Living rivers, dying rivers: Rivers in the Western Ghats

The sixth lecture in the series titled "Living Rivers, Dying Rivers" was delivered by Parineeta Dandekar and Pandurang Hegde.
10 Feb 2012
0 mins read
Free flowing stretch of river Seetha Nadi in the Western Ghats (Source: SANDRP)
Free flowing stretch of river Seetha Nadi in the Western Ghats (Source: SANDRP)

River stories from Maharashtra: Many morals to learn 

Parineeta Dandekar’s presentation began with an account of some statistics related to Maharashtra, the third largest state in India. Regarding the state of water resources in Maharashtra, she noted that of the five river basin systems, 55 percent of the dependable yield is available in the four river basins (Krishna, Godavari, Tapi and Narmada) east of the Western Ghats. These four river basins comprise 92 percent of the cultivable land and more than 60 percent of the population in rural areas. 45 percent of the state's water resources are from west flowing rivers which are mainly monsoon specific rivers emanating from the Western Ghats and draining into the Arabian Sea.

With 1821 large dams and more in the offing, Maharashtra has the maximum dams in the country (35.7%). However, the proportion of gross irrigated area vis a vis the gross cropped area at 17.8 percent is much lower than the national average of 44.6 percent. The contradictions from the state, which is home to the highest number of dams, were discussed. In nearly 70 percent of the state’s villages (around 27,600 villages), water is either not available within 500 metres distance, or within 15 metres below ground level or when available is not potable (World Bank, Promoting Agricultural Growth in Maharashtra, Volume 1, 2003).

Dandekar discussed the World Bank funded Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project (MWSIP) initiated in 2005 whose main components were establishment, operationalisation and capacity building of Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA); establishment of river basin agencies in Maharashtra; and restructuring and capacity building of the Water Resources Department. The MWRRA Act (2005) has been amended, taking out the clause for equitable water distribution, and granting the Cabinet the rights to have the last say about water entitlements. This has led to a diversion of water for irrigation from the vulnerable, suicide-prone Vidarbha region to thermal power plants. According to Prayas, “entitlements of more than 1500 MCM have been changed from agriculture to industries and cities”.


Rivers of the Western Ghats

The Western Ghats or Sahyadri ranges run parallel to the coast at an average elevation of 1,200 metres (4,000 ft). To the west of these hills lie the Konkan coastal plains, 50-80 kilometres in width and to the east of the Ghats lie the flat Deccan plateau. The Western Ghats form one of the three important watersheds of India, from which many South Indian rivers such as the Godavari, Bhima, Koyna and Krishna originate. Maharashtra has more than 11 important west flowing rivers including Damanganga, Surya, Vaitarna, Ulhas, Savitri, Kundalika, Patalganga, Vashisti, Shastri, Karli, and Terekhol. There are numerous smaller rivers joining the creeks. West flowing rivers cover just 10 percent of the state’s area but contribute to 44.54 percent of the 75 percent dependable yield.

Development of large dams over these rivers has not occurred due to their geographical location, difference in elevation, smaller valleys and weaker economies. Around 67.5 TMC of water is diverted from Koyna and 51.3 TMC from the 6 Tata dams, and 450 MW of power generated for the city of Mumbai. West flowing rivers flowing near Mumbai are being dammed rapidly. There are six dams (Kalu, Shai, Gargai, Pinjal, Poshir and Barvi) planned and two (Middle Vaitarna and Balganga) under construction. Works for the Kalu dam have stopped following a petition from the local tribal organisation highlighting numerous illegalities in the process.

Dams under construction and proposed for the Mumbai metropolitan region are set to displace more than 25000 tribals and submerge more than 14000 hectares of primarily tribal land, including 5685 hectares forest land in the global biodiversity hotspot of the Western Ghats. Due to a serious omission in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2006, these dams supplying water to industrial areas and Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are exempt from environmental clearance, hence no EIAs, no public hearings and no Environment Management Plans (EMPs) for them. SANDRP has been writing about this issue to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), but has not got any response as yet.

Chemical drainages of Maharashtra

There has been a wave of setting up of chemical industrial zones on the banks of these west flowing, diversity-rich rivers. Chemical industries have been set up on the Patalganga river (Patalganga Rasayani Industrial Area) and Roha Industrial Estate with eighty chemical industries along Kundalika river. Villagers have already filed complaints for three spills from the Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) and fifty industries have been served notices for effluent disposal in the streams. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) tested samples for organochlorines in June 2010; the report has still not been made public after one and a half years.

Vashisthi: Impact of pollution on community and ecosystems

In the section titled 'Story of Vashisthi', Dandekar presented how the natural character of Vashishti, the main part of which falls in Ratnagiri district has been affected vastly due to the Koyna hydroelectric project and the Lote Parshuram Industrial Area (LIA). The average annual yield of the river is 5496 MCM and the water added to the basin from the Koyna hydroelectric project is 1911 MCM (67.5 TMC). It has a vertical drop of 487.68 m at Pophali and the total installed capacity of Koyna Stage I, II, III and IV is 1960 MW. Koyna stage IV is a peaking power project and water level fluctuations downstream can happen at any time of the day. Vashishti has a narrow basin and excess water from the Koyna adds to floods in the rainy season for Chiplun city. It has been documented that sudden water level fluctuations brought about by hydropower dams have a severe impact on fish life cycles and constitution of mangroves.

Dandekar dealt with the effect of LIA on the Vashisthi River. In 1978, the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) appropriated 570.73 hectares of land of Lote, Awashi, Sonegaon, Dhamandevi and some other villages of the Chiplun block, Ratnagiri district to set up a Chemical Industry Zone. The development of the industrial belt was part of the government's plan to develop the Konkan region and provide better livelihood opportunities for people. LIA was developed in two phases. Around 200 chemical (agro chemicals, dyes and pharmaceutical) and a few engineering units began operations in the 1980s. By the year 2002 there were about 122 units in business, the rest having closed down, due to a number of reasons, including closure orders by MPCB. One of the important criteria for selecting Lote Parshuram site was also the proximity of the region to the Vashishti creek, to ease the disposal of effluents. Indeed, effluents are being released from the LIA into the streams and Vashishti creek for more than 25 years now, entirely changing the ecology, sociology and economy of the region.

Release of untreated pollutants in the streams and the Vashishti river has had several far reaching impacts on the community and ecosystem. Fishing as an industry in the Vashishti estuary is over; income from estuarine fishing started to drop rapidly from 1997 and has reached negligible levels now. Fish kills are still very common and the Pollution Control Board neglects them most of the time. Fishermen have received no compensation whatsoever for the losses. Around seventy percent of estuarine fish and marine species found in Vashisthi are now locally extinct.

Riparian farming in six villages around Lote is abandoned because of crop burning and rotting incidences. A number of cattle have died after drinking water from the streams. Pipes carrying effluents are generally broken, a situation observed by a number of surveys (CGWB, MPCB, NGOs) and agricultural land is grossly polluted due to seepage and illegal dumping of pollutants. Studies indicate that the pH of soils around Lote MIDC is acidic (less than 5) and soil moisture is much higher (BG College, 2004).

According to the National Institute of Oceanography studies, Vashishti estuary shows marked reduction in Dissolved Oxygen (DO) with high nutrients, indicating that the estuary is under stress due to ongoing discharges. The contents of heavy metals like Cr, Mn, Co, Ni, Cu and Zn is higher at the upper segment and the source of these metals is suspected to be anthropogenic. Bacterial counts are high both in the coastal and estuarine segments. High standing stock of phytoplankton and zooplankton in the estuary suggests organic pollution induced biological productivity in the estuary.

According to a Central Ground Water Board Report (2004) the extent of pollution in the groundwater in the LIA is less as compared to surface water due to physiographic conditions existing in the area. The industrial effluents in this area are collected in sumps and then disposed off through pipelines in the creek. The pipeline was found broken during the study and effluents were flowing in the streams. To stop further deterioration in the quality of groundwater, it is recommended that the effluents generated by the industries be properly treated before disposing it on land/stream/creek. Any leakage of chemical and wastewater from the industrial campus/pipes through which effluents are carried away must be regularly checked. The disposal of the effluents should not be in the neighbourhood of drinking water sources (Central Ground Water Board, 2004).

Locals are now fatigued with constant struggles with industry and MPCB officials. Manual sand mining has replaced traditional fishing. The situation is exactly similar in Savitri and Kundalika. Dredgers of local politicians have now taken over sand mining from locals and in the guise of ‘desilting’ and sand mining, using dredgers, which is illegal, is being practiced. Mechanised dredgers are destroying the remaining mangroves and fish in the area.

Shastri: From living to dying river

Dandekar presented the story of Shastri, the undammed, free flowing river of the Ghats which originates near Prachitgad on the crest line of the Western Ghats. In the upstream (from Shringarpur to Sangameshwar), the town of Sangameshwar with a population of 12000 depends on the river (and wells) for domestic water supply through jackwells. Other riverside villages have wells in the riparian areas which are closely linked with the water level in the river. Nearly 55 villages which are spread over the ridge and slopes of the watersheds have community wells and village water supply systems from wells. Spring tanks through springs emanating from sacred groves is a common feature here like across the Konkan. Water management is decentralised, autonomous and strong. Shastri and its tributaries provide livelihood security to more than 5000 people through activities like freshwater fishing, and riparian farming along its banks. Water is drawn from the river directly through traditional systems like ukti, channels or more recently, pumps.

The river meets the sea at Jaigad, where the historic port of Jaigad has been established. During its short journey, it exhibits diversity of aquatic habitats with features like falls, glides, runs, pools, riffles, pocket waters, potholes, etc. Monoculture and intensive farming practices are not observed on the banks. The rural population is dependent on the various provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services of the river. Local community in all the three blocks and 80 villages of Ratnagiri depend directly or indirectly on the river for ecosystem benefits, drinking water and water for agriculture. The river is of high cultural significance with sacred groves and Shiva temples at each hydrological junction.

There has been no systematic study of freshwater fish of the region, but it is estimated that the river may be supporting more than 60 species of fish with high endemism, because of its pristine nature and the number of habitats. Freshwater fish are caught by all the riparian villages and form an important part of diet, though they form a small part of the village fish markets. Interesting sustainable methods of fishing exist in the region. Fish catch for these fishermen has been going down drastically for the past three years, with last year being the most critical, some cooperatives claiming a 65-70 percent decrease in estuarine varieties. This is severely affecting their subsistence, economy and livelihoods.

Jaigad creek has three under construction and in-operation mega projects:

  • JSW 4 X 300 MW coal based thermal power plant which is producing 300 MW in Phase I currently.
  • M/s JSW Jaigad Port Ltd., a constituent company of Jindal Group: a concessional agreement has been signed and works are ongoing: The port complex will have a 1200 MW coal-based thermal power plant (operational in the first phase now) and a port-based SEZ. The port is being dredged to handle vessels with a draft of 14 m in the first phase and is expected to handle 20 million tonnes cargo every year.
  • M/s Chowgule Ports & Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd., a constituent company of Chowgule Group: Dredging activities up to 10-14 m is going on and the port is expected to handle 5 million tonnes of cargo every year.

Concessional agreement for the next 50 years has been signed with the Maharashtra Maritime Board and these ports will be operated on a Build, Own, Operate, Share and Transfer (BOOST) basis. All these projects have received clearances from the State Environment Departments, Maharashtra State Coastal Zone Management Authority and the MoEF. The EIAs did not deal with the impact of the infrastructure on the estuarine zone or mangroves. This despite the fact that estuaries are the most productive ecosystems in the world and healthy estuaries with mangroves provide ideal nurseries for fish and various aquatic animals, which are an important part of the food chain.

Dredging is being done for the ports nearly 10-12 kms inside the mouth of the river to a depth of 14 m (which is not monitored). This sort of dredging destroys the nutrients wholly, releases pollutants in the water, destroys mangroves and larvae, eggs and young of fish and crustaceans. Richness of zooplankton and phytoplankton (which are a component of the fish food chain) depends on this zone. Both the ports are continuously dredging the area, reclaiming it and building infrastructure inside the estuary. The huge mechanised boats obstruct smaller dibkos and tear the fish nets. Crustaceans, which are filters feeders are hugely affected by the turbidity and disturbance through dredging. It is no wonder that shrimp catches in the estuary and also open sea near Jaigad has fallen most sharply.

The JSW thermal power plant treats its fly ash in beds which are watered down with sea water. Within two months of its functioning, wells from Jaigad have been declared unfit for human consumption as the TDS has risen sharply to 1440 mg/l (permissible limit is 500 mg/l). The members of the Panchayat have even pasted posters warning the villagers. This is the condition with six wells in the village affecting 1200 people, but villagers fear that nearly all wells have been contaminated as the water smells bad. The fly ash deposit in JSW plant is on a lateritic plateau which is highly porous, and it is feared that fly ash with sea water has percolated in the groundwater aquifers. A population of around 1200 is being supplied drinking water by the company through tankers, but it is not sufficient.  Officials claim that there are no reports to substantiate the involvement of the company, but the company will be providing water tankers till the condition improves.

When JSW Thermal Power Plant starts operating to its full 3X400 MW capacity and when the JSW port and the Chowgule Ports Ltd. starts handling 20 and 5 million tonnes cargo every year respectively, where will the small fishermen of the Shastri creek be? Will we be moving towards economic development or irreparable ecological and social destruction?

Dandekar also presented how under the National River Conservation Plan enormous amounts of money has been spent in cities like Nashik, Nanded, Sangli and Karad to rejuvenate the Godavari and the Krishna. The entire scheme focuses on setting up sewage treatment plants in selected cities. Sewage treatment plants have been underperforming historically. In Pune, estimates are they perform below 50 percent of their installed capacity.

The Economic Survey Report of Maharashtra 2010-11 claims that under the National River Action Plan, the work of cleaning the rivers at several locations has been completed successfully. However, one look at the rivers in these cities is enough to prove the utter baselessness of this claim. State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) and Municipal Corporations have been playing the blame game for a long time. SPCB had filed a case on Pune Municipal Corporation, while PCB Kolhapur region states that it has sent notices to Kolhapur Municipal Corporation 131 times about releasing (much) more than 46 mld of untreated water in the Panchaganga river, and has filed three criminal cases against the Municipal officials and has even cut the electricity connection to the Corporation twice! In its turn, the Kolhapur region of PCB turns a Nelsons eye towards problems of Vashishti pollution!

Dandekar also dealt with the water quality of the rivers of Maharashtra. Percent exceedance of pH, DO, BOD, TC, Ammonical Nitrogen and Nitrate with respect to the MPCB standards shows that at 140 locations out of 248 monitoring sites, the parameters exceed the stipulated standard 50 percent of the time. At 103 locations out of 248 monitoring sites, the parameters exceed the stipulated standard 75 percent of the time.

Revival of Kathani river of Vidarbha

Dandekar dealt with Kathani, a mountainous river, flowing through a tract of dry deciduous forest, scrub and cultivation in Gadchiroli district of Vidarbha. It originates in the Dhanora Pendhri hills at an altitude of 427 m and travels a distance of 70 km before joining Wainganga, a tributary of the Godavari near Gadchiroli city. This region receives an annual rainfall of 1800 mm. It is a seasonal river retaining water in deep pools during summer. The river flows through a sparsely populated area, is not dammed nor affected by pollution. The 32 villages include about 6000 gonds and dhivars dependant on the river. Though an undammed, unpolluted river, its fish catch was falling steadily because of unsustainable fishing practices by local gonds and dhivars and also ‘external’ population of refugees. Customary belief about the river was that the deity was angry. Ilakha Panchayat of the 32 villages passed a resolution that use of poison will be completely stopped and the river will be revived. The resolution and voluntary restrictions have been in force for the past five years.

Along with the ban on the use of poisons, a number of other restrictions were brought upon by the community with the help of customary law and gram sabhas. Some of these rules include:

  • No forest encroachment
  • Joint forest vigilance by men and women 
  • Offenders brought to the Panchayat and fined
  • Lopping riverside trees banned
  • Commercial extraction from the forest of external companies like paper mills stopped
  • Construction of more than 1000 gully plugs
  • Bamboo harvesting done by villagers
  • The community has a number of sacred pools in the river where water is not used and fished in. In a small 70 km river, there are more than 10 such ‘community conservation areas’. This is the actual operationalisation of norms like IUCN of protecting at least 10 percent of the river.

Dandekar also dealt with the problems with the Pune river restoration plan which envisages channelisation, excavation, reclamation and damming of a river.

