Playing with water: Karnataka’s controversial river rejuvenation plan
Recently, Art of Living Foundation (AOL) head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar visited the dry Manjara riverbed in Latur, Maharashtra. AOL’s project Jal Jagruti Abhiyaan has been trying to ‘rejuvenate’ water sources there by dredging dry riverbeds with heavy machinery to remove accumulated silt. “Over two lakh people have been benefited in the state since the launch of the project in 2013,” Sri Sri claimed to the media. The project has earmarked 17 Indian rivers for this method of revival, but follows a questionable model - which provides water in the short term but does little for water conservation in the long term - that is espoused by the Maharashtra government, and now drought-hit Karnataka wants to implement it too.
This is Karnataka’s third successive year of drought - the worst in over 40 years. Over 135 taluks are drought-hit, and north Karnataka is seeing the worst of it, with the failure of both the kharif (summer) and rabi (winter) crops. 125 of the 127 villages in Aland taluk in Kalaburagi district are being supplied water through tankers. Things are so bad that on April 29, the state water resources minister, MB Patil, declared that the government was ready to use dead storage in reservoirs (the water below the level of the lowest outlet in a dam) to meet drinking water needs. In its profile on the Karnataka drought, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People states that nearly 1,000 farmers committed suicide between April and December 2015, while others are migrating in droves.
In this scenario, the Karnataka government has decided to adopt a dubious river ‘rejuvenation’ plan from Maharashtra. Last month, a team of senior officials of the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation visited Bengaluru to assess Karnataka’s water shortage. Headed by Parameswaran Iyer, secretary of the ministry, they met with HK Patil, Karnataka minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, and other state officials to discuss drought management techniques. A team from Latur (the epicentre of Maharashtra’s drought) made a presentation on Dhule district’s ‘Shirpur pattern’ of water conservation. The Shirpur pattern, used in Latur district as well, involves reviving groundwater by recharging wells using water from canals, building check dams on streams, and dredging rivers, making them deeper and wider in order to increase their capacity for rainwater storage.
The Shirpur pattern - referred to as the ‘angioplasty’ of water conservation - is deeply problematic. A 2011 government report concluded that it was unscientific and its benefits exaggerated. But Maharashtra went ahead using it as the basis of its Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan (JSA) scheme to try to make the state drought-proof by 2019. And now, according to a press release from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, “efforts are being made to replicate and scale this technique, and a pilot of the technique is being planned in North Karnataka to help the drinking water situation in the region.” S Vishwanath, director of Bengaluru-based Biome Environmental Solutions, a firm which works on ecological and economic design solutions, says, “Water conservation and groundwater recharge is a science. Before promoting any model, the local context of a watershed has to be studied. Implementing Shirpur pattern in Karnataka is like applying a band-aid for chicken pox.”
Pandurang Pole, collector of Latur, confirms that his district administration is assisting Kalaburagi, Bidar and some other districts of north Karnataka in water conservation works. In one of the worst drought crises the country has ever seen, our water management strategy is turning out to be a case of the blind leading the lame.
Despite the model’s dubiousness, both the CEO of Kalaburagi zilla parishad, Anirudh Sravan Pulipaka, and Aland MLA BR Patil, are keen to adopt the water conservation models of Maharashtra’s Latur and Dhule districts. Pulipaka has already prepared two reports on revival of water bodies in Aland taluk based on the stream widening and deepening works carried out in Latur. District-level officials in Karnataka are also keen to adopt a scheme on the lines of Maharashtra’s JSA. Meanwhile, the Karnataka government has launched a new scheme, Kere Sanjeevini, which aims to desilt lakes by June 15 and clean their feeder canals by dredging them using heavy machinery.
30-year-old Pulipaka aims to turn things around in his drought-hit district by using funds under the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme. In some villages, he has already begun works worth Rs 5 crore to deepen and widen canals. He told the the media that he plans to use all of the Rs 154 crore allocated for MNREGA projects in Kalaburagi on water conservation schemes.
