Press Release: 15 December 2017
Can Interlinking Rivers and Greening their Banks Save our Cities?
A report of a symposium organized by Environment Support Group
In what turned out to be a most engrossing discussion on “Can Inter-linking our Rivers and Greening their Banks save our Cities?” Organized by Environment Support Group at Ashirvad, Bangalore, on December 15, 2017, theatre activist and Playwright Shri Prasanna Heggodu delved into the importance of introspection whilst addressing the prevailing state of affairs of the World. In particular addressing the problematic proposition of interlinking rivers, Prasanna argued that it is not an issue in which we can target the government or the Supreme Court or Narendra Modi as Prime Minister as chasing what seems like a scheme that has not been comprehensively understood. In fact, he suggested that this is a challenge which demands our attention in addressing the path our civilization has adopted. For the first time in our civilization, the material world and the spiritual world are both asking the same question. “All of us are interested in a holistic way of life- constructing a world which is sustainable, not divided. But our training is such that we are not holistic as we are divided sectorally”, he said. The problem, however, is that we are only talking to governments and not speaking to and with the people. We are not speaking in a language familiar with and understood by people everywhere of an issue that should matter to everyone.
Prasanna proposed that the real remedy to our prevailing situation cannot be found by addressing facts with counter facts. “The language of communication for our struggles has to be metaphorical. The river has to flow. It is metaphorically linked with the flow of life. All this technology of linking rivers is about tinkering and tampering with nature”, he concluded.
Major General S. G. Vombatkere (Retd.) of National Alliance of Peoples Movement presented how the entire proposition of Interlinking of rivers is presented as if it is as simple an idea transferring excess flood water from the Ganges to drought affected regions of peninsular India through a network of canals. What is not communicated, and thus not understood widely, is that this demands a massive network of mega dams and canals at a scale which is unprecedented. He also asked how we can even manage to transfer the flood waters of the Ganges when with all the proposed dams and canals we can only transfer a theoretical maximum of 4% of the flood waters. Thus, the very idea of proposing droughts can be resolved by transferring flood waters is preposterous to say the least. He argued that the Supreme Court bench composed of then Chief Justice A S Anand and Justice B N Kripal did not have any material before them justifying the viability of mega scheme and yet went on to rule that the project has to be implementing. The solution lies in ensuring people are informed and aware of the colossal and irreversible damage that this project will cause, and in fact attack the very economic and ecological security of India.
Dr. Sharatchandra Lele, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment addressing the question: ‘Can river water sustain Bangalore’s water demands?’ said that even after importing 1350 MLD water every day you do not know where half the water is going. In such a scenario, the question is not if we can sustain massive urbanization by continuing to waste fully and destructively import waters from rivers further and further away, resulting in their destruction and causing great discontents everywhere, but to ask the introspect how we participate in this process. The solution lies in containing the damage and ensuring that rivers can flow. He said that there is increasing evidence of the fact that river flow in the Western Ghats rivers is declining even when there is no deforestation. In fact, studies have revealed that it is the constant and ever-increasing interference and withdrawal of water along and around the rivers, in effect interfering with the hydrology of the river system, is what is causing a decline in river flow. When this is the case with Western Ghats rivers the fact that cities like Bangalore are being expended on a claim to such far away rivers is a serious problem that needs to be addressed frontally.
Dr. Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment addressing the question: ‘Does greening river banks save rivers?’ contextualized the problematique of understanding rivers today as how the Gujarat government claims it has managed to snatch the Narmada river from the grasp of Supreme Court and Medha Patkar. It is in such commodification of river system that the entire meaning and essence of the complexities of the rivers is lost. In fact, it is considered that rivers are merely conduits of water and that it is merely a technological probability of shifting water from one river to another. What is not at all appreciated in the prevailing discourse is that it is inter-basin transfer of water that results. That Himalayan rivers are young and highly sedimented, and very distinct in their ecology and behavior as compared with the much older peninsular rivers is not even part of the discourse. Further, the problem is that it is presumed by planting trees on the either side of the river can be saved, resuscitated and rehabilitated, when in fact it may be totally unscientific proposition to plant trees along river banks as that would grossly interfere and alter adversely riverine ecologies. The proposal of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari that he would de-silt rivers and use the sediments to build the highways alongside to irreversibly disastrous as that would deny the river system of sediments which is critical to keeping its water clean, and is a critical habitat giving rivers its life sustaining qualities.
Suprabha Seshan of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Wayanad addressing the theme ‘Listening to Rivers’, read from her poem ‘Cry me a river’ in memory of Lata Anatha who fought to save till her very end the Chalakudy River from a disastrous dam proposed at Athirapally Falls. The Poem can be found here.
