RIVERS OF HIMACHAL :CRISIS
- November 30, 2019
- Posted by: user
The lifelines of Himalayas A massive collision between two tectonic plates of the Indian and Eurasian land masses about 50 to 70 million years ago led to the formation of the youngest and tallest mountain ranges, the Himalayas. Once the Himalayas started to rise, a southward drainage developed which subsequently controlled the climate of the newly formed continent, and there started the season of monsoon as well. The river systems of the Himalayas thus developed because of rains and melting snow. The newly formed rivers were like sheets of water flowing towards the fore-deep carrying whatever came in their way. Once the rivers reached the plains their gradients became lesser, their hydraulics changed and they started to deposit their sediment . The river is a defining feature of a mountain eco-system. And if that ecosystem is the Himalayas then this makes the rivers originating here special for several reasons. Their origin and source to start with, which includes glaciers and snow bound peaks; their length and size, and the area they cover is larger than most peninsular rivers; their rapid, high velocity, meandering flow which is constantly shaping the young and malleable Himalayan valleys; their propensity to carry silt and form rich plains to facilitate a fertile agriculture downstream is another unique feature.The Himalayan rivers are older than or as young as the Himalayas themselves. And yet, despite, the sense of power and reverence they command and convey and all the life they support, they are vulnerable. This vulnerability is rarely spoken of. The slightest variation and changes in temperature, flow, course and composition of the rivers impacts its surroundings and the shifts in the landscapes in turn impacts all these aspects of the rivers, such is the degree of interdependence and fragility. Most text books and articles largely highlight the magnitude of the Himalayan river systems and move on to speaking, anthropocentrically, of their energy and irrigation potential, along the lines of what can we squeeze out from them for furthering the cause of ‘human development’.
Rarely ever are these seen as riverine ecosystems that are already providing services and support life systems. Today, we speak of interlinking these rivers but fail to see the existing natural inter linkages between, not just the rivers but amongst all life forms, the benefits of which are drawn by human beings as well. If these rivers are stressed out, if they are tampered with, if they are tunnelled and damned, what would after all be the impact of all other dependent systems? In this ‘State of the Rivers Report’ from Himachal we focus on highlighting the key information about Himachal’s rivers, pointing out the threats that these rivers are facing. We compare the health of these rivers based on certain broad criteria but in order to actually do a ‘State of the Rivers Report’ and assess the social, cultural, economic values of these rivers and how these have changed historically, a detailed study based on primary data as well as secondary research from a variety of sources. Moreover it is the communities who depend on these rivers who would best describe the changes that have occurred over time. And thus any assessment would be incomplete without a people’s voice in it. For the purpose of India Rivers Week’s process we have put together a preliminary document that provides some basic information on Himachal’s rivers. A brief profile of the state and its major river basins Himachal Pradesh a mountain state in Indian Himalaya, covering an area of over fifty five thousand square kilometres, has 5 major river basins Satluj, Ravi, Beas, Chenab and Yamuna. Yamuna crosses only the south-eastern border of the state, and but its tributaries originating in Himachal include Giri and Tons which form a part of the Ganga river basin flowing westward.
The other four rivers are major tributaries of the eastward flowing Indus River, the longest in the world (2000 miles or 3200 kilometres) with a flow twice the size of the Nile. The Indus becomes a much larger river once it is joined by what are known as the ‘Punjab’ (literally meaning 5 rivers – Satluj, Ravi, Beas, Chenab and Jhelum). Of the four Himachal Rivers, except Satluj which has its source in Tibet, the rest originate within the boundaries of the State of Himachal Pradesh. While the Satluj meets Beas meet within India, it joins the Chenab in Pakistan. Ravi too joins the Chenab in Pakistan. Chenab then goes on to meet the Jhelum and then the merged rivers meet the Indus at Mithankot in Pakistan followed by its confluence with the Arabian Sea. Himachal’s unique geography and variation in altitude produces a wide spectrum of climates from hot and sub-humid tropical in the southern tracts to cold, alpine and glacial in the northern and eastern mountain ranges.
There is a vast diversity of communities that reside in this landscape. While the large rivers are referred to by them locally as dariya, their tributaries (glacial and snow fed) are smaller rivers are called khad, and smaller streams are known as nallahs. The, khads and nallahs, are critical components of the riverine ecosystem, even from the point of view of the local communities, who have a direct relationship with 6 these for their day to day use – drinking water, irrigation, running watermills and fishing. It is rare to find communities residing very close to the larger rivers or dariyas, except in some parts of Lahaul-Spiti or then lower down in the valleys. Himachal is a relatively small state and in 2011 its population stood at 68.65 lakhs. It is only 9% urbanised and most of Himachal lives in its villages. Of the total land geographical area only 10% is under agriculture while close to 70% in under the category of ‘Forest land’. And yet agriculture is the main source of livelihood in Himachal with over 93% of the population dependent on it. As in most mountain areas agriculture and forest dependence is interwoven. Agriculture is made possible due to the irrigation from river channels or natural springs. The health of the forests directly determines the health of the surface and ground water systems which in turn determines the viability of agriculture and horticulture. Horticulture and cash based agriculture was pushed by the government in the late 70s and 80s. Today the state has massive apple cultivation, apart from commercial vegetable cultivation, which is an important source of income for the farmers. Post the 90s, while Himachal has witnessed changes that the rest of the country was going through as a result of the economic reforms and push to the neoliberal agenda, this process has been slower here. Despite this over the last two decades commercial tourism has seen a massive rise, with the number of tourists visiting the state having doubled in the last decade. The other major driver of economic growth in the state has been the Hydropower sector. Himachal has the largest hydropower installed capacity in the country – more than 10000 MW, out of a total potential of more than 27000 MW . In such a scenario the nature of development is bound to impact the state of the rivers. In the next section we examine some of the major developments that have emerged as threats to the health of Himachal’s rivers.
Threats to riverine health in Himachal Pradesh
Before we start looking at some of the major threats to the health of Himachal’s rivers, there is a need to understand how the health of a river is monitored and assessed. Our regulatory agencies like the Pollution Control Board for instance refer to river as ‘surface waters’ and the health of these is measured by assessing the ‘water quality’ by looking at parameters like dissolved oxygen, PH, colour, temperature, presence of heavy metals etc. However, there is a need to review the definition of a ‘river’ which comprises not just the water, but the entire riverine landscape. No doubt the water quality is indicative of the health of the river, but the perspective on the river needs to be widened to include a larger body of information as well as a spatial and temporal mapping of the river and its course. It is with this understanding that we list some of the major threats to rivers and their health in Himachal Pradesh. Hydropower Development Himachal Pradesh is the largest producer of Hydropower in India. The state has already installed 10264 MW worth of projects. It is planning to harness a total 27436 MW out of which 24000 MW of power is harnessable from the five major river basins of the state namely Satluj, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Yamuna across a total of 813 large, medium and small projects and micro-hydels1 . The Satluj river basin alone has a planned potential of 13,332 1 There are various schemes of classification of hydro power projects but no one standard.