April 05, 2019

Mahanadi needs rejuvenation plans to remain a live river system

Mahanadi River at Mundali barrage near Cuttack city, Odisha
Photograph: Basudev Mahapatra

At the centre of the dispute, since 2016, between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over sharing of water, River Mahandi is getting overstressed and its basin ecosystem degrading day by day

Mahanadi is the sixth largest river of India. It originates from a pool, 6 KM from Farsiya village of Dhamtari district, in the State of Chhattisgarh, and flows about 851 KM east through Odisha to reach the Bay of Bengal near Paradip in Jagatsinghpur district.

Called the lifeline of Odisha, Mahanadi and its branches are now incapable to deliver expected ecosystem services. The river system is nearing death because of decades of (over)exploitation, and lack of ecological sensitivity in all plans for its management, says the report, Mahanadi: Coal Rich, Water Stressed, authored by Ranjan Panda, water and environmental activist.

Counting the river as a source of water, the aforesaid riparian states have been fighting for their share of water from Mahanadi to meet the increasing water needs of the industries, coal fired power plants and the urban setups dependent on either the main river or its branches to fulfill their water requirements.

Water for industries

Industrialisation being the focus of governments in both mineral rich states, series of dams and barrages are constructed to capture water and control the flow of Mahanadi. This has led the river towards a state of severe water stress while farmers and fishermen across the basin have almost lost their rights over the river and its water, thus the primary sources of their livelihood.

On one side, the basin is open for rampant coal mining and industrialisation including a series of coal-fired power plants, which contribute to both global and local warming, and high level of pollution. On the other side, changing land use pattern, vegetation loss and degraded ecosystems limit the scope for the local communities to cope with the impacts such as climate change, disturbed rain pattern and the resultant natural disasters like flood and drought.

Farmers living in the
basin do not get water from the river for irrigation during dry seasons because their share is taken away by industries. As environmentalist Ranjan Panda once said, Mahanadi basin offers a dangerous cocktail of heat, pollution and acute water scarcity to the people living in it.

Dams destroy

In the case of Mahanadi, while Hirakud Dam has already done a lot of damage to the local ecology, the new structures built by Chhattisgarh will add to the damages. Underlining that dams alter the flow pattern in a river, which in turn affects its aquatic biota. Citing fisher-folks’ observations, the report mentions that there has been drastic reduction in fish catch and diversity in the river mainly due to Hirakud Dam.

But, unfortunately, there is demand from different stakeholders for more dams to capture the water with claims that most of the river water is flowing as “waste” to the Bay of Bengal, Panda, author of the report says.

"River is a natural system that flows to the sea while recharging the basin during its flow and add freshwater and sediments to keep salinity of the ocean balanced so that ocean ecosystem can thrive,” he explains.

To Arttabandhu Mishra, a retired professor of life science, “No river is either deficient or surplus in terms of water drainage but is a system according to the need of the nature. The water flowing into the oceans is part of the system and, so, cannot be called waste."

Climatic threats

Mahanadi is virtually struggling for a life under the industrialisation dreams of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Adding to it are the negative impacts of temperature rise and climate change.

Stating that climate change is a major factor for growing distress of the Mahanadi, the report mentions that the river is facing a decreasing trend in the monsoon flows at the Hirakud dam, which is believed to be the impact of climate change induced by temperature rise.

In the year 1999-2000, the minimum and maximum temperature of the basin ranged between 7 and 45.5 degree Celsius, which went up to a range between 13 and 48.8 degree Celsius by 2012, the report cites.

While rising temperature has led to decrease in water yields by more than 10 per cent for the Mahanadi, deforestation has added to the climatic threats to the river. “At present, the basin seems to be both a major contributor to climate change as well as is bearing a huge impact of the same,” the report says.

Ways ahead

However, with the dispute over share of Mahandi water arose in 2016, the Odisha government moved to the Supreme Court same year seeking a direction to the upstream riparian state of Chhattisgarh to stop works of all under-construction barrages and dams on the river. In March 2018, following a directive of the apex court, the union government of India constituted a three-member tribunal, as per the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, to take a decision on this.

Process of tribunal coming to a conclusion being time consuming, as experts apprehend, Mahanadi would be in an unrecoverable state by the time the case is decided by the tribunal because the river system continues to degrade. The tribunal may not contribute much in order to stop the trend to save Mahanadi on priority when Mahanadi needs ecological rejuvenation on an urgent basis.

So, need of the hour to save Mahanadi as a live river system is a joint strategic action plan from both the major riparian states to deal with environmental issues and climate change to help the river survive the stress and get rejuvenated. There should be continuous dialogue between the states involving people, civil societies and other stakeholders as well.

Unless actions are taken promptly, Mahanadi River will be dragged further towards its death with every passing time leading the riparian states to engage in battles between themselves and their own people – farmers, fisherfolk, forest dwellers, and environmentalists.

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