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Himalayan wildlife threatened by dams

24 January 2013

Dam building is being carried out on a large scale in the Indian Himalaya

The Himalaya is likely to lose its valuable biodiversity such as the Pedicularis siphonantha (left) and Meconopsis horridula due to haphazard dam building

To address the unsatiated mounting demand for energy, India is planning to build close to 300 dams in the Indian Himalaya, a move that will exert a heavy toll on the local wildlife, warned a study jointly funded by NUS.

Professor Maharaj K Pandit from the University Scholars Programme (USP), NUS and Dr Edward Grumbine from the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences highlighted the adverse impact of dam building to the country's rich biodiversity and its people in the January edition of Science and other scientific journals including Conservation Biology and PLoS ONE.

Using field data and modelling, the research found that dam-related activities will destroy some 170,000 hectares of forests and lead to the extinction of 22 flowering plants and seven vertebrate species. Fish survival will also be at stake, threatening fishermen's livelihoods. In addition, Indian citizens have been affected by dams historically and uprooted from their homes.

"It is crucial for policy decisions to have robust scientific rationale behind taking sound economic decisions. Countries that are embarking on large-scale dam building stand to gain from this study because they can realise the consequences of such actions," said Prof Pandit, who is also attached to the NUS Department of Geography.

He and his team at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Mountain and Hill Environment, University of Delhi and the Kunming Institute examined public data of 132 dams for the study. Should all of the 292 proposed dams be constructed, the Indian Himalayan region would have one of the highest average dam densities in the world - one dam for every 32 km of river channel, about 62 times greater than the current global average.

Singapore can play a role in helping India tackle its power infrastructure and efforts on environmental conservation. "Singapore business and experts will significantly contribute to reducing the number of so many dams on the Himalayan rivers by assisting Indian companies in the maintenance and upkeep of power transmission and distribution networks," said Prof Pandit.

At NUS, he set up the Himalaya Programme for some 25 USP and NUS students to visit the region while carrying out field work and learning from academics, bureaucrats and politicians.

Looking ahead, Prof Pandit plans to monitor the impact of dams on river biodiversity, a topic with little-known scientific knowledge in Asia.