River Cauvery, the lifeline of Old Mysore region, can whip up passions like few other issues can. Political parties across the spectrum are quick to jump on the bandwagon of “defending the State’s interest” every time the inter-State water row comes to a boil.
In stark contrast to developments related to Cauvery in the downstream attracting huge political interest, serious ecological problems threatening water yield at the river’s very origin in Kodagu district is seeing complete political apathy even at the time of the Assembly polls.
None of the leaders from all the three major political parties has made even a passing reference to the issue during his campaign in this coffee-growing district.
The hilly district of Kodagu with an area of 4,108 square kilometres happens to be the biggest catchment area of Cauvery, which caters to nearly eight crore people across South India.
“People think that it is only the forest area that forms the catchment area of Cauvery in Kodagu. But the entire district has become a catchment area as the coffee estates too have high density of trees,” points out Col. Muthanna, head of the Coorg Wildlife Society.
Rapid commercialisation, uncontrolled tourism, development projects, changes in agricultural practices and climate change have been affecting water availability at the source.
The small district with a population of hardly six lakh people has been seeing a tourist inflow of about 15 lakh persons every year. RTI enquiries have revealed that about 2,800 acres of farm land has been converted for commercial use in a decade from 2005 to 2015, says Col. Muthanna.
The high tension power line from Mysuru to Kozhikode that passes through the district has already resulted in extensive tree cutting between 2013 and 2015.
Open wells in the hilly district went dry during the previous monsoon season, perhaps for the first time in this water-rich district, setting off alarm bells.
Study on biodiversity
Meanwhile, the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences-Shivamogga, which has a regional college of forestry in Ponnampet in Kodagu, has come out with a study along with the Coffee Board on how the green cover is changing in the district and its impact on bio-diversity and water. The study, which was funded by the European Union, has found among other things that there is excessive usage of water at the areas around the origin of the river.
Dr. C.G. Kushalappa, Dean of the Forestry College, says this is due to various reasons including transformation of the district from agricultural economy to tourist economy.
The study, which went through rainfall data between 1975 and 2005 from 110 estates, noticed a trend of two bad rainfall years every 12 years. Also, there has been a decrease in the number of rainy days in Kodagu by 14 days in these 35 years. A big cause of concern is increase in temperatures that has resulted in more evaporation and drying up of soil.
The study says that loss of traditional paddy fields is one of the main reasons affecting the availability of water in the district.
“Paddy, though a water-guzzling crop, is grown by using only rainwater in the Western Ghats.The growing of paddy gave a sponge effect as the soil would absorb water and increase the groundwater level. It also contributed to the flow of river as impounding of water in the paddy fields adds life to several rivulets that join the Cauvery,” says Dr. Kushalappa.
He points out that traditionally paddy was being grown on about 35,000 hectares of land. But there has been a decrease in the paddy-growing area by about 40% as farmers feel that it is not as profitable as commercial crops.
To revive paddy-farming, the study has suggested a method of “payment for ecological services” – which means providing some incentive to local people for protecting the ecology by sacrificing their commercial interests.
But the proposal is yet to see action. There is an increasing tribe of people like Col. Muthanna in Kodagu who are demanding mechanisms to protect the catchment area of the Cauvery.
What worries the environmentalists and local activists is that political parties have shown no interest in these crucial issues that are threatening the very life of the river.
“We will continue to pursue the cause,” says Col. Muthanna, hoping that the issue will attract the political attention it deserves before it is too late.