The Mhadei flows through ecologically rich areas
Mhadei sharing: Not politics alone, but ecology as well
Derek Almeida, Panaji
The division of the waters of the Mhadei has become a political hot potato with Karnataka planning three dams on tributaries of the river which has traditionally flowed unimpeded into Goa where it finally joins the iconic Mandovi.
On February 13 the Supreme Court told Karnataka that it could not go ahead with construction activities on the Kalasa and Bhandura nullahs of the Mhadei river without obtaining necessary forest and environment permissions.
The court essentially upheld the 2018 verdict of the Mhadei Water Disputes Tribunal which gives 97 percent of the flow of the river to Goa and 5.32 tmc to Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Goa, though bound by the tribunal’s order, holds the view that no water at all should be diverted from the Mhadei because of the adverse impact that it will have on the natural resources of the state.
The belief in Goa is that the Mhadei will dry up and die and with it the environment it supports will be destroyed, if water is diverted by Karnataka, even though it is yet to produce a scientific study to prove its point. Despite this hiccup, the tribunal accepted Goa’s contention that allocation of the river’s waters must take into account environmental needs.
The total length of the river is 111 km with 35 km in Karnataka and the remaining in Goa. The river has a catchment area of 2,032 sq km, with 1,580 sq km in Goa, 375 sq km in Karnataka and 77 sq km in Maharashtra.
The water availability in the Karnataka catchment area is 32 tmc, in Maharashtra 7.21 tmc and the remaining 148 tmc is in Goa.
The river flows through some of the most beautiful and bountiful parts of the three states and environmentalists in Goa argue that diversion of water from the Mhadei by Karnataka and Maharashtra would damage the rich flora and fauna along the river’s route.
LACK OF DATA
During the hearing of the Tribunal, Rajendra Kerkar, who deposed as an expert witness on environment, ecology and forest, said the water requirement for environment flow was around 50 tmc (preferred) and not less than 28 tmc. He was the only one who presented a study on environmental flows.
Kerkar was, however, hard-pressed for an answer when the tribunal questioned if any study had been done to ascertain the effect on the environment by diversion of 72 tmc by Goa for irrigation through various projects yet to be implemented.
In the end, Kerkar’s arguments of environmental flows required in the river were rejected for want of a scientific approach and lack of data.
Kerkar has been following development along the Mhadei in Karnataka for over two decades and the saying in Goa is that if Karnataka places even one brick, Kerkar would get to know about it.
Speaking to Civil Society, Kerkar made it amply clear that he did not agree with the findings of the tribunal. “The yield in the Mhadei is less than 100 tmc and the tribunal overestimated the total water in the river to favour Karnataka. Mhadei is a west flowing river and old formulae was used to calculate the yield. The Inglis formula used by the tribunal was developed in 1947 since rainfall and runoff data were not available.”
When asked why Goa was protesting against trans-basin transfer of water when it has been held as legal by two water disputes tribunals, Kerkar said transfer of water from the Mhadei to the Malaprabha would intensify the man-wildlife conflict. “Trans-basin transfer of water will destroy the natural flow coming in the direction of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, while transfer of water from the Bhandura will affect the Bhimgad sanctuary.”
Several complex ecological issues have arisen. Is letting rivers flow freely the best policy? Are inter-basin transfers sustainable? What effect will dams built on tributaries have on the Mhadei? Should river waters be diverted for agriculture at a cost to wildlife and forests?
The tribunal addressed these issues but didn’t find the arguments placed before it adequately researched and substantiated. It allowed Karnataka to divert 2.18 tmc from the Bhandura nullah, 1.72 tmc from the Kalasa nullah and use 1.5 tmc for in-basin consumptive purpose. (1 tmc is equal to 2,831 crore litres.)
The tribunal also allowed Maharashtra, which is a party to the dispute, to divert 0.56 tmc to its Virdi project and an additional 0.77 tmc for four other projects.
The quantum of water given collectively to Maharashtra and Karnataka is around 5.32 tmc from the total of 188 tmc which flows down the Mhadei in a given year. This means that, by default, Goa’s share is around 97 percent.
However, not all of it can be used. The tribunal allowed Goa to utilize 24 tmc for the 59 water projects that it hopes to build in addition to the 9.3 tmc that it is already drawing from the river.
