17 March, 2006

Nethravathi Project/ Diversion Scheme: Sapping lifelines

(This story 'Sapping Lifelines', on the proposed diversion of Nethravathi River away from Arabian Sea into the Peninsular India heartland was published in Spectrum, Deccan Herald, Bangalore, 20th July 2001)

Pushpagiri massif in Coorg (Kodagu) as seen from the rainforests of Bisle Reserve Forest, Sakleshpur taluk, Hassan District in the Netravathi river basin
A view of the Pushpagiri massif from Bisle rainforests, Netravathi River basin
Any diversion of the Nethravathi waters will massively disturb the breeding cycles of millions of species of organisms in the Arabian Sea.

After Kali, Sharavathi, Chakra and other river valleys of Western Ghats in Karnataka, the so called 'developers' backed by sympathy gaining politicians are now targeting Nethravathi and Kumaradhara rivers, among the last remnant virgin rivers of Karnataka and home to some of the most spectacular rainforests in the entire Western Ghats. Two major projects have been planned to tame these wild flowing rivers. While the first one is a 18 MW Hydro-electric project at Doddahalla near Sakleshpur, the second one is a ecologically and economically devastating project. It envisages diverting all the west flowing streams from Lingadahole in Northern Kodagu till Samse in Chikmagalur district, by building 37 small dams and two canals 300 kms long claimed as "Garland Canals", along the western face of the Western Ghats.The idea of 
A stream in the rainforests of Bisle Reserve Forest, Sakleshpur taluk, Hassan District in the Netravathi river basin
Small streams like these flow through the rainforests to feed the
Nethravathi River
diverting Nethravathi towards east has been played up periodically by a few politicians since a couple of years. Encouraged by this, two project feasibility reports have been submitted to the Chief Minister of Karnataka by a Government constituted committee of 9 engineers.The reports contend, "the west flowing Netravathi river waters have been draining into the sea as a waste" and should be diverted to the dry districts of Eastern Karnataka. By doing so, claim the reports, whatever the cost: economical or ecological, there will be no shortage of food and water for the population in these districts "for generations to come". They acknowledge that this scheme is "totally new" but should be given the go ahead even if it receives criticisms, by comparing it to other big projects which have come up despite criticisms. The name is so chosen because the alignment of the proposed canal is below the Peak line or ridge of the Western Ghats "which is meant to collect rain waters that precipitate on the western slopes of the Western Ghats". The water so collected, is proposed to be diverted to eastern and central Karnataka. By this the ground water will be recharged, claim the reports.

In states like Rajasthan, many of whose areas fall under arid and semi-arid zones, people are shunning Mega projects for traditional water harvesting practises. Villagers under enterprising groups like Tarun Bharat Sangh are repairing and rebuilding traditional water harvesting structures like check dams, anicuts and gully plugs at strategic places where rainwater earlier flowed unhindered. Thousands of such structures in the catchment area of rivers like Aravari and Ruparel have reincarnated them from dead rivers to ones, which provide water even during summer. This has recharged hundreds of water wells and improved the living conditions of 
View of the Pushpagiri peak and Kumaradhara forested valley, from Bisle view point in Hassan District's Sakleshpur taluk
View of the Pushpagiri peak and Kumaradhara rivulet's forested
valley, from Bisle view point.
villagers. Eco-friendly success stories like these are increasingly being seen in Maharashtra and Gujarat.Nearer home in Karnataka, the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF); now the BAIF foundation, has achieved remarkable success in watershed management in the dry areas of Tumkur district. Says Dr. G. N. S. Reddy of BAIF, Tiptur, "600 to 700 mm of rain is not meagre by any measure. Ground water table can be improved without bringing Nethravathi to these areas. What is required is a systematic decentralised rainwater harvesting measure coupled with green cover of the barren lands with out unduly disturbing the cropping pattern. This will open new possibilities of profiting from dry lands at the least cost to farmers. There is no proof to show that the paddy/cotton growers of irrigated tracts are well off than the rain-fed farmers who have successfully adopted well balanced farming systems with out need for high input oriented irrigated agriculture. Probably the engineers are imagining that they can increase the area under coconut and arecanut in the area by bringing Nethravathi. This will be the ultimate ecological disaster that this region can sustain. It is already reeling under the impact of monoculture of coconut.The water level in Dakshina Kannada district has gone down drastically in the recent years with taluks like Sullia, Bantwal and Belthangadi being declared as "Dark" and "Grey" areas. Also due to the acute water shortage the district was declared as drought-prone area in 1995".

The idea of constructing a totally new concept called "Garland canal" is itself a big question. Noted environmentalist and Retired senior Forest officer, Mr A. N. Yellappa Reddy says, "The topography and geo-morphology of the Western Ghats is highly dissected i.e. each hill is 
The dry Kumaradhara river bed and the surrounding evergreen forests as seen from Bisle view point in Hassan District's Sakleshpur taluk. Kumaradhara river separates Bisle reserve forests (left) from Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary (right).
The dry Kumaradhara river bed in summer surrounded by rainforests
as seen from Bisle view point. 

