R S Tejus
In the present-day scenario, planting trees has become a one-size-fits-all solution for all problems ranging from climate change to saving a river. People speak only of crores of trees to be planted and have never questioned of how useful and practical it is in the era of decay.
Planting of trees to save a river rather seems impractical and unscientific. Unfortunately, many people, including celebrities, bureaucrats, politicians, educationists, business people, industrialists and commoners have fallen prey to such hype either knowingly or unknowingly.
The ‘Rally for Rivers’ campaign of Isha foundation claims tree planting is a solution to save rivers. The plan of planting 242 crore trees in the basin area may in fact, do more harm as it completely ignores the ground realities. Planting trees along the banks of the river sounds exciting and an easy method to save India’s dying rivers while the reality is entirely different.
As of now, we know very little about the ecology of a river. We don’t know how many species need open spaces and how many actually need trees. Crocodiles lay their eggs on the banks of the river and Otters too come to the banks. Similarly, many other species flourish on the river banks of which we have no knowledge. Studying all these essential factors is a must before embarking on any ambitious campaigns.
Trees don’t belong everywhere and it’s just not about trees too. Each region is diverse and a careful study of the regions are quintessential. Rivers are complex, and it flows through many regions and levels ranging from evergreen forests to deciduous to scrubs to dry areas and at many stages, all have an equal role to play in the complex ecology of the river. If this campaign has involved the Cauvery riparian states and done a proper scientific study involving the concerned state governments as also river ecologists, let it be put on public domain. Nobody is opposing the tree plantation proposal but the need for scientific studies and involvement of concerned states in such a massive program is necessary.
Some of the actual issues which are plaguing rivers are construction of back to back dams.
In the case of river Cauvery, the proposal to construct a reservoir in Mekedatu will be an ecological disaster. This will destroy a massive chunk of 4795 ha or 48 sq km of pristine forests and will obstruct the free flow of water for ecological needs. There will be an increase in human-wildlife conflict, deforestation and other significant environmental damages.
There are already 96 dams in the Cauvery river basin with 15 major hydroelectric and 50 irrigation projects which have not thoroughly addressed the issues of drinking water, power and irrigation. Mekedatu will only add salt to injury. Likewise, there are many dams in other river basins, which will have devastating impacts on human life and environment.
From the past two years, the Western Ghats region of Karnataka and Kerala has witnessed heavy rainfall and devastation due to landslides. The reasons attributed to landslides are increase in deforestation in the Kodagu region. Forests act as a sponge for the rainwater to percolate when it is is cut for a non-forestry purpose, the soil tends to erode.
When the catchment areas get affected the rivers get affected too. In a bid to provide better connectivity, there is a proposal to construct a road between Dakshin Kannada and Chikkamagaluru under the Bharatmala project. The road will cost Karnataka a river as it cuts through the catchment area of River Netravathi where several rivulets take their birth.
Illegal Sand mining
There are ample reports of illegal sand mining continuing in the Cauvery basin in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Sand mining has grave consequences where it depletes groundwater levels, roots do not get water, erosion, affects flora and fauna etc. Indiscriminate extraction of groundwater has led to ground water depletion in both the states.
River Inter-linking project
People in power strongly believe river water which enters the sea is a waste, but the fact is it they are natural phenomena and has a range of benefits. The river meets sea either through deltas or estuaries, and it is not a waste. The plan of linking a river which has excess water to the river which has deficient water by halting the excess water meeting the sea is not good science.
Linking waters of the Godavari, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery will alter the landscape forever and creates more room for disasters. It is terrible for ecology but good for business. Had that been a fact- some parts have too much water, Sohra or Cherrapunjee the rainiest place today suffers water shortage and has very little water to drink.
The project of making rivers compatible for transportation of goods and passengers would cause more harm for aquatic animals as it involves dredging of rivers. Of all the threats as mentioned above, the solution for revival of rivers is not so simple.
Having both public and government support, the Isha Foundation should, in fact, fight against these threats by using science and consulting experts in hydrology. Given the fact that trees don’t belong everywhere, planting 242 crore trees, the Foundation should go back to the drawing-room to redraft its stance on river conservation.
The Foundation has entirely ignored other nature’s gifts such as grasses, shrubs etc. and have only focused on trees. For the revival of rivers, the root of the problem must be addressed by using science and implementing the law. Lastly, it requires political will.
By calling tree planting the only way to save a river- it’s a myth…
Lastly, notable experts in hydrology and ecology have expressed their disbelief on this campaign in the media.