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''Indiscriminate sand-mining led to Bharathapuzha's destruction''

By G. Prabhakaran

PALAKKAD, MAY 23. The first biodiversity study on the Bharathapuzha conducted by the University Grants Commission has found indiscriminate sand-mining from the river bed as the main reason for its destruction.

The study found that `indiscriminate sand mining is a dominant environmental issue throughout the river basin. The entire river bed is cut up and run over by a very large number of trucks that descend on it daily to transport sand for customers all over South India. The situation is disastrous between Pattambi and Thirunavaya, where both legal and illegal sand quarrying goes on unabatedly'.

The study conducted by Dr. A. Biju Kumar of the Department of Zoology, NSS College, Ottapalam, said that `escalating human interventions in the Bharathapuzha over the last few decades have contributed considerably to the deterioration of this unique river system'.

Bharathapuzha is the second largest river in the State with a total length of 209 km. It originates from Kovittola Betta in the Kundra reserve forest of Tamil Nadu in the Western Ghats. It flows through Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu and Palakkad, Malappuram and Thrissur districts of Kerala and finally empties into the Arabian Sea at Ponnani.

In Bharathapuzha, in addition to the 18 stations (kadavus) fixed by the Government in Ottapalam revenue division for sand quarrying, there are several `private' kadavus operating with the help of authorities. More truckloads of sands are collected from these private kadavus. In Navalin Kadavu, Peringottukurussy, sand is collected in large quantities from within the check-dam using large rafts made of rubber tubes. The collected sand is then loaded onto trucks and transported. In many places removal of sand is not for catering to the local demands, but for supplying the big contractors, the report said.

The study on the environmental issues of the river said that as the sand layers holding considerable quantity of water in the spaces between them are disturbed, the water flow through the river gets reduced considerably. Also, the percolation of water through the river bed and its subsequent recharge into the groundwater supply also declines. The villagers along the river basin now face the severe problem of drinking water shortage because of the lowering of the water table. Many pump houses along the river basin are now deserted, the study found.

The freshwater discharge from the river has been decreasing continuously, the report said. While the river is getting deeper by sand removal, there is saltwater intrusion even in the upper reaches of the river. The water has become saline up to the Thirunavaya region, located 15 km from the estuary. There is severe drinking water scarcity and destruction of agriculture in the nearby villages and the farmers also complain of invasion by new pests, the report said.

It said that the `encroachment into the river channel also continues unabatedly. Temporary shops appear right inside the river during summer to serve the sand quarry labourers and truck drivers. There are also illegal cultivations with in the river channel'.

The riparian vegetation along the river channel is also being severely disturbed or totally destroyed. There is also growth of exotic plants all along the basin. The denuded mountain slopes can hardly let out any water into the river during summer.

The study found rampant deforestation from catchment areas such as Mangalam, Nelliampathy, Walayar, Malampuzha, Nellipuzha, Dhoni, Kalladikode etc. The natural pools which are the breeding grounds for a variety of aquatic organism, have almost disappeared.

The study found a total of 61 species of fishes representing 11 orders, 20 families and 50 genera from the river. The availability of large and economically important fishes such as Wallago attu has declined considerably. Extensive sand mining has its effect on the fish fauna. The eggs of majority of fishes hatch in the soil substratum. Human-made barriers in river movement prevent migration of fishes which move between fresh water and marine habitats while spawning. The report said that more studies are needed to realise the impact of check-dams on the migration of fishes as more such dams are coming up in the river.

The report said that `flow regulation by means of check-dams, pollution (mainly agricultural waste), sand and clay mining, destruction of natural pools and riverine vegetation and unscientific fishing methods are the major threats to fish fauna in the river'.

The Bharathapuzha river basin, particularly its lower reaches, is a suitable rendezvous for a variety of birds, including a large variety of migratory forms. The result of the present study showed the presence of 113 species of birds representing 15 order and 38 families in the river basin. Birds are found in large numbers in the lower reaches of the river, particularly in Purathoor and Ponnani.

The study said that `Pattambi is the most polluted area along the river. The urban sewage canals directly open into the river and the municipality dumps urban wastes directly into the river, very close to the pump house of the Kerala Water Authority. The hotels, saloons and butcher shops dump their wastes in the river bed'.

Bharathapuzha has 10 dams (six in Kerala and four in Tamil Nadu) besides a large number of wiers and check-dams. All these have contributed to the present deterioration of the river by reducing the quantity and quality of water and altering the course of he river and by reducing its biodiversity.

Rich in history, tradition and bio-resources the Bharathapuzha represents a microcosm of the State. If the resources of this second longest river in Kerala get drastically reduced, the impact will be on the riparian people who make a living out of its resources.

The study suggested a holistic approach for the restoration and conservation of the river. `We need a strong people's movement with a sincere goal for conserving this common resource, our natural heritage, for the generations to come. The Government is spending several crores of rupees every year for providing drinking water to the riparian people and for constructing check- dams in the river basin. The panchayats have river management funds for protecting the river, which at present, remain unutilised. Careful management of the watershed could enhance the water recharge into the basin to save this unique river system', the study said.

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