A.R. Shivakumar of the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology, addressed the theme “Making Water Bangalore Rich”. Explaining how the city is not facing a dearth of water but gross misunderstanding of what water means, he suggested that the city must realise that it is not water only if it comes out of pipes fed with Cauvery. There is so much water in the form of rain, run off and through delightfully tasteful well water that is simply not considered as water. Instead of focusing on highly decentralized systems of water conservation and water governance, the basic idea is to propose projects that are capital intensive, technologically complex, heavily dependent on energy and personnel, and thus extremely expensive. Besides, there is also the problem that people feel water must come free from the government, when in fact they thoughtlessly consume water which is privatized in many forms: such as through bottled water which is extremely damaging in its production. All this adds up to not realizing that simply techniques of harvesting rain in every house, complex and neighbourhood can save Bangalore from perpetual dependence on faraway rivers, which is highly unsustainable. He also shared how the dependence is also precarious as with all the storage reservoirs built in Bangalore to supply Cauvery supply, they hold only a day’s supply. Should the pumping stations fail, there will be no water in Bangalore. Meanwhile, the water that can be so easily and safely stored in the ground or in lakes is completely ignored, no investment is made to their safeguard and also there is simply no attention paid to ensuring they can become reservoirs to support the drinking water needs of the city. Despite all the investment in diverting rivers from faraway rivers, less than half the city’s population gets water from the Cauvery and the rest depend on the fast depleting ground water aquifers, which are not being recharged. The way forward is to decentralise governance of water conservation and supply, Shivakumar argued, saying this would also enhance transparency in water tariff, provisioning, use and abuse.
Joe Athialy of the Centre for Financial Accountability addressing the theme ‘Where is the money to finance these mega schemes?’ said that no financial viability is done for the intelinking of rivers project. “A project of this magnitude cannot go ahead without financial viability analysis. Such an analysis should factor in the social and environmental costs as well, and not just construction costs”, he argued. Rs. 56,00.000 crores projects as the cost of the project by the Government of India, does not include any of the massive social and environmental costs, he added. If the controversial Narmada Dam is considered, highly productive and ever fertile lands in Madhya Pradesh, that provided three food crops, were submerged to bring water to arid regions of Gujarat that grows dryland crops. But this justification which was employed for decades turned out to be bogey as much of the water is now being consumed by water guzzling industries. This is not just the case in Narmada but in several other dams. All this means that with interlinking of rivers, this model of dam building will only support high levels of financialisation and commodification of water, which would ensure the project is fatally in debt. If previous experience with big dam building and diversion were considered, it is more than likely that the interlinking of rivers will result in creation of dams that will not support drinking water and agrarian demands, but those of the capital and water intensive industries.
Himanshu Upadhya of Azim Premji University speaking on ‘Is there any due diligence of these mega projects?’ said, “There is none.” But the problem is not there is none. But there is not even a question raised that there is no such due diligence. The bigger the projects, the lesser the number of questions that are asked, when, rationally, the contrary should be the case. The problem today is that the Government constantly pushes for mega projects, such as interlinking of rivers requiring mega dams and canals, and humongous numbers are thrown at us. “We should not be afraid of this game”, he said. “We must demand they explain these numbers to us, for it is being done with not only our money, but that of several generations to come”. Which brings up the question of audits, and in most cases involving mega dams and interlinking of rivers there is none, said Himanshu.
Drawing the symposium to a closure, Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group suggested that this idea of this process was not to provide answers to questions that come to our mind, but to ensure these questions not merely trouble some of us, but everyone in fact. This is a process which has to take place everywhere as everyone will be directly impacted by inter-linking of rivers. The fact that such projects are promoted with very little public and legislative enquiry, in fact based on a blind faith in technology is worrying, as much as is worrying that millions are guided into believing the mere act of planting trees along river banks will save rivers and ensure we all have water security. While it the responsibility of the Government to deconstruct our collective access to water security, the fact that it is not doing that, but, in fact, confusing and confounding the issue by proposing mega schemes is a paradigm that has to be engaged with. The approach has to be transformative of the collective mind, so that we can all ensure our actions aren’t a crucible that will destroy the chances of future generations to also survive.
This note of the proceedings of the symposium has been prepared by Harsh Vardhan Bhati, Namrata Kabra, Apoorva Patil and Mallesh K. R. of Environment Support Group.
Environment Support Group
#1572, 100 feet road, Banashankari 2nd Stage