Ganga

Lessons from Farakka as we plan more barrages on Ganga

Introduction

“When Farakka barrage was built, the engineers did not plan for such massive silt. But it has become one of the biggest problems of the barrage now” said Dr. P.K. Parua[1]. And he should know as he has been associated with the barrage for nearly 38 years and retired as the General Manager of Farakka Barrage Project (FBP). I remembered the vast island of silt in the middle of the river barely a kilometer upstream of the Barrage and the people who told us their homes were devastated by the swinging river.

Silt Islands just upstream the Barrage. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP
Silt Islands just upstream the Barrage. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

Though called a barrage, Farakka Barrage is a large dam as per ICOLD, WCD and CWC definitions, with associated large dimensions and impacts. To call it a Barrage is misleading.

Commissioned in 1975[i] across Ganga in Murshidabad District of West Bengal and just 16 kms upstream of the Bangladesh Border, Farakka Barrage has been mired in controversies from the very beginning. Its role is singular: to transfer 40,000 cusecs water from Ganga to its distributary Bhagirathi-Hooghly (hence forth referred as Hooghly). And to make Hoogly river navigable from Kolkata port upstream till Farakka barrage. It was thought that this water will push the silt that is eating up the Kolkata Port and will protect the Port for navigation and economy. In reality, Kolkata Port continues to decay and the barrage has had such severe and unforeseen impacts on the people of India and Bangladesh that the call to review Farakka Barrage entirely is getting louder by the day.

A lot has been written about Farakka Barrage by Indian (and many times by Bangladeshi) authors, so why are we discussing Farakka again? Because Political leaders like Shri. Nitin Gadkari have stated that there are plans of building a barrage after every 100 kms in Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad, a 1600 kms stretch. So we are looking at possibly 15 more barrages on Ganga. But before taking decision about building any other such structure, we need to understand the range of impacts a single barrage has had on the lives of millions of people and how inadequate has been our response in addressing these impacts. Farakka holds critical lessons for Indian politicians, policy-makers, international groups and financial institutions like World Bank dreaming of making a string of barrages across a river which has one of the highest silt loads, densest population and the largest deltas in the world.

Ganga as a “Waterway” Government of India is planning to aggressively develop 1620 kilometers of National River Ganga as “National Waterway 1” (NW1). There is a profound difference between a Highway and Waterway. A highway is simply a road while NW1 is actually River Ganga, performing several other functions, it is important to recognise how the NW1 would affect these functions and the river itself. NW 1 spans from Haldia, near the mouth of Ganga Estuary in West Bengal, to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, passing through four states and cities of Haldia, Howrah, Kolkata, Bhagalpur, Buxar, Patna, Ghazipur, Varanasi and Allahabad.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI)[ii] plans to use this waterway for the transport of “coal, fly-ash, food grains, cement, stone chips, oil and over dimensional cargo.” Not surprisingly, companies keenly interested in using this waterway include “thermal power plants, cement companies, fertilizer companies, oil companies” etc.  In order to make this stretch navigable, IWAI plans initiatives like “river training and conservancy, structural improvement, dredging, and Construction of terminals at Allahabad, Varansai, Gazipur in Uttar Pradesh, Sahibganj in Bihar and Katwa in West Bengal.”

Although this plan was on paper for some years, the new government has approached the World Bank for support of nearly Rs 4200 Crores (700 million dollar) for its implementation. In July 2014, the World Bank agreed to fund initial 50 million dollars including technical support (thus creating work for its own experts!). World Bank Team has already visited Patna for this project and joint meeting of IWAI and World Bank has taken place at Varanasi[iii]. No public consultation has been held thus far.

Although River Navigation has nothing to do with River Rejuvenation, Shri. Nitin Gadkari, Union Surface Transport & Shipping Minister with additional portfolio of Rural Development, who played an active role in the Ganga Manthan, announced this navigation plan as a part of ‘Ganga Rejuvenation’.[iv]

He also announced that the plan entails erecting barrages (dams) on the Ganga at every 100 kilometer interval from Haldia to Allahabad. This would mean damming the Ganga rough about 15-16 times, to maintain water levels and navigability.[v]

If the plan moves ahead, it may escape environmental clearance as the very limited EIA Notification 2006, being actively amended for dilution by the Modi government, includes only irrigation and hydropower dams in its ambit. This does not mean that these barrages will not have severe impacts on the river, its people and its ecosystems. Far from it. SANDRP has written about the impacts of Upper Ganga Barrage at Bhimgouda, the Lower Ganga Barrage at Narora and the Farakka Barrage in Murshidabad, West Bengal (SANDRP’s Report on Farakka, 1999: https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf).

The analysis at hand is based on official documents and research, site visit, interviews and discussions with experts and local people.

  • Farakka Barrage, in the backdrop of proposed Barrages

Farakka Barrage, 2.62 kms long, commissioned in 1975 has a unique purpose. The barrage was built for diverting waters of Ganga into its distributary The Hooghly/ Bhagirtahi, for flushing sediments and maintaining the navigability of Kolkata Port (& Hooghly River) which lies at the mouth of Hooghly. Records about high sedimentation in Hooghly can be traced back to 17th Century, but is known to increase following building of Damodar Dams in post independent India. Construction of a barrage on Ganga and diverting its waters into Hooghly was suggested in the 19th Century by Sir Arthur Cotton. After independence, the historic Kolkata port was becoming hugely silted due to sluggish freshwater from upstream on the one hand and and strong saline intrusion from the sea on the other. At that time, Farakka Barrage was thought to be an answer to these problems.

Farakka Barrage
The Farakka Barrage. Photo: Author

Even then, some lone voices highlighted the possible impacts of Farakka Barrage. Notably Mr. Kapil Bhattacharya, Engineer-in-Chief of West Bengal had warned about absence of sufficient water, catastrophic floods and sedimentation in the upstream back in 70s.  When Pakistan (current Bangladesh was part of Pakistan during 1947-1971) upheld his views, he was branded as a traitor and lost his job. He had highlighted that one of the main reasons why Hooghly was desiccating was Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) dams on Damodar and Roopnarayan Rivers.

The Farakka Barrage completed in 1975 has 109 gates, and a feeder canal of 38.1 kms emanating from the right bank, carrying water from Ganga to Hooghly. There is one more barrage at Jangipur in the downstream and afflux bunds in the upstream of Farakka, diverting waters of all smaller rivers like Pagla and Choto Bhagirathi into Farakka, effectively drying them in the downstream.

The Feeder canal is supposed to divert 40,000 cusecs water continuously from Ganga into Bhagirathi/ Hooghly. Hooghly-Bhagirathi itself is not a small river. It is a system drained by 7 tributaries like Pagla, Bansloi, Mayurakshi, Ajoy, Damodar, Rupnarayan, Haldi and the two offshoots of Ganga – Jalangi and Churni.

Location of Farakka Barrage  Depiction From : Rudra,
Location of Farakka Barrage Depiction From : Rudra, Encroaching Ganga and Social Conflicts
  • Impacts and performance of Farakka Barrage

Several grave questions are being posed on the utility of the barrage itself and its impacts. Some of the main points are illustrated below:

  1. Hooghly estuary cannot be made silt-free by 40,000 cusecs from Farakka only

River Expert Dr. Kalyan Rudra, an authority on rivers in Bengal, especially their interactions with sediment, says that the initial objective of Farakka of flushing silt from the mouth of Hooghly has been “frustrated”[vi]. This assessment has been supported by many, including the past Superintending Engineer of Farakka Dr. P.K. Parua (Pers. Comm.) According to Kolkata Port Trust, the dredging of silt at Kolkata Port has been rising from 6.40 million cubic meters (MCM) annually from Pre-Farakka days to four time increase at 21.88 MCM annually during 1999-2003.

The answer, according to Dr. Rudra, lies in the fact that freshwater flow brought by the Hooghly Estuary, even with 40,000 cusecs from Farakka is just too meagre to flush sediments deep down the estuary. The difference between volumes of freshwater brought by Hooghly, as against the tide bringing saline water from south to north is as much as 1:78,  making any deep flushing due to freshwater nearly impossible. Dams in the Hooghly Bhagirathi Basin by Damodar Valley Corporation have further arrested freshwater which could have naturally replenished Hooghly estuary. At the same time the stated aims of Damodar Valley Corporation, fashioned on the lines of Tennessee Valley Authority have not been fulfilled.

Currently, the functioning of Kolkata Port and Haldia port is entirely at the mercy of Dredging Corporation of India (DCI) to desilt the river to maintain sufficient draft (allowable depth of a ship’s keel under water). DCI gets about Rs 300-350 Crores per year for dredging the channel, although several problems have been unearthed like dumping the excavated silt back in the estuary from where it is washed back in the channel. In 2009, the Government of India had actually written to the Kolkata Port Trust, saying that it has become a “liability” and it should explain why it should continue to receive dredging subsidies. A PIL has been filed[vii] in 2013 in Kolkata High Court to save Kolkata and Haldia ports by intensive dredging.

