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Preliminary Assessment of the Suspended Sediment Dynamics in the Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalayan River

  • Paweł Prokop
  • Summary

The Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalaya region receives the highest amount of rainfall along the whole southern Himalayan margin and is known for the occurrence of extreme hydrometeorological and geomorphological events. The massive amounts of water and sediment transported each year through the mountain part of the Teesta River drainage system (∼8,150 km2)--the largest river in the region--have been severely impacted by dam construction in recent decades. The aim of the current study was to determine, for the first time in this part of the Himalaya region, the dynamics of suspended sediment transfer at a number of points distributed through the mountainous part of the Teesta River catchment prior to dam construction and preliminarily assess the impact of dam operations on the suspended sediment. Sediment sources were identified using a database of landslide inventories from 1965 to 2019, combined with visual interpretation of satellite imagery from the U.S. Corona programme and Google Earth. Hydrological and sediment data up to the second half of the 1990s were used to reconstruct the discharge and suspended sediment dynamics before direct human intervention in the river channels. The beginning and end of the construction of the reservoirs was determined by analyzing satellite images. The impact of dam operations on the suspended sediment was compiled from the available literature. The results of the current study indicate that the primary sources of sediment are landslides caused by the interaction of rainfall and road undercutting of slopes as well as channel erosion. During extreme rainfall events, the influence of deforested areas in the mobilization and delivery of sediment to the river network increases. The current analysis reveals that reconstruction of the suspended sediment dynamics should take into account the course of extreme events responsible for supplying material to the river network, as well as the long-term remobilization of already deposited sediment in the river channel. It was found that the mean suspended sediment load (SSL) following extreme rainfall, flooding, and landslides in the Teesta River catchment can be up to four times higher than its average values for the same catchment unaffected by such an event, and the effects can be observed for more than a decade afterwards. Under these conditions, the mean suspended sediment yield can reach 12,000 and up to 20,000 t/(km2·y) in individual years, which is among the highest in the Himalaya region and, indeed, the world. The construction of 13 dams in the last 30 years has disrupted the hydrological regime and sediment transport in the Teesta River catchment along 70% of its main course and largest tributaries, and this has resulted in the selective retention of coarser material in the reservoirs and a reduction in the SSL in the Himalayan piedmont. The high density of the dams suggests that further transport of suspended sediment will depend on the efficiency of the water and sediment management at the reservoirs, which may be affected by irregular natural extreme events.

  • Published in:
    International Journal of Sediment Research, 39(2)
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