By MADHUMITA MOOKERJI
Dams are opening up floodgates of ecological imbalance, says river cyclist Samrat Moulik who is on a mission to save the rivers and conserve water. The writer catches up with the man who pedalled from Gangotri to Padma in Bangladesh to raise awareness...
W ater is fast becoming as precious as gold in many regions of the world today due to shortage. Environmentalists warn that unless water is used more sagaciously when there is still time, the world may suffer from a water-crisis as never seen before. There are few people to tell us to turn that tap off when our thirst is satiated. One such is Samrat Moulik, freshly returned from a 5,200 km expedition from Ladakh to Kanyakumari. He calls himself a river cyclist, the only in the world he claims, riding solo with the motto: ‘Save River, Conserve Water’. In his mission, he mapped his route along the country’s major river courses. Moulik pedalled from Gangotri to Padma in Bangladesh, driven by the same mission.
He reminds us that around 97.5 percent of the world’s water is non-drinkable seawater, leaving just 2.5 percent as freshwater. Out of this 2.5 percent, 0.67 percent is potable, the rest being locked up in the two poles and mountain glaciers. Of this 0.67 percent, India’s share is 4 percent. Thus, the entire world’s population, flora and fauna are dependent only on this 0.67 percent global freshwater for survival. Having seen the country’s rivers up, close and personal cycling 8,200 kilometres, Moulik says that one of the most ill-planned infrastructure projects conceived since Independence are the river dams, which, while generating hydro-electricity, are also making man fish in troubled waters. A river is a living entity, Moulik stresses, whether glacial or rain-fed, and in this journey, it performs its own geological role. All great civilisations have evolved around rivers.
But human beings have tried to bind them with dams and barrages to restrict their free flow. India has travelled a long way since Independence, when the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had referred to the dams as the temples of modern India. But in recent years, from the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Dam on River Narmada, Tehri Dam on Bhagirathi river, and now Bursar Dam on River Chenab in Kashmir, have seen innumerable protests by environment activists. Why? “India wanted to copy-paste the US model but overlooked the fact that it may not work here. Rivers here are in spate during the three months of the monsoon, unlike in the West where rainfall occurs throughout the year.
In scorching summer, most of our rivers dry up. Thus, water is a precious resource and we need to conserve it,” Moulik stresses. A river, by nature, flows down carrying with it earth and broken rocks; when nearing the sea it disgorges its load on the flood plains which helps to facilitate a good crop. But, as Moulik explains, whenever a dam is constructed across a river, it creates reservoirs which hinder the uninterrupted flow of water. Consequently, silting becomes rampant. It has been seen globally that dredging has not been able to rid the river of its problems born of the dam. Moreover, when the glacier-fed river hurtles down, it meets the dam. Once the dam is unable to bind the waters, it is released into the lower catchment area, resulting in floods and devastation. “Thus, through our faulty planning, we ensure flood and devastation and loss of the precious water,” insists Moulik. Dams have other highly negative impacts.
One, obstruction of the natural movement of river fish. As the river flows through cities, it meets industrial effluents replete with harmful chemicals, municipality wastes and untreated water. The flora and fauna that feed on this water start undergoing genetic mutations, posing health hazards. Moulik laments the loss of rich fish haul of River Teesta. Because of the high velocity of the water, the surrounding areas are subsiding too. Some of the largest rivers in India flow through Uttarakhand located in the extremely environmentally fragile seismic zones IV and V. The Himalaya is the youngest fold mountains in the world and, still rising. Yet, there are over 70 dams constructed in the upper Ganga region. The moment a reservoir is formed, the river starts putting pressure on the surrounding mountain folds, which has led to catastrophes in past.
“I don’t think we have learnt any lesson from the Uttarakhand disaster,” Moulik observes. As for the downward journey of rivers, take for example, the Sundarban delta. “The delta was created out of the river’s ebb and flow which led to massive silt deposition that actually impeded the salty seawater’s entry. But today, the hydel power projects have disrupted this rhythm, leading to rapid coastal erosion and seawater is entering (‘I am talking of the Indian portion’). This is posing a danger to the tiger population which cannot survive on saline water. Secondly, the world’s largest mangrove forest is also at peril from an assault of salt water,” Moulik cautions.
Also, Moulik reminds, any kind of large infrastructure project like a river dam generates a huge amount of debris and dumping leads to rise in river beds resulting in floods. Dams offer tourism potential too. The Hoover dam in the US is one such. To promote tourism, road widening is a must which again leads to ecological imbalance through dynamite blasting of rocks, which, in any case, are sitting on a fragile zone. The debris from the blasting also add to rising river levels. As a result, a minor flash flood, cloud burst or glacial melting is today leading to dire natural consequences There is a social angle too in the form of displacement of locals.
“They lose agricultural land but rehabilitation initiatives are poor in India, as we all know,” says Moulik. Another aspect is climate change. “Average global temperature, in a few years, is likely to increase two degrees. Storms and floods are frequent. At such a juncture, man, instead of preserving precious water, is disrupting the natural flow of rivers in the name of hydro electricity generation,” Moulik rues. Way forward Moulik feels that instead of building huge structures, governments should give approvals for small check dams.
“The administration needs to study data to see the habitation along a course-changing river, the amount of agricultural land in its catchment area and arrive at an estimate of the water required and distribution. Unfortunately, in India the river is a state subject and there is often a Centre-state conflict and projects get delayed.” Rainwater harvesting should get more attention, the ‘river-activist’ says. A proper canal system, groundwater recharging and rainwater harvesting should be the way forward. A 200 sqmt school terrace in an area with 500 mm of rainfall can harvest almost 1 lakh litre of rainwater in one year. The solutions are there waiting to be explored. Sadly, it is mainly due to mismanagement of ground and surface water and lack of long-term vision that make us stare at an arid future, Moulik feels.