Dredging the National Waterway I Photo: WRIS
Dredging the National Waterway I Photo: WRIS

It is clear that 40,000 cusecs water from Farakka is not able to help the Kolkata Port much as was envisaged earlier. SANDRP tried to talk with officials at the Kolkata Port Trust, but they declined answering any questions saying that Farakka is a bilateral issue.

This has led to a situation where we have the barrage and the impacts of two countries and millions of people, without even achieving objective for which the project was developed.

2. Sedimentation in the upstream of Farakka Barrage and its massive implications for India and Bangladesh

It is estimated that Ganga carries a silt load of 736 Million Tonnes (MT) annually, out of which about 328 MT of sediment gets deposited in the upstream of Farakka Barrage ANNUALLY[viii]. This annual addition of enormous sediment in the upstream of the barrage has made the river extremely shallow and any ship transport past Farakka has become nearly impossible. As we saw during our visit, islands/chars have formed barely a kilometer upstream the barrage, where animals graze, making any transport nearly impossible.

This massive retention of sediments has resulted in a two-pronged problem:

3. Contribution to delta subsidence and rising sea level in Bangladesh and India

Water released below Farakka barrage has significantly less silt load as about 328 MT silt gets deposited at Farakka. This water has a higher eroding capacity and erodes downstream riverbed. But there is an additional problem: World Heritage site of Sunderbans at the mouth of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, shared between India and Bangladesh is witnessing possibly the first and highest numbers of Climate Change refugees in the world due to Ingressing Sea which is eating away at smaller islands and the delta. Part reason for this delta subsidence is sea level rise due to global warming and related changes, but the driving reason for encroaching seas is not only sea level rise, but the sinking river delta due to trapping sediment in the upstream dams and barrages like Farakka. The role of river sediments in building deltas is crucial. Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana Delta is subsiding rapidly and is categorized as a ‘Delta in Peril’ by experts like Syvitski et al, due to reduction in sediments reaching the delta and compaction of delta, furthering sea level rise. According to recent studies, the rate of relative sea level rise per year in the Ganga Brahmaputra delta is in the range of 8-18 mm per year, one the highest in the world. The related sediment reduction has been a whopping 30% in the twentieth century. (SANDRPs report on Delta Subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise due to sediment trapping by dams: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/sinking-and-shrinking-deltas-major-role-of-dams-in-abetting-delta-subsidence-and-effective-sea-level-rise/)

Farakka Barrage has been highlighted as one of the causes for this blocking of sediments at an important juncture. Any role played by Farakka in delta subsidence of GBM Delta has a massive impact on millions of people residing in this delta. According to Prof. Md. Khallequzamman (Pers Comm.), the amount of sediment influx flowing into Bangladesh from upper reaches in India has dropped from 2 billion tons per year in the 1960s to less than 1 billion tons per year in recent years, which is not enough to keep pace with rising sea.[ix]

4. Erosion in the Upstream of the barrage due to Sedimentation

Farakka Barrage is getting silted up due to millions of tonnes of sediment being deposited in the upstream annually. Ganga has been a meandering river, changing courses over centuries, forming paleo channel and ox bows. This deposition of sediment in the upstream is accelerating swinging of Ganga alarmingly to the left bank of the river. This is leading to tremendous erosion in Malda and surrounding regions. More than 4000 hectares of land in Malda has been eroded by the Ganga since 1970s. The river has also breached 8 embankments. Although a number of authors have conclusively written about this and even Legislative Assembly of West Bengal has been unequivocal in saying that “It is accepted all levels that the construction of Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of river Ganges in Malda district”, Central Water Commission trivializes this fact and does not accept any responsibility of Farakka.The only issue CWC seems to be bothered about is the health of the barrage itself which is compromised by erosion on the left bank. In official correspondences of CWC and MoWR scrutinized by SANDRP, the agencies do not mention anything about plight of thousands of people, who are refugees of a swinging river, but are only concerned about the strength of the barrage.[x]

According to Audit Report on Farakka Barrage by Indian Audit and Accounts Departments, between 2006-2012, the “Unintended Consequences” of Farakka include:

  • Induced water through feeder canal raised water level of Bhagirathi by about  5 meters near Jangipur and does not allow Bansloi and Pagla to join Bhagirtahi freely. A new wetland due to congestion formed Ahiron Beel which has submerged fertile land.
  • The barrage has trapped substantial sediment and hence river in changing course. In homogenous situation the oscillation of river is secular but it gets aggravated due to Farakka Barrage. On account of Rajmahal hills on right bank and Farakka barrage on the channel, the river erodes the left bank.
  • The 10 day cycle of increased and decreased release of water from the Barrage has resulted in a complex phenomenon of recharging  ground water by river and then receiving base flow from groundwater ( when river is low). The frequent change in water level on account of 10 day altered flow adversely affects the rivers hydro geomorphology leading to escalating bank erosion.
  • River bed height in Farakka pondage has increased and the river is compensating this reduction by expanding its cross section sideways
Bank Erosion and Embakment breach at Hiranandpur Phot with thanks: Soumya Desarkar
Bank Erosion and Embakment breach at Hiranandpur Phot with thanks: Soumya Desarkar

5. Erosion Downstream of the barrage, leading to loss of life and property:

Sedimentation upstream the barrage, coupled with natural swing of Ganga has meant that the river is swinging to the left, encroaching the left bank, leading to erosion in thousands of villages, roads, fields  in the downstream of the Barrage in India as well as Bangladesh, causing annual floods. The Irrigation Department West Bengal (Report of the Irrigation Dept for 1997-2001) itself has agreed not only about this erosion due to Farakka Barrage, but has also cautioned about the possibility of outflanking of the Farakka Barrage itself.  Many experts maintain the eminent possibility of Ganga outflanking the barrage to flow through its old course of the 15th century, which will reduce the barrage to just a bridge.

On our visit to Farakka, Kedarnath Mandal, a veteran activist working on issued of Ganga and Farakka accompanied us to see extensive erosion in the left bank of the river in the upstream at Simultola as well as downstream in Chauk Bahadurpur. In both these regions, the eroding river has paid little heed to the erosion control measures on the banks. Huge boulders have been swept with the current, destabilizing land in their wake.

AntiErosion_Downstream
Washing away erosion control measures at Chow Bahadurpur downstream FBP Photo: Author

We saw extensive bank erosion in the left bank on the downstream where all measures like bull headed spurs, dip trees, porcupines, gunny bags, geo-synthetic covers, boulders bars, boulder crates with nets, etc. have been eroded.

In all this din, the people residing in the chars, their leaders like Kedarnath Mandal, River experts and even the Legislative Council of West Bengal maintain that though erosion and changing courses is a character of Ganga, it has worsened and accelerated hugely since Farakka Barrage. In fact the 13th Legislative Assembly Committee (2004) in its 7th Report notes “It is accepted at all levels that the construction of Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of river Ganges in Malda district”.

6. Near Impossibility of desilting Farakka Barrage

To say that the challenge of desilting Farakka Barrage is Herculean, will be an understatement. The irreversible circle of events is highlighted by the fact that in order to have any appreciable impact, the amount of sediment lifted from the barrage should be at least twice the amount deposited per year, if the project is to be completed even in thirty years. But that seems impossible. According to Dr. Rudra, “Doing so will require a fourteen lane dedicated highway from Malda to Gangasagar” and the transport cost alone “would be nearly twice the revenue earned by Government of India in a year.” Dr. P.K. Parua also accepts that desilting the barrage will be next to impossible.

Such is the scale of sedimentation at Farakka.

7. Source of conflict with Bangladesh

Experts and authorities from Bangladesh have been raising the issue of impact of Farakka for several years now. Farakka Barrage not only obstructs the flow of sediments in Bangladesh, but also diverts waters of Ganga away from Bangladesh delta, depriving millions of fisherfolk and farmers from their livelihood. Water sharing from Farakka, particularly in lean season is now governed by Ganges Water Treaty of 1996. The Treaty holds force between 1 January to 31st May each year and water sharing calculations are based on 10 day flows. Some experts from Bangladesh have maintained that Ganges Water Treaty is not being implemented properly and Bangladesh is receiving less water than its due.[xi]  There are issues raised by the Indian side as well of dwindling water availability. All in all, the barrage and the resultant Treaty continues to be a source of impacts for the river and people of the two nations.

  • Meeting officials at Farakka Barrage

SANDRP met with the Authorities at the Farakka Barrage Project  office, which is under the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), at New Farakka. After meeting the officials, it was clear that they have no program for silt management at all. They do not even see this as an area of concern and are only concerned with anti-erosion works, which are failing miserably, and releasing water to Kolkata Port, which is not improving its navigability.

