International Rivers: Without doubt, rivers are the one of the most important source of freshwater. They are also the refuge to diverse organisms and sub – ecosystems. Out of all the natural endowment used by human beings rivers have been the most used and abused on this planet. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, freshwater biodiversity is facing more threats as compared to all other ecosystems. Centuries of over extraction, damming, diversion and pollution have reduced most of our rivers to mere ghosts of their natural self. We are faced with the grim reality that many of our rivers are in a very bad shape and a few of them already on the road to death. Rivers like the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra which is the life line of millions in Asia are already struggling to reach the seas throughout the year.
The outfalls into the sea from Krishna and Cauvery, the rivers that drain the Central Indian Peninsula are already so low that they hardly reach the seas in summer. The rivers are also a victim of the unpredictable changes in climate.
‘Water is flowing waste to the sea and hence every drop has to be utilised for the benefit of mankind!’ This is the popular view shared by our governments and bureaucrats when it comes to taking decisions on our water resources like rivers. This notion has been the driving force behind building more and more dams and diversions across rivers and extracting more water from our rivers. In this worldview, a river is dissected into compartments and is apportioned between different uses and users. What happens to the river, its natural flows, to the downstream livelihood needs, to the ecology and aquatic biodiversity is rarely the concern of any bureaucrat or the government. Accounting for these impacts never enters into any decision making process either.
The construction of dams has been going on at a frenetic pace all over South Asia. Till very recently, the projects were cleared singularly based on project level environmental impact assessments. With more number of dams being planned in a river, cumulative impact assessment (CIA) of cascade of dams has gained prominence in India. This has been largely triggered by the mounting opposition to the series of dams being planned on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra in North East India rather than the stringency of the clearance mechanism.
Presently 41 % of the world’s population lives in rivers basins under stress (CBD, 2005). The national and regional governments in the South Asian countries are slowly coming to terms with the reality that even the long term economic and social wellbeing of the people is inextricably linked with flowing rivers. Many International Conventions, policies and legal instruments have included the value of water for nature and or environment in their framework. The Ramsar Convention (1971), The Helsinki Convention on Trans boundary Water Courses and International Lakes (1992), The National Water Act (1998) of South Africa, Convention on Biodiversity (2001), are few among these.
River basin communities and river activists have been opposing destructive dams all over South Asia for the last many decades. The struggles still continue. Perhaps, the Narmada Bachao Andolan was one of the earliest movements to raise the issue of cumulative impacts of dams on a single river. Most of the movements have been challenging dam projects singularly. The decision to build cascade of dams in hitherto undammed pristine rivers especially in the North East and the Western Himalayas has made it necessary to pitch the issue at a river basin level. Rivers would flow through tunnels instead of their natural channels if all these dams are approved and constructed. Many groups have taken the legal recourse to challenge the clearances granted to such projects. Downstream communities are concerned about the impacts of high daily flow fluctuations that can ensue once the projects are operational. The impacts on river ecology, aquatic species, flood plains, farming, fisheries, drinking and irrigation water needs both downstream and between the dams due to the severe regulation of flows are anybody’s guess.
Over years, the changing world view on our rivers has led to the realisation that a river is much more than just water flowing waste to the sea. A river is an ecosystem in itself and needs to flow if it has to perform its evolutionary and ecological functions that in turn enable it to continue providing the various services to human kind and to nature. The recognition of the need for environmental flows has stemmed from this impending scenario.
Environmental flows (henceforth termed as e-flows) in itself is not a new concept. E-flows are interpreted in different ways by scientists, technical experts and policy makers. From a purely natural principle based ‘who are we to assign e-flows’ to a pragmatic concept of ‘flows need to be allocated’ a wide range of interpretations have emerged over the years.
Flows required for ecosystem functions have been accepted as one of the most important factors deciding the longevity of a river.
Source: International Rivers
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