There are already three private river rejuvenation projects in Karnataka by the AOL for the Kumudavati, Palar and Vedavathi rivers, though their pace is slower than in Maharashtra. When this reporter wrote to Union water ministry secretary Parameswaran Iyer asking about the Centre’s dubious plans to implement the Shirpur pattern in Karnataka, his secretary replied that the ministry “does not deal with water conservation”, though the ministry’s press release on the Karnataka meeting indicates otherwise. Manjunath Naik, Karnataka commissioner for Rural Drinking Water and Sanitation, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
When this reporter asked a senior official of the Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Commission, who asked not to be named, why dredging was allowed despite its negative ecological impact, he said, “People are doing something good. Why criticise it?” When prodded some more, he said, “In the coming years, maybe this dredging also will become a scam like irrigation in Maharashtra.” At the end of the day, this strategy is a populist, short-term political move which gives the suffering populace an illusion that a fix is at hand. And Karnataka seems ready to sign up for it despite the hazards.
Bursting the Shirpur bubble
Pradeep Purandare, former professor at the Aurangabad-based Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), dubs the Shirpur model “the genesis of all the unscientific river deepening projects being carried out across Maharashtra.” There’s no doubt that Karnataka needs a solution to drought, and fast. But Maharashtra’s Shirpur model is a poor idea that may end up doing little to recharge groundwater.
Since 2004, Shirpur tehsil has seen a series of water conservation works carried out by a retired geologist of the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA), Suresh Khanapurkar. In these projects - implemented in an area of about 200 sq km, covering about 35 villages - over 91 cement bandhs were created and 59 wells were recharged using 29 km recharge channels. Another 36 km of streams were widened by 10-15 m and deepened by 10-13 m. It was claimed, among other things, that these works would lead to a sudden rise in the groundwater table, recharge aquifers (geological formations that hold reserves of groundwater) and create a huge water storage capacity.
This is why the Shirpur model is so problematic: rivers and streams that have been dredged are not ‘rejuvenated’ per se - instead, they work as large storage tanks for water. Borewells and dug wells immediately near the dredged sections may get recharged temporarily, and machinery can be used to pump water from the river to fields on either side. This is just a short-term fix that benefits those with land near the river. Also, unscientific dredging raises the danger of dredged riverbed sand clogging the aquifers instead of reviving them, and dredging too deep can expose aquifers, causing the water in them to evaporate. Only when check dams and bunds are constructed at the right spot after hydreogeological studies will they recharge groundwater in the area, else it remains as stagnant water, depriving villages downstream of water.
To assess the Shirpur pattern, the Maharashtra government appointed an expert committee headed by Dr Mukund Ghare. The 2011 Ghare report - which was never made public - concluded that many of the interventions in Shirpur were scientifically and technically false. As activist and researcher KJ Joy, who saw the report, points out, the committee also found that the cost of the project was a few times more than that of existing water conservation programmes by the government, and no proper accounts had been maintained. It found that rivers were being deepened by 15 to 20 m, when all that was required was the removal of 1-3 m of clay. In basalt areas, the committee found that streams in Shirpur had been deepened too much, exposing aquifers.
The Ghare committee report was never accepted. Instead, another committee was set up in 2013, which recommended, among other things, that that sand or rocky structures at riverbed bottoms should not be dredged. Based on the new report, the state government issued a Government Resolution (GR) on May 9, 2013 recommending the deepening of streams, use of machinery, and other measures under the GSDA’s supervision. This GR, too, was later withdrawn.
In December 2014, the Maharashtra government launched its JSA scheme. One of the components of this programme is widening and deepening of streams to recharge aquifers. As of April 27, over 7,694 stream widening and deepening works have been undertaken in Maharashtra.
Is there a better way?
The basic principle of watershed management recommended by experts is the “ridge to valley method” - treat the catchment area of a river, right from the land on the highest point (ridge) to the lowest (valley). On the ridge, trenches are dug so that the water doesn’t flow straight down the valley, and plants are grown on the soil dug out from the trench so it doesn’t get washed back into the trench or perpetuate erosion. This ensures that farmland located away from river valleys is also able to receive water. Only after the ridge is treated should works be undertaken lower down.
Uday Deolankar, Agricultural Officer for Aurangabad, can vouch for the efficacy of the ridge to valley method. He says that it is also important for equitable water distribution as poorer Dalit and Adivasi farmers tend to own land along ridges, while richer farmers tend to own land along river valleys. “In the village of Bhadegaon, water supply was required through tankers until June 2015. After we implemented the ridge to valley method without requiring too much money,” says Deolankar, “the village hasn’t needed tankers at all.”