While some may argue, rather irrelevantly (considering the warnings of Kapil Bhattacharyya), that Engineers in 1950s, 60s and 70s were not equipped or aware of the issues related to sediment and its far-reaching impacts like erosion, deposition, floods, even sea level rise, the same in any case cannot be said about the current water management. They have the privilege of better knowledge, better resources and also lessons from past experiences. But despite having clear evidence that silt of Ganga is playing havoc with millions in India as well as Bangladesh, the Farakka Barrage Authorities tell us that they have no plan for silt management the barrage except annual erosion control measures.

The mandate of the barrage authorities is also 120 kms of bank erosion works, 40kms in the upstream and 80kms in the downstream. We were told on the condition of anonymity that this extensive work leaves little time even for maintaining the barrage. The bank protection work is also not permanent and is eroded with flood waves. The bureaucratic set up at Farakka makes it impossible to take proactive decisions about Barrage maintenance. The gates of the barrage need replacement, but there is hardly any agency interested in working for Farakka Barrage due to bureaucratic delays.

The officials told SANDRP that the only desilting measure that can be adopted is opening all gates of the Barrage, but that will not be possible unless all gates are replaced as many gates are faulty. Replacing all gates of Farakka will take at least two more years and we do not know even after that whether silt can be flushed. Such a flushing will need a major flood event and the impact of such sudden flushing of billions of tonnes of silt in the downstream will be unprecedented & huge.

Meeting with Farakka Barrage Authorities leaves one with more questions than answers.

  • Interview with past official of Farakka

SANDRP discussed the multiple issues of Farakka with one of the senior retired official from the Farakka Barrage Authority who has seen the work of the FBPA closely over several years. Some excerpts from these discussions.

SANDRP: Sir, do you think Farakka is fulfilling its functions?

Answer: Farakka was not only designed for diverting water for Hooghly, it was foreseen that there may be an Irrigation component and even a hydropower component. But the inflow at the barrage was over calculated. We never had that sort of inflow in the project. Add to this Treaty with Bangladesh in 1996 and India was left with little water. I would say objectives of Farakka were only partially fulfilled. The barrage has a designed discharge of 27,00,000 cusecs and we have been able to achieve that discharge only twice since commissioning the barrage. In the recent years, water flow has been declining sharply at the barrage. This further handicaps all its functions.

SANDRP: There are several problems associated with silt deposited in the upstream of the barrage like floods, change in course of the river, erosion, etc. Is there any way to tackle this deposited silt?

Answer: Yes, that is a serious problem. This is being faced by ports and barrages the world over and also across India. There are so many players responsible for the increasing silt load and reduced water in the river, right from Nepal.

We can say that the scale of the sediment issue was not understood when the barrage was designed, the engineers then did not have the knowledge or tools for this. Even now, there is no easy way this issue can be tackled. Desilting the barrage would be very costly, and what would be do with the collected silt? Malda and Murshidabad region is densely populated, we cannot dump it anywhere. If we dump it in the river, there will be other problems. It is possibly an evil we have to live with now.

SANDRP: There are plans to erect about 16 more such barrages on the Ganga main stem. What would be the lessons from Farakka for these barrages?

Answer: I think this is a horrible plan. In addition to the challenge of silt, I wonder where will the water come from? Supplies from Upper Ganga Canals are increasing, reducing water flow in the river. Uttar Pradesh is increasing the capacity of Lower Ganga Canals. More and more abstraction will happen. Such a plan does not seem feasible and will be harmful for the river as well.

  • Ecological Impacts
  1. There’s no Hilsa here

Farakka Barrage has stopped migration of economically important species like the Hilsa (Tenualosa ilsha) and Macrobrachium prawns, both Ilish (Hilsa) and Chingri (Macrobrachium) hold a special significance to people in West Bengal and Bangladesh. A lot has been written about the Barrage’s disastrous impact on Hilsa production and impoverishment of fisherfolk in India and Bangladesh[xii]. About 2 lakh fisherfolk in Malda district alone depend on riverine fisheries and Hilsa here was the backbone of the fishing economy.

Although Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) has a lab to work on Hilsa, the institute is not working on Fish passes or Hilsa Hatcheries at the Barrage itself!

Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot
Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot Photo: Author

Prior to comHilsamissioning Farakka Barrage in 1975, there are records of the Hilsa migrating from Bay of Bengal right upto Agra, Kanpur and even Delhi covering a distance of more than 1600 kms. Maximum abundance was observed at Buxar (Bihar), at a distance of about 650 kms from river mouth. Post Farraka, Hilsa is unheard of in Yamuna in Delhi and its yield has dropped to zero in Allahabad, from 91 kg/km in 1960s. Studies as old as those conducted in mid-seventies single out Farakka’s disastrous impacts on Hilsa, illustrating a near 100% decline of Hilsa above the barrage post construction.[xiii]

We met fishermen who have not caught a single Hilsa in the upstream of the barrage despite fishing for three days. In the downstream too, size and recruitment (population) of Hilsa is affected due to arrested migration at Farakka. Some 2 million fisherfolk in Bangladesh depend on Hilsa fishing. Hilsa in Padma river (Ganga in India) downstream Farakka has also declined sharply due to decreasing water and blockage of migration routes.[xiv]

Lone Hilsa caught by a fishermen after three days of effort, sold for a pittance to local fish dealer. Photo: Author
Lone Hilsa caught by a fishermen after three days of effort, sold for a pittance to local fish dealer. Photo: Author

These fisherfolk have never been compensated for the losses they suffered. They were not even counted as affected people when the barrage was designed and they are not counted even now.

  1. Fable of Farakka Fish Lock

The tale of Farakka Barrage Fish Lock is another tragic story. Fish Lock is a gated structure in a Barrage that needs to be operated specifically to facilitate migration of fish from the downstream to the upstream or vice versa to breed, feed or complete their lifecycles.

According to Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), Farakka Barrage has two Fish Locks between gates 24 and 25. The locks need to be operated to aid fish migration and transport fish. We talked with the Engineers at Farakka Barrage Authority, local villagers, fishermen and even the Barrage Control Room officials who operate the gates of the barrage about the functioning of the Fish Lock. No one had heard about a Fish Lock. There is some information that there is one more lock further upstream in the river, but the FBP Authorities did not seem aware of this.

The control room officials kept showing us the ship lock at the Barrage (which is also rarely used due to turbulence and sedimentation) and told us categorically that “There is nothing called as fish lock here”. The locks have not been operated for a minimum of a decade, possibly much longer.

Who is responsible for the loss of fisherfolk income in the meantime? Will the Farakka Barrage Authority or the MoWR or the CWC or the Kolkata Port Trust or Inland Waterways Authority of India compensate them?

Dejected Fisherman upstream Farakka Barrage. He says Hilsa is nearly wiped out from here and there is intense conflict for the meager catch. Photo: Author
Fisherman upstream Farakka Barrage. He says Hilsa is nearly wiped out from here and there is intense conflict for a meager catch. Photo: Author

According to Dr. Parua, fish locks were operated for some time when he was posted at Farakka, but they never worked as planned. He believes that a bare 60 feet fish lock for a barrage that is more than 2.6 kms long is of little use. There should have been more fish locks planned. He also lamented about the non-functionality of Hilsa Fish Hatchery set up at the banks of the barrage. (We were not even told about the presence of this structure by any of the officials or other concerned persons we met and possibly it has now fallen to complete disrepair now.) He said despite Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) is based in West Bengal and has a special cell to study Hilsa, they or the Fisheries Department have taken no interest in the functioning of the hatchery or the Fish Locks.

2. Vikramshila Dolhin Sanctuary, Bhagalpur

Bhagalpur is barely 150 kms upriver from Farakka and Dr. Sunil Chaudhary, a past Member of the Sate Wildlife Board of Bihar has been working relentlessly on conservation of Gangetic Dolphins, as well as rights of traditional fisherfolk in Bihar and around Vikramshila region.[xv] SANDRP discussed the issue of Farakka and additional barrages with him. Dr. Chaudhary states that not only barrages, but the dredging itself will have serious impacts on Dolphins. Impacts of Farakka Barrage on fish and fisherfolk in Bihar is still being felt. No Hilsa reach here from Farakka and a generation of fisherfolk has suffered due to this. Forget more barrages on the Ganga, we need a review of Farakka Barrage itself as Ganga Mukti Andolan has been asking for years now.

Any work affecting Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary will require clearance from State Wildlife Board, State Wildlife Warden and National Board for Wildlife. We hope that such permissions are not given without due diligence and independent application of mind and at least whatever remains of Ganga is maintained.

In conclusion

The issues arising out of Farakka are extremely serious. Our planners and decision makers may claim that many of the impacts were not foreseen (Not entirely true). But the issue cannot be ignored any longer. We need a credible independent review of the development effectiveness of Farakka Barrage, including costs, benefits and impacts.

