State of rivers goes south

Rivers turn muck in many stretches in south India calling for action before they dry up completely.
Water-borne litter in Salem, Tamil Nadu. (Source: Parvathisri, Wikimedia Commons)
Water-borne litter in Salem, Tamil Nadu. (Source: Parvathisri, Wikimedia Commons)

At a time when the government’s attention is steered towards the concerns of the northern rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna, it is seldom that the polluted rivers of the south India come up for discussion. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had in its 2015 report noted that around 37,000 million litres per day (MLD) of untreated sewage water flows into the rivers across the country. As per the report, as many as 302 river stretches on 275 rivers across the country have, over the years, got polluted due to the discharge of both municipal and industrial wastewater.

CPCB has identified polluted stretches in 48 rivers in the five states of south India--Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The pollution leads to damaged ecology affecting lives of people in over 95 cities and town dependent on these rivers. While the CPCB study is based simply on an assessment of biochemical oxygen demand of the rivers and is not enough to check the wholesomeness of rivers, it does put things in perspective.

Rivers of Tamil Nadu

The rivers like Bhavani and Noyyal in Tamil Nadu are so thoroughly exploited that they would rather be dubbed dead. Low flows and massive industrial pollution plague these two rivers. Noyyal is polluted by around 800 dyeing and bleaching units of the textile processing industry of Tirupur and Coimbatore while Bhavani is threatened by the paper units. Untreated sewage and effluents are being drained into the river even when the courts have directed the polluting units to comply and install proper pollution treatment equipments and even common effluent treatment plants in some cases.

Polluted stretch of river Noyyal at Ungampalayam. (Source: N P Pradeep, Wikimedia Commons)

Conflicts abound between the industrial sector that primarily pollute the water and the agriculturists and townspeople who survive on this water and oppose the increasing industrialisation along the river banks. In the absence of freshwater in the rainfall short areas of Tamil Nadu, the toxic waters cannot be defanged by dilution. So the effluents contaminate the groundwater rendering it unfit for irrigation. Agriculturists blame the state for encouraging water-intensive industries in a water-scarce region and for not enforcing environmental norms. In fact, the courts, in a remarkable judgement, asked the Tirupur's industry to pay for a complete clean-up of the Orathapalayam dam, which was being polluted by the industry. The movement against pollution in the Bhavani river was being spearheaded by the Bhavani River Protection Joint Council, a watchdog committee of citizens.

Kerala rivers suffer, too

Stretches of the Karamana river in Thiruvananthapuram, the Puzhakkal river in Thrissur, and the Kadambrayar in Ernakulam are among the most polluted river spots in Kerala, according to the CPCB report. Though the state receives bountiful rainfall and is rich in terms of the number of rivers that flow through it, the report projects a different reality. The rivers are gradually dying with some drying up completely during summer, while many others are seriously polluted. Drying up of the rivers points towards the damage to the natural ecosystems and an ensuing loss of its water absorption capacity.

Rivers also face threats when hydel power projects are planned on them. A case in point is the 80-ft-high Athirappilly falls, a part of the Chalakudy river which originates in the upper reaches of the Sholayar ranges in the Western Ghats. In 1994, The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had proposed the Athirappilly Power Project, a 163 megawatt hydroelectric project, on the 144 km heavily dammed Chalakudy river. This included a 23-metre high and 311-metre wide dam around 5 km upstream of the picturesque falls in the Vazhachal forest division in Thrissur. If this project is constructed, it will submerge an area of 138.8 hectares. Water from this reservoir will be diverted 7 km downstream through a 4.5-km long tunnel to a power house, located on the banks of a tributary of the main Chalakudy river. The fear is that the falls may possibly dry up if the project becomes a reality. KSEB suggests that it would adjust the water release to maintain the waterfall but environmentalists remain wary of it. Another worry is that the project could displace the Kadars, a primitive tribal group of the area. They dwell in the forests near the Chalakudy river and their numbers are as low as 1500 today, given the forced displacement they have been subjected to in the last 150 years owing to forest clearances. A project like this blurs the lines between the cost to the environment and the need for development.

