October 18, 2023

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether the Teesta-3 project was doomed from the beginning.

Note: We only have the feature story for today.


Was the Teesta-3 project doomed from the beginning?

(AJT Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the early hours of October 4, the Teesta Urja dam in Sikkim was washed away by a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). However, prior to its construction, the Teesta Urja hydro-power project was touted to be an engineering feat that would be amongst the strongest in the world. This claim, unfortunately, turned out to be a cruel joke which jeopardized human life and caused immeasurable loss of property.

The voluminous outflow from the lake destroyed the Chungthang dam, which was critical to the Teesta 3 hydropower project, and rendered several hydropower projects along the river dysfunctional. These washing away of Teesta-3 and damage to Teesta-5 projects, however, demand our attention towards a potential issue – the series of hydel projects that have been built, are being built and are proposed on one of the most ‘dammed’ rivers in the country- the Teesta.


Sikkim’s biggest hydro power project Sikkim Urja, formerly known as Teesta Urja, suffered massive damage due to flash floods on the nights of October 3 and 4 as the dam and the bridge connecting the powerhouse were washed away. The dam that was touted as an engineering marvel, washed away within 10 minutes.

In 2004, the Central Electricity Authority had prepared a preliminary feasibility report of 162 hydel projects in the country of which 10 were to be built in Sikkim. As years passed, the number of dams along the Teesta inflated to 47.

One of these 47 was the Teesta-3 project, commissioned in 2017. It was to be the biggest ‘run-of-the-river’ hydel project in Sikkim, built by the Sikkim government in partnership with private operators. A ‘run-of-the-river’ project, like all projects in Sikkim are river projects in which channels are created to run the turbine and the water flows back into the river, unlike big hydro-projects like Bhakra Nangal or Sardar Patel Sarovar where water is retained. Such a running nature is necessary for projects along the Teesta as the river ultimately flows into Bangladesh which also has its own requirements.

The Teesta-3 dam, a national infrastructure asset worth upwards of ₹14,000 crore, held water using an imposing 60 m high rock-filled concrete dam. This disaster, which is said to be the biggest witnessed by the Himalayas since 2013, was however not unexpected. The project is said to be built on one of the most fragile geology, biodiversity and cultures of indigenous peoples who had warned of such outcomes.

Since the flooding, works for the under-construction hydro project Teesta-6 have been disrupted. As an immediate aftermath of the incident, several people were displaced, communication was lost, and sections of National Highway-10 were swept away. Was this truly a natural disaster? Was a project in such a sensitive zone destined to fail? Only research, once the water levels recede, can answer these questions but for now, the state’s Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang has blamed the “substandard construction” of the Teesta-3 dam for the accident.

VIEW: Marred since the start

The north of Sikkim is a region prone to landslides whose frequency has been increasing in the recent past. Apart from meteorological observations, local activists in Sikkim had for long warned of the adverse environmental and disastrous implications of a series of run-of-the-river projects. Even historical records show that the Teesta River shows its fury every 50 years and the October 3-4 event was the biggest after the 1968 catastrophe.

Sikkim has about 80 glaciers, which is the most for any Indian state. It makes a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) much more likely. The Lhonak lake itself is located at an altitude of 5,200 metres which makes observation and monitoring difficult. Choosing such a location for such a project naturally calls into question the wisdom of its planners.

Going back to as early as the 1960s, scientists studying the Himalayas had noticed the Lhonak glacier melting. However, data collection along the Brahmaputra for the project started only in the ’90s. The plan built on 10-20 years of observation is very short in a river’s life span. To build a dam that can resist a 100-year flood, nearly 80-100 years of data is required. Even the environmental clearance granted to the project in August 2006 was in violation of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s own directive to not consider any projects in Sikkim unless further studies were conducted.

The project which was commissioned in 2017 was marred since the start as it started 5 years after it was originally planned. The private financiers of the project also started to withdraw from it soon realizing the unprofitability of the project. Sikkim as a state did not have the requirements of electricity the project generated and neighbouring states were refusing to buy from the project’s owner. This led to the state government of Sikkim having to shell out money to buy out stakes of foreign investors who had earlier backed the project.

Various security lapses in the project’s plan have also been revealed since. The almost ₹14,000 crore project had only ₹2 crore allocated to a disaster management plan. Even the spillways constructed in the dam were too small than the need and the sluice gates were allegedly not even remotely controlled resulting in their delayed opening on the unfortunate night.

COUNTERVIEW: Prevention measures possible

The phenomenon which caused the accident, a GLOF, is in itself a very extraordinary geological event. So criticising the project for not being able to stand up to something so unexpected might be unfair criticism.

Since the late 1990s, the various governments at the centre have adopted a ‘Look North-East’ policy. All of these policies have looked at hydroelectric power in the Brahmaputra river system as the major infrastructure investment that will power economics in northeastern India.

Such thinking is based on sound rationale as access to affordable energy has been shown to bring populations out of poverty and hasten the speed of all-round development. This 1.2 gigawatt project had been developed on a ‘build-own-operate-transfer’ contract for 35 years, after which the project was to be returned to the government (and people) of Sikkim. Thus, the thought behind the project was by no means malicious but instead for the betterment of the state.

Amidst all allegations of ecological abuse, the project had been classified as a ‘clean project’ for United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism and was also set to receive carbon credits. There are also speculations that the disaster might have occurred due to earthquakes in Nepal on the same day which had even impacted New Delhi. Thus, absolving the project’s immediate geography or the planning around it from being a cause.

Furthermore, early warning systems from coordination among several agencies might have averted catastrophes due to GLOF. By promptly sharing satellite images trained towards the Himalayas and with a network of sensors to provide adequate warning, the outcome of the flood might have been entirely different. GLOFs, unlike earthquakes, are more easily anticipated and this catastrophe is a monitoring failure rather than a planning failure.

Reference Links:

  • Concern over hydel projects in Sikkim after Teesta Urja dam washed away – Hindustan Times
  • What caused the flood in Sikkim? – The Hindu
  • Teesta III Dam’s Failure is a ‘Told You So’ Moment in India’s Hydropower History – The Quint
  • As Sikkim picks up pieces, Teesta-III reservoir, opening of its gates under lens – The Indian Express
  • Ministry of Power reviews impact of flash floods in Teesta Basin, Sikkim on Central Hydro Power Projects – Press Information Bureau

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The Teesta-3 project was doomed from the beginning.

b) The Teesta-3 project was not doomed from the beginning.