Learning From Disaster

Teesta River is a 315 km (196 mi) long river that rises in the eastern Himalayas, flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal through Bangladesh and enters the Bay of Bengal. Teesta River is a crucial part of the state, culturally extremely important to the people of Sikkim, revered as one of the deities of the land. The land itself holds caves, mountains, lakes, and rivers that are objects of worship for the people of Sikkim, mainly the indigenous Lepcha people. Located in the northwest of Sikkim, since early 60’s Dzongu has been reserved for the Lepcha community and borders the Kanchendzonga Biosphere Reserve. The river is considered by the government as a literal “white-gold mine” and the vast hydropower resource has a potential estimated to about more than 6000 MW in power and thousands of crores (10 million) in capital (rupees).

Affected Citizens of Teesta, is a forum which consisted mainly of indigenous Sikkimese (Lepchas) have been advocating and fighting against the hydropower projects since early 2004, since the proposal of hydropower projects and dams near Dzongu. The hunger strike that went on in 2007, 2008 and 2009 which was historic in Sikkim led by ACT against the instalments of big Dams in the local rivers spoke in volumes that led the charge. After the long period of strike, the government decided to scrap 4 projects of the 6 most destructive ones in Dzongu. 510 MW Teesta HEP stage IV and the Panam HEP 300 MW was withheld for many years. The new government formed in Sikkim has announced the supposed approval of the Stage IV dam. To save the last free-flowing, untouched stretch of Teesta, the campaign Save Teesta has started.



Disastrous Flood of River Teesta in 2023 

Since 1990, the number and size of the Glacial lakes have been increasing across the Himalayas. With 90 million people exposed to the impacts of the GLOF Disaster across 30 countries living in 1089 basins containing glacial lakes, these disasters are never quantified at a global scale. 62% (~9.3 million) of the globally exposed population are located in the HMA region. 1 million people living within 10 km of a glacial lake of High Mountains Asia are exposed to such disasters. GLOF events are set to become more common, particularly in Himalayan states like Sikkim which are vulnerable to the effects of global warming. In the early hours of October 4, the glacier-fed South Lhonak Lake in North Sikkim breached, causing a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) that destroyed the state’s largest hydropower plant and left at least 35 people dead and around 104 missing as of October 9. A second glacial lake, Shako Cho in northern Sikkim, was on high alert and nearby villages evacuated just a day after the flood, due to fears that it, too, would breach. 

The persistent protest led particularly by the ACT (Affected Citizens of Teesta), which gained regional, national, and international attention had resulted in the scrapping of four hydropower projects in North Sikkim in the early 2000s, however, what stands out perplexing is the fact that despite such contestation and protests, hydropower development on Teesta, the projects continue to be consistently undertaken by the State Governments as well as the power companies. 

“The Andes and HMA have the highest levels of corruption and social vulnerability and lowest levels of human development, while the contrary is true for the European Alps, PNW and High Arctic and Outlying Countries.” Located at the intersection of South, Central, and East Asia, the massive Tibetan Plateau is often considered to be Earth’s “Third Pole.” A land of large glaciers, permafrost, and heavy snow, the plateau feeds a vast network of rivers, including major waterways like the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow. These rivers, which together make up Asia’s “water tower,” provide water to nearly 40% of the world’s population. Sikkim and Darjeeling form a part of Earth’s Third Pole and River Teesta is an important lifeline that merges with River Meghna in Bangladesh.  

Rivers in the Himalayas call for careful reconsideration when constructing hydroelectric dams, emphasizing the need for thorough risk assessments during implementation. The story of the River Teesta is one of many water stories that have been adversely affected by hydro dams. Despite the claims by politicians and industry actors that hydro is “clean and green,” hydroelectric dam development has numerous environmental, social, economic, and political impacts on communities around the world. 

With 47 dams either proposed or commissioned and 14 pharmaceutical companies mushrooming along the river belt of River Teesta, such disasters prompt reflection on potential hazards for downstream communities in this fragile ecosystem.

Hydropower Development and Its Consequences 

Hydropower development has been a cornerstone of economic growth and energy production in many regions, including the states of Sikkim and West Bengal along the Teesta River. However, the construction of hydroelectric dams is associated with a range of negative impacts on local communities and the environment. The environmental impacts of hydropower are significant, including the destruction of forests, wildlife habitats, agricultural land, and scenic areas, which can sometimes force human populations to relocate. 

The social implications are equally concerning. Displacement and dispossession of land due to dam construction are correlated with depression and other mental health issues. In some cases, such as in the Alto Bio region of Chile, the damages from the construction of hydropower projects played a role in rising suicide rates among the local population. The strain on local infrastructure and resources, including education, transportation, healthcare, electricity, and job opportunities, can lead to reductions in self-rated health and lower social capital, particularly trust, after the construction of dams. 