One is reminded of the stark contrast with the dredging project in Harangul, Latur, where those organising it say they spend Rs 1 lakh a day just to hire an earth mover. Deolankar also says the per capita annual income of residents in the village has gone up. Adinath Chavan, a ginger farmer in Bhadegaon, has had the highest ginger output per acre in all of Aurangabad this year. “We [Maharashtra’s Ministry for Agriculture] are hoping to replicate this model elsewhere in Aurangabad,” says Deolankar.
A better model to emulate, says Harshvardhan Dhawan, manager (rural water) at Arghyam, a foundation that grants funds for groundwater projects, is of villages like Randullabad in Satara district and Muthalane in Pune district. They have become drought-proof by adopting participatory groundwater management that marries scientific understanding with social structures. Groundwater experts work with the local people to carry out hydrogeological studies and, based on the total water available in the village, water is distributed by the locals themselves. Such works have also been carried out in Pargi village (Rangareddy district) in Telangana.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra’s Department for Water Conservation is heedlessly forging ahead with the JSA. HM Desarda, former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission, has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court against JSA and other private river deepening works. “Under so-called river rejuvenation projects, scattered works are being carried out without any understanding of the local geology or hydrology. Not even a single project has followed the ridge-to-valley method of water conservation,” he complains. Several water experts have already written letters to Maharashtra’s chief minister requesting a stop to haphazard water conservation works being carried out under the JSA.
The perils of DIY dredging
The present drought, affecting 60 percent of Maharashtra’s villages, and the government’s miserable failure to respond to it, has made people desperate. Many people are now attempting to dredge rivers themselves. It has become the government’s easy way out - giving citizens a free hand with public resources and cutting ribbons to launch these projects, as Latur’s collector Pandurang Pole has been doing.
“We do not want to depend on the government for water. We will bring our own water,” says a confident Nilesh Thakkar, who is part of Jalyukt Latur, a diverse group of residents who recently launched the Manjara river widening and deepening project. Through donations, Jalyukt Latur has collected Rs 7.5 crore, without government support, to deepen 18 km of the dried-up Manjara between Sai and Karsa barrages. The Art Of Living Foundation has also contributed Rs 1 crore and ‘technical guidance’ for the project.
In Aurangabad, CSR funds are being used to widen and deepen the Yelganga and Fullmasta rivers, both of which have dried up. In Harangul, Latur, village residents are frantically widening and deepening their dried-up main stream and mini-streams. “We want to deepen 27 km of the village stream, of which 18 km is already done,” says resident Mahesh Patil, an irrigation department official who also owns large tracts of land in Harangul, on which he grows sugarcane - a water-guzzling crop). “We are also building check dams to block rainwater,” adds fellow sugarcane farmer Suryakant Patil. “Seventeen check dams have been built, with 21 more planned.” Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has donated Rs 50 lakh for this project.
The problem with allowing such ‘people’s projects’ is that rivers are a common resource and need to be protected for all. Dredging, if it must happen, has to be planned and scientific. Currently, there is no official vetting, clearance, data or subsequent accountability for such projects that are environmentally suspect to begin with.
Arghyam’s Dhawan fears that ad-hoc river rejuvenation projects may further increase water conflicts instead of decreasing them since there is still no institutional mechanism for equitable distribution. When this reporter visited a dredging site along the Yelganga in mid-April, a restaurant and an ashram near the now-dry-again riverbed had dug private dugwells into the riverbed itself and were still receiving water months after the monsoon, while the villagers were not. At several sites such as in Latur’s Harangul and Manjara, over-enthusiastic citizens and NGOs have dredged upto 5-6 m or more.
Members of AOL are not unaware of dredging’s drawbacks. “Ideally, ridge to valley principle should be followed,” says Makrand Jadhav, state coordinator of AOL’s Youth Leadership Training Programme. “But Marathwada is facing an acute water shortage. This year we are deepening 18 km of Manjara river. But in the next two years, we will treat [involving water and soil conservation] the entire catchment area.”
Maharashtra began several thousands of dredging projects underway in the last year and a half, even though no studies have been conducted on the impact of carrying it out on such a scale. If the Karnataka government does adopt the Shirpur pattern on a large scale, will it be in charge of all of these projects or allow any citizen to take up river dredging? Will it ensure that the dredging is carried out scientifically, or encourage a dredge-first damage-control-later mode of action? We should ask before it’s too late.
(In arrangement with GRIST Media.)