Wednesday, November 26, 2014

DEFINING A RIVER: AN APPROACH by Ramaswamy R. Iyer


INDIA RIVERS WEEK 2014

A definition is a linguistic exercise. What we define is not a physical body or a feature in nature, but a term in language. By defining a term, we are stating what we wish to include within that term, and what we wish to exclude – in the present case, what we wish to call a ‘river’, and what we refuse to call a ‘river’.

Why do we need to define a river? There are two reasons: first, we wish to treat certain features and characteristics as defining ones in the absence of which we would be unwilling to call the water body in question a ‘river’; and secondly, we feel that the general understanding of the term ‘river’ is inadequate and needs to be expanded to cover aspects and dimensions not often taken note of.

Taking the first point first, what do we regard as the defining characteristics of a river? It must be a body of water, of course, but of freshwater, not saline water as in the sea. Obviously we are talking about a surface water body, as distinguished from an underground aquifer. Obviously also a river is different from a pond or lake, inasmuch as the water does not stand still, but moves. It does not move in a random manner but flows down a gradient (gentle or steep) by gravity. A canal also flows but it is a human creation whereas a river is a natural phenomenon. A river then is a natural stream of freshwater flowing across land from the catchment area to the outfall (another river or a lake or the sea or just sand). That is pretty close to the dictionary definition, except that the Cambridge Dictionary adds the word ‘wide’ which I am omitting, as a river can be narrow too.

That is a minimal definition which leaves us dissatisfied because we feel that it misses out on many things that we associate with rivers. A river is not only a water channel but many other things besides: it is also a transporter of sediment; it is also the river-bed, the banks, the vegetation on both sides, the floodplain, the catchment. The totality of these constitutes a river. A river is a natural organic whole, a hydrological and ecological system. It performs many functions: supports aquatic life and vegetation; provides drinking water to human beings, their livestock and wildlife; influences the micro-climate; recharges groundwater; dilutes pollutants and purifies itself; sustains a wide range of livelihoods; transports silt and enriches the soil; maintains the estuary in a good state; provides the necessary freshwater to the sea to keep its salinity at the right level; prevents the incursion of salinity from the sea;  provides nutrients to marine life; and so on. It is also an integral part of human settlements, their lives, landscape, society, culture, history and religion. None of this is reflected in our minimal definition. Should we include all or any of them?

However, not all these aspects and dimensions are present in all cases, and the absence of one or more of them in a given case may not warrant the conclusion that it is not a river. For instance, let us think of a hypothetical case in which a river flows through territory uninhabited by humans or animals, and therefore provides no drinking water to any species: does it cease to qualify for the name ‘river’? Again, take sediment. Most rivers do transport sediment as well as water, but European rivers do not transport huge quantities of sediment as Himalayan rivers do; they are rivers all the same. Some rivers figure prominently in history books, some have played no part at all in history or politics or religion; it follows that involvement in history or politics or religion cannot be a defining characteristic of rivers. All that we can say is that many of the rivers do many of the things listed in the previous paragraph, and that they are important components in our mental picture of a river. Removing any of them will mean some loss of depth to the idea of a river. Besides, apart from their place in a definition of a river, some of them – for instance, support of bio-diversity, inter-relationship with an aquifer, etc – are very important considerations in themselves, and cannot readily be forgone.

Having regard to what has been said above, I think that we need to expand our earlier minimal definition of what a river is by adding (in a selective manner) elements of description of what a river does. We have to ask ourselves what are the descriptive elements that seem to us to be of the utmost importance, which we would like to elevate almost to definitional status? It seems clear that there will be divergent selections. Let me give you three of my own choices.

First, I think that flow connectivity - uninterrupted flow or aviralta - is of paramount importance, and that there can be no compromise on it. Preferably, the flow should not be broken by dams or barrages, but if an intervention of this kind becomes unavoidable, there should be enough flow downstream of the structure to enable us to say that it is the same river, that the identity of the river has not been compromised. If diversion followed by a return of the diverted waters to the river – as in the case of a hydroelectric project – leaves a dry stretch in the river-bed, the identity of the river would stand compromised. The longer the stretch of river- bed without a river, the greater is the damage to the integrity of the river. (The dry stretch can be 10 km long or even longer; in one case the river is made to run through a tunnel for 100 km: is it the same river any longer?) Even more horrendous is the case where there is a cascade of hydroelectric projects on a river, with a corresponding cascade of dry patches. The river then becomes a series of unconnected waterbodies; it simply is not a river any more.  “Longitudinal connectivity”, as it has been called, or more simply, ‘flow connectivity’ or ‘uninterrupted flow’ (aviral flow) is to my mind a desideratum that is almost definitional.

