A team of researchers led by Professor Maharaj K. Pandit from the University Scholars Programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that unprecedented dam building in the Indian Himalaya holds serious consequences for biodiversity and could pose a threat to human lives and livelihoods.
Prof Pandit, who also holds a courtesy appointment with the Department of Geography at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and his team at the University of Delhi and the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences investigated close to 300 dams and related hydropower infrastructure on the Himalayan rivers across some of the biggest river basins in the world, namely the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra. The study, co-funded by NUS, was published in the journal Science in January 2013 as well as other scientific journals such as Conservation Biology, PLOS ONE and cited in a Nature article in 2012.
Impact of dam-building activities on biodiversity
Using field data and modelling, the researchers discovered that almost 90% of the Himalayan valleys would be affected by dam building and that 27% of these dams would affect dense forests with unique biodiversity. The team projected that dam-related activities will submerge and destroy about 170,000 hectares of forests. The researchers also predicted that the dam density in the Himalaya is likely to be about 62 times greater than the current global average, which would result in deforestation and the extinction of 22 flowering plants and 7 vertebrate species.
Impact of dam-building activities on human lives
Furthermore, the study found that water volume is the main driver of the richness of fish species in the rivers. Water withdrawals due to massive dam building activity would seriously undermine fish survival and diversity, fragment habitats and limit fish migration in these rivers, with long-term consequences for the livelihoods of fishermen.
Besides threatening biodiversity, the study also revealed the impact of dam-building activities on human lives and livelihoods. Due to high population density, dams have displaced Indian citizens for decades.
Prof Pandit opined, "We are deeply aware of the country's need to develop economically. However, there is a need to balance development and not venture into haphazard dam building without caring for biodiversity and people."
Recommendations to improve dam-building projects
The findings from the study highlight the need for sustainable power development. In their paper published in Science, Prof Pandit and his co-author Dr Edward Grumbine from the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences provided suggestions to improve the planning and implementation of India's proposed Himalaya hydropower projects such as the reduction of power losses during transmission and distribution.
Prof Pandit sees an important role for Singapore in this area. He explained, "The power infrastructure in India is worn out and needs to be updated. Singapore has the technological know-how in the maintenance of transmission and distribution networks and this is a golden opportunity for Singapore to provide expertise to aid India's efforts on environmental conservation."
Further research into biodiversity and conservation
Prof Pandit will continue his research on the impact of water withdrawals on the biodiversity of Himalayan rivers at NUS. His research will focus on the large number of endemic species inhabiting the marshy habitats and the floodplains in the Himalayan foothills, such as the one-horned rhino, which are likely to go extinct due to upstream water withdrawals.
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