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River Sharavathi already accounts for 40 percent (1,469.2 megawatt) of hydropower generated in Karnataka with seven dams and five tunnels but the Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) is now planning another project on it. The new project could threaten one of the last existing habitats of the endangered lion-tailed macaque species. The estimated cost of the new underground pumped storage project envisaged by the KPCL is about Rs 50 billion (Rs. 5,017.44 crore).

With the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) led by India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar giving a go-ahead to the geotechnical survey recently to assess the feasibility of the project, the activists who have been fighting to save the river from further damage are concerned. This was one of the many projects that the NBWL’s standing committee cleared during the COVID-19 lockdown.

While the KPCL argues that the new project requires very little construction work (and hence minimum environmental damage), since the two reservoirs – Talakalale and Gerusoppa – that would be used to transport water for power generation, already exist, environmentalists and activists call the project myopic. They emphasise that it would impact the rich biodiversity that the river basin and the Sharavathi valley hold.
The Sharavathi river, originating in the central Western Ghats, runs through the districts of Shivamogga and Uttara Kannada of Karnataka. The river, with a catchment area of about 3,600 square kilometres, takes birth at Ambuthirtha in Thirthahalli taluk and flows northwesterly for 130 km to join the Arabian Sea at Honnavar in Uttara Kannada district.

Rich biodiversity of the valley to get impacted
The Sharavathi river valley is home to a diverse array of species and sustains very rich biodiversity. The river basin supports a rich flora of 215 herbs, shrubs and climbers. Many endemic and endangered species of fauna like leopard, spotted deer, mouse deer, civet cat, sloth bear etc. and 140 species of birds and 130 species of butterflies were identified here. The presence of Myristica swamp in the climax evergreen forests is another notable feature of the valley.

The Sharavathi Wildlife Sanctuary is an important habitat for the lion-tailed macaques.  Photo: Rison Thumboor/Wikimedia Commons.  Cover Photo: A picture of the river Sharavathi. Cover Photo: shashank.sn/Shutterstock

The Sharavathi Wildlife Sanctuary is an important habitat for the lion-tailed macaques.
Photo: Rison Thumboor/Wikimedia Commons.
Cover Photo: A picture of the river Sharavathi. Cover Photo: shashank.sn/Shutterstock

It is also home to endangered and endemic lion-tailed macaque (LTM) and vulnerable great Indian hornbill apart from many other endangered species. A survey in the early 2000s had revealed more than 32 groups of the LTM in the Honnavar division towards the north of Sharavathi valley. In 2019, considering the importance of the valley to the LTM, the government notified the Sharavathi wildlife sanctuary’s border to be extended to include the reserve forests of the Honnavar and Sagar divisions as well as the Aghanashini LTM Conservation Reserve spread over Uttara Kannada and Shivamogga districts and be rechristened Sharavathi Valley LTM Sanctuary. This has made it one of the largest protected areas of tropical evergreen forest in the fragile Western Ghats, one of the eight hottest of the hotspots for biodiversity conservation in the world.

Government claims minimum impact on the environment
The KPCL wants 360 acres of these biodiversity-rich forests to be diverted for the project. “It is an absurd project,” says Sagar-based environmental activist Akhilesh Chipli, a member of a non-governmental organisation SWAN and Man (Save-Wild-Atmosphere-Nature and Man) that has been fighting for the cause.

“The plant envisaged includes various units like the headrace and the tailrace, pressure shafts, apart from the power plant itself. The power plant is proposed in the heart of the valley. For the infrastructure, big earth movers and diggers are needed apart from access roads for these vehicles, staff quarters, in addition to many other pre-construction activities. The KPCL is not even talking about transmission lines. To evacuate 2.000 MW generated, you need two high power transmission lines to cut through the forest. Considering all these, more than 500 acres of forest land is estimated to be diverted,” Chipli told Mongabay-India.