Secondly, there are periodical variations in flows in all rivers, but these are natural, foreseeable, and manageable. Aquatic life and river-dependent human settlements learn to live with these variations in river rhythms. However, the huge diurnal variations in flows resulting from run-of-the-river (RoR) hydroelectric projects (0 to 400% in some cases), caused by the intermittent operation of the turbines in response to the fluctuating market demand for electricity, are a feature that no aquatic life or human settlements can cope with. In one case, the river is totally dry for 20 out of 24 hours, and in the remaining 4 hours there is an 8m water wall rushing down the river. A body of water subject to such violent and destructive fluctuations is (to repeat myself) simply not a river any more. The unacceptability of such violent fluctuations is to my mind a non-negotiable point that is of definitional importance.

Thirdly, the absence of pollution or nirmalta is in my view another defining characteristic. When the level of pollution keeps rising the river ceases to be a river at a certain stage, as has happened with the Yamuna at Delhi or with the Ganga at Varanasi.
There may be a few other such non-negotiable points arising from the discussion in the plenary. What this note has tried to do is to provide a basis for building a proper definition-description mix which could be regarded as inviolable. 

OPENING ADDRESS by RAMASWAMY R. IYER


INDIA RIVERS WEEK 2014

It was a sense of deep concern at the state of India’s rivers, and in particular that of the river of the country’s capital the Yamuna, and that of the proclaimed national river the holy Ganga, that led to the idea of organizing the India Rivers Week 2014. This Opening Address will try to present a broad overview of the vast subject, the many dimensions and aspects of which will be covered in the course of the next few days.

Let us begin by asking: what is a river? Most of us tend to think of a river as a water-channel but a river is more than water; it is also a transporter of sediment; it is also the river-bed, the banks, the vegetation on both sides, the floodplain, the catchment. The totality of these constitutes a river. A river is a natural, living, organic whole, a hydrological and ecological system. It flows; that is its defining characteristic. As it flows, it performs many functions: supports aquatic life and vegetation; provides drinking water to human beings, their livestock and wildlife; influences the micro-climate; recharges groundwater; dilutes pollutants and purifies itself; sustains a wide range of livelihoods; transports silt and enriches the soil; maintains the estuary in a good state; provides the necessary freshwater to the sea to keep its salinity at the right level; prevents the incursion of salinity from the sea;  provides nutrients to marine life; and so on. It is also an integral part of human settlements, their lives, landscape, society, culture, history and religion.

Unfortunately, most people have a simplified, unidimensional perception of a river as a channel carrying water. It is this limited perception that enables the engineer to think of a river as a pipeline to be manipulated at will, and the economist to regard it merely as the source of a marketable commodity for human use and trade. Industry thinks of a river not merely as a source from which water can be extracted for its use but also as a drain into which its waste can be discharged. Large farmers want dams and canals to be built for diverting water for irrigation. Small farmers, boatmen, fisherfolk – I am referring to those who pursue a modest sustenance in close relationship with rivers - have a somewhat more nuanced understanding of and relationship with rivers, but even they have little compunction about dumping waste into them. As for large-scale commercial agriculture, trade, commerce and fisheries, they are no different from industry in their attitude to rivers. Construction people regard the river-bed as a source for construction material, i.e., sand. Builders, developers, ordinary people wanting to own houses, industry and commerce looking for land, even urban planners and governments, tend to look longingly upon the floodplains of a river as so much land lying unused. Floods with which people in earlier times had learnt to live and derive some benefit from are now regarded as disasters to be controlled; their destructive power has indeed increased because of extensive occupation of the floodplains.

