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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 3

Hardiwar, Cham, and Uttarkashi
Who Gives a "Dam"?


A wrong turn means we get to drive along most of the winding perimeter of the reservoir behind the Tehri Dam. Every eight kilometers our India-based colleague Rohit Ghandi promises it will be just another eight kilometers. That promise gets repeated another six times, so it becomes the scenic route to the village of Cham. The former village of Cham, I should say. When the controversial dam went up the government forced thousands of villagers to move to higher ground or to move away completely. Who got compensation and how much compensation remains a bitter point of contention. Some are still furious that they are being moved out of their homes.

David interviews Bachan Singh, who is being forced out of his home by the rising waters of the reservoir created by the Tehri Dam on the Ganges.
David interviews Bachan Singh, who is being forced out of his home by the rising waters of the reservoir created by the Tehri Dam on the Ganges.
Among that group is Bachan Singh, the 72 year old patriarch of a family that moved once because of the dam and ahead of further rising waters, who now has to move yet again. He has a son working in tax collection for the government, although he cracks that he is not wild about a son helping the government that is causing him such misery. Another son is with the local police. His home, on a bluff overlooking the valley that now contains the new reservoir, is middle-class: there's a TV on and outside a cow and a goat goof around as Mr. Singh and I sit down for an interview.

He had farmed land close to Ganges. It was irrigated with spring water, not river water, but the Ganges is used for just about everything else, he said, including its religious role. He simply does not believe scientists who say that the climate is changing and that could hurt the river. He believes it is a sacred river, fed by vast snow fields in the mountains, and it can never change. I asked if he had ever made the pilgrimage to the glacier that feeds the river. No, he'd only been to Uttarkashi once, a city about two hours away.

The former village of Cham near the Tehri Dam. The houses were demolished after residents were forced to relocate after the dam was constructed.
The former village of Cham near the Tehri Dam. The houses were demolished after residents were forced to relocate after the dam was constructed.
We toured the concrete remains of the houses close to the reservoir's edge. They had presumably been smashed to bits to keep other folks from squatting. It looked like an earthquake zone, which was especially eerie because one of the major criticisms of the dam project is that it lies in an active earthquake zone.

Mr. Singh's expression turned downcast when I asked if his grandkids will be able to visit him when he moves away to the new land the government has given him: Not too often, he says.

The former village of Cham near the Tehri Dam. The houses were demolished after residents were forced to relocate after the dam was constructed.
A woman carries a vessel of water through the demolished town of Cham.
If the glacier is melting away, are not dams one solution? Catch the water during the rainy season and generate some eco-friendly hydro power. But it's not that easy. Critics say that dams cost a fortune and some are prone to break in a quake which could drown hundreds of thousands downstream, according to one calculation of the Tehri dam. They are also prone to silting up, with all the rich earth the Ganges carries down with it. Conrad, observing the milkshake colored waters of the Ganges upstream, muses to himself about all the silt; "Too bad all that goodness gets stopped by dams instead of ending up in the farmers' fields." And another thing, you have to build many dams to match the holding capacity of all the Himalayan glaciers. There are loads of glaciers and just about every one is said to be melting too quickly as well.

High Altitude Lexicon

"If the glacier is melting away, are not dams one solution?"
When you get stuck in a minibus on long drives with mountain climbers you glean some of the mountaineering lexicon. Conrad's adventures stretch from the South Pole to Everest to Denali in Alaska. High-altitude cameraman Thom Pollard has shot on Everest and many other spots where the air is thin. Here is what I've picked up so far: "Trundling" is the compunction of some climbers to find huge, loose boulders and shove them off precipices for dramatic effect. Not that Thom, Conrad, or Bill would ever do such a thing. And even more terrifying: "Flossing" is when two climbers are high up, separated laterally by rope. They fall. The loop between them catches climbers below and pulls them down to their doom as well. I am reassured that no flossing is planned during our trek out of Gangotri to the glacier, which begins in three days.

Visit "On Thin Ice" to watch the hour-long NOW on PBS special and learn more about global warming.
*Note: All photographs by John Siceloff unless otherwise credited.

Read Day 4: A Hair-Raising Drive