22 Jan 2023  |   05:53am IST

Mhadei diversion: Goa stares at environmental catastrophe

Central Water Commission’s (CWC) nod to the Karnataka government’s detailed project report (DPR) for the construction of dams on Mhadei river which will lead to diversion of Mhadei river water into Karnataka, has left every Goan angry and worried about their future since it will have far reaching implications on the overall environment of Goa. In the weekly Herald TV debate Point-Counterpoint, SUJAY GUPTA assesses the potential loss that could be caused to ecology and its cascading effect on the people of Goa by the CWC’s decision to the Karnataka government’s DPR for the Kalasa-Bandura project and what lies ahead for Goa, which has been let down by its own political leadership as well as in the Centre, despite the fact that Goa, Karnataka and the Centre are all governed by the BJP
Mhadei diversion: Goa stares at environmental catastrophe

The tussle between Goa and Karnataka is not just for river water. The fight goes beyond this. While, the discussion on Goa’s rights over Mhadei waters vis-à-vis Karnataka continue to rage and will continue to go on, however, one aspect of the issue that has probably not got the attention it deserved is the fact that if this diversion of Mhadei and its tributaries happen, then it will have a very severe impact on Goa’s ecology that includes the land and marine life, the hydrology, amongst others. 

It is not just a simple matter of river water diversion. We are staring at an imminent long-term devastation on the entire ecology of Goa, which in turn can spell doom on people’s lives in this State. Some possible dangers that one can already see are water salinity, destruction of fish and marine life and even destruction of Mhadei wildlife sanctuary. 

This decision taken by Government of India’s CWC has to be linked with the overall destruction that could befall Goa. These issues need to be analysed threadbare and have to be seen beyond petty politics. 

Rajendra Kerkar, environmental crusader said that the argument is on the DPR and everyone wants it to be withdrawn.

“The Centre can’t withdraw the DPR which has been approved already. The only way the DPR can be challenged, is by pointing out that the Karnataka government has included the Surla stream in its DPR, which is not in the award given to it on August 14, 2018 by the Mhadei Water Dispute Tribunal,” Kerkar said. 

It mentions only three rivers - Kalasa, Bandura and Halsara. The Karnataka government is allowed only to take 3.9 Tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) water. Surla river flows through Goa, although the catchment area lies in Karnataka. It originates from Goa.

“Actually, Karnataka is allowed to divert only Kalasa, Bandura and Halsara rivers. But it also included the Surla river in its DPR. In this backdrop, Goa’s case is very strong and it should challenge the DPR with the central government and in the Supreme Court,” he said. 

Goa should highlight the fact that the river that was not mentioned in the Tribunal award, has been included in the DPR, the environmentalist said. 

“This should be the focus, rather than harping on withdrawal of DPR, as it will not serve the purpose. The allocation has already been done. Unless and until one challenges the verdict in the Supreme Court, it is very difficult to withdraw the DPR,” Kerkar said.

On the long-term dangers posed by the diversion of Mhadei, environmentalist Ramesh Gawas said that 194 villages in six talukas are going to be affected. There will be massive drinking water shortage. 

“The Goa government opposing the project, had pleaded that there will be complete ecological devastation in Goa if the river water diversion happens. It had also stated that this is an ‘issue of national importance’. 43,500 hectares of of forest, which is fed by River Mhadei, is going to become a desert. Marine life will be totally disturbed,” he said.

Since the Goa government has already mentioned the dangers of river diversion in its pleading, which has not been heeded, does it have the option of approaching the National Green Tribunal (NGT) or the Supreme Court on this matter?

“For last many years, scientific documentation of the impact of river water diversion hasn’t been done properly. That is why, it is unclear whether the pleadings will stand in front of the Supreme Court or not. Most of the pleadings are based on general observations and not scientific evidence,” Kerkar said.

On the impact of river diversion on Mhadei river and the forests, Prakash Salelkar, former Range Forest Officer (RFO) said: “There will be very less fresh water in the Mhadei river and the salinity levels of Mandovi river will increase. Due to this, the marine species within Goa will be adversely affected. The fishes eaten by Goans like Chaunak will go extinct.” 

“Diversion of water will also impact the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary. It has got five tigers. When there is a predator, there should be enough prey. Since there are five tigers here, it means there is a sizable population of herbivores in Mhadei. They require a lot of water for drinking and maintaining the food availability. When the water availability is less, automatically, the green cover will go down and will have a direct bearing on the entire food chain,” he said.

“Also, the river water brings a lot of alluvial with it when it is flooded during rains. These are deposited on the river banks, which in turn increases the fertility of the soil. This enhances agricultural productivity. Due to river diversion, even the agriculture sector will be adversely affected,” the former RFO opined.

