Where the mountains are still growing

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March 15, 2006

Will mega dams in Manipur, India 'solve' climate change?

By Hilary Lindsay
The Dominion (Canada)
January 16, 2006

"I live in what's called a remote area which means that it's far from large cities. Of course, large cities are also remote from us - but it's not usually thought of like that."

Anna Pinto is sitting across from me in a small Montreal cafe. Her voice is deep, melodic and warm as she speaks of her home region in Northeastern India.

"On this very narrow strip [of land] we have some parts almost below sea level and some parts are the highest mountains including Mount Everest and the Tibetan Plateaus. We have a vast span of climates, in a very small geographical space. So we have this amazing biodiversity. It's a very rich area. We have lots and lots of different plants, animals, people. With biological diversity comes cultural diversity. In this little region we have over 100 different languages."

Pinto's pride and love of where she comes from is clear. I ask her why she has left her husband and children to travel thousands of miles to attend the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Montreal, held between November 28th and December 9th 2005.

Her face hardens. "Someone has to be here to say 'No.'"

Anna Pinto is a representative for an Indigenous people's organization based in the Indian state of Manipur called the Centre for Organization, Research and Education. She came to the UN conference to advocate for her people, and other peoples in her region, concerning the processes that are being developed to address climate change.

Climate change and its extreme weather manifestations are not an abstract notion for Pinto. For the past two years her region has experienced multiple floods on a massive scale. "When I say floods, I'm talking about floods that displace 15 million, 6 million, 4 million people at a time. The lowest figure that a flood has displaced is 4 million and that 4 million has been displaced 4 times in a year."

"You tell me if we can allow this to continue," she challenges me, her voice shaking. "It is intolerable. It is vicious."

She pauses and smiles apologetically, suddenly becoming aware of the anger in her voice. Pinto is enraged. The intensity of her emotions are a stark contrast to the relaxed suit-clad delegates that have been negotiating agreements throughout the conference, agreements that will affect millions of villagers in northeastern India.

Ironically, it is not the impacts of climate change that has Pinto most worried, but the alleged solutions - solutions that are being pushed forward by governments, development banks and multinational corporations around the world.

There are 192 high dams being considered for development in Pinto's small region of India.

"In the last four to five years the hydro industry has put a lot of effort into promoting hydro power as the solution to climate change," explains Aviva Imhof, Campaign Director for the International River Network. That effort is being supported by institutions like the World Bank, says Imhof, whose recent report shows that 60 per cent of the Bank's support for renewable energy and energy efficiency is in fact for big hydro projects.

Big dams are not environmentally sustainable, argues Imhof, even when considering climate change. New science is revealing that the level of greenhouse gases emitted from rotting organic matter in flooded areas is much higher than originally expected. But beyond their impacts on climate change, says Pino, these high dams will have devastating impacts on people in her region of Manipur, India.

Besides the economic and environmental cost of carting thousands of tons of materials up to remote mountain regions, once built, these dams will flood vast areas. This low-lying land, notes Pinto, is where the richest soil lies, and where people have traditionally lived and grown their food.

As it turns out, this land is also rich in something else. "We have two sites in the region in which we have very very rich uranium deposits," explains Pinto, shaking her head at the 'luck' of living in such a resource-rich region. The Uranium Development Corporation of India hopes to strip mine the deposits. "Strip mining means, like an orange you peel off the top and like a sorbet you scoop it out - we're talking about highly radioactive substances here, downstream of over 100 reservoirs, which are built on geographical faults.

That's the other thing: It's not uncommon for the region to experience more than 3 earthquakes a week above five on the Richter scale. In Manipur, the mountains are still growing.

"The Eastern Himalayas are the growing tip of a growing range of what's called fold mountains. Fold mountains are formed when the geographical plates underneath the surface of the earth bang into each other. This banging causes the skin of the earth to wrinkle and fold." This banging is what the rest of us experience as earthquakes, and these wrinkles and folds are the mountains and valleys where the dams are set to be built - along geological faults.

"We're setting ourselves up for disaster," warns Pinto. "What we're going to have, if one of these reservoir's cracks, is a massive flooding downstream. If - as is the plan - you're going to have multiple dams, one after the other, each breach is going to breach the next dam. These floods will hit the mine either on the surface or through the water table. We're looking at a scale of contamination that is probably unthinkable."

The plan is not sustainable, Pinto argues. More big dams and nuclear development will not solve climate change, but benefit those "who already have so much money they don't know what to do with it."

Pinto doesn't intend to let this happen, but she and others in her community are up against terrific odds. "We have been told categorically by the government of India - in the presense of international financing institutions and corporates - that if we do not sign off the rights of our lands for these purposes, they will be declared a national resource and put under military control." Those who agree to sign over the rights to their land will be given nominal compensation to start their lives over. "It is a a hard thing for a mother to say that 'you will kill me and my child in front of me but I will not give you this land,' when she knows he's going to take it anyway." Even so, notes Pinto, "Most people have said that they would rather be thrown off their land and killed than sign and be compensated."

The threat people face in Pinto's region is a real one. Amnesty International has urged the Indian Government to repeal or review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In areas declared to be 'disturbed' such as the Northeast region, the Act gives security forces powers to - among other things - use excessive force, including to shoot to kill without members of the security force lives being at imminent risk.

At least one of the proposed Manipur dams has been approved for construction by the Indian Government (the uranium mines remain in the proposal stage.) The Tipaimukh Dam will stand 162 metres and flood approximately 2500 acres of land once it's completed. Construction has been slowed due to frequent earthquakes. So far, the mountains seem to be on Pinto's side.

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