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Google Earth pictures confirm Bhagirathi dry-up

An eight kilometre stretch of the Bhagirathi river has dried up. Google Earth pictures show the river snaking through the Himalayas as one long, sandy stretch without any water. The same stretch was one kilometre long in 2004

Recent satellite pictures taken by Google Earth confirm the worst fears of environmentalists. An eight kilometre stretch of the Bhagirathi river has dried up. The river is shown snaking through the Himalayan mountains as one long, sandy stretch without any water. This same stretch was one kilometre long in 2004, according to Google Earth pictures generated at that time.

Other rivers emanating from the Gangotri glacier, including the Bhilangana, the Assi Ganga and the Alaknanda -- all tributaries of the Ganga -- are also drying up. 

Commodore Sureshwar Sinha, chairperson of the NGO Paani Morcha that has been fighting to save the Ganga for the last 16 years, showed the pictures to a startled Chief Justice Balakrishnan and his three-member bench comprising Justice R V Raveendran and Justice M K Sarma, earlier this month.

Sinha had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in 1992 highlighting how water in the Ganga had become brackish in the city of Kanpur and had lost its natural flow.

“When the Tehri dam was being built over a decade ago, we had warned that it would bring about a demise of all major rivers emanating from the Gangotri glacier. The Bhagirathi is the largest of the tributaries of the Ganga. If it can dry up, imagine the fate of the smaller rivers,” he says.

Recently, Sinha filed an additional affidavit to his original petition pointing out how the construction of four massive dams and hydro-electric projects on the Bhagirathi, upstream of Uttarkashi, was responsible for its drying up. The four dams under construction include the Maneri-Bahli, Bhairon Ghate, Lohari Nagpala and Pala Maneri.

The petition highlights how, during the lean season, the flow of the Bhagirathi has decreased from 40 cubic metres per second to half a cubic metre per second. The Assi Ganga’s flow is down to 10 cubic metres per second.

The chief reason for the decrease in flow is that the projects were undertaken without any porosity tests having been carried out.

“The Himalayas consist of a sedimentary rock structure which has a high percolation rate of water. Dams obstruct the flow of water and so the water has been percolating through these rocks and the dams are drying up. The NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) seems to have undertaken these projects without conducting a basic porosity test,” Sinha says.

Activist Vandana Shiva believes the problem has been made worse because most of the data on which the engineers have worked is outdated. “Data collected 50 years ago can hardly be considered valid today. The result is that the Tehri dam, which was supposed to generate 1,000 megawatts of power, is generating only 100 megawatts according to the engineers working there,” she says.

Tehri engineers counter this by stating that during the lean season, rivers have less water anyway. Global warming is also responsible for the retreat of the Gangotri glacier every year.

Sinha’s petition highlights the fact that the Tehri dam engineers would have side-stepped the issue if they had conducted proper porosity tests. “Two projects coming up at Ponta Sahib and Dehra Dun were cancelled because percolation rates there were found to be too high. When a carrot of Rs 14,000 crore, which is the World Bank funding for these projects, is dangled before the dam lobbies, obviously they will succumb,” says Sinha.

Sinha’s application states that the Tehri is facing imminent threat of closure because of reduced flow in the Bhagirathi. The Tehri dam is situated at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Bhilangana.

Uttar Pradesh’s chief engineer (Ganga) Harishankar Sharma confirms Sinha’s thesis and says that supply to the upper Ganga canal is on the decline as they are receiving less water from the Tehri dam.

Sharma adds: “There is no availability of water from Deoprayag. The entire water supply system, which is based on the Ganga canal, has collapsed.”

Officials of the Tehri Hydro Development Project (THDC) insist that the water activists are taking an alarmist position since there is always a reduction of supply during the lean season. A L Shah, GM (Project), THDC, maintains: “The quantum of water we are releasing from the dam is more than what we are getting from the Bhagirathi river. It is up to Uttar Pradesh to decide how much water they want to release to Delhi. We don’t have any control over it.”

Sinha has suggested immediate remedial measures by constituting a high-powered committee at the central level to work out urgent steps before the monsoons to stop the quick percolation rate. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has suggested Sinha conduct independent tests before the petition comes up for further review.

Sinha warns that if the Ganga dries up upstream, million of farmers who are dependent on its water for their agriculture will lose their livelihoods.

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