Rural areas in the downstream of the Narmada dam in the Bharuch district of Gujarat have been in the midst of one of the worst environmental disasters. Massive sea water intrusion from the Bay of Khambhat, for upto 40 kilometres eastwards into the Narmada has allegedly “destroyed” 10,000 hectares of agricultural land.
Following a joint meeting of gram sabhas of 18 affected villages, hundreds of rural folk, led by their sarpanches, approached the Bharuch district collector on June 17 saying the refusal of authorities to release fresh water from the Narmada dam has led to both sides of the river becoming saline. Following this, a Sangh Parivar outfit, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), in a representation to the district collector, said that around 10,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land had been badly affected.
Salimbhai Patel, sarpanch of Piraman village says, “The two sides of the banks, right up to the religious spot Shukalteerth, which is 40 kilometres from the Bay of Khambhat, have gone saline. Sea water intrusion for all this length, particularly during high tide, has devastated the whole area. Such is the situation that an increase in the flow of water from the Narmada dam is unlikely to solve the problem. You can see the agricultural land in Bharuch district having gone white with salinity. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that it would be possible to have salt pans in the region. Agriculture is fast becoming a thing of the past.”
While the drought may have aggravated problems this year, salinity ingress due to sea water intrusion has been continuing for years, adversely affecting the livelihood of fisherfolk. According to estimates provided locally, the catch of the hilsa, a rare, and one of the best species of fish, has reduced to about one-third this year, and there is already a fear that it may disappear, as it cannot be replenished through artificial breeding and regeneration. In 2013, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute’s (NEERI’s) Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for a weir at the mouth of Narmada river, to stop salinity ingress, had said that the share in the overall catch of the hilsa had declined to 43% from 87% in early 2000s. Majority of fishermen depend on the hilsa for their livelihood. Meanwhile, proposals have been floating around to provide subsidy for inland aqua farming along the river’s saline seabed as a livelihood option.
Back in 2005, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) had warned the Gujarat government to focus sharply on the deteriorating environment downstream of the Narmada dam, telling state officials during the NCA’s environmental sub-group meeting on January 6, 2005 on the need to maintain “enough flow” in the Narmada river beyond the dam, lest “it may be hazardous for the environment downstream with regard to flora and fauna, fishes, pollution, health”. The NCA had noted that restrictions on the flow of Narmada water beyond the dam had led to an acute shortage of sweet water along both sides of the river, making saline sea waters gush right to the downstream of the Narmada dam.
Harish Joshi, secretary of the Bharuch Citizens’ Council, an apex body of heterogeneous associations formed to focus on local problems, says he raised the issue with chief minister Anandiben Patel during a recent visit in early May to the town. “I sought her answer to the problem, but she refused to give any reply. We have represented to her in writing that even drinking water, being supplied to the city and the villages, has been badly affected, whether it is Bharuch town or surrounding villages.”
“Officials of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation have told me in several of the villages – Shukalteerth, Nand and Anganeshwar – as against the norm of 55 ppm, the salinity levels have crossed 800 ppm”, Joshi adds.
A senior Gujarat government official, attached with the state water resources department believes that as of today “there no solution” to the problem. He says, “Even as more and more water is made available from Narmada to Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra, the availability of water to the downstream of the river is going to drastically go down. It is natural, as we have to abide by the riparian rights of each state.”
The official, who did not want to named, says, “The only solution to the problem is to come up with the proposed weir on the mouth of river Narmada, at Bhadbhut, which would store sweet water, and stop sea water intrusion totally. The project to build the weir is currently under active consideration, and will be implemented soon.” When asked when, he said, “The Gujarat government has to decide on it, I can’t give you a time.”
The Bhadbhut project, for which an environmental hearing took place in 2013, has already become controversial, as strong concerns were expressed about the adverse impact on fishery, especially hisla, which breeds in brackish waters. The EIA report by NEERI for Bhadbhut said there weren’t “many fishermen” dependent on fishing, leading an unprecedented flutter among those dependent on fishing. Rallies were taken out to oppose Bhadbhut. Ever since, the project is in a limbo.