Athirapilly falls are also under the threat of pollution. (Source: Sangfroid, Wikimedia Commons)

Rich with rivers and greenery, the lush mountain ranges of the Western Ghats in which Athirappilly lies stretches along the western edge of the Indian peninsula sandwiched between the Deccan Plateau and the coastal plain along the Arabian Sea. It spans across six states along the western coast of India--Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The case of Athirappilly in Kerala is intricately woven into the larger context of the Western Ghats. The Ghats have seen brazen illegal mining activity in the recent past, especially in Goa. The devastation of the forests coupled with illegal sand mining of the river bed in the area has led to the present impasse the rivers face. Prof. Madhav Gadgil, renowned ecologist known for his studies on people-environment relationships, had as chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) come up with a report in 2011, which triggered a public debate on environment-development choices. Gadgil’s report had demarcated areas to be notified as “ecologically sensitive” and had put curbs on the mining industry.

River stories from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana

Musi river, which flows through Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is known to be one of the most polluted rivers in the south. Reports suggest that the emission of methane from the water is high and has reached harmful levels. Fishes cannot endure such conditions and the whole fish life gets impacted unfavorably. This is also the case with Nakkavagu which flows through the Medak district of Telangana. Cleaning the river is not the government’s priority. On the contrary, the urban local body, the Hyderabad State Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWS&SB) passed an order in 2015 to divert the industrial effluent laden Kukatpally nala to Musi river. And all this was purportedly done to protect the Hussainsagar lake in Hyderabad.

Cesspools of stink in Karnataka

The rivers of Karnataka with pollution at three to 10 times the norm for clean water bodies are cesspools of stink. As per the Monitoring of Indian National Aquatic Resources System, a part of the CPCB, over 655-km length of 15 rivers in 38 spots, most near cities and towns in Karnataka is highly polluted. The report by CPCB also adds that “poor environment management systems in industries, such as chemicals, metal and minerals, leather processing and sugar mills, have led to the discharge of highly toxic and organic waste water”.

All this gets us to think about the plight of rivers in southern India. Lambasted by domestic and industrial pollution, dammed and channeled into canals and hydropower plants, hundreds of these rivers are dying.

What can be done?

Of course, there are stretches of rivers in south India that are far less impacted by pollution, diversion and damming. A case in point is the pristine Aghanashini river, free-flowing for its entire 121-km length through the biodiversity hotspot of Western Ghats. The river supports over 50 fish species, most of which are endemic. These few remaining free-flowing and minimally modified rivers are the last refuge of the culturally important and endangered fish species. As per a report by Parineeta Dandekar, South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People, “A landmark decision taken for conserving biodiversity-rich rivers and basins was the declaration of the three conservation reserves in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka--Aghanashini lion-tailed macaque conservation reserve, Bedthi conservation reserve and a hornbill conservation reserve in 2011 by the Karnataka government.” As per a paper by Arun Kanagavel, “The river stretch was managed in collaboration with the forest department and the gram panchayats without restricting resource use.” This is based on an understanding of the river in all its complexity. The formal declaration of the area as a conservation reserve has helped further a healthy relationship of the people with the rivers.

There have been several efforts to stop heavy pollution, excessive abstraction from the rivers and to protect the riverbed, banks and floodplains in south India. In the 1980s, the Appiko movement to save Western Ghats from deforestation, displacement and commercialisation made a plea to the state to restore the rivers of the region. Years later, in April 2010, Pandurang Hegde, the leader of the Appiko movement organised people who were adversely affected by pollution of the Kali river to launch the Kali Bachao Abhiyaan. Kali is a widely manipulated river of the Western Ghats that originates on the border of Karnataka and Goa. It is faced with the disposal of liquid effluents of the West Coast Paper Mills Limited, river flow obstruction due to a series of dams and the setting up of the Kaiga Nuclear Power Project. The paper factory pollutes the region to such an extent that not only the wildlife but the river ecosystem has also been destroyed. The people’s movement was able to bring pressure on the government to establish an effluent treatment plant and to stop sand mining. It's time the health of the rivers become the priority of the government, the policymakers, and the people. 

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