Untamed and pure, let her flow

A sight to behold Moonbow at Unchalli Falls. Sriharsha Ganjam

It was after four years of meticulous planning that in 2017, Sriharsha Ganjam, a nature photographer, captured a moonbow on his camera, most probably for the first time in Asia’s history. Such was the ecstasy of watching the full moon’s play of light on the clear waters of Unchalli Falls on River Aghanashini, that even after a year, Sriharsha has not forgotten that partly cloudy night when the lighter shades of VIBGYOR took birth from the tip of River Aghanashini and disappeared into a valley. The entire phenomenon lasted less than five minutes, during which he managed to capture four or five frames. Unchalli Falls is said to be one of the six waterfalls across the world to record a moonbow.

Sriharsha shot the formation of the moonbow for an award-winning documentary, Aghanashini, by Ashwini Kumar Bhat and Sahana Balkal. Aghanashini is one of the very few rivers in India that have been flowing in their natural course. This is because there are no reservoirs or dams across this river. And with no major industries or polluting agents along its course, the river flows clean.   

In its 124-kilometre journey from ‘Shankara Honda’ in Sirsi town, where it is believed to take birth, to Aghanashini town in Kumta taluk where it empties itself into the Arabian Sea, the pristine Aghanashini creates several wonders. With three major waterfalls — Unchalli, Burde Joga and Bennehole — Aghanashini is a river with the most number of waterfalls for a single river in that region. 

However, the generations to come may lose out on the moonbow and other wonders of Aghanashini as there are proposals to initiate several needless development projects with the river at the centre. One such project, which is still in the pre-planning stage, is the State government’s proposal to divert the river’s ‘excess’ water to Linganamakki Reservoir so that drinking water can be supplied to Kolar and Bengaluru. “Life continues to flourish in the Aghanashini river and valley, because it has been left to flow unharmed. Any modification in its flow would result in the river facing the same fate as rivers Kali and Sharavathi,” says renowned environment writer Nagesh Hegde. Experts believe that this free-flowing river has as much commercial value as environmental importance. While upstream, the river gives birth to one of the most biodiverse forests on earth, and downstream, the edible bivalve fishing and shell-mining are the main sources of livelihood for numerous families.

Rich biodiversity

Unlike rivers Sharavathi and Kali, which take birth in the same region of Western Ghats, and have been exploited for power generation, drinking water supply and irrigation, Aghanashini remains untamed. As a result, biodiversity thrives alongside the river nurturing some extraordinary species that are endemic to the region or the Western Ghats.

Myristica swamps, a rare type of evergreen forest ecology, which are believed to be in existence since the time of dinosaurs, can be found in the thick jungle of Kathlekan Reserve Forest along the river. Aghanashini feeds as many as 51 patches of these freshwater swamps. Apart from Kathlekan, such swamps are found mainly in the Western Ghats in the southern part of Kerala. The knee root system of these myristica swamps acts like a natural sponge by absorbing a huge quantity of water during the monsoon and releasing it during the dry season.

The river also nurtures several sacred groves (Devara Kadu), including the mangroves at Baburlingeshwara where, it is said, no tree has been chopped by humans so far. Another fascinating phenomenon can be seen at Gullegundi, where air bubbles mysteriously pop up from the earth. During monsoon, when most of the rivers flow muddy, Benneholey, one of the tributaries of Aghanashini, runs crystal clear. Aghanashini has blessed the coasts of Kumta taluk with large estuaries, which are among the highest productive ecosystems on earth as they are good carbon absorbers.“We felt as if we were in a fairy-tale land while shooting the bioluminescence fungi in the darkness for our documentary. In the utter darkness of the forest, these fungi emitted green light, a phenomenon hardly noticed by anyone,” says Ashwini Kumar Bhat.

The river also nurtures a treasure of fauna. The Aghanashini Lion Tail Macaque (LTM) Conservation Reserve, which is spread across the forest areas of Aghanashini and Sharavathi valleys, is said to be one of the last safe homes for this highly endangered species. More than 700 LTMs were recorded on the high canopy of this region. Over 300 species of animals and 150 varieties of fish are dependent on the river. Descending the plains of the coastal region, the mellowed Aghanashini brings with it rich soil required for cultivation of crops and nurtures mangroves. The salinity in its waters help cultivate a unique rice variety, Kagga. 

The salinity variation through the seasons in Aghanashini’s waters is ideal for edible bivalve fishing. “Earlier, bivalves were found in large numbers in the Sharavathi and Kali rivers, too. However, these rivers are now unable to maintain the salinity variation through the seasons which has affected the bivalve population. Fortunately, Aghanashini remains unexploited and continues to be a cradle of bivalves,” says Nagesh Hegde.

According to an Indian Institute of Science (IISc) study, the income generated by the informal fishing of bivalves and shell mining is estimated at Rs 5.7 crore per year. Hundreds of local families are involved in this activity for around eight months a year. 

Dark days ahead?

There have been many attempts to exploit the river and its banks for human benefit. But protests by environmentalists, spiritual leaders, scientists and local people have strongly stood in the way of any attempt at harmful development projects. While governments have dropped the proposed plans of using the river water for generating power, recent developments have set fear alarms ringing among these ‘river warriors’.

In 2009, the Karnataka State Industrial & Infrastructure Development Corporation had proposed a multipurpose estuary port across Aghanashini at Tadadi. Later in 2016, an expert appraisal committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recommended environmental and coastal regulation zone clearance for the project. If the project is implemented, the port will be used for transporting coal, iron ore and steel. Over 200 hectares of well-grown mangroves will be destroyed. The livelihoods of more than 25 villages in Kumta will be affected.

Those protesting these projects are not against development, but against indiscriminate use of resources that would harm the river’s pristine beauty and pose threat to the lives and livelihoods that it supports. Their only demand: let the river flow as it has for aeons.

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