What made farmers particularly concerned this summer is that even a bare minimum of 600 cusecs (cubic metres per second) of water, which should be “theoretically” made available from the Narmada to the downstream areas, did not flow. “While the problem of sea water intrusion became more acute during high tide this summer, things are unlikely to improve unless environmental flow from the Narmada dam is constantly maintained over the entire year,” says Mahesh Pandya, an environmental expert and director of NGO Paryavaran Mitra, Ahmedabad. Commenting on the fresh release 6,000 cusecs following predictions of a good monsoon, Pandya says, “This may only temporarily solve the problem. Once the monsoon is over, things would return to where it was earlier if the flow is not maintained.”
Gujarat government insiders quote an internal assessment, according to which, ten times more water than the actual minimum flow “fixed” for Narmada river, 600 cusecs, should be made available as environmental flow to fight the problem of salinity. Even a study by the MS University, Vadodara had recommended a minimum of 1,600 cusecs of water flow to restrict salinity ingress. The Central Water and Power Research Station, Pune, had recommended 1,060 cusecs water to keep salinity ingress to a reasonable limit, the government sources say.
A state agency, Gujarat Ecological Commission’s draft report of 2003, “Environmental Action Programme of Gujarat”, had warned that the construction of dams for “the development of surface water potential” had led to “severe degradation in the downstream areas in the form of reduction in river flows and groundwater recharge, destruction of flood plain wetlands, salinity ingress in the coastal areas, and damage to natural eco-systems in river estuaries”.
Without mentioning Narmada, a holy cow in Gujarat, the report had said, “All river systems that have been dammed are experiencing these problems of downstream degradation.” It adds, “The process of natural recharge was disrupted after the construction of the dams, which resulted in drastic reduction in downstream flows. Also, most of these dams were overdesigned to capture the maximum water flow. As a result, water flows are often reduced to zero in many areas, especially in non-monsoon periods.”
Experts say, one of the main problems lies with the failure to understand that downstream rivers, after all, do need water. In his research paper, “Value as a Justification in Water Resource Development” in a new book “Business Interests and the Environmental Crisis” (edited by Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli, Sage, 2016), Shripad Dharmadhikary, coordinator, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Badwani, says one of the problems with India’s policy makers is, they have long believed that no drop of water should go “waste” into the sea.
Dharmadhikary quotes the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, which remains the law for the distribution of Narmada river waters between Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. It said, more than two decades ago: “In many years, there will be surplus water in the filling period after meeting the storage requirements (of the dam)… This will flow down to sea. Only portion of it will be utilizable for generating power… the rest will go waste. It is desirable that water which would go waste … should be allowed to be utilised by the party states to the extent they can…”
Dharmadhikary comments, “The use of the water for irrigation is certainly an important and valued use. This not being disputed. What is disputed is the notion that if the flowing water was not being used for irrigation (or some other specific uses like hydropower), then it was being wasted. This notion ignored the many other uses of water – some, like fisheries which benefited humans, and others which served the purposes of other life forms and maintaining ecology.”
The expert quotes top Gujarat-based professor Yoginder Alagh, a well-known Narmada dam protagonist, as saying, “The modelling (of Narmada waters) was so good that we very accurately used up all the water for the crops, the trees, and for drinking. We all forgot the obvious. Rivers also need water.”
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), meanwhile, estimates that the salinity along the river has affected about eight lakh rural people in the downstream. NBA leader Medha Patkar says, the situation is likely to worsen as time passes. “Already, Madhya Pradesh is lifting away big chunks of water, 172 crore litres per day through just two of its mini links, all for industrial use. With more dams to come up on Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, the use of water in the upstream is likely to increase drastically. The downstream problem would only aggravate, affecting farms, ground water, drinking water, irrigation and industrial water.” Patkar says. At Bharuch, “Narmada river has shrunk to 400 meters instead of 1.5 km near Bharuch city,” she says.
The author is a senior journalist in Ahmedabad.