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River Cauvery being exploited to the brink

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By Syed Ali Mujtaba

The Cauvery river water issue, which is a bone of contention between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and also entangles Kerala and Puducherry, is now caught up in a new row. This time within Karnataka itself, where the river majestically flows and on which as many as 62 Mini Hydel Projects are commissioned by the state government, having adverse impact on the water supply, hydrology, ecology and environment.

According to media reports, “following the drastic fall in the water-level in the Shiva Balancing Reservoir (SBR), the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has asked Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Ltd. (KPTCL) and Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd. (KPCL) to stop power generation from four mini-hydroelectric projects in the Cauvery basin, at least till May.”

The projects that were asked to stop generation include: Madhavamantri, Satyagala, Shiva Anecut and Shimsha mini-hydroelectric projects.

However, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People SANDRP is dismayed about the latest move. Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP inquires about the status of 58 other mini-hydroelectric projects on Cauvery River that are causing immense environmental damage.

The Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL) has commissioned a whopping 62 mini hydel projects on the Cauvery, most of them downstream KrishnarajSagar Dam.

“Some of these projects are downstream from the Shiva Anicut from where water supply to Bangalore is routed. In addition to decrease in water availability, water stored by several mini hydel projects increases the evapo- transpiration rate of water, particularly in summer,” says Parineeta.

“These projects also hold back water, critically affecting water supply cycles to Bangalore and other towns and villages dependent on the river. Similar conditions had occurred in Mangalore, last year, where water levels in the Thumbe Dam fell to alarming levels due to mini hydel projects hoarding up water in the upstream” she adds.

“If at all the state government, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) and others are concerned about impact of water supply due to mini hydel projects on Cauvery, they need to consider the impact of these projects on the water supply, ecology and livelihoods in the downstream areas. There is an urgent need to consider halting power generation of these projects during this summer when the Cauvery basin is facing dire water crisis” she argues.

Cauvery River is popularly known as Jeevanadhi in Karnataka which in Kannada, language means a river supporting life. Its origin is traditionally placed at Talakaveri, Kodagu in the Western Ghats in Karnataka.

The river flows south and east through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and across the southern Deccan plateau through the southeastern lowlands, emptying into the Bay of Bengal through two principal mouths.

The Cauvery basin is estimated to be 81,155 km with many tributaries. The river's basin covers 4 states and Union Territories - Karnataka (34,273 km), Tamil Nadu (43,856 km), Kerala (2,866 km) and Puducherry (160 km).

Rising in southwestern Karnataka, the river flows southeast some 800 km to enter the Bay of Bengal. After the river leaves the Kodagu hills and flows onto the Deccan plateau, it forms two islands, Srirangapatna and Shivanasamudra. Three kilometers away from Srirangapatna, the Cauvery is the basis for the Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary.

In east of Mysore is the island Shivanasamudra, on either side of which are the scenic Shivanasamudra Falls that descend about 320 ft (100 m). Asia's first hydroelectric plant was built in 1902 on the left falls and supplied power to the city of Bangalore.

Cauvery River is the source for an extensive irrigation system and for hydroelectric power. In its course through Karnataka, the channel is interrupted by twelve "anicuts" (dams) for the purpose of irrigation. In addition to providing many ancient and modern canals with water from the river for irrigation purposes, the Cauvery also serves as the main drinking water source for many towns and villages. The cities of Bangalore, Mandya and Mysore depend almost entirely on the Cauvery for their drinking water supply.

Mini Hydel Projects which are below the capacity of 25 MW do not need Environmental Clearance, Environment Impact Assessment or public hearing. More than 60 Mini Hydel projects are planned or commissioned on Cauvery River, one after the other, severely affects the hydrology as well as ecology of a river system and also people and their livelihoods in surrounding areas.

Many projects are right next to the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and are causing impediment to movement of elephants, increasing man-animal conflicts. This has been highlighted by the Karnataka Elephant Task Force. Due to their cumulative impacts on ecology, High Court of Karnataka has halted construction of any such projects in Western Ghats, informs Parineeta of SANDRP.

SANDRP appeals for a cumulative impact assessment of mini hydel project commissioned along the River Cauvery that is urgently needed, keeping water supply, hydrology and ecology in view.

Cumulative impact assessment and Individual impact assessment of unprecedented number of mini hydel projects is also required urgently because of approaching summer and dire water situation in the state, says Parineeta.

Earlier such appeals to Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL), Karnataka Forest Department and Karnataka Wildlife Board had fallen on deaf ears, she says.

This time Parineeta hopes that the Karnataka government, BWSSB, KPCL, KREDL, KPTCL, Cauvery Neeravari Nigam and all others concerned will come together and conduct this assessment urgently and cancel the projects which are having unacceptable impacts on people, ecology, hydrology and water supply of Cauvery.

As Cauvery needs urgent attention, SANDRP along Nityata Foundation, Bangalore and River Research Centre, Kerala has made this appeal on the International Day of Action for Rivers.
Parineeta Dandekar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) can be contacted at parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com]

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