Rivers of Western Ghats in Karnataka – Pandurang Hegde

The presentation by Pandurang Hegde dealt with two living and two dying rivers of Karnataka. To start with, he dealt with the Kali river which originates from the border of Goa and Karnataka. It is just 40 kms for the sea but takes a circuitous route and then joins the sea (189 kms). Unlike the Himalayan rivers that are fed by snow, the Western Ghats rivers are fed by runoff from tropical forests. In the Western Ghats, the west flowing rivers are the powerhouse and the east flowing rivers are the lifeline of the Deccan plateau. The huge irrigation projects in the rivers which emerge from the tropical forests in the Western Ghats like Cauvery, Krishna and Godavari serve as the granary of the Deccan plateau. While on the one hand the east flowing rivers of the Western Ghats provide food security to the Deccan plateau, the west flowing rivers contribute to the power security of the western region, the IT sector of Bangalore and the tourism industry of Goa.

Hedge as an activist of the Chipko Andolan undertook a padyatra from the mouth of the Kali river to its origin in the 1980s. Kali is a widely manipulated river which originates on the border of Karnataka and Goa and is faced with the disposal of liquid effluents of a paper mill (West Coast Paper Mills Limited) and a dam (seventh one at Mavalangi; the river has seen six hydel dams that submerged 32,000 acres of forests and the infamous Kaiga Nuclear Power Project) on the river. The paper factory polluted the region to such an extent that not only the wildlife but the entire river ecosystem is destroyed. People in the area feel let down by the Government that refuses to hear their voices. Also, compared to the high attention that the Cauvery and Krishna receive, hardly any attention has been paid to a river that is the most dammed in the country and generates such high hydel power despite its short course.

In April 2010 people who were adversely affected by pollution launched the Kali Bachao Abhiyaan. The campaign which was built later on was subject to repression by the mill owner who employed local henchmen to abduct two activists who were later released. The river which meanders through the unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats is subject to immense ecological stress and is able to flow in an uninterrupted manner for just about 18 kilometres along the 184 km course in the Uttara Kannada district in Western Ghats (Karnataka) owing to these obstructions. With the construction of the seventh hydel dam (1500 MW) downstream of Supa reservoir the river will cease to flow. At present the water from the Supa reservoir is released only to sustain the desired level of water for peak-production of power at the subsequent hydel installations downstream. The electricity demand in Uttara Kannada is just 17 MW. The river derives its name from the dark colour of its manganese-rich waters and supports the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen on the coast.

The movement was able to bring pressure on the government to establish an effluent treatment plant and to stop sandmining. The issue of Kaiga Nuclear Power Project that is releasing radioactive waters to the river Kali was also taken up. Secrecy regarding the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant ensures that little is shared about the impacts on the river and the people. A study by Peoples Science Institute, Dehradun assessed the impact of the developments on the river and how mercury from the paper factory was affecting the wildlife as well as the people. In spite of the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB’s) view that the industry is destroying the river, no action has been taken by the Government.

Hegde narrated how he organised a 'Sharavathi Avalokana' a study of the state of the Sharavathi river that showed that the quantity of water carried by the river has halved over the years. At its estuary, the river faced the problem of large quantities of seawater polluting the water. A foot march was undertaken along the Sharavathi, where a series of dams have been built which have reduced the natural flow of the 140 km long river to a mere 8 km. A study by CES, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore indicates that the catchment of Sharavathi has been ruined. The land use in the catchment has changed from forest trees to monoculture. The life of the dam is threatened due to silting and there is this huge generation capacity that has been installed which does not function at all.

In contrast to this, Hegde discussed the case of the Bedhti and Agnashini rivers which have seen peoples' struggle. This is one of the most prosperous regions of India in terms of forests and spice gardens (areca, cardamom and pepper). The peoples' struggle over the last three decades was able to thwart several development projects like hydr electric dams, mini hydel projects, thermal power projects proposed along these rivers.  There were a series of struggles in the area where Agnashini meets the sea in the last four decades. These include the stalling of a ship-breaking unit, cargo mounted power plants, port development by a Korean company, and a 4000 MW thermal power plant for the region. The presentation ended with a note that in river basin planning, the linkages of catchment area, river and sea is totally missing because of technical engineering dominance and that this needs to be addressed.

Playlist: Rivers of Western Ghats

The lecture, in various parts can be viewed on Youtube:

The lectures in the complete series can be viewed here:

India Water Portal is grateful to Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer for allowing it to record the lecture and share the videos online. 


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