The thirsty river

Because the Narmada has been blocked by so many dams and its waters no longer reach the sea, the sea has started a march inwards

April 29, 2017 04:10 pm | Updated 05:30 pm IST

Riverscapes have changed in ways that cannot be imagined. The Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada in Gujarat.

Riverscapes have changed in ways that cannot be imagined. The Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada in Gujarat.

A more recent appraisal of the water resources of the country… gives the total annual flow as equivalent to 1356 million acre-feet for the Indian Union. Of this only 76 million acre-feet or 5.6 per cent are at present being used for purposes of irrigation; the rest flow waste to the sea.

— India’s First Five Year Plan

One of the key arguments in support of damming rivers across geographies has been the idea that useful water will otherwise ‘go waste into the sea’.

Dam, dam, dam has been policy in India for the last many decades and coupled with changing land use, increased industrialisation, and pollution, dams have changed the riverscape of the country in ways that cannot be imagined.

Landscapes and riverscapes have been altered so dramatically that today’s India might be a different country from the one we inherited in 1947. Virtually no river today flows freely to the sea.

The sea is reaching out, even rushing in, as if to reaffirm that the bond of sweet and salt water can never be broken, that the river and the sea are linked in an eternal cycle that has a dynamic, complex reality we have no understanding of. ‘I am not waste’, the sea seems to be screaming, and this is not merely a metaphor—it’s happening right now, in the Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat’s Bharuch district, where the Narmada is supposed to meet the sea.

Less river, more sea

Because the Narmada has been blocked by so many dams, big and small, and her waters taken away for ‘productive’ use to other places, and because the Narmada no longer reaches the sea, the sea has started a march inwards.

For nearly 40 km from the river’s mouth backwards, the Narmada is less river and more sea. This happened in May last year and has been so this year since March. In the very last stretch of the river there is virtually no water; borewells in the river bed are spouting saline water with high levels of chloride; industries in Dahej and Vilayat are on the verge of closing down because of water shortage; salinity in the soil has also increased, destroying agriculture—according to one estimate, over 10,000 hectares; salt pans that occupied less than 1% of land in the estuary in 1990 were spread over 3.18% in 2011—an increase of more than 300% in two decades.

There have been suggestions that salt pans could, in fact, become a major economic activity here in the years to come.

Narmada’s famous hilsa fisheries are on the verge of collapse (the fishing community will most likely follow the fish), and Alia Bet, an island at the mouth of the Narmada, is not an island any more, it has merged with the left bank of the estuary thanks to accretion from reduced freshwater inflow.

A remote sensing analysis, published by researchers of the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2014, shows, for instance, that the area occupied by the river and tidal creeks in the estuary have decreased significantly. The river, which covered about 12.18% in 1974 was down to 10.73% in 2011. The creek area has shrunk even more dramatically—from 1.45% in 1974 to 0.37% in 1990 and further to 0.10% in 2011.

Not ‘waste’

A river’s geography, ecology and geo-morphology that have been shaped by millennia-long processes have been short-changed within decades. Not surprisingly, the river and the sea are changing in response and at a double-quick pace.

Yet we continue to argue that a river goes waste into the sea? We have refused and are still refusing to see that these waters play critical roles along the coastline by bringing nutrient-rich sediments to the sea, in maintaining salinity gradients, and in nourishing rich marine and coastal ecologies, not to mention the rich relevance they have for coastal communities.

What indeed is the Narmada if it is not the water? The river is so drained now that it is dying of thirst itself.

The writer researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society and technology.

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