What we seem to be doing now is to repeat the mistakes of the past with new barrages planned on the Ganga.

The existing Upper Ganga Barrage (Bhimgouda Barrage) has dried up the river in the downstream. The river is diverted in a canal, where people take ritual baths, while the original riverbed is used as a parking lot.

Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author
Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author

The Lower Ganga (Narora Barrage) has severely affected fish migration & dried up the river in the downstream at least in lean season. The Barrage has a fish ladder, but there is no monitoring or concern as to whether it is working or not. In its report to the World Bank, Uttar Pradesh Government has said that the “condition of the barrage is poor” and has lamented about increased siltation in the upstream of the barrage and the inability to flush the sediments due to poor condition of its gates.[xvi].

Beyond doubt, the existing barrages, especially the Farakka Barrage have had massive impacts on the river, its ecosystems and its people. We have many critical lessons to learn from these experiences. In stead, we are pushing for more barrages on a river which will only compound existing problems.

Ganga is much more than a waterway or a powerhouse. It is a river, supporting not only urban areas and industries, but rural communities, the basin, the ecosystem and myriad organisms in its wake and it needs to be respected as an ecosystem first, rather than for sentimental reasons like mother or goddess.

The Ganga is being fettered at its origin in the Uttarakhand by over 300 hydropower dams. In addition, if it is again dammed many times over times in its main channel, then the government will not have to worry about River Rejuvenation Plan. There will be no river left for rejuvenation.

-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

DSC00340

Bibliography:

Dr. Sutapa Mukhopadhyay et al, Bank Erosion of River Ganga, Eastern India –A Threat to Environmental Systems Management

G Verghese, Waters of Hope: Facing New Challenges in Himalaya-Ganga Corporation, India Research Press, 2007

Milliman et al, Environmental and economic implications of rising sea level and subsiding deltas: the Nile and Bengal examples, JSTOR, 1989

Syvitski et al Sinking deltas due to human activities Nature Geoscience, September 2009

Thakkar, Dandekar, Shrinking and Sinking Deltas, Major role of dams in delta subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise, SANDRP, 2014

A Photo Feature on Farakka Barrage: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/world-rivers-day-and-ganga-a-look-at-farakka-barrage-and-other-such-calamities/

End Notes:

[1] Pers. Comm.

[i] For a earlier SANDRP report on Farakka, see: https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf

[ii] http://iwai.nic.in/index1.php?lang=1&level=0&linkid=115&lid=781

[iii] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/varanasi/No-environmental-clearance-for-Haldia-Allahabad-Waterway/articleshow/39827972.cms

[iv] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/will-this-ganga-manthan-help-the-river/

[v] http://www.toxicswatch.org/2014/08/work-commencing-on-ganga-waterway.html

[vi] Dr. Rudra, Kalyan, The Encroaching Ganga and Social Conflicts: The Case of West Bengal, India, 2008

[vii] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/PIL-to-save-Kolkata-and-Haldia-ports-filed/articleshow/20526985.cms

[viii] Dr. Rudra, Kalyan, The Encroaching Ganga and Social Conflicts: The Case of West Bengal, India, 2008

[ix] For more details see: https://sandrp.in/Shrinking_and_sinking_delta_major_role_of_Dams_May_2014.pdf

[x] http://www.environmentportal.in/files/Farakka%20Barrage.pdf

[xi] Khalequzzaman, Md., and Islam. Z., 2012, ‘Success and Failure of the Ganges Water-sharing Treaty’ on WRE Forum http://wreforum.org/khaleq/blog/5689

[xii] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/collapsing-hilsa-can-the-dams-compensate-for-the-loss/

http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?186621/Climate-change-could-drown-out-Sundarbans-tigers—study

http://www.the-south-asian.com/april-june2009/Climate-refugees-of-Sunderbans.htm

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/092181819190118G

[xiii] Ghosh, 1976 quoted in Review of the biology and fisheries of Hilsa, Upper Bengal Estuary, FAO, 1985

[xiv] http://www.downtoearth.org.in/node/2071

[xv] https://sandrp.in/rivers/Dolphins_of_the_Ganga-few_fading_fewer_frolicking.pdf

[xvi] World Bank, Uttar Pradesh Water Restructuring Project Phase II, 2013

[xvii] https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf

Ganga

World Rivers Day and Ganga: A look at Farakka Barrage and other such calamities

Last Sunday of every September is celebrated as ‘World Rivers Day’. It is a recent phenomenon, but in many senses more significant than World Water Day. While ‘Water’ is seen more as a resource than the life-blood of the global ecosystem, ‘River’ provides water with its ecological, social, cultural and spiritual context. One this day, SANDRP looks at India’s ‘National River’ Ganga. The river seems to be a symbol of all that is right and wrong with water governance in India. It depicts crystallisation of challenges faced by rivers across the country, albeit at a much larger scale. The rich canvass and the deep spiritual value of Ganga for many cultures make it more riveting. The new government at the centre has declared that rejuvenation of the Ganga River is one of its priorities. However, in addition to several infrastructure projects planned and ongoing on the river and its tributaries (Ganga is not just 2525 kms long river, its is more than 25,000 kms long, with all its tributaries), the new Government is planing to build a series of barrages on the River to make it navigable, from Haldia, at the mouth of Hooghly, a major distributary of the Ganga to Allahabad which is some 1620 kms upstream from Haldia. Before we go further into the advantages or the disadvantages of more barrages on Ganga, let us take a look at what one only existing Barrage on this 1620 km stretch of the river, The Farakka Barrage, has done to the river in the past 39 years since the Barrage was commissioned. Let us see how we have managed the issues which have arisen, how human lives have been impacted, what has been our response, how the main objective of building the barrage has been frustrated, how we have dealt with this realization, how the Barrage has furthered more conflicts and how a thriving fishing activity has been nearly killed by Farakka in the upstream as well as in the downstream. SANDRP visited the region of Farakka Barrage, Malda, Murshidabad, talked with the affected people, fisherfolk, authorities at the Barrage as well as the Director and other officials at the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) to understand the complex issues. Prior to detailed analysis, here’s looking at Ganga, Hooghly and Farakka in photos.

The Hooghly-Ganga in Kolkata carries 40,000 cusecs water which has been divereted into Hooghly from Ganga at the Farakka Barrage Photo: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP
The Hooghly-Ganga in Kolkata carries 40,000 cusecs water which has been diverted into Hooghly from Ganga at the Farakka Barrage Photo: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

Farakka Barrage was commissioned in 1975 to transfer 40,000 cusecs ( Cubic Feet per second) of water from Ganga into its distributary Hooghly to save the Kolkata Port on the Hooghly from silting up. The barrage is just 16 kms upstream from Bangladesh border.

Cargo at Kolkata Port is dropping streadily. The Port is silted up, dredging is ncresing down the years. Farakka Barrage has NOT controlled the silting problem of the Port Photo: The Hindu
Cargo at Kolkata Port is dropping streadily. The Port is silted up, dredging is increasing down the years. Farakka Barrage has NOT controlled the silting problem of the Port Photo: The Hindu
HooghluKol2
Hooghly at Kolkata Photo: Author

As a part of Farakka Barrage Project,  an afflux bund was constructed over several rivers upstream of Farakka, like Choto Bhagirathi, Pagla, etc., to divert water into the Barrage. The complete diversion of water killed these rivers in the downstream, severely affecting people. Here we see Choto Bhagirathi flowing after many years, thanks to a pipeline and sluice sanctioned this year to supply meager water to the river. This does not help the fish though, there are hardly any left.

Meager fishing at Choto Bhagirathi Photo: Author
Choto Bhagirathi, completely diverted for the Farakka Barrage, only flowing this year. Photo: Author
Fishing nets at Choto Bhagirathi. Fisherfolk told   us this was more out of habit, there re hardly any fish left in the river. Photo: Author
Fishing nets at Choto Bhagirathi. Fisherfolk told us this was more out of habit, there are hardly any fish left in the river. Photo: Author
Kedarnath Mondal, a noted activist working on issues related to Farakka Barrge, discussing with fisherfolk
Kedarnath Mondal, a noted activist working on issues related to Farakka Barrge, discussing with fisherfolk. Photo: Author

Not withstanding the anti-erosion works completed upstream the Farakka Barrage in Malda, the Ganga has deposited huge sediment load in the upstream of the barrage and this has accelerated the swing in its channel. The channel is swinging rapidly to the left bank, eroding and eating away thousands of hectares of villages, farms, mango plantations and chars (islands) in the way, endangering the Barrage itself. Although sediment-laden Ganga has a history of changing courses, this has been aggravated to a great extent by the sedimentation and obsrtuction caused by Farakka.