separated from the other by valleys which are thousands of feet deep. If the entire hills are cut open and a parallel river system is created against the natural landscape, this will be an attempt to override the matrix system of stability of these hills which are not just rocks and water but have evolved over millions of years. "He says, "When such a wide canal is constructed on slopes that are thousands of feet steep, how can the resultant land slides be prevented? Even if retaining walls are constructed to prevent the landslides throughout the length of the canals, the ever probing root system of the trees particularly the ficus will penetrate into the retaining walls, whatever their thickness might be, and the canals will give way. When rock crevices can be forced open by the root system, how can concrete be prevented from doing so? " questions Mr Reddy. He further adds, "Deep burrowing animals like moles, rats reside here in large numbers and will create crevices. When water seeps in due to the absence of root system, the entire soil matrix will be loosened. The landscape is not homogenous and changes at an interval of every ten kilometres, at least, like the composition of soil and rocks etc. Also the large-scale use of explosives will loosen the stability of the entire matrix. Even if a single hill under these huge canals gives way, the entire network will break open with devastating consequences. It is impossible to remove all the debris, which comes out of this large-scale excavation. Also the loss of vegetation will lead 
An evergreen tree inside the rainforests of Bisle reserve forest in Hassan District's Sakleshpur taluk
A towering tree in Bisle rainforests

to massive soil erosion. Monsoons are sure to carry off this debris and eroded soil, which will interfere with the landscape downstream by causing flash floods and flooding of estuaries.There will also be irreversible damage to the marine ecosystem". Says, Mr Reddy "A fine and delicate balance exists between the terrestrial ecosystem, the riverine eco system and the marine ecosystem. If the terrestrial ecosystem is damaged, then the other two would be affected. As a river flows, it collects the decomposed and the micro-organism converted organic matter from the forests. Rainwater provides mineral ions to aquatic animals and plants in the riverine ecosystem, which get their highly complex nutrients from the terrestrial ecosystem. This river water, which is rich in minerals and organic matter, contributes greatly in the production of plankton in the marine ecosystem. Every second the Nethravathi and for that matter all the west flowing rivers of Western Ghats pump in thousands of litres of water into the Arabian Sea. The programme of nature is so delicate that monsoons; when the waters are rich in mineral and organic ions, coincide with the breeding season of aquatic animals. It is also during monsoons that the plant productivity is at its highest. Even a minor alteration in this will affect the life cycles of millions of species of aquatic fauna and flora of the entire riverine ecosystem. Any diversion of the Nethravathi waters will massively disturb the breeding cycles of millions of species of organisms in the Arabian Sea".

Many species of butterflies endemic to western ghats thrive in the
forests Nethravathi River basin
The 1,600 kms long Western Ghats are home to some of the finest forests in India. Karnataka has inherited a large chunk of these forests and the Kumaradhara - Nethravathi river valleys are among this priceless natural heritage.Mr Harish Bhat, researcher from of Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, says "The Western Ghats are home to many endemic, rare and endangered species of flora having an estimated 27 per cent of India's total plant species. Of the total 15,000 flowering plant species in India, over 4500 species occur in the Western Ghats, of which 1720 are endemic. Apart from 22 endemic species of medicinal plants, a number of economically important species occur here."

Nethravathi River basin is known for its rich diversity of amphibians, many of which are found no where else on earth
Nethravathi River basin is known for its rich diversity of amphibians,
many of which are found no where else on earth
Together the forests around Nethravathi and its tributaries like the Kumaradhara, Kempuhole, Addahole, Girihole and others are home to an amazing array of flora and fauna species, most of which, particularly the smaller species like toads and frogs, are yet to be discovered and documented. According to studies by noted Amphibian and bird expert R J Ranjit Daniels, of the 100 species of frogs and toads found in the Western Ghats, 7 species are endemic to Kempuhole and are going to be devastated by the Nethravathi diversion scheme. These seven species of toads are found nowhere else on earth. Rich in prey component, these forests support a viable population of carnivores like tiger, wild dog, leopard, apart from many endemic smaller cats like Malabar civet. The herbivores here are gaur, sambar, chital and barking deer. This is one among the critical corridors of Asian elephants left intact. Elephants use these forests to migrate between Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary and Bhadra tiger reserve. These forests are extremely rich in smaller wildlife like flying squirrels, giant spiders, colourful butterflies, flying lizards, and of course tonnes of leeches. These forests are safe home for king cobra. Much of the wildlife here is yet to be studied.

While the project feasibility reports claim that the total forest area intended to be submerged is 7716 hectares, they deliberately hide the forest cover to be lost to transport men and material, service roads to be constructed to approach the work sites, settlements for construction and 
Felling of trees near Bisle in Hassan District's Sakleshpur taluk. The region around Netravathi basin has already been impacted due to the increasing human population
The region around Netravathi basin has already been impacted due to
the increasing human population
then for those involved in maintenance, new power transmission lines to be drawn and finally the green cover to be lost to lay the canal itself. The proposed network of canals and dams start at Lingadahole in Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary and cut north into the Kudremukh National Park. The canals carrying water are then proposed to pass through the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Unlike the earlier hydroelectric projects in the Western Ghats, which mostly submerged forest area at the single place of dam site and backwaters, this proposed scheme is going to deforest the Western Ghats for a stretch of 300 kilometres cutting across its length. This apart from the forest cover to be lost for various reasons. Most of the forest lost in Karnataka has been in the area with the highest forest cover, Western Ghats.

While only a few alternatives were suggested to the projects that devoured most of our pristine forests till a decade ago, an extremely alarming trend is emerging these days. Projects are being implemented without giving a single thought to the devastating consequences. Mangalore Bangalore Petroleum Pipe Line (MBPL), which damaged core Western Ghats in the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Chikmagalur is the latest example. Most of the wildlife corridors in Karnataka have been permanently destroyed by developmental activities, resulting in human-animal conflict rising to feverish pitch in many areas. To prevent wild animals, specifically elephants, from straying into human habitats the Nethravathi forests have to be kept intact at every cost. Otherwise it will also spell disaster for the tiger conservation movement in Karnataka. Endangered lion-tailed macaque, great pied hornbill and the southern birdwing are still known because they have been seen in these places...

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Related links/stories
1) 'Soubhagya Sanjeevini': An online campaign against Netravathi river diversion / river linking project in 2007. 
2) Kindly read this excellent piece 'Interlinking Rivers -The Millennial Folly' by Shailendra Nath Ghosh