‘Environment’ is often seen as a roadblock to economic development. This is not quite true. Actually concern for environment reflects concern for long term economic development. Take the example of Ganga Expressway. The UP Government wants to build an embankment along the Ganga for plying of vehicles. The cost of transport between Delhi and Allahabad, Varanasi and Banda would be much reduced. The developer would be able to sell land for habitation along the highway. But the question is whether this habitation will be sustainable?
The water of the Ganga will not be able to spread over large areas after the Expressway is built. The level of water in the river will rise. The sewage from cities located on the banks will flow backwards. This can lead to spread of diseases. Along the Ganga is located the best of the country’s agricultural lands. One can dig a tube well anywhere and water is available aplenty at a depth of 200-300 feet. The source of this water, in large measure, is the Ganga. The river water spreads over large areas during the monsoons and recharges the ground water. The Expressway will prevent such spread of water and is likely to lead to fast depletion of the ground water table. Farmers will have to spend more on electricity to lift water from deeper levels. Moreover, the vibrations due to heavy movement of vehicles is likely to close the pores of the earth.
Less spread of water will also lead to less evaporation and moisture in the air will be impacted. Many birds, turtles, worms and other insects require moisture to survive. Reduction in moisture can lead to depletion of these life forms and, in turn, harm our agriculture. It is reported that excessive killing of birds in China led to an increase in population of rats and did much harm.
Carbon dioxide and mono-oxide gasses will be emitted in large quantities on the Expressway. These will be absorbed by the river waters. Many cities lift their drinking water from the Ganga. They will drink these poisoned waters. A proper economic assessment of these impacts is likely to establish that the Expressway is a loss proposition for the country in the long run. The gains to the economy from lower cost of transport may be small in relation to these losses to farmers and public health. Problem is that these costs are borne by the society in the long run. For example, it may take 5 to 10 years for the ground water table to decline; or the menace of rats to become visible. But the developer will get immediate benefits from the sale of land near the Expressway. It is clear that the choice is not between environment and economic growth. The true choice is between short term and long term economic growth. The true choice is between profits for the developers and loss for the people.
A similar long term negative impact is seen of the many hydropower projects being made on our rivers. The reservoirs trap the sediments that the rivers carry to the plains and the sea. Presently this sediment is spread by the river over large tracts of agricultural lands in the flood season and fertilizes them. Part of this sediment reaches the sea and helps create new land for the country. The entire Ganga Basin from Haridwar to Ganga Sagar has been built by deposition of sediments by the Ganga. Now our coasts are being deprived of these sediments and the sea is coming back in. This writer has visited Dhablat and other villages of Ganga Sagar and found that about 2 km of the country’s land has been engulfed by the sea in the last decade. The rate of coastal erosion is fast increasing.
Water flows at a slow pace in the hydropower reservoirs. These slow-moving waters make a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carry vectors of Malaria and other waterborne diseases. Hydropower companies spray insecticides in the reservoirs which kill most but not all the mosquitoes. Those that survive become resistant to insecticides. The malaria vectors also become virulent. This virulence is one reason that the number of patients of malaria in the country is reducing but the number of deaths is increasing. The loss of life due to virulent malaria should also be debited to the account of hydropower.
Leaves, sticks and dead animal carcasses settle on the floor of the reservoirs and ferment. This produces poisonous methane gas. In natural lakes, this methane rises slowly and is broken into carbon dioxide and water. But it is sucked directly into the turbines from the bottom and then released into the atmosphere from the spillways. This gas causes more global warming than carbon dioxide. A true accounting of these costs will show that hydropower is harmful for the nation. For this reason about 500 dams are being removed in the United States every year. After tapping nearly all their rivers fifty years ago, that country is now recognising the long term harmful effects and making amends. But these projects provide immediate benefits to the hydropower companies and governments that sell the rivers to the highest bidder. In the result projects that are harmful are implemented because they provide immediate gains to these vested interests.
This long term loss is not imaginary. Four thousand years ago our ancestors of the Saraswati Valley cut the forests for providing fuel to burn bricks and make incense, wine, cloth and beads for exports. They pursued economic growth while ignoring the environmental costs. They did not succeed in the long run. Silt from the denuded forests flowed into the river bed, raised the level of the monsoon floods and these cities were obliterated forever. Contrary examples are also available. Our ancestors of the Ganga Basin cut the forest during the times of Buddha. They developed sustainable agriculture on these lands by keeping cows and developing water ponds.
They created a sustainable agricultural civilisation. Man has the right and duty to modify nature but this should be done in a way that is sustainable. A true long term cost-benefit analysis of projects like the Expressway and hydropower is, therefore, must if we have to save our country from short-sighted economists.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])