A river interrupted

DISPLACEMENT

A river interrupted


The birds are on a high and the air is filled with their twitter. Underneath, the gurgling river tries to keep pace. A breeze weaving through the bamboo groves rustling its spiky leaves add to the medley.

Some 75 km northwest of Kochi in Kerala lies the town of Chalakudy. A short 25 km away along the winding inter-state road flows the river that carries its name. Go another few km and you are at the Athirampilly falls. Post-monsoon, the river flows at a brisk pace here, about 70 miles from its source in the higher reaches of the Annamalai hills in Tamil Nadu and the Parambikulam plateau in Kerala.

One wonders what happens if the need for ‘progress’ overrides the beauty of the place, and the Chalakudy Hydel Project is implemented - the seventh along the 145 km journey of the already dammed river.

Prime forestland to be affected

The Kerala government is planning this dam upstream of the Vazhchal rapids and five km upstream of the falls. The immediate likely upshot? Construction of the 23 m high and 311 m long dam, as part of the Athirampilly Hydro Electric Project, with an installed capacity of a paltry 163 MW, will drown another 140 hectares of prime forestland.

The steep gradient of the Chalakudy river basin makes it technically suitable for hydroelectric dams, and diversion of water to other river basins. Of the six dams constructed on its tributaries, four are built by Tamil Nadu and two by Kerala. This complex multi-purpose, multi-river, inter-State, inter-basin water sharing project diverts water from the upper reaches of the three major west flowing rivers of Kerala namely Periyar, Chalakudy and Bharathapuzha to Tamil Nadu. 

Apart from the six dams already on the river, there are other major irrigation projects made of weirs, diversion canals, augmentation projects, water diversion schemes and regulator dams constructed by various gram panchayats and other local bodies, all of which have combined to not just disrupt the natural behaviour of the river but disturb nature’s drainage system itself.

Because minimum flow has not been ensured, and the discharge from the six dams fluctuate highly at the best of times, there is a huge variation in the river flow in the monsoon and non-monsoon periods leading to flash floods that cause damage to the river downstream, in the form of erosion of banks and crop damages not to mention damage to aquatic life.

Huge displacement

According to environmentalists, the Athirampilly project is likely to displace endangered native tribes, primitive hunter-gatherers, from their forest habitation; with a depleted river. The famed Vazhachal rapids and the Athirampilly waterfalls are set to lose their glory, severely denting tourism in the region.

As the project is proposed as a peak load station aimed at meeting evening demands for electricity, the greatly decreased flow in the river for almost 20-22 hrs in a day (in summer) will imperil agricultural operations in almost 20,000 hectares of land spread over Trichur and Ernakulam districts, not to mention the adverse impact on a large number of drinking water schemes.

The cascades and rapids along the river and its tributaries offer ideal habitat to many species of fishes. According to the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources (NGFGR), 104 species belonging to 34 families have been recorded here, many of them critically endangered or vulnerable, making Chalakudy river one of the richest in terms of fish diversity. Ironically, there is a proposal pending to declare the river a fish sanctuary! The 140 hectares of forests that would be submerged if the project is implemented is home to diverse animal species including the Asiatic Elephant and the Great Indian Hornbill. 

Vital elephant corridor

While the proposed dam site is a vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forest, large, old-growth trees in vast tracts of the Sholayar jungles that is set to be submerged will deprive the vulnerable Great Indian Hornbill of vital nesting sites.

The 1704 sq km catchment area that forms part of the river basin, encompassing three forest divisions and a wild life sanctuary, is the only remaining riparian forest at this altitude in the entire Western Ghats. Tropical evergreen, moist deciduous, moist bamboo brakes, tropical semi evergreen and reed brakes form a rich and unique river valley ecosystem.

These dire consequences don't seem to deter the State government and the electricity board from pushing the ill-conceived project forward.

Disregarding all concerns, the project has been recommended for environmental clearance for the third time!

The proposed 160 MW accounts for a paltry three per cent of the state’s electricity production and can be met by sensible measures.

Power from the thermal and hydel power stations in the state are underutilised owing to untenable and illogical reasons. 

Optimal use of this available power alone would make the project unnecessary. Experts say current transmission losses account for as much as 25 to 30 per cent.

If just 10 per cent of this loss is reduced, the falls and the river could be preserved. The electricity board counters with the stance that the hydel station would operate only to meet the peak power demand for about four hours daily, accounting for a mere 27 MW.

A total of 140 hectares of Western Ghats forest to be destroyed for a paltry 27 MW of power!

Instead of going to the forests with a bulldozer, we need to exploit sustainable energy sources like solar and wind power.

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