cloudburst events in the Himalayan states, including Arunachal Pradesh, which are attributed to climate change impact, has precipitated apprehension over the safety of Siang dam too. The release of excess water from the Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project under construction in Arunachal Pradesh and Kurichu Dam in Bhutan, aggravating flood situations in downstream areas in Assam, also resonates with the apprehension expressed by opponents of the Siang project in the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra River. While the government cannot turn a blind eye to the apprehensions over the safety of human lives and ecology, organisations opposing the Siang project need more scientific data to make their case. Scientific data relating to the proposed project will be available only when extensive scientific surveys and pre-feasibility studies are carried out. The claim of the government about the Siang project securing land and people in Arunachal Pradesh and downstream areas in Assam will not be convincing until such data are put in the public domain for the experts to study and arrive at a conclusion. A critical evaluation of the project by experts will also help the government articulate its strategy for the project, keeping in mind the strategic national interest. Disruption in surface communications in border states due to any cascading impact of dam-induced disasters and cutting off strategic locations will only add to the challenges for Indian border guard troops. Such a situation is unwarranted, and, therefore, the sustainability of any project in the river basin is equally important to justify its strategic interest. A deadlock situation over the project must be averted. The initial dialogue should focus on the need to undertake a detailed scientific survey to generate quality data. Once these data are generated, the two sides can discuss in depth with the help of domain experts to understand the nuances and arrive at mutually acceptable decisions. Balancing the strategic interests of the country with ecological conservation must remain the key focus of such dialogue. The crucial importance of ecological conservation to mitigate the impact of the impact of climate change cannot be put on hold, but advancements in science and technology have also made it possible to evolve sustainable solutions. Scientific temperament must not give way to perceptions based on mere conjectures and apprehensions while articulating positions on such issues. The Arunachal Pradesh government initiating a dialogue and inviting the organisations opposing the Siang project for discussion can break the ice.

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