Anti erosion works upstream of Farakka Barrage Photo: Author
Anti erosion works upstream of Farakka Barrage Photo: Author
Anti Erosion work destroyed
Anti Erosion work destroyed by the river on its left bank, upstream of Barrage Photo: Author
Erosion at Malda upstream Farakka Photo: Soumya Desarkar
Erosion at Malda upstream Farakka Photo: Soumya Desarkar
Erosion and its impacts Photo: Jaideep Mazoomdar, Outlook
Erosion and its impacts Photo: Jaideep Mazoomdar, Outlook

Even before you arrive at the heavily guarded Barrage, you can see the heavily silted river, with cattle grazing peacefully on islands (chars) just 500 meters-1 km upstream of the barrage. According to River Expert Kalyan Rudra, Farakka hordes nearly 350 million tonnes of sediment flow of Ganga every year in the upstream!!

Cattle grazing just upstream of the Barrage, indicating the enormous sediment deposition
Cattle grazing inside the riverbed just upstream of the Barrage, indicating the enormous sediment deposition Photo: Author
Sedimentation upstream the barrage can be clearly seen Photo: Author
Sedimentation inside the riverbed just upstream of  the barrage can be clearly seen Photo: Author
Board proclaiming that Farakka is the Pride of the Nation! Photo: Author
Board proclaiming that Farakka is the Pride of the Nation! Photo: Author
Farakka Barrage
Farakka Barrage Photo: Author
Jpeg
Diversion of water to Farakka Feeder Canal from right bank Photo: Author

The Barrage also severely affected navigation through the river. A separate ship lock was made on the Feeder Canal and it is managed by Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI). Hardly any ships pass through due to high sedimentation.

Condition of the Farakka Ship Lock. Secirity Personnel there told us hardly any ships pass this route, less than one ship in three months Photo: Author
Condition of the Farakka Ship Lock. Security personnel posted here told us that hardly any ships pass this route, less than one ship in three months Photo: Author
Hilsa FIshing upstream Farakka is nearly finished as the fish cannot overcome the huge obstacle. Fisherfolk have taken to fishing in the feeder canals where too the catch is meager Photo: Author
Hilsa Fishing upstream Farakka is nearly finished as the fish cannot overcome the huge obstacle. Fisherfolk have taken to fishing in the feeder canals where too the catch is meager Photo: Author
DSC00191
Any meager Hilsa catch is immediately seized by the middleman. In this case middleman gave forty rupees to the fisherman. The Middleman will get more than 300 Rs. for this same catch of Hilsa. Photo Author
Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot
Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot

Downstream the barrage, due to trapping of silt in the upstream, silt free water erodes banks with vengeance, especially the left bank. We saw several anti-erosion measures failing miserably in front of the river’s fury.

Anti erosion works get routinely swept away
Anti erosion works get routinely swept away

bankerosion4 Farakka has profoundly changed the character, sediment regime and flow of Ganga. It is affecting lives of lakhs of people in India and Bangladesh through cycles of erosion, sedimentation, floods and affected fishing. Our response to the issue has been dismal. We have not conducted a single review of costs, benefits and impacts of Farakka Project so far. In addition to Farakka , Lower Ganga (Narora), Middle Ganga, Upper Ganga Barrages (Bhimgoda), Kanpur Barrage, Hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and other upstream states have affected the river in most profound ways. If we want to rejuvenate the Ganga, we need to institute a credible independent review the existing Barrages, not plan new ones. May be we can begin with a demand for such a review for Farakka on urgent basis. One World Rivers Day, let us wish for a long and healthy flow for the Ganga River, a symbol of all flowing rivers in India!

-Parineeta Dandekar (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

POST SCRIPT on April 28, 2015:

An edited version of this article and photoessay on The Nowhere People — Environmental Refugees around Farakka, was published in the Mint on March 28th, 2015. Here it is in full: http://www.ficusmedia.com/traildiaries/2015/03/28/the-nowhere-people/
This article was made possible with a grant from The Third Pole and Asia Foundation.
Arati Kumar Rao

Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author
Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author
Dams · Free flowing rivers

Collapsing Hilsa: Economic, ecological and cultural impact of dams

Above: Hilsa fishers in Bangladesh setting out for their journey Photo: with thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao

In addition to the Gangetic Fisheries Primer, SANDRP will shortly publish a Primer documenting the Impacts of dams on Riverine Fish and Fisher Communities. One of the most profound impacts of dams on fish is blocking migration routes and perhaps no other fish symbolizes this impact as dramatically as the Hilsa: the Silver Queen of the River.

Glimpses of the impacts of dams on Hilsa in South Asia.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Arguably, Hilsa is not just a tasty and healthy fish species that migrates from the sea up the river to spawn. It is a cultural icon that binds Bengalis, whether from West Bengal or Bangladesh, together in their shared love for Ilish Machch. Pohela Baishakh or the new year day’s meal is not complete without Ilish. Though Hilsa is celebrated fervently by the Bengalis, it is prized in all estuaries of South Asia, from Narmada, Mahanadi, Godavari, Cauvery to Indus and Irrawaddy and takes the name of  Chaski, Palva, Ilishii, Palla, Pulasa, etc. It is also found at confluence of Tigris and Euprates in Iran, where it is as prized and known as Sbour. The fish flavours several poems, folklore, songs and phraseologies of the entire South Asia. In cultural terms, the significance of Hilsa is comparable only to Salmon and Mahseer.

Ilish on Pohela Baishakh Photo: Flickr
Ilish fish and rice, a religious offering and cultural fare on Pohela Baishakh Photo: Flickr

Tenualosa ilisha, Hilsa or Indian Shad belongs to the sub family Alosinae of Family Clupeidae. Commercially, it is the most important fisheries in the estuaries, especially in the Ganga-Hooghly region.It occurs in marine, estuarine and riverine environments and is found in Indus of Pakistan, Irrawaddy of Myanmar and Indian rivers like Ganga, Bhagirathi, Hooghly, Rupanarayan, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Narmada, Cauvery, Tapti, coastal rivers like Padma, Jamuna, Meghana, Karnafuly and others in Bangladesh. It is seen to migrate up smaller estuaries like Pennar too.

Hilsa, by habitat, is a marine fish but migrates in estuaries and rivers for spawning, normally inhabiting the lower region of the estuaries and the foreshore areas of the sea. Hilsa ascends the rivers for spawning and the spent fish and their progeny migrate down the river towards lower estuaries and coastal areas, moving in shoals. The peak upstream migration of Hilsa in most of the rivers of the country is generally in the monsoons months of July and August and continues upto October or November. The spring spawners that enter the river for spawning in January-March return to the sea during July-August when these are caught in good numbers. The monsoon spawners that enter the river during September- October return to the sea after spawning and these spent fishes are caught in good numbers during January- March. Similarly, the off springs of spring-spawners make journey for the sea from the river during November- January, whereas the off springs of monsoon spawners return to the sea from the river during July- September. (Bhaumik et al, CIFRI, 2012)

Obstruction to undertaking this spawning migration by dams and barrages has been singled out as the primary reasons for the fall of Hilsa fisheries in India as well as Bangladesh. The trade of this commercially important fish species constitutes upto 1.5% of Bangaldesh’s National Gross Domestic Product and about 2 million fishers are estimated to depend on Hilsa fisheries in Gangetic estuaries. Till August 2014, Bangladesh has stopped Hilsa exports to India to contain astronomic price rises in Bangladesh as the costs of the fish are becoming uncontainable due to its cultural importance on one hand and dwindling supply on the other. India has requested Bangladesh to lift the ban of Hilsa export, but it is yet to relent, due to a number of socio-political reasons. [2]

Fishers setting off for Hilsa from Bnagladesh Sunderbans Photo: With thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao
Fishers setting off for Hilsa from the Bangladesh Sunderbans Photo: With thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao

One of the main reasons for the phenomenal fall of Hilsa in Gangetic delta has been the Farakka Barrage built by India in the 1970’s, just a few kilometers upstream the India –Bangladesh border, to divert water from Ganga into the Hooghly river, to keep the Kolkata Port at the mouth of Hooghly, free of sediments.

Prior to commissioning Farakka Barrage in 1975, there are records of the Hilsa migrating from Bay of Bengal right upto Agra, Kanpur and Delhi covering a distance of about 1400 kms. Maximum abundance was observed at Buxar, near Allahabad, at a distance of about 650 kms from river mouth. Post Farraka, Hilsa is unheard of in Yamuna in Delhi and its yield has dropped to zero in Allahabad, from 91 kg/km in 1960s. Studies as old as those conducted in mid-seventies[3] single out Farakka’s disastrous impacts on Hilsa, illustrating a near 100% decline of Hilsa above the barrage post construction.

