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Fight for water

Is diversion of a river the only answer to the problem of water shortage? KANCHI KOHLI examines this issue in the light of the Malaprabha Reservoir Project.


An uncertain wait.

"... the irrigation projects of the State, in the post-independence era are planned with a cropping pattern comprising mostly of semidry crops. Further, in addition to large scale stipulation of semi dry crops, the projects are planned with intensity of irrigation (i.e. the number of irrigated crops in a land, planned for, in a water year) of just one or little above one, with the objective of ensuring at least one irrigated crop in each land".

Report of the High Level Committee to Suggest Appropriate Water Management Strategies for Karnataka State Irrigation Projects, March 1999.

THE Malaprabha Reservoir Project at Naviluteertha in Belgaum District, Karnataka was completed in 1974 to serve the above objective. Its right and left bank canals were to provide irrigation over an area of 2,18,000 hectares in Dharwad, Belgaum and Bijapur districts. The "approved cropping pattern" of this belt, which cultivated jowar, grams, cotton and other such crops, was to be Kharif 40 per cent, Rabi 40 per cent and two seasonal semi-dry crops like cotton 20 per cent. Only 60 per cent of a holding was to be irrigated in any season and the rest was to be either rain fed or left fallow.

What exists today is a complete contrast to what was envisaged. Water-guzzling crops like paddy, sugarcane and horticulture seem to have replaced the traditional cropping pattern. In the last three decades, four sugar mills have come up in the Malaprabha Basin, apart from many others in neighbouring areas. The four-month cultivation cycle has found it difficult to resist the profit-driven approach of growing of the 11-month water intensive crops. The farmers at the head and mid reaches of the irrigated belt are using water of the east flowing Malaprabha with the tail-end villages reaching an acute state of drought. There are several unauthorised irrigated lands in the irrigated command area — a use not anticipated when the project was envisaged.

There is almost a sense of doom in the Malaprabha Basin. The water in the Malaprabha is receding and there is shortfall in the maximum yield of the reservoir. The hills of the eastern plains in the area are denuded and extensively deforested. Some of the extremely fertile red and black soil fields on both the left and the right banks are uncultivated. Villages closer to the Malaprabha Dam in the irrigated command area are lifting water through electric pumps for their sugarcane, maize and paddy fields, obviously creating further problems for the tail end irrigated areas that include Navalgund and Ron among others. Drinking water supply has been affected badly. Residents of villages like Sampgaon with their red, green, yellow plastic pots, gather around single tap to collect their little share of water.The Malaprabha originates in the Western Ghats at Kankumbi and after traversing several kilometres in Belgaum district goes on to meet the Krishna at Kadala Sangam in Bijapur district. Perhaps if the Malaprabha could speak, she would be able to tell us the story of her years, which we are trying to comprehend, stopped us where we went wrong and tell us the solutions today. But that is not to be, and we need to rely once again on our own conclusions, which led us to this problem in the first place.

Pristine forests likely to be lost.

One of the main solutions proposed to resolve the Malaprabha crisis is to divert water from the west flowing Mahadayi to the Malaprabha. The Mahadayi, which also originates in the Western Ghats at Degaon village in Khanapur taluka of Belgaum district flows into Goa to become the Madei and then the Mandovi, one of the life sustaining rivers of the State. After several changes in the potential site of diversion, the two points proposed are on Kalasa Nala, before it meets the Surla Nala (flowing in from Goa) at the Karnataka-Goa border at Kankumbi; and at the confluence of the Bhandur Nala, Singar Nala and Nerse Nala at Kongla from where it will be diverted to the Haltar Nala, which joins the Malaprabha. The proposals to construct the two earthen dams are known as the Kalasa Nala Diversion Scheme and the Bhandur Nala Diversion Scheme respectively. Both Kalasa and Bhandur Nalas are very important and major streams that feed the Mahadayi. The estimated cost of the projects is Rs. 44.78 crores and 49.2 crores respectively.

A note prepared for a meeting called by the Water Resources Development Organisation (WRDO) to examine the diversion of the Mahadayi waters states that the deficiency of about 17 TMC (44TMC being the actual yield and 27 TMC is what is being reached presently) will have to be made good by diverting water from the Mahadayi Basin if the needs of the drought-ridden talukas like Gadag, Badami, Ron, in the Malaprabha basin are to be met with.

However, all is not well with this proposal. As the proposal stands, a total of 7.56 TMC of water will be diverted to the Malaprabha after submerging about 557.28 hectares of the forests and cultivated land along with a few villages. This is likely to have both ecological and social consequences in this part of the Mahadayi valley.

Non-governmental organisations and people's groups in the three states propose that the entire area along with other contiguous forests of Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra be declared as the Sahyadri Ecologically Sensitive Area as it is extremely fragile and under various threats. It is important to note here that the Malaprabha reservoir project had earlier submerged 21 villages in Parasgad taluka completely and 30 villages of Parasgad, Sampgaon and Khanapur taluka were partly submerged.

The Goa Government has objected to the diversion of the Mahadayi waters. It is now a heated and significant inter-state issue. At a smaller level, groups such as Paryavani in Belgaum have been raising concerns and so have villages like Nerse who have now formed the Nerse Parisara Samrakshana Samiti (Nerse Environment Protection Group). The Central Government has had to intervene. The latest is the proposal of the appointment of a tribunal for "apportioning the share of water between Karnataka and Goa."

Whether these political issues are settled or not is one question. Whether the sacrifice of villages like Nerse and pristine portions of the Western Ghats is justified is another. We might come up with a great reason for the need to divert water from one river basin to another in the larger interest. Or some kind of resolution mechanism might be arrived at to settle inter-state matters. However, none of this answers a fundamental question. How sustainable is such a solution? As long as the exploitation of water resources in the Malaprabha Basin continues, no matter how much water and from where we divert it, we are likely to come back to the same situation in the near future.

This is a dilemma of development that we face not only in the Malaprabha but also in many parts of the country. Solutions to be embedded in long-term vision, and understanding of where we went wrong. Why did the cropping pattern in the Malaprabha change? Will going back to semi-dry cropping which requires very little water help the situation of the farmers? Why have the hills been denuded and what impact has it had on the Malaprabha? Perhaps the answer lies here, and not in creating another Malaprabha in the Mahadayi!

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