Back in February, it seemed as if India would definitely stop planning the Athirappilly Dam on the Chalakudy River, which would save the nearby forest ecosystem and a Kadar village. A series of articles in Indian newspapers last week describe the continuing unrest in Kerala State about the decision to stop the dam construction by the national government.
One article described a request made by the Kerala Electricity Officers Federation to the national government—the “Centre” as it is called in India—to stop blocking the dam construction. S. Vijayan, the General Secretary of the Federation, indicated that the major issue for the Centre to worry about should be protecting the forests, a much better solution to global climate change than the economic globalization that the government is now pursuing, he argued.
He decried the construction of power projects that were based on carbon-based fuels—far more harmful to the environment than hydropower, he said. He alleged that the preliminary construction that had taken place at the dam site increased the presence of water in the river, and, in the words of the news story, “rejuvenated nature in the area.” He contended that some studies have shown that the project would not harm the biodiversity of the area. The news report did not provide the reasons why he made these claims.
Later in the week, The Hindu, a major Indian newspaper, reported that the Kerala State Centre, part of the Institution of Engineers (India), was planning a one-day seminar in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday, April 10, to explore the issues related to the proposed power dam. The program, “Proposed Athirappilly Hydro-electric Project—Myths and Realities,” would address the usefulness of the project, though it would also acknowledge the potential environmental consequences of it.
Mr. S. Radhakrishnan, Honorary Secretary of the Kerala State Centre, which organized the seminar, said that, whatever the environmental objections might be, cancellation of the dam project would harm the overall development of the state. The seminar was organized so that papers for and against the development could be presented.
A press report about the seminar published on Sunday reviewed the objections of C. G. Madhusoodanan, a hydrologist and environmentalist from the River Research Centre in Thrissur. He described the basic planning process for the proposed dam as deeply flawed, even in its most basic design elements. For instance, he stated that the proposal describes the river basin as 1704 sq. km., whereas, he said, it is only 1470 sq. km. The calculation of runoff in the drainage basin is quite incorrect.
Using his best engineering language, he evidently blasted away at the designers. “The basic measurements such as dam length, surge shaft diameters and powerhouse sizes [keep] changing with each of the detailed project reports (DPR). Some components like the energy dissipator and river training works are yet to be designed and quantified even after four DPRs,” he said.
The assistant executive engineer for the Kerala State Electricity Board, R. Ramesh, disagreed. He said that nuclear power is not an alternative for a crowded state like theirs, so there is really no alternative to building the new dam on the Chalakudy River. Furthermore, fossil fuels will likely be gone by 2030, wind energy is unpredictable, and solar energy is too expensive as yet. He further argued that neighboring states in India have over 100 dams each, and Kerala has just 33. The news story did not indicate if he mentioned that the neighboring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are much larger than Kerala.
The news story pointed out that a major point for contention between the engineers and the environmentalists at the meeting was over the maintenance of the Athirappilly Falls, a major tourist draw for south central Kerala, and just downstream from the proposed project. The engineers—the hopeful dam builders—contend that the project will allow enough water to flow in the river so that the waterfalls will continue to operate. Environmentalists differ. In the end, there will be no river and no electricity, one maintained.
It is not clear from the news stories if any of the engineers or environmentalists expressed concern for the indigenous people, residents of the Kadar village, who would also be affected by the proposed dam.