Manage river network better

IN PERSPECTIVE

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Nature has blessed India with a wide network of rivers that contributed to the flourishing of a rich civilisation, economy and culture. The river network, which had once maintained the water table, regulated temperature, served as waterways, stored aquatic species, helped farming and contributed to the growth of the pilgrim sector, has been distorted beyond recognition.

The National Council of Applied Economic Research observed, “The internal waterways of Assam are said to be over 6,000 miles. Heavy silting due to deforestation, destruction of catchment areas, human settlement in flood plains and people’s apathy to the environment has adversely affected the low-cost waterways in Assam.”

Tea, jute and leather produced in Assam were traditionally transported through waterways to Kolkata. Similarly, food grains, salt, edible oil, construction material, and clothes were brought to Assam through rivers. Some 50 years ago, the river Mahanadi had a perennial flow, which dried up due to the construction of multiple dams, deforestation and silting.

The World Commission on Dams found that on average, large dams have been at best only marginally economically viable. The average cost overrun of dams is 56%. Studies conducted by the National Remote Sensing Agency, the Center for Earth Science and several other organizations found that soil erosion in the catchment area of a river leads to deposits of huge masses of silt in the Idukki reservoir on the Periyar river.

As the silt has shrunk the storage capacity of the reservoir, it adversely affects the hydro-electric potential and flood control capacity of the reservoir. A CIFRI study, conducted between 2005 and 2007 across 80 km from Srikakulam to Hamsala shows that dams constructed upstream and the Prakasam Barrage in Andhra Pradesh have diverted all the water away from the river for irrigation, industrial and urban uses. The upper part of the estuary is dry in summer and the estuary has now reached hypersaline conditions due to the absence of freshwater. This has led to the near disappearance of oligohaline and freshwater species of carps, catfish, murrel and featherbacks, etc.

Nearly 11 million Indians depend on rivers, wetlands, floodplains, estuaries, ponds, and tanks for livelihood and nutrition. India’s 14 major rivers, 44 medium rivers, innumerable tributaries, oxbow lakes, floodplains, riparian tracts, mangroves, and estuaries run around 45,000 km. The riverine in India was once home to the richest fish germplasm in the world. The Central Inland Capture Fisheries Research Institute (CICFRI)’s data shows that fish catch in most riverine fisheries is declining. “Pollution is one of the biggest killers of inland fish. The traditional fisherfolk are the worst-affected,” K Gopakumar, Deputy Director-General (Fishery), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi, is reported to have said. India is home to the largest number of lifeless rivers in the world. “The river Yamuna is nothing but a tiny sewage drain with zero aquatic life as it leaves Delhi,” says P V Dehadrai, former director-general (fishery), ICAR.

In the 1970s, nearly 2,000 Keuta families (fishermen) of the ancient Cuttack city were happy and healthy. The two big rivers, the Mahanadi and the Kathajodi which flow on both sides of the city had plenty of fish. Today, the rivers have lost their streams due to over-damming, pollution and encroachment of the catchment areas. Two satellite towns, Mahanadi Vihar and Bidanasi, have been built over the catchment areas of these two rivers. The damage to rivers has impoverished the fishermen community who had no other option but to switch over to menial jobs. This has happened to millions of fishermen across the country.

Impractical and poor river management leads to manmade floods across the country. “Natural drainage has been destroyed, natural ponds have been destroyed, people have built houses on the flood plains. These are the problems because once you destroy the natural drainage, water doesn’t find a place to go out. It leads to flooding,” said Anand Sharma, the founding director of the India Meteorological Department

Data from the Central Water Commission (CWC) shows that between 1953 and 2017, over one lakh people perished due to floods across the country. Just in the last three years, floods have killed over 6,000 people and two lakh livestock damaged 3.9 million houses and destroyed 8.8 million hectares of farmland. A reply to questions in the Rajya Sabha on the loss and damage caused by floods in India shows the cost of damage to infrastructure and housing is estimated at Rs 3.66 lakh crore.

According to an Aon Catastrophe Report, in 2018, the total economic loss due to floods in Kerala was estimated at $4.25 billion, which does not include direct damage and business interruption cost. The September 2019 flood in Pune killed 21 people, swept away 2,500 vehicles and destroyed property worth hundreds of crores of rupees.
In June 2019, half of India was reeling under drought. By August 2019, half of India was facing flood havoc. The loss of human life and economic assets due to floods and drought is only a pointer to poor human resources that has failed to manage nature’s gift.

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