Image Credits: South First

In present India, it is rare to witness two chief ministers from the same ruling party disagreeing over something, let alone wage war over an inter-state issue. However, the ongoing water crisis in Karnataka has propelled it to choke the lifeline of Goa – the Mahadayi river, through the Kalasa Banduri Nala Project (‘the Project’). 

Although the water-sharing dispute between Goa and Karnataka is about five decades old, the Central Government’s appeasement politics in poll-bound Karnataka have renewed hostilities. The approved Project will allow Karnataka to construct dams on the Mahadayi river, to divert water from Kalasa and Banduri canals to the Malaprabha river basin. The Project aims to improve water facilities for consumptive purposes in Belagavi, Bagalkot, Dharwad and Gadag districts in Karnataka. 

Consequently, Goa apprehends acute water deficit and ecological damage in its State. The transboundary riverine politics reminds one of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, ‘the earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children…we have to hand over to them at least as it was handed over to us’. These words make evident that while development is necessary, it cannot be at the cost of (vulnerable) ecological systems purely for political ambitions. 

The Mahadayi river runs about 11 km through the Mahadayi Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats–a global biodiversity hotspot, making it an ecologically fragile zone. The Gadgil Commission referred to the Western Ghats as the ‘Protector of the Indian Peninsula’, recommending a ban on inter-basin diversions of rivers for its protection. Saltwater intrusion will be an immediate and palpable spillover effect of the diversion of the Mahadayi river. Aquifers will be highly saline if the sea’s salt water is not balanced by fresh water from the river. This will affect groundwater and potability, alter vegetation growth patterns along the riverbed, and ultimately affect wildlife species thriving in the Mahadayi basin. 

The biodiversity-rich region is India’s prominent tiger corridor and the world’s eighth-finest tiger habitat. It has been proposed to be developed into a tiger reserve on several occasions owing to the frequently spotted Royal Bengal Tigers. The sanctuary has several watering holes near the river bank. More water holes are proposed to be built considering the increase in the spotting of tigers. Any depletion of the river’s water flow will reduce its level, consequently affecting the striped animal and wildlife sanctuary. Therefore, the Project’s long-term effect is the possible derailment of establishing a tiger reserve in the sanctuary. 

Besides the Royal Bengal Tiger, the sanctuary also cradles rare species of frogs, endemic to the Western Ghats, whose life cycles are impacted by the dam constructions and reduced water levels. The area is also ornithologically important and has been declared an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area for attracting species like the Long-Billed Vulture (critically endangered) and the Malabar Pied Hornbill (near threatened). Wildlife conservationists have frequently spotted endangered species in the sanctuary, including the black panther, sloth bear, pangolin, jungle cat, dhole, mouse-deer, and slender loris. The Barapedi and the Krishnapur Caves in the Mahadayi Valley are the only places in the world home to two endangered bat species, Wroughton’s free-tailed bat and Theobald’s tomb bat! The existence of these species in Mahadayi is a splendid example of gene-pool conservation, an age-old traditional practice of sacred grove in India.

The forests of Mahadayi basin host diverse biota and sentries to Goa’s best-kept secret, a bioluminescent fungus called Mycena. Discovering such species could serve as natural wonders and be potential breakthroughs in environmental bioscience. However, when such ecologically rich systems are sacrificed at the altars of politics, biodiversity and conservation die slowly. Therefore, Goa’s apprehensions are certainly not misplaced given the multi-fold implications of diverting the Mahadayi river on Western Ghats’ diverse flora and fauna. 

The Mahadayi river water allocation issue for dam construction can be traced back to the Mahadayi Interstate Water Disputes Tribunal. It permitted Karnataka to divert 2.18 tmc of Mahadayi water at the Bhandura dam and 1.72 tmc at the Kalasa dam. However, Goa, and the other two riverine states (Maharashtra and Karnataka) have appealed against the Tribunal’s order before the Supreme Court, and the matter remains sub-judice. Meanwhile, Goa’s government is holding talks with the Union Minister of Jal Shakti, hoping to get the permission for the Project’s construction revoked. Additionally, Goa’s Chief Wildlife Warden has issued a stop work notice to the Karnataka government for violating section 29 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (‘the Act’). 

Section 29 of the Act prohibits inter-alia, the diversion of water into or outside a sanctuary unless the Chief Wildlife Warden permits. However, such a permit is issued only after obtaining mandatory approval from the respective State Government. In other words, without Goa’s approval, Karnataka has no legal right to divert the Mahadayi river. Goa’s Chief Minister is keen to raise the issue for urgent discussion during the upcoming legislative session in Goa to place all facts on record, track the Goan government’s efforts to save the river and consider other remedies. 

There are a few potential alternatives for Karnataka to address its water scarcity without destroying Goa’s ecological balance. First, encourage and incentivise farmers in Karnataka, to grow alternatives to water-intensive crops. The increased cultivation of water-guzzler crops like sugarcane and paddy has immensely pressurised the Malaprabha basin. Most of the water from the Naviluteertha reservoir on the Malaprabha river is reportedly used to irrigate cash crops, despite being earmarked for drinking water purposes. This situation is remediable, provided the State promotes and revives cultivation of crops like millets that demand little water and are suited to arid conditions.

Second, practising effective water resource management in Karnataka can remedy the scarcity, without claiming water from the Mahadayi. Despite being blessed with an abundant groundwater supply, the State fails to effectively manage and utilise it. Karnataka must prioritise people’s needs instead of giant multinational companies while allocating drinking water. For instance, Pepsico’s Dhaward unit (in the water-scarce Hubli-Dharwad region) is reportedly supplied approximately four lakh litres of water daily from the Malaprabha Reservoir by the Karnataka Water Board. Furthermore, identifying alternative sources of water supply in Karnataka (such as the Kali, Bedti, and Ghataprabha) can also meet the water supply needs of the Hubli-Dharwad region, without causing ecological havoc in Goa. Prima facie, the Mahadayi river may not need to be diverted. The judicious use of the Malaprabha basin can significantly help Karnataka resolve its water crisis. 

Therefore, unless Karnataka finds ways to mitigate its self-engineered  water crisis, without sabotaging the Mahadayi, the inter-state river water dispute is unlikely to cease. Furthermore, if Goa’s concerns over the Project are not adequately addressed, the rich biodiversity of the Mahadayi Basin will become collateral damage in the water war between Goa and Karanataka. It seems unlikely that ecological concerns can dissuade political ambitions, therefore, the only remedy available to Goa now, is an immediate intervention by the Honourable Supreme Court. 

Read more: Maharashtra Agricultural Land Leasing Bill: A Fair Chance for Farmers

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.