The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 3, 2000

Trying to tame the Sutlej
By K.S. Dhami

THE Sutlej River has its source near the holiest of lakes — the Mansarover — in Tibet; at one time the source was the lake itself. It is the fastest of the Himalayan rivers. In Tibet, the Sutlej flows through spectacular barren canyons; at places forming many channels and at points going through deep gorges.

From its source, the Sutlej flows in the northwestern direction through the Tibetan plateau, parallel to the Himalayan Range. After a run of 450 km, it penetrates the Himalayas at Shipkila, just short of Leo Pargial mountain, makes a 90 degree sweep and cuts through the Zanskar Range, an off shoot of the Greater Himalayas. As it emerges from the range it is joined by the Spiti River. Now, reinforced by the Spiti and other big and small glacial streams, the Sutlej makes a diagonal thrust through the Great Himalayan Range, cutting a deep gorge with the sacred Kinner Kailash massif on its left and the Mainrang Range to its right. At Karcham, it is welcomed by the crystal-clear blue waters of the Baspa River. The Baspa drains the Sangla Valley, considered to be one of the most beautiful valleys in the Himalayas.


Sutlej runs through a deep narrow gorgeFor about 20 km after Karcham, the Sutlej is in its most ferocious and challenging mood — boulders, rocks and rubble are tossed around in mighty foaming rapids, the loose rocks and soil of the ranges on the flanks further adding to the debris. It is with this force, 4 km down the river from Wangtu, that it meets the pick-up dam for the tunnel of the famous Nathpa Jhakri Hydel Project (NJHP). How the muddied water is going to be effectively desilted, before being led through the tunnel appears uncertain. After this, the Sutlej makes a 200 km dash, till finally, it loses its momentum and mingles with the backwaters of the Bhakra Dam. Prior to construction of the Bhakra Dam, the Sutlej was most feared for the tremendous damage and misery it caused, when in flood. However, in end September 88, despite the dam, the Sutlej could not be contained and serious floods ensued.

The hydel potential of the river is being harnessed by constructing storage dams in its lower sections and through run of the river’ projects in its faster sections. The ‘run of the river’ schemes involve the erection of a weir/dams with desilting tanks for storing sufficient water to ensure a continous supply through a tunnel/open channel to a point above the powerhouse site and then given a drop to operate the turbines. At places, like the Baspa stage, water is again channelled through a tunnel to operate another power-station thus avoiding the cost of constructing another weir/dam and desilting chambers.

The NJHP, is a run-of-the-river scheme on the Sutlej which has a pick-up dam at Nathpa. The project was cleared by the Govt of India in July 1994 for capacity of 1020 MW at an estimated cost of Rs 796.81 crore which included Rs 140.64 crore for transmission works. Subsequently in 1985,the capacity was increased to 1500 MW and the cost jumped to Rs 2200 crore, then to Rs 5000 crore and now, four years behind completion schedule, to Rs 8000 crore — further jumps are not ruled out — figure of Rs 10,000 crore or more is being mentioned. It is now being claimed that the first unit will be completed by 2001 and the remaining five units by March 2002.

Roaring past PoohSo far the NJHP has been a technical-cum-mechanical execution. The real test will be at the final,operating stage. To generate the capacity, so heavily paid for,the fact that the waters of the Sutlej are extremely muddy will have to be faced. In the 15 km stretch, short of the pickup dam at Nathpa, the Sutlej is in its most ferocious mood during the better part of the year; boulders, rocks and rubble are tossed and churned around in mighty rapids. Add to this is the constant threat of cloudbursts over the fragile Indo-Gangetic watershed range on whose slopes the project lies. Removal and disposal of silt and rubble to maintain the storage capacity of the pick-up dam and desilting tanks will be a massive task. The area has still not recovered from the cloudbursts that occurred in August 1997. Recently in the first week of June this year, heavy rains and cloudbursts washed away roads, bridges, built-up areas, expensive machinery, vehicles, buried village houses, uprooted trees and damaged hydel projects. Worse damages have occurred in the flash flood on August 1.

Big run-of-the-river hydel projects are also victims of bad planning and mismanagement which results in delays and colossal wastage of money and effort. Mismanagement, total lack of accountability, large establishments and taking. The project to be a source of long term employment. are responsible for the failure to execute projects within time and budget. Furthermore, in the case of the NJHP and other similar projects, the effects of deforestation have not been fully realised.

Forests are critical for preserving the green cover on mountains. Extensive deforestation and grazing results in barren surface, soil erosion and porosity. The barren soil, during the monsoons and cloudbursts, absorbs water, gets loosened and whole mountainsides slide down, taking with them trees, farm lands, villages and finally blocking the rivers.Finally, barren scars on the mountains will further increase erosion . Run-of the river scheme hydel projects and the big gravity dams are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters of this kind, especially when their catchment areas have been deforested. The NJHP has faced many landslides that have resulted in delays and manifold increase in costs.

Flowing below a bridge on the Hindustan-Tibet RoadDeforestation will lead to fast silting of the Bhakra Dam and with it,the consequent loss of power generation and storage capacity for irrigration. The states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Rajasthan and amongst cities Delhi, will be the worst hit. It is time the states and the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) look the completion of the project seriously. Adverse effects of extreme climatic conditions mainly due to deforestation, will have to be faced. The recent massive destruction due to cloudburst and bursting of dammed water on July 31, in the catchment area of the Sutlej river in Tibet, considered to be in the rain shadow (no rain area) of the Himalayas, is an example of this.

Like water sustains life, power is essential for basic living and is an index of a country’s progress. From the viewpoint of resources available and economics our hope lies in hydel power. Hydel generation is the need of the hour. For successful exploitation, it requires a more practical, professional and dedicated management with clear-cut tasks and accountability. Depending on high-tech consultants who are unaware of the ground realities will adversely affect the projects and lead to time and cost over-runs, and even abandoning of projects.

Costs of hydel generation are considered much lower than those for thermal generation, however, this advantage can be lost due to poor assessment of projects and mismanagement so that it becomes not only costlier than thermal but beyond economical acceptance.

As of today, the hydel projects under execution/approved for completion by 2010-12 are for 30,000 MW. The actual projected requirement of hydel power is 1,00,000 MW (10,000 MW per year) at an estimated cost of Rs 5,00,000 crore (going by NJHP progress the amount could be one-and-a-half times this). Considering the critical need for power, the colossal investment and past performance of the NHPC there is a need for a different and professional approach.

In the light of the deteriorating all-round performance credibility and mounting fiscal deficit, it is uncertain where the massive finance for power projects will come from. Due to mismanagement: the power sector has a deficit of Rs 37,000 crore, cost overruns on projects are over Rs 45,000 crore, public sector undertakings losses over Rs 44,000 crore and nationalised banks have unpaid loans of over Rs 50,000 crore. Out of this year’s budget estimate, 49.7 per cent of the revenue receipt (Rs 2,03,673 crore) is going as interest payment on past borrowing to the tune of Rs 9,34,000 crore which is piling up by over Rs 1,00,000 crore annually.

Mismanagement is due to the actions of politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and consultant-cum-agents working in the spirit of total power with zero accountability. No venture/organisation/government can succeed under this kind of non performing management and work-culture.

It is difficult to comprehend that Himachal Pradesh, having 25 per cent share in the Nathpa Jhakri Hydel Project, has no representative in Nathpa Jhakri Power Corporation.

In the final operating stages of the hydel projects, the protection of existing forests and plantation of new ones will be critical. In the absence of a green cover in the catchment areas, the Sutlej will remain the untamed Himalayan powerhouse.