He said that the Pre-Feasibility Report (PFR) for the project was submitted at a time the project area was adjacent to the Sharavathi reserve but now it is a wildlife sanctuary. “India’s Wildlife Protection Act clearly prohibits any kind of destruction of wildlife habitat inside a wildlife sanctuary unless it is for the betterment of wildlife and its habitat. “The proposed project is very evidently not for the betterment of the wildlife and its habitat and can cause damage to the fragile ecosystem of the sanctuary,” he said.

A lawyer-activist, who didn’t want to be named, said that when it comes to its effect on the ecosystem, this project cannot be seen in isolation but as the latest in a series of environmentally disastrous projects that have come up at the location. A study on the cumulative impact of all hydroelectric projects on the Sharavathi basin showed that Linganamakki reservoir when it was built in 1948, submerged 326.34 sq. km. resulting in the full or partial submergence of 99 villages in Sagar and 76 villages in Hosanagar taluks of Shivamogga district and displaced 12,000 people. About 7.77 sq. km. was submerged by Talakalele resulting in the full or partial submergence of three villages.

The Gerusoppa dam in Karnataka. Photo: Arathi Menon.

The Gerusoppa dam in Karnataka. Photo: Arathi Menon.

While Gerusoppa (reservoir) didn’t submerge villages or cause displacement, 5.96 sq. km. of evergreen to semi-evergreen forests were submerged. For the Sharavathi tailrace project, 4.72 sq. km. of forest and 0.08 sq. km. of other lands were acquired for the land, townships etc. Activists point out that all these have resulted in the extensive fragmentation of the forest and the river basin and increased anthropogenic activities here.

This has proven particularly problematic to the LTM population whose habitat is now fragmented. Principal scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History Honnavalli N. Kumara said that there are eight groups of LTMs in the south of Sharavathi valley where the project is envisaged. “There are two groups at the location where the underground pumped storage is coming up,” he said.

“Any infrastructure activities within a forest demand removal of trees. In an evergreen forest like Sharavathi sanctuary, gaps in the canopy highway for the LTMs would severely restrict their movement. Unlike other primates, LTMs are biologically challenged to proliferate easily, one of the reasons why they are reduced in numbers even historically. So restricting their movement will reduce their population even further,” noted Kumara.

Techno-economic feasibility under the scanner
Gajanana Sharma, a retired superintendent engineer at the KPCL, informed that the pumped storage project is technically sound but does not justify its environmental cost. “The plan is technically sound. You get power for cheaper rates. But considering it is coming up in an eco-sensitive area, the environmental damage is huge. When the world is moving towards alternative sources of energy like solar energy, why do we need an underground pumped storage project and that too, in an ecological zone?” Sharma questioned.

Power policy analyst Shankar Sharma, however, differed on the technical soundness of the project as he reasoned that a pumped-storage power plant will consume about 25 percent more electricity in pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir as compared to the electricity it can generate from the same volume of water.

“As per the PFR (pre-feasibility report), the 2,000 MW capacity power project is estimated to generate about 12,000 MWH (megawatt-Hour) per year of electricity, whereas about 14,833 MWH of energy is estimated to be consumed in the process of pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir. In effect, this proposed pumped storage power plant scheme will consume about 24 percent more energy from the grid than it can generate in a year,” he said.

Moreover, he said that the idea behind a pumped-storage power plant is to generate additional power required to meet the electricity demand for the peak hours of the day (about two hours each, in the morning and evening) for which it utilises the surplus electricity during the night to pump water from a lower reservoir to the higher level reservoir. So, in reality, pumped storage will be in operation for only about 20 percent of the time as against a hydel power plant that operates for more than 60 percent of the time.

“Is such a power plant worthy of its huge ecological costs to the society?” he asked. He further said that what we don’t anticipate is that the diversion of 360 acres of pristine forest land could irreversibly alter the rainfall pattern and the river flow which can substantially reduce the water availability for the hydel projects on the river valley.

This story was first published in Mongabay India.

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