Consider the things we do to rivers. (The word ‘we’ here refers to human beings in general and not any particular group or country.) The flows of rivers are obstructed with dams and barrages; the abstraction/diversion of their waters is regarded as the proper ‘use’ of their waters; in-stream flows (particularly flows to the sea) are regarded as wasted; in many cases, they are not allowed to flow to the sea; their waters are impounded or diverted, reducing downstream flows, affecting the river regime, harming estuaries and inducing the incursion of salinity from the sea; they are confined within embankments; loops in rivers are sometimes cut through and straightened; waste, pollutants and contaminants are inflicted on them far beyond their coping capacity; the floodplains of rivers are built upon, leaving no space for the accommodation of floods; sand is mined from their beds; borewells are sunk into their beds for extracting the water below, reducing base flows; and so on.

All this is neatly captured in a catchy light-hearted (but almost epiphanic) statement reported to have been made by an American water engineer: “We enjoy pushing rivers around”[1]. That doubtless represents the attitude of our own water engineers and water bureaucrats, though they may not explicitly say so. The apotheosis of that kind of thinking, that cavalier attitude of manipulating rivers, was reached in the controversial Inter-Linking of Rivers Project, which was unfortunately endorsed by the Supreme Court in two judgments exemplifying egregious judicial over-reach.

The engineering, economic, commercial, managerial, and in general the instrumentalist view of rivers leaves little room for thinking of rivers as living things, as ecological systems in themselves and part of larger ecological systems, as having roles to play beyond serving human economic activity, and as having an existential and not merely an instrumental value.

This is illustrated by the controversy about ‘minimum flows’. The word ‘minimum’ has been cosmetically changed to ‘environmental’ but the thinking remains the same. Instead of respecting the natural flow and diverting the minimum unavoidably necessary, the approach is to abstract the maximum water from the river and grudgingly let flow a minimum. In the controversy about the planning of hydroelectric projects the suggestion that at least 50% of lean season flows and 30% of high flows should be left free is strongly resisted. To the proponents of such projects any flow left in the river means so much generation of electric power forgone; they are reluctantly willing to let no more than 10% of the flow go free, and this too is a concession to the climate of opinion.

Let us turn now to inter-State river water disputes. Why do they tend to become protracted and virtually insoluble? The reason is that the farmers in each State regard the river essentially as irrigation water for their use and want to extract the maximum. This becomes part of electoral politics and becomes intractable. The combined demand of the disputing States exceeds the water available in the river: they are asking for water that does not exist. In other words, this is a case of competitive, unsustainable demand for water, or greed in Mahatma Gandhi’s terminology, distorting and destroying the traditional relationship between a river and the people.  

Please note that disputes rarely arise when a river is flowing free unobstructed by human intervention; they arise as soon as one State begins to build a dam or barrage on a river. It is interesting that conflicts over river waters, whether inter-country or intra-country, seem often to arise in the context of large projects. Farakka, Baglihar, Narmada (Sardar Sarovar), Tehri, Mullapperiyar, Parambikulam Aliyar, and so on, are examples. Kalabagh in Pakistan can be added to that list. It would appear that large projects like these tend to become the foci of conflicts. This is essentially because (a) they tend to alter geography and hydrological regimes, sometimes drastically; and (b) they involve issues of control, power and political relations, social justice and equity. Even the resolution of an inter-State or inter-country dispute through an agreed or adjudicated allocation of waters is often a non-ideal way of dealing with a river, reflecting a wrong attitude to it. The allocation of shares to the disputing parties means a chopping up of a river into segments giving each party a segment of the river to be dealt with as it likes. There is no room here for a holistic view of the river as a total hydrological and ecological system.  

A development that is fatal to rivers is the frenzy to build a large number of hydroelectric projects on rivers to meet the projected energy demand for ‘development’ and economic growth. It is argued, and widely believed, that hydroelectric projects, particularly run-of-the-river ones, are environmentally benign, that they are ‘green’.  This is a completely wrong view. First, there is a break in the river between the point of diversion to the turbines and the point of return of the waters to the river, and the break can be very long, even a 100km in some cases; and there would be a series of such breaks in the event of a cascade of projects. Does the river still remain a river? Secondly, these projects operate as peaking projects, i.e., the turbines operate in accordance with the market demand for electricity, which means that the waters are held back in pondage and released when the turbines  need to operate, resulting in huge diurnal variations in downstream flows. There is one case in which the river is dry for 20 hours in the day, and in the remaining 4 hours there is an eight-meter water wall rushing down the river. An RoR hydroelectric project spells death for the river, and we want to build a whole series of such projects on the Ganga and on the Brahmaputra.

