Until a few decades ago, the Ganga flowed with gay abandon and descended with rapidity into the plains. Today the waters have withdrawn from its banks and downstream of the hydropower and irrigation projects that have hindered its flow, the Ganga is totally dry.
The demand to restore and maintain the wholesomeness of the Ganga has grown from all quarters of society over the years. The union government, through its National Mission for Clean Ganga, issued a notification on October 10, 2018 laying down the flow specifications. The ecological flow (e-flow) or the minimum quantity of water that the various stretches of the Ganga must necessarily have all through the year for the ecosystem and biodiversity requirements is specified in it.
What does the e-flow notification say?
As per the notification, the upper stretches of the Ganga—from its origins in the glaciers and until Haridwar—would have to maintain 20 percent of the monthly average flow of the preceding 10 days between November and March, which is the dry season; 25 percent of the average during the lean season of October, April and May; and 30 percent of the monthly average during the monsoon months of June-September.
For the main stem of the Ganga, from Haridwar in Uttarakhand to Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, the notification specifies minimum flow at various barrages—Bhimgoda (Haridwar) must ensure a minimum of 36 cubic metres per second (cumecs) between October-May and 57 cumecs in the monsoon; and the barrages at Bijnor, Narora and Kanpur must maintain a minimum of 24 cumecs in the non-monsoon months of October-May, and 48 cumecs during the monsoon months of June-September.
The new norms would require hydropower projects located along the river to modify their operations so as to ensure they are in compliance. Power projects that don’t meet these norms as yet would be given three years to comply and “mini and micro-projects” would be exempt from these requirements. The Central Water Commission (CWC) would be the designated authority to collect relevant data and submit flow monitoring-cum-compliance reports on a quarterly basis to the National Mission for Clean Ganga, according to the notification.
Minimum flow directive inadequate
This is likely to become a template for notifications on other rivers of the country. But does this mean we will never see the Ganga dry ever as claimed by Nitin Gadkari, union water resources minister? No, say legal, water and environmental experts who deliberated on this at the India Rivers Week 2018 held at the World Wildlife Fund, New Delhi on November 24-26, 2018.
The forum discussed the impacts of hydropower projects, interlinking of rivers, waterways, dredging, river-front development, unsustainable sand mining, encroachments into the river and extraction of groundwater. It was of the view that the government had made little effort to assess the impact of these interventions on the river.
River needs unobstructed and not just continuous flow
“E-flow is a regime of flow in a river that mimics the natural pattern and is about maintaining the river’s hydrological integrity. It is not just a flow of water, but of nutrients and sediments. Because a lot of our rivers are already regulated, the challenge is to put in place a meaningful e-flow,” says Jagdish Krishnaswamy, ATREE, Bangalore.
Prof. Vinod Tare, Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur who was involved in the preparation of the Ganga River Basin Management Plan as a part of the consortium of seven IITs says, “The government hasn’t disclosed the existing ecological flows at various stretches but has gone ahead and set the minimum levels, which are not place-specific.” Earlier, the B.K. Chaturvedi committee had recommended the release of 20 to 30 percent of water from hydropower projects as an interim measure until the IIT consortium suggested the desired e-flows.
IIT consortium study ignored
The IIT consortium, in turn, had recommended the release of about 50 percent of water as e-flows for maintaining the wholesomeness of the river. Tare was disappointed that the recommendations of the IIT consortium were ignored and the government went ahead with the 20-30 percent flow figures without any public discussion. The study by IIT consortium was exhaustive and suggested site-specific limits on e-flow. Agreeing with Tare, Shashi Shekhar, former secretary of the water resources ministry says, “The targets for the minimum flow are way below what’s needed for the ideal health of the river. Water is both a part and product of riverine ecology. If you remove the product, the part gets destroyed.”
Shekhar points to the decline in the baseflow in the Ganga river basin. This is also corroborated by a study by IIT-Kharagpur published recently in Scientific Reports magazine that points to “unprecedented low levels of water in several lower reaches” in the last few summer seasons. The study suggests that this was “possibly related to the groundwater depletion in the Gangetic aquifers, which is also impacting the riverine ecology and food security of the people”.
In the notification, the government has brushed aside the need to halt construction activities along the Ganga. Without this, it is difficult to maintain the Gangatva or the essence of the Ganga,” says Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. “The Centre’s Namami Gange programme is about cleaning up the river focusing on "nirmaldhara" (unpolluted flow) at the cost of the other important related aspect of "aviraldhara" (uninterrupted flow).
The scientific concept of longitudinal connectivity i.e., the need to modify the design of hydroelectric projects and dams to ensure water flowed continuously, as well as of lateral connectivity with the floodplains during monsoon has been ignored. “The free migration of aquatic species has been completely ignored by the notification. Keystone species in the river such as Mahseer or Snow Trout need to be preserved in all seasons,” says Suresh Babu, director, River Basin Programme, World Wildlife Fund.
E-flow implementation process dubious
Questioning the central government’s recent notification on environmental flow, Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) points to a joint report of the Ministries of Environment & Forests and Water Resources of 2015 that presents the scientific methodology on assessment of e-flows in a river. “The present notification does not have a scientific basis and is ad hoc. Further, it is alarming that the notification mandates minimal flows three years from now,” says Thakkar. He raises doubts on the e-flow implementation process as the notification says that the minimal flows have to be ensured by the project developers and the Central Water Commission, totally oblivious of the conflict of interest involved. The notification also leaves the technical modifications needed to comply to the e-flow levels with the developers.
The government has also come up with a draft Ganga Protection Bill that does not unambiguously list the adverse impacts of various interventions like dams, hydropower projects and waterways on the river. Nor does it entail oversight by a Ganga council as suggested by Prof. Agarwal. “Setting aside 20-30 percent flows of a river for e-flow is a contentious decision and looks like an allowance to free up the rest of the waters. The fear is that the planners will begin to build more and more hydroelectric dams in the upper reaches and dams in the middle stretches across the river to extract the remaining 70-80 percent water. This could be a way to fool people and make way for more dams,” says Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, an Uttarakhand-based NGO working for the protection of river Ganga.
“Without the downscaled data available at the district level, discussions about e-flow are meaningless. Such data needs to be pooled together and a generally agreed modelling exercise can give the state of water availability in the Ganga basin and a reasonably accurate idea of e-flow,” says Dhruba Das Gupta, project director at SCOPE, Kolkata.
The government has had a spotty environmental record and has been swinging back and forth on its decisions. Instead of coming up with a significant policy change, what the government has done is to bring out a half-baked e-flow, going back on its promise to step up the "aviralta" and the "nirmalta" of the Ganga. What is required is a credible roadmap map to clean the Ganga and restore its flow.