Migration route of Hilsa, Pre Farakka Barrage spanning about 1400 kms Source: CIFRI 2012
Migration route of Hilsa, Pre Farakka Barrage spanning about 1400 kms Source: CIFRI 2012
Highly restricted range of Hilsa post Farakka Source: CIFRI
Highly restricted range of Hilsa post Farakka Source: CIFRI

An obligatory Fish lock provided in Farakka Barrage is non-functional and tagging experiments reveal that Hilsa cannot move across the barrage due to obstruction of three-tire sluice gates.[4] For more on how Farakka has failed its objective and continues to impact livelihoods: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/lessons-from-farakka-as-we-plan-more-barrages-on-ganga/

Fishers who live off the Ganges strongly feel the pressure of dams, personified by Farakka. In north India, ‘Farakka’ –the word doesn’t mean a village on the Bangladesh border anymore, but means destruction by dams. The local Hindi dialects have borrowed new phraseology: “Farakka hua, tabse hilsa toh bas bhabis” (Farakka happened, and then Hilsa exist only in imagined future)”. The same phrase repeats up to the Yamuna River! In a recent status survey of Gangetic fisheries almost 75-80% of fishers singled out ‘Farakka’ as the root cause of all their miseries. They actually referred to multiple barrages built on the respective rivers. But destruction had a common name: Farakka.[5]

Bangladesh has been making several serious attempts to revive Hilsa fisheries and implements a strict fishing ban in certain months to avoid fishing “jatkas” or small Hilsa. It has also declared several Hilsa Sanctuaries to protect the fish and is witnessing small and steady improvements in the population. India has hardly taken any steps to protect this specie. IUCN has led a program called Ecosystems for Life: A Bangladesh-India Initiative and Hilsa fisheries is a part of this project. There is also a Norwegian project on Hilsa Aquaculture [7] ( All prior efforts of Hilsa Aquaculture have failed). However, the primary need to address the giant problem of the Farakka Barrage is being unaddressed. The barrage and reduced freshwater in the downstream is also exacerbating other stressors like sedimentation of the river mouth, high fishing pressure on limited stocks, concentrated pollution, etc.

Hilsa in other Rivers (would taste as sweet!) Hilsa is found not only in Ganges delta but most of the estuaries in India. In all of these places, Hilsa fishery is primarily affected by dams and barrages near the estuaries, blocking spawning migration and reducing freshwater from upstream.

Hilsa in Cauvery: A century of impacts In Tamizh, Hilsa caught at Sea is Kadal Ullam and the one in the River is the Aattu Ullam. Here, the impact of Mettur dam on valuable Hilsa fisheries in the Cauvery has been recorded as early as 1939 in an issue of Current Science, where it is stated: “Unfortunately the effect of the dam (Mettur on Cauvery) on the fisheries below was disastrous. The number of valuable Indian Shad or Hilsa, the most important sea fish ascending the Cauvery for breeding purposes, declined as the high floods which enabled them to ascend the rive no longer occur. The serious decline of fisheries in Cauvery would be evident from the fact that the fishery rental of the river below the dam which used to amount to 80000 Rs. annually has steadily declined since the formation of the dam to about 42,900 rupees.”[8] Puntius species also disappeared in Cauvery post dam, which formed 28% of the landings prior to dam construction.[9]

As per the Report “Fishing the Cauvery: How Mettur Changed it all,” by Ramya Swayamprakash published by SANDRP[10], It was Sir Aruthur Cotton himself, way back in 1867 who alerted the erstwhile government about the damages wrought by weirs on river fisheries. Immediately, Dr. Francis Day was commissioned to investigate the impact on fisheries and subsequently appointed Inspector-General of Fisheries in India. In his report on the fisheries of India and Burma, Day condemned dams as insurmountable barriers to fish passage; he designed a fish passage which was on the Lower Anicut on the Kollidam. The pass was primarily designed for the Hilsa who could not ascend it, as it was too wide. According to the Madras Fisheries department in 1909, the fish pass did not ensure Hilsa migration because of various practical and technical difficulties; in the first place, the expenses for the construction of a fish pass were not commensurate with the expected results and secondly, sufficient water could not be provided for the efficient working of the pass. Interestingly, Hilsa was sought to be cultivated and exported along the lines of the Salmon in north-western United States. So important was the Hilsa that a stuffed specimen made its way into the exhibits sent to the Great Exhibition from the Bombay Presidency, in 1851!

Fishing at the Lower Anicut on Cauvery Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Fishing at the Lower Anicut on Cauvery Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Hilsa is unknown on the Cauvery. According to fish biologists, the Hilsa ascended the anicuts on the Cauvery up to Mettur to spawn overcoming the low anicuts. But the coming of the Mettur Dam formed an impassable barrier.

Hilsa in Godavari is known as Pulasa when caught i the river and Vilasa when caught n the sea!  Here too, the fish is declining and main reasons are said to be declining water levels and the Dowleswaram Barrage [11] (Arthur Cotton Barrage). In Andhra villages too Pulasa has a huge cultural significance.

This author made a presentation to the Standing Committee of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament in June 2012 about the impacts of dam on riverine fish and discussed Hilsa, when an MP from Coastal Godavari district in  Andhra Pradesh said, “I know Pulasa! My constituency depends on riverine fisheries like Pulasa, and not marine fisheries, but we end up talking only about marine fish and not river fish and Pulasa and the impacts of upstream projects on livelihoods of river fishers”

Pulasa/ Hilsa of teh Godavari Photo: The Hindu
Pulasa/ Hilsa of the Godavari Photo: The Hindu

In Mahanadi, Orissa, Hilsa has been hit by dams and is recording a declining trend[12]. Paradip recorded about 500 tonnes Hilsa, but prices have increased astronomically.[13]

Hilsa in Narmada, Sardar Sarovar and the proposed Bhadbhut Barrage The narrative of damming the Narmada by the Narmada Valley Projects is one of the most significant stories of an on-going struggle against modifying a river and way of life of her people. Although there are many facets to the story ranging from displacement, false benefits and true costs, forest loss, non-existent rehabilitation and an all-pervasive insensitivity of the government towards weaker communities, the impacts of this project on riverine fisheries have been equally profound. Narmada River system experienced a nearly 70% decline in Hilsa catches in just a decade between 1993 to 2004 ( From 15319 t to 4866 t  ) and this decline was prominently recorded from 1998-99 onwards.[14] As per CIFRI, the most stressed species after Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) construction is the Hilsa and Macrobrachium prawn (Jumbo River Prawn). CIFRI made some prediction about impacts of the dam after 35 years, calling it a ‘critical period’ when fisheries will be nearly lost. Shockingly, these conditions are already being witnessed in Narmada Estuary in Bharuch which records nearly 30%  Inland Fish production. More than 12,000 people from 21 villages in Bharuch alone depend on Narmada Estuary for fisheries.

Assessment of impact of commissioning of Sardar Sarovar dam and other projects in 2009 by CIFRI revealed that SSP will retain 96% of the sediment, adversely affecting biological productivity of the downstream including Narmada estuary.[17] However, already the Sardar Sarovar and upstream dams in Narmada Basin have already resulted in retention of about 95% sediment, cutting off the delta from nutrient rich silt.  Historical  sediment  discharge  of  Narmada  was  61  million  tonnes  and  the  current sediment  discharge  (average  of  last  ten  years  of  the  study)  was  found  to  be  3.23  million  tonnes.[18]

According to CIFRI, “While the annual inflow is 23.68 MAF (1981-1990), it will be reduced to 15.9 MAF after 10th year of SSP, to 4.34 MAF at the 30th year and will cease at the 45th year. This freshwater decline will severely affect Hilsa fishery and prestigious fishery contributed by M rosenbergii (Jumbo River Prawn)”. As freshwater declines, there will be “Steep hike in salinity regime with tidal ingress. Fishery not tuned to such enhanced salinity will succumb to such pressure. Mangroves will also be affected and this will impact marine fish production as Mangroves are nurseries of many marine fish.”

Gujarat Government has agreed to release 600 cusecs water from Sardar Sarovar and Bhadbhut Barrage as environmental flows. There is no study as to whether this amount is sufficient for estuarine balance, for ecological needs of Hilsa or other species, for spawning migration, etc. Also, there is no guarantee that Gujarat will release this meagre quantity. Ironically, the minimum flows of 600 cusecs agreed to be released by Gujarat through SSP come to 532. 9 Million Cubic Metre (MCM) water annually and CIFRI’s warning of a sharp fisheries decline at 30th year was for 4.34 MAF or 5353.4 MCM! So, 532.9 MCM released now as minimum flows is barely 10% of a dire scenario predicted at 30th year of commissioning SSP[i]!

It is hardly a wonder that Hilsa is falling sharply in Narmada Estuary and fishers are directly blaming the Sardar Sarovar for this decline.[19]

Last Straw for Narmada Hilsa: Bhadbhut Barrage: Gujarat Government is planning to build Bhadbhut Barrage about 17 kms from Bharuch, directly affecting the Narmada estuary and the Hilsa and Prawn fishery. The Barrage is planned for SEZ and also water sports and is a part of an infeasible scheme known as the Kalpasar project which plans to dam almost all rivers as they meet the Gulf of Khambat.

Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: "The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people"
Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: “The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people”

The Bhadbhut Barrage is being fiercely opposed by fishers in Bharuch because of its serious impacts on their livelihoods and Hilsa fisheries. Public Hearing of Bhadbhut Barrage was held in July 2013, wherein the fisher community staged a walk out, stressing that the EIA had under-reported Hilsa fisheries in the region, number of fishers and their dependence on the Estuary for fish. The walkout took place immediately after Pravin Tandel, the fisherfolks’ local leader, spoke saying the project would “adversely affect the fish catch, especially Hilsa, once it is implemented. Currently, Hisla fetches Rs 1,200 per kg, and is our main source of livelihood.”[20]

Fisherfolk protesting against Bhadbhut Barrage Photo: Counterview.org
Fisherfolk protesting against Bhadbhut Barrage Photo: Counterview.org

Hilsa in the Indus: In the Indus too, Hilsa fisheries, known as Palla are the main stay of local fisher communities. Hilsa fish is a highly contested territory due to declining catches.

Before the construction of the Sukkur Barrage, the Palla used to reach to Multan as per records of 1907. The Sukkur Barrage and then later the Kotri Barrage severely restricted Palla’s range, affecting the fish and its fishers. According to M. R. Quereshi, ex-Director of Marine Fisheries Department of Pakistan, the Palla used to ascend the river (Indus) to spawn in the middle of June but its ascent is now delayed by at least one month owing to late freshets. Kotri Barrage near Hyderabad has severely restricted its breeding range. Like the Cauvery, in Kotri too the fish ladders do not work due to faulty designs and Hilsa is unable to ascend them, consequently prevented from going up to the upper reaches of the river. As a result the Hilsa fishery is being depleted and immediate action is imperative to increase its production. “Failing this, the fish will eventually disappear from the river.”

Palla fishers at Kotri, on the banks of Indus circa 1890. Photo from British Library, UK
Palla/Hilsa fishers at Kotri, on the banks of Indus circa 1890. Photo from British Library, UK

To conclude, the fate of this silvery fish hangs in a fine balance. Not only does the Hilsa enjoy huge cultural significance, it also supports millions of livelihoods. In the United States, several dams, like the recent Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha, have been decommissioned for their impacts on migrating fish and dependent communities. Elwha river dams came down in a biggest decommissioning effort because the indigenous Klallam tribe asserted its rights on traditional Salmon fisheries which were blocked by these dams. In Japan too, Arase Dam was decommissioned because of its impact on Ayu fish and fishers.

What has happened in India to the Hilsa fish and fishers is far more serious.

Hilsa has a striking ecological, economic and cultural significance. Till date, ranching or farming of Hilsa has not worked. Till date, fisher communities continue to face conflicts, hardships and risks, go deeper and deeper in the sea to gather a few Hilsa. Till date, dam operations have not changed, nor have the fish passes been designed, built, operated or monitored to help the fish.  Till date, none of the fisher communities who suffered colossal losses when a dam affected Hilsa, have been compensated for their loss.

Is it not time to rethink these dams, to help the fish and our fishers?

-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com

Hilsa as a sacred offereing Photo from Flickr, with thanks to the contributor
Hilsa as a sacred offering Photo from Flickr, with thanks to Arup Kanjilal

 

[1] Dugan, 2008, Quoted in FAO Report No. 7, Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture for food security and nutrition, 2014

[2]  Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to share the Teesta waters with Bangladesh, the neighbouring country has imposed a ban on export of the silver-scaled fish.

[3] Ghosh, 1976 quoted in Review of the biology and fisheries of Hilsa, Upper Bengal Estuary, FAO, 1985

[4] Bhaumik and Sharma, Present status of Hilsa in the Hooghly Bhagirathi River, CIFRI, 2012

[5] Nachiket Kelkar, Thirsty Rivers, Bygone Fishes, Hungry Societies, Dams Rivers and People, December 2012 https://sandrp.in/rivers/Thirsty_Rivers_Bygone_Fishes_Hungry_Societies_Nachiket_Kelkar_Dec2012.pdf

[6] Pathak et al, Riverirne Ecology and Fisheries, vis a vis hydrodynamic alterations: Impacts and Remedial measures, CIFRI, 2010

[7] http://www.nofima.no/filearchive/Rapport%2002-2013.pdf

[8] B. Sundara Raj, The Mettur Dam Fisheries, Current Science, October 1939

[9] Sugunan, Reservoir Fisheries of India, FAO, 1995

[10]  Ramya Swayamprakash, Fishing the Cauvery, How Mettur changed it all, SANDRP, June 2014

[11] http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/pricey-pulasa-is-now-everyones-favourite/article6235820.ece

[12] A Raisd,On Mahseer of Hirakud, Fishing Chime, August 2005 http://www.fishingchimes.com/onmah.htm

[13] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Is-Hilsa-fish-on-its-way-out/articleshow/21932621.cms

[14] Milton, STATUS OF HILSA (Tenualosa ilisha) MANAGEMENT IN THE BAY OF BENGAL: AN ASSESSMENT OF POPULATION RISK AND DATA GAPS FOR MORE EFFECTIVE REGIONAL MANAGEMENT, Report to FAO Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project , 15 February 2010

[15] CIFRI, River Narmada, Its Environment and Fisheries, 2009

[16] EIA of Bhadbhut Barrage by NEERI, 2013

[17] CIFRI, River Narmada, Its Environment and Fisheries, 2009

[18] Gupta et al, quoted in Dandekar, Thakkar, Shrinking and Sinking Deltas: Major role of Dams in delta subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise, SANDRP, 2014 https://sandrp.in/Shrinking_and_sinking_delta_major_role_of_Dams_May_2014.pdf

[19] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-08-08/news/33100832_1_hilsa-catch-utpal-bhaumik-hilsa-prices

[20] http://www.counterview.net/2013/07/fisherfolk-walk-of-out-public-hearing.html

[i] While we do not know the schedule through which Gujarat Government plans to release this water, the fact remains that this figure of 600 cusecs is not supported by any studies.

Bihar · Dams · Ganga · Himalayas · Interlinking of RIvers

Dams, Fish and Fishing Communities of the Ganga: Glimpses of the Gangetic Fisheries Primer

Some highlights from SANDRP’s latest Publication on Riverine Fisheries of the Ganga

The government is discussing Ganga not only as ‘Ganga Mata’, but also as a ‘navigational corridor’ with plans to build barrages after every 100 kilometers with funding from World Bank. At her origin, hundreds of hydropower dams are changing the ecological character of the Ganga. However, as a rich ecosystem, the Ganga also supports  about 10-13 million riverine fisherfolk and about 300 freshwater fish species! Riverine fisheries have been a blind spot in Independent India, despite the fact that they provide nutritional and livelihood security to millions of people.In the post independence water management discourse, river has been equated to water and water to irrigation, water supply, and hydro power. The profound impacts of irrigation, water supply and hydropower dams on sectors like riverine fisheries have been entirely ignored.

Nachiket Kelkar looks at the status of riverine fisheries and fisher communities in the Gangetic Basin of India and highlights the devastating impacts of dams, barrages and water abstractions on this. Nachiket’s study on Gangetic Fisheries is based on long term engagement with fisher communities in the basin as well as robust scientific studies.

SANDRP has published this work in the form of a Primer which will soon be available online. What follows are some glimpses from the Primer. Please write to us if you are interested in receiving a full soft copy of the Primer.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

GangeticFisheries1

Riverine fisheries of the Gangetic basin support one of the largest fishing populations of the world. However, its fish resources are rapidly declining due to large dams, barrages and hydropower projects, severely altered river flows, fragmentation of hydrological connectivity between rivers and wetlands, alarming levels of pollution, riverfront encroachment, rampant sand mining and unregulated overexploitation of fish resources.

Across its range, the fisheries show indications of economic unviability and ecological collapse, with violent social conflicts as an outcome of the contest over scarce and declining resources as well as politics and access. A major factor behind the serious fisheries-related problems is severe alteration of river flow volume and seasonal dynamics by large dams, barrages and hydropower projects. The state of river fisheries directly indicates the declining biophysical, ecological and social integrity of the river basin. The existing in-river fisheries contribute merely about 10% of the overall inland fish production. Even this production is highly unsustainable today and has all the indicators of serious levels of overfishing. For instance, river fisheries in Bihar now even glean small-sized fish fry for markets in northern West Bengal (Siliguri) and Assam, where eating small fish is a delicacy (F.pers.comm).