It might be argued that the imperative of what goes by the name of development demands such interventions in rivers. We have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to kill our rivers for economic development, whether economic development or human civilization itself will survive the death of rivers, and what kind of development it is that demands the death of rivers.

Development also means industrialization, including the industrialization of agriculture, and urbanization, and all these lead to the generation of immense quantities of waste of diverse kinds, sewage, effluents, chemical runoff from agriculture, medical waste from hospitals, municipal waste, waste from hotels and so on. Only a small part of this is treated and much untreated or partially treated waste goes into rivers, reducing them to sewers or poison. Even the religious aspect of people’s relationship with rivers gives rise to pollution in the form of ritual offerings cast into waters, the disposal of dead bodies in rivers, and so on. Having practically killed the rivers, we then set up River Conservation Authorities which remain ineffective because the original causes of pollution and contamination remain unrecognized and unremedied, and also because these are top-down bureaucratic organizations not involving the participation of the people. 

Another offshoot of urbanization is the shifting of the state’s responsibility of providing water to the citizens to private corporate entities. This is often accompanied by the handing over of sections of a river to private hands. This again means the shifting of the state’s responsibility for the protection and conservation of rivers to private corporate bodies which may not share those concerns.

In addition to all this, we now have the problem of climate change and its impact on rivers, a matter that is currently being studied in various institutions.

Let me now take note of some recent developments. The present Government has promised to clean up the Ganga and has added the words “Ganga Rejuvenation” to the name of the Ministry of Water Resources. This is a welcome development. If this Government manages to restore the Ganga to a reasonably healthy state, it would have succeeded where the previous government failed. Unfortunately there are also some contrary indications. First, the new name of the Ministry also includes “River Development” which makes one uneasy because the word ‘development’ in this context has in the past meant control of rivers through dams and other structures, and that was the approach, among other things, which led to the present plight of our rivers. Secondly, while the Ministry of Water Resources talks about rejuvenating the Ganga, the Ministry of Transport wants to build multiple barrages on the Ganga for facilitating navigation. That might make the Ganga a navigation channel through a major part of its length, at the cost of destroying it as a river. Thirdly, the controversial Inter-Linking of Rivers project is being talked about again, much to the dismay of many of us. However, I do not propose to discuss these matters at length in this address, as they will doubtless come up for detailed debate during the next four days. My intention is merely to flag the topics.

Having catalogued all the ills that plague our rivers, this address will refrain from putting forward remedies. That should come at the end of the discussions during the next four days. Thank you.





[1] Quoted in Ken Conca’s book Governing Water, MIT Press, 2006

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nadiyon Judi To 90 Fisad Kheton Tak Pahunchega Pani (Dainik Jaran 21 Nov 2014)

imageview

NGT notices on desecration of river during ‘Ganga Snan’ (The Hindu 21 Nov 2014)

A view of the waste left behind by the people attending the ‘Ganga Snan’.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has sought replies from the Centre, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Uttar Pradesh Government on a petition highlighting huge amount of solid and human waste being disposed of in the river Ganga during the annual Kartik Poornima Fair, famously known as ‘Ganga Snan’.

A Bench headed by NGT chairperson Swatanter Kumar issued notices and sought responses within three weeks.

The petition has been filed by environmental activist Krishnakant Singh and Social Action for Forest & Environment through activist Vikrant Tongad.

They have raised the issue of disposal of solid waste on the bank of the river Ganga during the recently-concluded ‘Kartik Poornima Fair’ and disposal of human waste directly into the river in blatant disregard of the Water Act.

This year, the fair was organised from November 1 to November 6 in which almost 50 lakh people from across the country participated. This fair is termed as one of the largest fairs after Kumbh in the country. The main organiser is the District Administration of Hapur and Amroha.

