Water doesn’t just clean, it purifies

This is Part 2 of a four-part blog series. AWP Program Lead Rohan Kent writes about his recent scoping mission with ANU on sites for Pumped Storage Hydropower in the Himalayan region. Read Part 1 here.

The distances may not seem far on the maps, but these windy mountain roads make it seem like an eternity.  As we head deep into the hills and valleys that surround Gangtok, the snow-covered peaks track us along as we journey on. These mountains are characterised not just by their sheer size, but also the landslides that have cascaded down them, often forcing the (barely) two-lane road into single lane passageway. Some sections are so close for the vehicles, we exchange a hello and a fist-bump with the occupants traveling in the opposite direction. It is hard not to look down over the edge sometimes, and sometimes best not to.

Our local NGO partner – Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) – has arranged meetings for the team with industry and villages alike. All who have a stake in the production of energy and the impact on the environment.

Our first stop is being hosted four floors down in the belly of the Greenko hydroelectric power plant in Dikchu on the Dick Chuu River, that runs directly into the formidable Teesta River. A relatively modest plant providing 96 megawatts of power it’s also a relatively new plant, but one we will hear that has caught the ire of the local communities. Greenko’s plant, was commissioned in 2017 following a seven-year build, and boast a workforce of approx. 130, of which we understand only five are females. They have had to acquire private land and now have a lease with the Sikkim State for 36 years. They boast a local development program as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that includes projects around health and education which on face value seems fairly reasonable. We were later told this comprises of an ambulance and we understand some minor school building refurbishments. Nevertheless, the plant manager seems quite pleased with the effort and is promising more support once the plant moves into a state of profitability.

The story is different though as we sit down and chat with some of the locals via the local Panchayat council platform, a form of government where five villages work together. They argue that while the progress the hydropower dams bring to the local region are welcome, their needs for support to local employment, environmental management and improvements to infrastructure affected by the dam – build including repairing the roads we have been navigating – have gone largely unnoticed.

Discussion centres around consequences of the dam’s development including the increase in the landslides due to the deforestation associated with build, and the depletion of natural water sources in some villages. What matters to them is: better communication; more comprehensive governance; and greater transparency. They are not rejecting the progress in energy production and availability but want to ensure all voices are heard and all parties are held to account when practices fail to follow the (minimal) policy directives.

Solutions to some of the challenges we have been hearing start to emerge, during these meetings, including during the workshop. There are suggestions around the provision of an independent watchdog – or ombudsmen – but also the need for a more considered approach to planning, by way of an interdisciplinary team at Govt. level to support better planning but also monitoring of projects.

Sikkim and indeed India is hungry for energy. Industry in this part of the world is increasing largely due to the generous tax breaks and companies are pushing deeper into the Himalayas in search of new sites and sources for energy production to feed the machines. India’s population is also growing, tipped to overtake China in 2023, providing more reason for more energy provision.

But it was one comment that stuck with me as we navigated the steep mountain roads this week. While we talk a lot about environmental flows (e-flow) within this sector, it’s the concept of spiritual flows (s-flows) that we should be just as conversant with. The water here doesn’t just clean your hands from a day’s work. It is not just there for drinking or supporting crop or energy production. Water also purifies and it also cleanses. In the Hindu tradition for example water stands for rejuvenation, prosperity. Water purifies the body and the mind. It rejuvenates the spirit. It liberates the psyche. Buddhist’s path to enlightenment includes a diligent cleansing of body, mind, and spirit. Similarly, in in the Buddhist value, water symbolises purity, clarity, and calmness, and reminds us to cleanse our minds and attain the state of purity.

Perhaps, we need to reflect more on the harmonisation of the e-flow and the s-flow in order to satisfy the thirst for sustainable energy production.

Images by Rohan Kent featuring members of the project team discussing hydropower operations with members of Greenko, who have developed the 96 MW Dikchu Hydro-electric Project in Sikkim, India.
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