Downstream Extinctions – Mahakali River

The Pancheshwar dam is proposed to be taller than any dam currently standing on earth. It also happens to be the dam that might impound the still free Mahakali river, the last Himalayan river that still flows free from source to confluence. There have been various reports about the many technical issues with the construction of the dam including the fact that it is unsuitably placed in the highest seismic activity zone.

Emmanuel Theophilus, who has extensively documented the Kali and many other Indian rivers, speaks here in words and pictures about the threats that this project poses to the downstream areas and numerous flaws in the project plans. This post is borrowed from his Facebook blog called Nadisutra, where he shares his thoughts, images and journeys on Indian rivers. 

Photos from an overcast morning in December 2012, along the floodplain of the Mahakali river, on the Nepal bank.

The first photo is from a place called Chandni, and you can see the vast floodplain at a time where the river is at its lowest flow. In the monsoon, you can’t see the other bank; the river is as wide as the floodplain on both sides. You can see from the low foothills in the far right of the photo, that the river has just come down to the plain. The dense forests on the far right are Sal forests of the Terai in the Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, from where I had just emerged. Interspersed with dense forests, are vast tracts of marshland and savannahs of tall grass.

The second photo is taken from a watchtower so you can’t really tell, but it is tall enough in places, to hide rhinos and elephants. And it does.

This place is the beginning of a vast network of inter-connected Protected Areas in India and Nepal, that comprise one of the last remnants of flood-plain ecosystems, and that harbour and sustain some of our most endangered wildlife. Tigers, rhinos, elephants, the Gharial and Mugger crocodiles, the Barasingha or Swamp deer, and the hispid hare; to name a few. All threatened with extinction, and all, animals of riparian marshland and grassland savannah. Birds? Just 300 sq km of the Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve has 424 bird species, including the very rare Bengal Florican, the Swamp Francolin, and the Grass Owl.

These Wildlife Reserves and National Parks in India and Nepal work as a conservation unit, because they are contiguous and provide connectivity, and provide sufficient habitat only when put together. They provide a mosaic of complementary habitat types, and are longstanding corridors for seasonal movement of the valuable wildlife being protected. On the Indian side they are the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, the Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. On the Nepal side there is the Shuklaphanta Wild Life Reserve, and contiguous to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in the North, is the Bardia National Park. This unique habitat is currently protected as part of a global strategy to conserve representative example of all the world’s ecosystems; the Terai Arc Landscape.

All these are located on either side of the Mahakali-Sharda river, and are interlaced with minor tributaries. These marshlands, swamps and grasslands are completely dependent on the seasonal floods in the Mahakali river during the monsoon to be what they are; productive habitats for wild animals, birds, as well as humans. It is flood spates that create, renew and sustain their productivity. It is floods that also provide hydrological connectivity, and seasonal isolation for the breeding of these animals. Natural flow variability is everything.

However, all this is set for collapse. Apart from generating more electricity, a further justification for building the giant Pancheshwar dam upstream of all of this, is purported ‘flood control’. Hasn’t it been over two decades since river science clearly got it; that floods are not an undesirable phenomenon, and not a disaster? No more than a train is a disaster, unless you get in its way? The entire fertile Gangetic plain is created from debris and nutrients brought down from the Himalaya in flood pulses. It is flood events that connect a river, the centre, to its landscape, its periphery. Laterally, along its vast riparian flood-plain, horizontally with groundwater, and longitudinally down to the oceans.

People living for over 3,000 years along the Gangetic basin, particularly the lower lying northern banks, know this only too well. Their villages and pucca homes are on raised terrain. Those who don’t own land on higher ground, make homes of reed and bamboo raised on stilts, that can be dismantled and put up elsewhere. Floods have renewed the fertility of their fields, and they live for a few months on stilts, platforms and boats, and on the bounty of the river for food. As they have done for thousands of years.

While other nations are now dismantling their dams and unfettering their rivers to flow free and alive, the Project Document for the Pancheshwar dam, continues with the obsolete narrative of floods as disaster, and justifies part of the enormous cost (INR 331 Billion) by offsetting them against notional gains in terms of crops saved from floodwaters. The tables on planned releases for irrigation show that zero compulsory monsoon flows are provided for, other than those already required for irrigation in the Lower Sharda Command Area. In winter, during the lowest flows, stored water will be used to augment irrigation where a canal network already exists. Which means zero flows for the downstream sections of this large river, which, after its confluence with the Ghaghra, was the largest tributary of the Ganga. And they want to clean the Ganga by choking and diverting its largest tributary? What can we expect as a result of the Pancheshwar dam?

At the very least, a collapse of the entire complex of dependent Wildlife Reserves downstream, driving the Tiger population and all that its ecosystem represents to the very brink of extinction. The dispossession of millions of people downstream of the means for their survival, and a death knell for the already dying Ganga.

Do India and Nepal need to pay this cost for just some more electricity, when there are now other cheaper, safer, less damaging means of producing it? If you think this conversation is worthwhile, please do join in and share.

– Theo

Join in on the conversation by heading to Theo’s blog – facebook.com/Nadisutra.

If you have any thoughts, questions or ideas you want to share, you can email us at contact@veditum.org. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *