"Indian rivers have not been understood as ecosystems but are treated as conduits of water or wastewater" - Interview with Dr. Brij Gopal

River systems need to be recognised at ecosystem,everything is all bound by it and we should stop trying to divide them along man-made landscapes, and least of all let it divide us.

Dr. Brij Gopal, Vice President, National Institute of Ecology and former Member, Working Group on Minimum Flows, constituted by the Water Quality Assessment Authority, talks to Parineeta Dandekar, India Water Portal about the urgent need of freshwater flows in Indian rivers, and the legal and institutional set ups required to ensure this.

Dr. Brij Gopal

There is no law in India stating that rivers must have freshwater flows for performing their ecological functions and that abstraction must be limited. How severe do you think this problem is and what are its ramifications on various sectors?

Why do we need a law for everything? Do we need a law that every tree must have a stem and leaves? Like trees, the rivers are also a creation of nature that human tend to tame. A river is a river only if it flows, if the flow is natural, if there is enough space along the river for the natural variation in flow to pass, and if it has the ability to assimilate the organic and inorganic substances entering it. When the flow is stopped, it becomes a reservoir and it is a canal or a drain where flow is regulated by humans.

The problem is quite severe because we call the rivers as mothers or goddesses but treat them with utter contempt. In India, rivers have not been understood as ecosystems but are treated simply as conduits of water or wastewater. The ecological functions, or in current phraseology - the ecosystem services, of rivers as ecosystems have never been investigated or understood in India.  Rivers which flow naturally and unrestrained, sustain biodiversity, assimilate non-toxic wastes, enrich soils with fertility, support livelihoods, recharge groundwater, facilitate navigation, transport water and materials downstream, moderate microclimate, enhance aesthetics, and support recreational and spiritual activities. The fresh water and sediments carried by the rivers to the sea support mangroves, coastal fisheries,  prevent salt water intrusion, and even influence the climate. These services rendered by water flowing in the rivers have neither been assessed yet nor considered in cost-benefit analyses of various projects impacting upon them.

Can you suggest some changes in the present laws and policies that can be of help?

The rivers need to be first recognised as ecosystems for their conservation and management. The river conservation programme of the MOEF focuses upon “cleaning” by diverting and treating the point sources of wastewaters to a limited extent. Rivers must be treated as National Natural Heritage. The WATER that unites the living and non-living throughout this planet earth, should not be divided along man-made landscape units and should not be allowed to divide the people.

In the present day context, legal measures are required to regulate the “regulation of rivers” (through dams, barrages and embankments) and to ensure adequate flows to maintain ecological integrity of the rivers and to sustain the ecosystem services of the rivers. However, the laws and policies are required more urgently that aim at eliminating the wasteful use as well as promoting recycling/reuse of water in agriculture, urban and industrial sectors.

Which are the rivers you think are most severely affected and need immediate revival?

Practically all; most rivers have been channelised by embankments in name of flood control (the real purpose being reclamation of land for urban and industrial development). Some are affected by near total absence of flow, others receive too much waste of all kinds, and still others are impacted both ways. I have seen Yamuna disappearing and turning into a sewer before my eyes during the past 50 years;  Many stretches of Ganga are in a nearly similar state; I have witnessed  disappearance of river Banas;  several rivers of peninsular India are also nearly dead.

Above: Banas River near Kota
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a scenario where allocations of water from a resource (river/ dam/canal) have already been made, how can this status quo be approached?

I do not understand what you mean with “status quo’. Man-made allocations are not like nature’s laws that cannot be altered.  Allocations are like denying the rights of the lower riparians to use the natural resources.  A river basin approach can help formulate appropriate management strategies; all sub-basins need to be considered together.

What was your experience, being a part of the Working Group on Minimum flows, appointed to advise the Water Quality Assessment Authority under the MoEF? What outcomes can be expected from this group? Is the Tennant methodology (supposed to be primitive), adopted by the group, good enough for India?

The subgroup constituted under the chairmanship of the Member (RM) of CWC was a rather small group and none (including myself) had any experience of the subject on which we were to advise. I and a couple of others disagreed with the term ‘minimum flow’ itself and wanted to discuss the ‘environmental flow’. The subgroup had also received inputs and views of international experts who attended a workshop organised by me in March 2005. But the majority prevailed upon ‘minimum flows’ that were determined by a method unknown to us. The Tennant’s method was mentioned in the Report but was not used in making the recommendations. To my knowledge, the report was not accepted by the WQAA. The efforts continued later but seem to have been abandoned.

How do we fill the gap between expert-centred methodologies and serious lack of trained personnel?

Before getting into methodologies, we need to appreciate and understand the flow requirement for different components and prioritise them. Do we need flow to maintain water quality, habitats or biodiversity or some other ecosystem services I mentioned earlier?In Australia, the NSW departments of Fisheries and Water Resources developed a method which relies on the judgement of a panel of scientific experts in aquatic ecosystems and river management, to assess the flow requirement for different components and processes, in terms of overall river ecosystem health. Such expertise does not arise from training but by prolonged experience in the field and comprehensive grasp of the global scientific knowledge. If you do not have experts, a beginning should be made with field research.

In what way can the communities be a part of the process? ( given the lack of personnel and direct impacts on the community)

The communities living along the rivers would have generally experienced the impacts of changes in flows over both short and long term on various components of thr river ecosystem and would also be able to relate them to their own livelihood and well being. These communities are not those who have come to occupy the land after rivers have been regulated and channelised.

Above: Fisherman in Souparnika estuary
Parineeta Dandekar

Above: Fishermen in Vashishthi Estuary
Parineeta Dandekar

What is your stand/ your recommendation for the last remaining free flowing rivers in the country?

All further regulation of rivers should be stopped. I fully subscribe to what Dr Ramaswamy Iyer (former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources) says,  we must find out how much water can we abstract from the rivers without impairing its health, instead of asking how much water does the river need.

Above: Seetha Nadi near Agumbe, Malnadregion , Karnataka

Credits: Parineeta Dandekar

How do you see the way forward? When the water flows from the tap inside our houses and we are willing to pay a hefty price for a bottle of drinking water, who cares for the rivers? Delhi’s millions are contented with water brought to them from Ganga at Tehri; how many care for the sewer called Yamuna?

I do hear whispers about rivers and river flows; these have yet to turn into clear talks and then loud voices before there is a movement to restore the rivers. I am afraid by then many rivers will have died. We cannot keep our rivers alive on knowledge borrowed or imported from outside. There is as yet no serious research initiated on Indian rivers. We need a big, coordinated effort, big funding and a goal oriented institution for rivers.


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