Dr Manoj Ibrampurkar, Associate Professor Geology, Dhempe College said that when one interferes with nature, it tends to disturb the ecosystem. 

“This issue has been going on for the last 30 years. There is no committee or a group appointed exclusively by the government to study all aspects of the environment. All the work has been done by environmentalists in their individual capacity,” Prof Ibrampurkar said.

The river flows throughout the year, but people get water from it only for four to five months these days. Rest of the seven months it flows because of the environmental system. When it rains, the water percolates into the ground. Rest of the seven or eight months, it seeps out from the ground and keeps the entire ecosystem alive. 

“The proposed quantity of the water to be diverted though appears small, but we have to understand that during non-monsoon season, very little water is available. Any amount of diversion will have an impact on the various components of the environment,” he said.

The sediments that are carried by the river water are very important. Nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and silica are very important for the lifecycle. 

“Right now salinity in River Mandovi is 40 km from the river mouth, almost up to Ganjem. After Ganjem, the river bed is much above sea level. So technically, water can’t move further. There will be an impact in the mixing zone, wherever the fresh and saline water confluence. The salinity levels will go up there,” the Associate Professor Geology at Dhempe College said.

There are more than 1,500 species there, which are endemic to the Western Ghats. They are there because of the favourable conditions existing there. 

“If we are going to interfere in these conditions, definitely there will be an adverse impact,” he said.

In 1990, around 60 dams were proposed, out of which only two have been built. What would have been the situation had those dams been built?

“As far as these dams are concerned, whatever dams had been planned by the government, they were mostly in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary area. Earlier, the State government had planned to destroy large tracts of forest in Seraulim, which I opposed,” Rajendra Kerkar said.

“Although the State government had planned to build 61 dams, it should look at the feasibility of the project first. It can build dams wherever the wildlife sanctuaries aren’t there. But it should not hamper the ecosystem. For example, if we build a dam in the Kothambi area, it will create a lot of problems. On one side there is Khadepar river and on the other side is River Mhadei,” he said.

He insisted that while building the dams, the government should study the location properly as it should not disturb the ecosystem.

“All these plans regarding dams look good on paper. In reality, it is going to cause damage to the wildlife and the ecosystem at large,” he said.

The Maharashtra government is building a dam in Virdi. Earlier the plan was to build a dam 500 m away from Goa border. But that would have submerged a large part of Virdi village.

“When I informed this to the locals, they got angry and opposed construction of this dam. A memorandum of Understanding was signed between Goa’s then chief minister Pratapsingh Rane and Maharashtra CM, Vilasrao deshmukh. But following the agitation from local people, the Maharashtra government, without informing Goa, shifted the dam site 7 km away from Goa border,” the environmentalist said.

But that is also going to create problems. Maharashtra has completed 80 per cent of the dam work, without obtaining any statutory clearances. 

“The Goa government took it very lightly when I brought this issue to its notice. The then Chief Minister of Goa in a public meeting in Keri said that he was not fully aware of the project, but the project will help minimise flooding in Sankhali,” Kerkar said.

Ramesh Gawas responded by saying, “If you don’t have a scientific approach to anything, how can you have a sound opposition to diversion of Mhadei river? Lack of scientific data is the biggest hurdle. No politician in Goa knows the ground reality. Hardly any politician must have studied the Mhadei river issue from all angles. This is very unfortunate as we are not able to present our case in the right manner,” he said.

“This is not just an ecological disaster. It is a political and social disaster as well when your politicians are not studious enough. This is a bad signal for the coming generations. They will be hit hard because of the ignorance of our politicians,” he added.

Speaking on the whole issue of notifying Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve which could have been Goa’s biggest tool to prevent Mhadei river water diversion, Gawas said, “In Goa’s plea, everything is mentioned about the Mhadeti wildlife sanctuary, except the tigers. Even the ecologically sensitive areas have not been mentioned. Mentioning 194 villages sounds vague. Government should give the list of villages which would be particularly affected due to the river diversion.”

He alleged that mining is the first priority for the Goa government. “Possibly there are sites where they want to undertake mining activities. That is why they have neither declared the eco-sensitive zones nor notified Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve,” he said.

Prakash Salelkar said that before declaring any forest area as a tiger reserve, that particular area should be first notified as a National Park, then it can be converted into a tiger reserve. 

“Tiger reserve can’t be a small area. It should be covering a large area because once you declare a tiger reserve, you need a lot of space for the tiger to move about freely. We have four wildlife sanctuaries, which can be connected with each other to form a Tiger Corridor,” he said. 

But, do all this, one needs scientific data, collected from all the sanctuaries to ascertain the area which is right for a tiger reserve. This has not been done. Even, the rights of the people within the sanctuary, have to be reserved.

“Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary was declared in 1969. But till date, the rights of the people living there have not been reserved. When the rights are not reserved, one can’t convert a forest area into a tiger reserve. There is no answer for why the rights have not been reserved,” the former RFO said.

New wildlife sanctuaries - Mhadei and Netravali were declared in 1999. It’s been 23 years and we have not been able to settle the rights of the people,” he said.

Tiger has a lot of restrictions. People need to be taken into consideration. Public hearings are required. 

“When we can’t even settle the rights of the people, how can we even think of having a tiger reserve? The Goa government has not shown its interest in settling the rights of forest dwellers. But the Forest department has prepared a plan regarding the tiger reserve and submitted it to various authorities. But nothing has happened so far,” he said.

When asked about the law regarding prohibition of water diversion from tiger reserve, Kerkar said that there are rules, but there are tiger reserves like Panna, where mining is allowed. 

“It all depends upon how you present your case. For example, regarding tiger reserve in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International had long back stated in its report that the safe corridor for tigers was in this patch of the Western Ghats linking Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. So, Goa could initiate the steps required to connect all these areas and protect the tiger corridor,” he said.

But way back in 2002, the State government denied the existence of tigers. Even now the Goa government is not ready to accept the presence of tigers. It says that the tigers temporarily migrate to Goa and then move out.

Ramesh Gawas recounted that when he was studying in the 10th standard in 1969-70, very close to his house lived a hunter, who used to pose for photos after killing a tiger. 

“Tiger was sighted in Sarvan village, Bicholim taluka in 1969. How can the government then deny the presence of tigers in Goa?” he asked.

When asked about his takeaways from his studies regarding hydro-geological evaluation of Mhadei River watershed in Goa and Karnataka, Prof Manoj Ibrampurkar said, “I started by understanding the difference between the rivers Mandovi and Mhadei. Many don’t understand the difference that Mhadei is the beginning and when it meets Khadepar further down, it becomes Mandovi.”

“I realised that there was hardly any data. So, I started quantifying my findings regarding water availability in Goa. There is only one water gauging station in Ganjem, which was very old. We had to measure the flow of water at various points. We measured the inflow of water into Goa from Karnataka. This should be actually done by the government,” he said.

Crores of rupees are being spent on a hydrology project, but basic necessities like river gauging stations, rainfall stations should be there. There are very few rainfall stations and the data collected from these stations is inadequate, he said.

“Then we started generating data about streams. We realised the Mhadei river basin in Karnataka is a rich environmental zone. It is more pristine there and now it is going to be destroyed, which is really unacceptable,” Prof Ibrampurkar said.

On the issue of dams, the environment expert said that there is no need for big dams.

“Bandharas are a very good model of storing and using water because it doesn’t inundate the adjoining land. But water released from dams submerges the areas around it, people are displaced, forest and agriculture fields are destroyed. There are multiple problems posed by big dams. Ultimately we need water. If that purpose is served by small bandharas, why do we need big dams? People like Medha Patkar are fighting against the large dams. Yet, people are unable to understand its implications,” he said.

When asked about the overall impact on the smaller water channels due to the diversion of Mhadei river, Prof Brampurkar said that Goa’s streams are rain-fed. 

“There will be water shortage downstream. Agriculture will be affected. The Khazan lands will be destroyed. Goa’s entire economy will be affected as it is based on many aspects, not just tourism. People connect Goa with only the coastal region. But Goa is much beyond the coastline. Interior Goa is the real Goa and we should understand how people live there and their needs,” he said.

When asked about any possible solution in this issue, Prakash Salelkar said that Goa should challenge the DPR in the Supreme Court. Only staging agitations won’t serve the purpose. 

“If Supreme Court is convinced by some scientific reasoning, then there is a possibility that it could give a ruling in Goa’s favour. The Wildlife Protection Act prohibits diversion of water from anywhere near the forest areas. It is meant for wildlife. Then the question of stopping it at the top does not arise in my opinion,” he said.

The entire issue of Mhadei river diversion has been going on for quite a long time. It is unfortunate that every time the Goa government is found wanting in securing its interests. There is still some hope, as mentioned by the environment experts in this debate. 

The State government should now get its act together and stage a legal fightback, backed with scientific facts, lest it loses Mhadei forever, which then would be catastrophic for the people of Goa. 


Idhar Udhar