The applicants said: “The fair is held on the bank of the river Ganga stretching about 4 to 5 km on both sides near Garhmukteshwar. Many villagers attending the fair stay on the banks of the Ganga, cook their food and do the washing at the same place. The people taking part in the fair dispose of the plastic, thermocol, bottles and other waste material and biodegradable material on the bank of the river Ganga.”
“The toilets made for those coming to the fair also dispose of the wastes directly into the river thereby polluting the river. The District Administration also took some land from the farmers on the banks of the river. The owners of the land before ploughing the land burn the wastes disposed by the people participating in the fair.”

Inter-linking of river will enhance irrigation facilities: Uma Bharti ( Jagran Post 20 Nov. 2014)

New Delhi:  Emphasising the need for inter- linking of rivers in the country, Union Water Resource Minister Uma Bharati on Thursday said the project would bring about 90 percent of arable land under irrigation.



"Inter-linking of rivers would enhance irrigation facilities to 90 percent of farm lands in the country," she said while inaugurating the national conference on issues for optimal use of water resources titled 'Jal Manthan' here.

According to Agriculture ministry data, 40 percent of the agriculture land is irrigated and accounts for 55 percent of total production, while 60 percent is rain-fed and contribute 45 percent to total output.

Pointing out that there was no water crunch, Bharati stressed on the need for conservation of water through measures like rain water harvesting.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Rural Development Chaudhary Birender Singh said that 86 percent of drinking water supply schemes were based on ground water and proper attention should be paid for water security planning.

"In this regard, the Ministry has taken up 15 pilot blocks in 10 states, where comprehensive planning is undertaken to promote water security for all users with the active participation of the Panchayati Raj institutions," he said.

Singh also said that National Rural Drinking Programme was being implemented to provide safe drinking water in adequate quantity to all citizens of the country in a phased manner.

"Our goal is to achieve this through 90 percent piped water supply and 80 percent through household pipe connections by the 2022," the Minister added.

Ministers from various state governments also spoke on the occasion, elaborating on a range of issues connected with irrigation.

River inter-linking will raise irrigation capacity: Uma Bharti (Business Standard 20 Nov. 2014)

IANS
Inter-linking of rivers will raise the irrigation capacity of the country by 90 percent, Union Water Resources Minister said Thursday.
"There is no shortage of water in our country. Excess rain water in our country flows into seas through rivers. We need to conserve this water by inter-linking the rivers," Bharti said while inaugurating the national conference on issues for optimal use of water resources called "Jal Manthan" here.
The minister said in India irrigation schemes take a lot of time and money to complete. She added that only the farmer can feel the pain of these delayed projects.
Bharti said Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants the government to ensure that irrigation facility is provided to every field of each farmer without any extra cost.
The three-day conference has been organised by the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation to hold wide-ranging consultations with the states and other stakeholders.

Inter-linking of river will enhance irrigation facilities: Uma (Deccan Herald 20 Nov 2014)

Emphasising the need for inter- linking of rivers in the country, Union Water Resource Minister Uma Bharati today said the project would bring about 90 per cent of arable land under irrigation.
"Inter-linking of rivers would enhance irrigation facilities to 90 per cent of farm lands in the country," she said while inaugurating the national conference on issues for optimal use of water resources titled 'Jal Manthan' here.
According to Agriculture ministry data, 40 per cent of the agriculture land is irrigated and accounts for 55 per cent of total production, while 60 per cent is rain-fed and contribute 45 per cent to total output.

Pointing out that there was no water crunch, Bharati stressed on the need for conservation of water through measures like rain water harvesting.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Rural Development Chaudhary Birender Singh said that 86 per cent of drinking water supply schemes were based on ground water and proper attention should be paid for water security planning.

"In this regard, the Ministry has taken up 15 pilot blocks in 10 states, where comprehensive planning is undertaken to promote water security for all users with the active participation of the Panchayati Raj institutions," he said.

Singh also said that National Rural Drinking Programme was being implemented to provide safe drinking water in adequate quantity to all citizens of the country in a phased manner.

"Our goal is to achieve this through 90 per cent piped water supply and 80 per cent through household pipe connections by the 2022," the Minister added.

Ministers from various state governments also spoke on the occasion, elaborating on a range of issues connected with irrigation.