By Yashika Jain, National Law University, Delhi.

Karnataka has been contemplating over diverting waters of the west flowing rivers to the east for many years and the answer to this, as proposed by the Karnataka government, is the Netravathi River Diversion Project. Netravathi, the lifeline of Southern Kannada districts, is thus under threat.

Netravathi and her people are panic-stricken ever since the Yettinahole Project, of an amount of approximately Rs. 8000 crore, has been announced by the Chief Minister. The project aims at harnessing water from Yettinahole, a tributary of Netravathi River, and providing it to the drought stricken areas of Karnataka. The project would divert the river water from Yettinahole area in Western Ghats to districts such as Kolar, Tumkur and Chikballapur and supply water to other areas where there has been a drinking water shortage for the last 30 years. The project was given the clearance in July 2012 by the then chief minister and later, in February 2013, the Union Government as well as the Central Water commission cleared the project.

It is claimed that this proposed project of Karnataka Government, the Yettinahole Project,  will bring about the welfare of the state, by diverting the water of west-flowing Netravathi to the eastern areas of the State, leading to equitable distribution of the water. But the environmentalists have been concerned about the adverse impact that the project will have on the Environment.

The project involves construction of 8 dams in 2 phases at the headwaters of Gundia River basin, a tributary of Kumaradhara. This infrastructure for the project, which includes building reservoirs, dams, pipelines, approach roads and worker colonies, will lead to submergence of agricultural and forest lands. The thick forest area has been proposed to be cleared by burning down the area and this would definitely lead to massive pollution.  These forests are not just reserved forests, but also important wildlife corridors and thus burning them down would further lead to loss of biodiversity of the southern state. Previous projects that impacted the habitat of the wildlife led to man-animal conflict and the researchers claim that any further burden on the wildlife habitat would increase such conflict and disturbances in the area. Blasting of rocks and burning down of forests, apart from affecting the wildlife, would also pollute groundwater aquifers and existing water resources. The change in flow, that the project will create, will have adverse impact on the fish assemblages and fish sanctuaries that are found in these tributaries. These fish assemblages, their feeding and breeding patterns depends upon the flow of the water and thus any drastic change in the flow will be greatly affected by the change in flow.

This loss of biodiversity in the Western Ghats would impact the pattern of the rainfall in the Western Ghats. Karnataka has multiple west and east flowing rivers and some of these east flowing rivers originate in the Western Ghats. As a result of this, the rainfall pattern of not just the west flowing rivers but of the entire southern state will be effected in a longer run.

The Yettinahole project claims that it will need 2 megawatts power. The environmentalist raise the important questions of where the power for the project will come from? On whom will this burden of electricity be imposed on? Who shall be the payer of the cost of this massive amount of electricity? Keeping all these factors that would contribute to adverse impact on the environment in mind, Karnataka needs to proceed extremely cautiously on Yettinahole diversion scheme.

It has to be further noticed that such diversion of the water is not the only way to achieve water security. Clearly, long distance transfer of water involving huge ecological, social and financial costs seems to be a poor way of rejuvenating rivers. Experts claim that rejuvenating rivers like Arkavathy can be achieved with rainwater harvesting, demand side management, pollution control and releasing treated water in rivers like Arkavathy and Vrishabhavati, and not interbasin transfers. Karnataka government must take into consideration other examples that have been set by various states across the nation. Lapodia in Jaipur, Rajasthan has the average annual rainfall around 400 mm. People have adopted the Chauka method of rainwater harvesting to meet the water needs of the area. Another example is that of a village in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh which has adopted the Total Water Harvesting system using trenches and within a year achieved success and sustainability.

There are certain steps that should be taken before implementing the project. The project should undergo complete Environment appraisal and Clearance scrutiny, as laid down by the EIA notification, 2006. Recommendations of the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel, regarding avoiding inter-basin transfers in the Western Ghats, were that taking up Options Assessment and cost benefit analysis must be considered. Ecological costs of the diversion should be carried out and put in public domain and public hearings must be held so that Downstream affected communities, including cities like Mangalore and estuarine fisher folk can get their claims heard.

A holistic water management policy for the region must be evolved by taking into consideration other options for reviving rivers and tanks. Appropriate cropping pattern and cropping methods must be made a part of this exercise. A review of rainwater harvesting, efficient water supply, demand management, lake revival, groundwater recharge, grey water and sewage recycling for cities including Bangalore should be carried out prior to allocating more water from distant sources to such cities. A democratic bottom up exercise has to be taken up on such proposals, both in the Western Ghats areas as well as the projected benefiting areas.

It will not be in the interest of the ecology in Western Ghats and Eastern regions or communities if a project of such massive proportions, with devastating social and environmental impacts is taken up for short term political or financial gains, bypassing proper credible appraisal and democratic decision making. Drought affected regions may have better options, including better operation and maintenance of existing water infrastructure, more appropriate cropping and water use pattern, revival of existing water harvesting structures, recycle and reuse of water, among others. Attention needs to be paid to these options, rather than ‘diverting’ water . Livelihood of Yettinaholé and Gundia catchment would be affected severely due to lowered agricultural and fisheries yield, similar to the residents of Nellore district with the implementation of Telugu-Ganga project. The project if implemented deprives the local people of their right to water under Article 21 of the Constitution of India and thus it is in the benefit of the state and its people that the project must not be implemented, at least as per the present design.