An oasis in peril 

A dam project and lack of respect for ecosensitive zone rules are threatening Mount Abu's biodiversity
Last Updated : 03 December 2022, 05:08 IST
Last Updated : 03 December 2022, 05:08 IST

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Jawai Lake, one of the many water bodies in Mount Abu. Credit: Special Arrangement
Jawai Lake, one of the many water bodies in Mount Abu. Credit: Special Arrangement

The climb is steep. Once atop, Devi Singh*, a sixth-generation farmer and local resident, points to the valley stretching below.

“This will all go, thanks to the needless dam. The town’s administration has slammed the door shut on protecting our jungle and the environment. Making money by destroying forests is criminal,” he mutters.

In the early hours, the pristine forest echoes with bird chatter and song. The hills of Mount Abu, situated in the southern Aravallis, comprise several valleys and steep mountain slopes with Guru Shikhar at 1,722 metres, towering as the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Nilgiris.

The hill station is often referred to as the “abode of gods” and an “oasis in the desert” among other colourful descriptions. In reality, the gods appear to have long deserted this abode. What now remains is a rapidly changing town that is witnessing a slow death.

In 2009, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) declared Mount Abu and the surrounding villages, an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). A national precedent was set, where an urban area and neighbouring villages, along with the wildlife sanctuary were included within an ESZ. A ban on construction was enforced to restrict unchecked development and reduce human activity.

A walk around Abu shows that the restrictions do not apply to governmental institutions, organisations wielding local influence, and parties with commercial interests. Eco-sensitive zone rules were formulated to protect the environment, but the real estate and construction black market clandestinely operated by the municipality, administration, village panchayats and Revenue Department continues to thrive.

Salgaon dam project

The hill station suffers from water storage during the summer months and the sale of groundwater, despite being prohibited, is rampant and a necessity.

The Salgaon dam project, approved in 2021, has been projected as a permanent solution to the drinking water problem faced by the hill station. Proposed over five decades back at an estimated cost of Rs 27 lakhs, today it is likely to exceed Rs 250.50 crores. The scheme, appearing to be a valiant attempt to solve the water problem, is an outdated and ill-thought-out vanity project, and carries the inertia of an era before the area was declared an ESZ. The project sets a dangerous precedent and ignores the ban on construction, thereby making the project unlawful and a violation of the NGT’s order.

The project does not take into account recent findings from studies on the intensified impact of climate change on reservoirs, the risks associated with them as well as the disruption of local ecosystems. The catchment area, including the submergence area, comprises prime habitats for threatened species such as the green avadavat, sloth bear and leopard among others.

The valley at the proposed site and the adjacent hillsides are home to a relatively healthy population of the globally threatened green avadavat, with Mount Abu being the principal stronghold of the species. The project would add to the problems of the species already facing challenges.

Mount Abu holds rich floral diversity with subtropical thorn forests spread at the foothills, bamboo forests and semievergreen forests along watercourses and valleys at higher altitudes of the wildlife sanctuary. Due to the wide range of habitats present within a relatively small area in an otherwise very dry region, Mount Abu harbours rich and unique faunal and avifaunal diversity in the ecoregion.

The forests harbour endemic species and subspecies of the Red-whiskered bulbul, Tawny-bellied babbler and Red spurfowl that are only distributed in the southern Aravallis. The population of Grey Junglefowl from Mount Abu is usually not recognised as a separate subspecies, although the call of the male bird from this region differs from that of other regions, and the plumage is much paler. Protection of the hillsides is important for the survival of these populations.

Over 110 plant families with about 830 plant species are found here, many holding much medicinal value. Dicliptera abuensis is a rare, threatened species endemic to Mount Abu. Other threatened species include Karvy, Fragrant Ceropegia, King’s Muraina Grass, while endangered species include Roundleaf Axlewood, Hairy-fruit Begonia and Creeping Hemp among others. Three species of wild roses and over 15 species of ferns and orchids are present and the hillsides are the only place in the region where orchids grow in the wild. The submergence of habitat will unleash catastrophic, irreversible consequences for the fragmenting habitat and inevitably result in species decline.

The reason for Mount Abu’s water shortage is the mismanagement, neglect of existing water bodies and unmanaged tourism. Leaking water bodies have been identified as being a threat to wildlife by the Forest Department in the past.

The budget allocated for the dam could be better spent on repairing and increasing the capacity of existing water bodies. In the absence of any robust carrying capacity or housing assessment, unmanaged tourism is choking the meagre resources of the hill station.

The water demand from the large institutions based in Mount Abu must be controlled. The building of the Salgaon dam will set a dangerous precedent for large construction projects that are banned by the NGT in the ESZ. With the negatives outweighing the benefits of this outdated proposal, an ominous cloud now hangs over the preservation of Mount Abu’s hillsides.

(The author is a conservationist who works at Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary.)

Published 03 December 2022, 04:32 IST

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