Rejuvenation of Rivers

Challenge to politics, faith

By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

The Union Government has plans to clean all rivers in the country — a task urgently required, but most difficult to accomplish. Expectations are high from new Minister for Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation Nitin Gadkari, who seems to be keen on taking up a challenging task. Adopting the Ganga Law and starting five river-linking projects that are in the pipeline are among his priorities.
Cleaning rivers is part of rejuvenation of rivers which has been going on all over the world in very small to long and deep rivers in all continents. Water scarcity and environmental degradation have drawn the attention of governments, NGOs, and general public to the urgency of restoring and cleaning water resources that nature has bestowed.
There are some popular leaders and voluntary organisations engaged in creating awareness and initiating popular schemes for restoring dwindling water resources in our country which are indeed our lifeline. One such group, The Art of Living, is reported to have taken up over 30 projects in which hundreds of volunteers are participating.
Launching a nationwide campaign for “Rally for Rivers”, a social leader remarked that we have today 75 per cent less water per person than in 1947 and almost 25 per cent of India is turning into a desert. The common man facing acute water problem in all States is inclined to believe these figures and does not look for verification. It is feared that very soon, perennial waters will become seasonal.
Remember, a recent verdict pronounced by the Nainital Court in Uttarakhand granted to the Ganges and Yamuna the same legal rights as enjoyed by human beings with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities. How they can be enforced and who is the custodian of the right to protect them are, however, still vague.
This verdict is doubtless one of far-reaching significance in many respects in the context of the pathetic condition of many rivers including the holiest of the holy. It follows the example of Whanganui River in New Zealand, a river revered by indigenous Maori people as sacred, which has been declared as a living entity with full legal rights by the Government of New Zealand by a law passed in Parliament. The law blocks hydro-electric projects. Ecuador in South America is the first country in the world to secure the rights of nature in 2008 in its Constitution called “Panchamama”. In 2011, Bolivia enacted the Law of Mother Earth.
The situation in India definitely cannot correct itself by natural cycles since human activities are day by day adding to global warming and climate change which will only worsen conditions. Faith-related polluting activities and political rivalry in sharing water add ammunition to people’s ignorance and pose a combined challenge to the very future of rivers.
Relevant in this connection is a silent movement against dam construction in some places. “It is time to give permanent protection to free flowing rivers”, is the idea of activists leading a movement to decommission dams in the US. Dam removal in Elwha River in Washington, claimed as a big success, is the world’s largest dam removal project. In 1992, dam removal was approved by a legislation and two dams on the river were dismantled by 2012 restoring the eco system.
Between 1990 and 2015, over 900 dams are reported to have been removed in the US. Every year 50 to 60 dam dismantling operations are being taken up primarily for restoring the natural eco system. This is indeed unbelievable in India where dam wars are common between States fighting for share of water.
France and Canada have also removed dams. Japan embarked on a similar project in the Arase Dam on the Kuma River in 2012. Over 5,000 large dams around the world were counted as over 50 years of age in 1996. By 2020, 85 per cent of dams in the US alone would have crossed 50 years and would require reconditioning.
On the contrary, Asian countries are busy constructing dams as the best solution to their water scarcity problem. India is no exception having built nearly 3200 major/medium dams and barrages since 2012. There are over 100 dams of various sizes in the Cauvery basin. It requires a combined analysis by experts from all disciplines to examine the safe limits of human intervention in nature’s course.
Israel has earned unique reputation for innovative water management in which government, industry, and academia work closely together. It has a highly centralised system of water governance to manage the needs of different fields of activity. Under Israel’s Water Law, “nature” is in the list of “legitimate recipients of fresh water allocation” along with agriculture, industry, and households. Standards are continuously improved in the quantum and quality of water.
India is several times bigger than Israel and has a federal system with strong State units keen on serving State interests. Its water problems are too big to make any meaningful comparison with Israel or transplanting its model of operation. Still, strategies to ensure coherence and coordination between varied interests may be learnt. Shifting the item “water” concerning aspects of storage and water power from the State to the Central List in the Constitution is no solution given the way party politics and water politics are played in the country.
Rejuvenation of rivers in the country is understood by the common men as restoring the original vigour of rivers, that is, making them younger and removing or at least lessening impurities and their sources. In technical language of geomorphology, a river is said to be rejuvenated when it is eroding the landscape and lowering its base level. Base level of river water flow can change in two ways – uplift of land or lowering of the sea. Tectonic activities also result in land uplift.
Deterioration in rivers is caused over several years by steady increase of human intervention in the name of custom, religion, and development, but rejuvenation is being planned as direct operation at the site of rivers.
Germany has played an enormous role in rejuvenating the Rhine River which passes through many countries and was once declared the dirtiest river. It provides the incentive for Clean Ganga project which seems to require the blessings of some divine power.
Dravyavati River Rejuvenation Project in Jaipur, is a pioneering attempt to restore a river from dry and arid landscape. It aims at cleaning the water, augmenting ground water as well as preventing flooding. It will improve acqua life and create better aesthetic surrounding. The project will also widen the channel.
Karnataka has adopted a water conservation plan tried in north-east Maharashtra known as “Shirpur Plan” which is hailed as a miracle cure for drought. It involves recharging wells using water from canals, building check dams on streams, and dredging rivers to increase their capacity to store water. But, its suitability for Karnataka cannot be taken for granted.
Uncoordinated local schemes for “protection” of rivers going on in the country can also yield good results provided political rivalry and bureaucratic pressure respond to the gravity of the situation and people’s sentiments and greed are not allowed to destroy natural wealth.—INFA