Furthermore, hydropower projects can lead to involuntary migration and dislocation, causing socio-cultural and economic changes in the community. Indigenous populations are particularly vulnerable to the destructive displacement risks associated with hydropower development, which can include landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, and marginalization. 

Mental Health and Disaster 

The mental health impacts of disasters such as floods are profound, multifaceted, and often not identified. The environmental disaster is often related to infrastructure loss and human loss but the impact of the disaster, be it any disaster, leads to a trauma that is often not discussed like mitigating environmental disasters. The dialogues and narratives build around building infrastructure like houses and roads but the fear that such disasters cost is often a secondary issue. The Teesta River disaster, for example, has highlighted the urgent need for mental health support and trauma counseling as integral parts of the rehabilitation process. The prevalence of mental health issues among those affected by hydropower dams and related disasters is well-documented, with economic hardship linked to increased psychological stress, a sense of helplessness, insecurity, and social isolation. 

The recent flood outburst in Sikkim's Teesta River, which led to the disappearance of 23 Army soldiers, underscores the mental health impact of such events. The uncertainty and distress caused by the disappearance of fellow soldiers can lead to profound psychological effects, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The importance of developing appropriate plans, policies, and community education to respond to extreme events is vital for managing the catastrophe more wisely. 

Introduction to the movie  

"Voices of Teesta" is a film that explores the relationship between the communities of Sikkim and West Bengal and the Teesta River. Funded by the CCMCC-NWO project and created under the guidance of Dr. Deepa Joshi, the film was directed by Minket Lepcha, a Young Green Filmmaker awardee. The film has been recognized in various film festivals and has been screened in over 50 locations globally.  

 The Film and Its Impact 

The film captures the voices of local people affected by hydropower developments along the Teesta River. It highlights the unique practices and beliefs of mountain communities and their struggle to balance faith, tradition, and economic necessity in the face of these developments. 

The film has been instrumental in raising awareness about the environmental and cultural issues surrounding the Teesta River. It has been screened in various locations in India and is expected to be screened in Canada and other countries. The screenings serve as a platform for reflection on the environmental crises these regions face and the urgent need for action. 

In conclusion, the case study of the documentary film "Voices of Teesta" not only brings attention to the environmental and cultural issues associated with hydropower development but also emphasizes the critical need for community engagement, sustainable development practices, and mental health support in the face of environmental crises. It is essential to consider the long-term health and social impacts of dams and to ensure that mitigation efforts are in place to prevent catastrophic social and environmental consequences. 

"Voices of Teesta" was produced in 2015 and 2016. The film has traveled and won awards during these years. However, following the October 2023 disaster on the River Teesta, which resulted in many casualties and left the mountains in a fragile condition after the flood, the film has been screened in smaller, local spaces where the film is based. Civil societies and café owners have been requesting voluntary screenings of the film in their spaces. These screenings are allowing communities and stakeholders to engage in deeper conversations about their respective relationships with water and rivers. 

Communities from across the Himalayas, ranging from small villages in Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh in Northern India to Nepal, have been showcasing this film to learn about the relationship between water and people. The objective of screening the film is mainly to encourage local communities to engage in discussions regarding their own relationships with issues surrounding water, hydropower, or developmental structures in the fragile Himalayan region. Their concerns and sense of helplessness toward these natural disasters are evident through their shared experiences, revealing that their connection with water and rivers goes beyond viewing these resources solely for human consumption. These shared experiences have been uploaded to an Instagram page called "riverandstories."


Film screening:

The film was recently screened at the University of Manitoba on 16th Feb 2024. Environment and Geography Graduate Studies Association (EGGSA) organized the screening of the film, Tyler Langos, the President of the Environment and Geography Graduate Studies Association (EGGSA) opened the session by introducing the filmmaker. Minket Lepcha narrated the folklore of River Teesta before the screening. The film screen allowed engagement among various audiences ranging from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh to First Nation communities. Dion Dick, a healer from Grand Rapids in Northern Manitoba was also present in the film screening. He found resonance with the film and stories of River Teesta and shared his stories from Grand Rapid and the Hydro Dams present in the region. He spoke of mental health issues in the community and shared a deep concern for his community. The Q&A round was posed to both Minket Lepcha and Dion Dick and it was an engaging and powerful conversation for whoever was present in the screening.

The audience was asked to share a word or sentence about their relationship with water and many of them wrote on a white chart paper. (see photo to the right)



"Join us in making a difference! Your participation in our fundraising efforts will help support the community, making a meaningful impact in our community."


Fundraising Link :



To get involved in this campaign, visit:

Affected Citizens of Teesta- new blog website

Affected Citizens of Teesta- old official website 

Save Teesta- Facecbook page


To listen to more stories about the Teesta River and its significance, follow the video links below:

The Story of the Muun- Female Shamans of the Lepcha People  

Voices of Teesta: Whose River is it?