In a report, the Centre on Climate Change (SCCC) and Space Application Center (ISRO) Ahmedabad revealed the decreasing trend of snow cover for the five major river basins in the State. As the report points out, the high altitude regions of Himachal Pradesh receive precipitation mainly in the form of snow during the winter season. A thick blanket of snow covers one-third of the geographical area of the State during the winter season.
Rivers like Chenab, Beas, Parvati, Baspa, Spiti, Ravi, Sutlej and its tributaries flowing through Himachal are dependent on snowfall in winter. These rivers mainly feed into the Indus water system and a decline at this rate rings a death knell for water and food security for millions of people from Himachal to Kashmir and the plains of Punjab—the food bowl of the country.
Using images and data received from satellites, the report states that the winter precipitation was mapped in all the basins from October 2020 to May 2021 (a period of 2 years). The findings indicate that there has been an average decrease of 8.92% in the Chenab basin, 18.54% in the Beas basin, 23.16% in the Ravi basin and 23.49% in the Sutlej basin compared to last year.
The ice-covered area of the Chenab basin was 7,154.11 sq km in 2019–20, which has come down to 6,515.91 sq km in 2020–21. Similarly, the Beas basin was reduced from 2,457.68 to 2,002.03 sq km, the Ravi basin from 2,108.13 sq km to 1,619.82 sq km and Sutlej from 1,1823.1 sq km to 9,045 sq km.
Overall, the snow-covered area has reduced from 23,542 sq km to 19,183 sq km in Himachal.
The Sutlej river is the longest in the State, with two major tributaries—Baspa and Spiti. The above study shows that the maximum reduction in snow cover has occurred in the Sutlej basin. An area of 4,359 sq km under snow cover has decreased for the whole State, of which more than half is of the Sutlej basin.
It had been indicated 2 years ago that more than half of the glaciers in the Sutlej Basin are set to vanish by 2050. The Sutlej basin also has the highest number (562) of glacial lakes. These lakes stand at risk of sudden outbursts, which then causes flash floods downstream, as the valley has already experienced.
So, while the crisis is unfolding, be it deglaciation, lake formation or reduction in area under snow cover, it seems that the Sutlej river basin is more vulnerable to these changes.
Prakash Bhandari, an environmental researcher and activist and member of the Himdhara Collective, expressing his concern, states that the situation in the Sutlej river basin is certainly indicative of a serious climate emergency and it is critical to look into the drivers of this, both local and global.
“Many factors have worked together to create this crisis which should be studied closely. There is no doubt that global warming is contributing to these changes. But the local conditions also play a role in reducing or increasing its impact,” Bhandari says.
The upper reaches of the Sutlej Valley, especially areas like Kinnaur, are geologically fragile, with sharp gradients and loose soil strata. Vegetation is in a very small area, so there is a proneness to erosion. We have seen the catastrophic impacts of flash floods and landslides over the last decade and a half, where crores worth of property has been damaged. This year saw a spate of landslides where lives were lost.
“In such a sensitive and also strategically important area, changes in the landscape will have far-reaching and irreversible impacts. More construction activities will lead to more deforestation, more erosion.”
Construction of dams has been rampant in the Sutlej valley, which started post-independence and continues today. At the bottom of the valley in Bilaspur is the Bhakra Dam, which has a size of 168 sq km and a storage capacity of 9.340 cubic km. This is followed by the Kol Dam, which extends for 42 km up to Sunni, has a total storage capacity of 90 million cubic metres and the Nathpa Jhakri project, which is 27.394 kms long.
When a dam is built, a huge amount of water is stored. The debris of many villages, trees, etc., also gets absorbed inside the dam. When water is stagnant, it receives heat from the Sun to form mist in the surrounding area by evaporation and simultaneously generates methane gas.
The experience of the lake formed by the Kol Dam at Tattapani in Mandi district shows that the area is experiencing heavy haze, which was not there earlier.
“In the 30s and 40s, Shikari Devi and Kamrunag used to have snow on the peaks for about 6 months, which now barely lasts for 2 months. The air route distance of Shikari Devi and Kamrunag is only 26kms to 30 kms from Tattapani lake. At the same time, their distance is not much from the cement factories of Darlaghat, Sundernagar,” the elders in the area say.
“Today, fog is prevalent and this has also made the area warmer.” Due to the warming of the weather, clouds formed from the mist, the snow has started melting quickly.
Apart from this, the local crop patterns are affected. Post the 1990s, Sutlej became a site for running river hydroelectric projects using extensive underground tunnelling. This involved massive use of explosives for blasting through the mountains. Of the 23,000 MW worth of projects to be constructed in Himachal, more than 10,000, a third are from this valley alone.
Kinnaur continues to be a hydel powerhouse with 10 river projects in progress and 30 more to be set up, including two mega projects of 1,500 MW and 1,000 MW each. This paints a scary picture.
It is not just the hydroelectric dams but unplanned tourism and other development activities like mining, cement plants, road expansion and mindless construction across the high Himalayan regions that have added to the shift in local weather patterns, land-use changes and, thus, the ecological crisis.
But the reason why we should put the limelight on hydropower is because it is being pushed as “Green Energy” in the name of climate change mitigation. As opposed to other forms of generating power, hydropower projects are said to cause less carbon emission, which is why there has been a global push to shift to renewable resources.
But the climate emergency in the Himalayas has put a question mark on “water” as a renewable resource.
A question then arises: with all this data indicating a steady decline in river discharge and snow cover, have our planners and policymakers not considered what will happen to these projects? Will they be able to generate the power they propose to?
The people of the Himalayas have to wake up to this wastage of public resources. Scarce funds should be diverted to better planning for securing local livelihoods by protecting the forest ecosystems and water sources for the future.
The author is associated with the Himdhara Collective, a Himachal based environment research and action group.