The Supreme Court’s order has been interpreted in different ways in Goa with Chief Minister Pramod Sawant saying it was one more step towards safeguarding Goa’s interests and protecting “our Mhadei” and Goa Forward Party president Vijai Sardesai saying the order was a setback as the interim reliefs sought by the state were not granted.
Goa had rushed to the apex court after the Central Water Commission had, on December 29, 2022, cleared a detailed project report (DPR) for the construction of three dams submitted by Karnataka.
The DPR envisages construction of one dam each across the Haltara, Kalasa and Bhandura tributaries. Water from the Haltara dam will be transferred to the Kalasa dam through an interconnecting gravity canal. And from the Kalasa dam a second gravity canal will divert the water to the Malaprabha river. From the Bhandura, water will flow along a gravity canal to another tributary of the Malaprabha river.
These three dams and interconnecting canals will have a capacity to transfer 7.56 tmc, but water diversion will be restricted to that permitted by the tribunal. The total land required for these projects is 731 hectares. Of this, 499 hectares is forest land, most of which will be submerged.
While the Bhandura project falls within the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary, the first two projects lie on the border of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. Water will be diverted during the monsoon season and during the non-monsoon months water will be allowed to flow downstream.
The tribunal held that Goa had succeeded in proving that the requirements of states must be determined after setting aside water for environmental needs.
DEMANDS OF STATES
What became apparent during the hearings was that neither Karnataka nor Maharashtra had undertaken any scientific study to ascertain the impact of the diversion of water on ecology, flora and fauna, wildlife, fishing, agriculture and aquatic ecosystems. Both were directed to undertake detailed studies on these important subjects.
When Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa approached the tribunal for equitable distribution of Mhadei water they had made specific demands.
Karnataka had stated that its equitable share was not less than 24.15 tmc for consumption. It wanted 7.56 tmc for drinking water for the twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad and 5.5 tmc for diversion to the Kali hydro-electric project. The remaining water was to be used for generation of power at the Kotni dam. From this dam, 7 tmc would be diverted to the Malaprabha basin and 1.5 tmc for in-basin use.
Maharashtra demanded a total of 6.25 tmc — 3.57 for use within the Mhadei basin and diversion of 2.85 to the Tillari basin.
When taking a final decision on the distribution of water to the three states, the tribunal noted that the information provided by all states was inadequate. “As a matter of fact, the information and details provided by the party States are neither (a) consistent, nor (b) based on proper investigation, nor (c) backed by scientific research, nor (d) supported by detailed analysis, nor (e) presented in the form of bankable project reports.”
The tribunal then issued an order to the three states and Central government to secure the relevant material and data to enable it to judicially allocate water from the river.
Despite this order the three states and Central government failed to provide the required information.
The tribunal lamented, “In particular, the specific issues such as (a) the economic and social needs of each basin state, (b) the dependence of the population on the waters of the basin in each basin state, and (c) the availability of other resources, have not at all been examined by any of the States in scientific manner. In this regard, the tribunal also notes that two important aspects, namely (a) sustainability, and (b) minimization of environmental harm, have not been scientifically examined by the States while presenting their case for future projection of water demand.”
The tribunal concluded that in view of the lack of relevant data it was unable to allocate the entire water of the Mhadei to the three states and instead apportioned water based on projects.
The result was that 97 percent of the water was allowed to flow back to Goa with only 3 percent being shared between Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Abhijit Prabhudessai of the Rainbow Warriors in Goa is against dams in general. He said, “Damming and extraction of water from our rivers is wrong since it is now an accepted scientific conclusion that rivers should flow freely. Neither Goa nor Karnataka should dam the river and divert water. Instead, conserving, augmenting and restoring of groundwater and aquifers is the way forward.”
When asked why Goa is at loggerheads with Karnataka when it has an agreement with Maharashtra to transfer water from the Tillari basin to the Mhadei basin, he said, “The Tillari dam is a disaster in all ways. Firstly, it has destroyed the best tiger and elephant territory in this region and gravely affected the critical Western Ghats corridor. The Tillari dam has also enabled profit-driven land use changes in Perineum, Bardez and Bicholim taluks, destroyed local water resources and displaced local communities.”