To understand the situation in Gangetic Basin clearly, a detailed, large-scale interview survey was conducted by the author in 2012 across 372 fishers in 59 fisher groups spread over 17 rivers in 5 north Indian states. The survey objective was to document perceptions of traditional fishing communities about issues and problems in fishing in the Gangetic basin. Of the respondents, c. 90% singled out “large dams and poor river flows” as the main causes for a near-total decline in fisheries and fish resources over the past 4 decades. About 90% people mentioned low water availability and stoppage of fish migratory routes by large dams as the main cause for fish declines. Almost 45% (from eastern and northern UP, and Bihar) singled out the Farakka barrage as the main problem.

The Sone River in the dry season. Poor river flows released by dams and barrages have serious implications on fisher livelihoods. Photo: © Subhasis Dey.
The Sone River in the dry season. Poor river flows released by dams and barrages have serious implications on fisher livelihoods. Photo: © Subhasis Dey.

The Canvas of Gangetic River Fisheries
The Ganga  River, from her headwaters to the delta, along with hundreds of her tributaries drains an area of approx. 0.9_1 million km2 across northern and eastern India, flowing through 10 states in India and also in Nepal and Bangladesh. These rivers form one of the largest alluvial mega-fan regions of the world, and deliver huge quantities of sediment from the Himalayas to the northern Indian plains and to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. The Gangetic floodplains shape not only landforms but also complex human cultures that attempt to stabilize themselves and adapt to the constantly changing riverine forces. Biodiversity, hydrology, geomorphology and social dynamics influence each other through constant interaction and multiple feedback mechanisms.

The major rivers of the Gangetic Basin (Based on ‘hydro1k-rivers-Asia.dbf’).
The major rivers of the Gangetic Basin (Based on ‘hydro1k-rivers-Asia.dbf’).

The dynamic balance of these factors triggers opportunities for spawning, reproduction, population dynamics and viability, migration and movement of freshwater species, including fishes, river dolphins, otters, crocodilians, turtles, invertebrates as well as terrestrial biodiversity.

In floodplain rivers, as floodwaters recede post-monsoon, fishers record the highest catches in October and November, as large post-breeding and migrating adult fishes (e.g. major carps, clupeids, mullet) become catchable. Winters, from December to early February, generally record low catches because many fish show slowed behavior and limited movement. But in spring fisheries of minor carps and catfishes record high production. With water levels reducing, fishes become more concentrated in specific river habitats like deep pools, where they are easy to fish. Summer fish catch biomass is also reasonably good due to the overall low water availability.

In the Gangetic basin, fisheries are practiced in a range of diverse freshwater habitats including natural and man-made, lentic (stagnant water) and lotic (flowing water) ecosystems. Natural freshwater areas include large floodplain rivers, non-perennial rivers, perennial and seasonal streams, cold-water rivers and streams, glacial lakes, estuaries, tidal rivers, floodplain wetlands, oxbow lakes, grassland swamps and marshes. Manmade habitats include dug or built-up wetlands, ponds, man-made reservoirs, dam reservoirs and canals. To the fisher, flow velocity, depth profile, substrate type, vegetation structure, current patterns and habitat stability are key indicators for fishing effort allocation and logistical decisions.

Fish Diversity in the Gangetic Basin
The overall species pool of the Gangetic fish assemblage is estimated at around 300 species (53+ families, 150+ genera; 250 species). The floodplain fisheries are dominated by major and minor carps (Cyprinidae), catfishes (Siluriformes: 6-7 families), Clupeidae, Notopteridae and a mix of many other families. Major carps and the Clupeid fish, Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) and some large catfishes form the most valued catches across most parts of the Gangetic floodplains.
Major carps, the most preferred freshwater food fishes, include species like Catla, Rohu, Mrigal, Mahseer etc. exhibit potamodromous (along freshwater upstream-downstream gradients) migration. Though these fishes have suffered serious declines due to overfishing, pollution and dams, they have been mass-produced through artificial rearing in pond aquaculture. Farmed large carps form the major proportion of fish eaten anywhere in India today. In wild fisheries, catfishes come lower in the preference order, but with the decline of carps, medium and small catfishes have become the main fishing targets. Further, as most catfishes are sedentary and do not show long-distance movements, the fisheries have completely switched from carp- to catfish-targeting fisheries. Other deep-bodied, highly sought after fishes include the Chitala and Notopterus, or the featherfishes, and mullet.

Various fish species in Ganga Basin. Refer to the Primer for more information.
Various fish species in Ganga Basin. Refer to the Primer for more information.

The estuarine fishery in the Hooghly and Sunderbans tidal rivers in West Bengal is dominated by shellfish (prawns, mud crabs and shrimp), Clupeidae and Engraulidae, Sciaenidae, catfishes of the Ariidae and a far more diverse set of families compared to truly inland fisheries. Other important components of the commercial fisheries include 5-6 species of shellfishes (mainly prawn and shrimp).

Coldwater fisheries specialize on large-bodied, rapids-loving potamodromous migrant fishes such as Mahseer and Snow Trout. These fishes are of high commercial importance and are in high demand by professional sport fishers and anglers, apart from being highly prized as food locally. Mahseer in particular, have recently led to the opening of new markets of luxury wildlife tourism that is based on angling and recreation in the Western Himalaya.

Dam reservoir fisheries are almost entirely based on managed stocking and breeding of commercial fishes in hatcheries, of major carps Catla, Rohu and Mrigal, catfishes like Pangasiodon, and minor catfishes. The state of river fisheries in the Gangetic basin has been affected over the last few decades by several threats described in the next section.

Dams and Riverine Fisheries in India Fisheries across India have been severely affected by dams, flow regulation and associated human impacts, which have substantially altered ecological requirements of fisheries and biodiversity together. If one clinically investigated the fisheries’ decline, they would find it to coincide with the period of maximum dam building (1970s-80s) in India. Most commercially valuable fish species, especially major carps and Hilsa, have shown population-level collapse and even commercial extinction over large inland waters. Reduction in harvested fish size-class distributions, a classical indicator of overexploitation by fisheries, points to poor fish recruitment and adult survival, which may be further brought down by flow regulation by dams. Dams have acted as the major factor of disruption by blocking migratory routes of upriver or estuarine spawning fishes such as Hilsa and Anguilla eels. Dams have also caused loss of genetic connectivity between fish populations, most notably seen in major carp stocks. Erratic water releases, nutrient and sediment trapping behind dams and barrages, failure of breeding in carp and catfish species due to siltation, erosion, poor water availability, modified thermal regimes required for breeding (increase in temperatures due to low river depth/flow), and exceptional levels of hazardous pollution (again, magnified due to the poor flows reducing dilution capacity of river water), are other fallouts that adversely affect fisheries. The fact that there is just not enough water in the river must form the bottom line of any causal investigation of riverine fisheries. Lack of appropriate policy measures and pollution receive dominant mention as threats to fisheries by government research agencies, but they are mere outcomes of much larger shifted baselines because of dams. Dams, barrages and hydropower projects through flow regulation have increased uncertainty about fishing and driven fishing to desperate levels: fishers often resort to destructive practices, or even worse, exit the fishery altogether. Such exit does not solve the problem of existing fisher folk: water is critical to sustaining not just fisheries but the river and the people dependent on it. Detailed understanding of the lives of fishing communities of the Ganges is therefore critical.

Ganga made completely dry at Haridwar by the Bhimgouda barrage Photo: SANDRP.
Ganga made completely dry at Haridwar by the Bhimgouda barrage Photo: SANDRP.

Fisher communities in Ganga: Around 10-13 million people in the Gangetic floodplains are estimated to be dependent on fish resources for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly. However, accurate estimates of active traditional and non-traditional fisher populations are still wanting. It is important for any discussion on fishing communities to clearly separate traditional fishing communities from ‘non-traditional fishers’, who may be practically from any other local community and with the possession of other livelihood options, but also opportunistic fishing, due to unrestricted access to imported nets and gear available in markets to anyone. Traditional fishing communities were always the craftsmen of their own nets and gear, and also possess remarkable ecological knowledge about rivers, fish and biodiversity, their breeding biology, ecology, seasonality, and distribution. Of course, with the degradation of fisheries throughout the Gangetic plains, the traditional knowledge and practices of fishing are eroding fast. Hence such knowledge needs to be documented well, especially from old fishers with whom it still persists, to identify historical baselines of river fisheries with a different, past ecological reference (pers.obs.; F.pers.comm).
Traditional fishing communities today form a highly marginalized, politically unorganized and socio-economically impoverished people. Caste discriminations and political history form the chief reasons for their poverty and subjugation over centuries of fishworking. But the present condition of rivers does not seem to offer hope to any improvement in their economic position unless and until there is collective voicing of their concerns, especially against large-scale water engineering projects that threaten their livelihoods.

Author in discussions with fishers
Author in discussions with fishers

Their livelihoods, one may argue, confined them to the river’s water, albeit the fact that they never owned the waters legally. However, they always have stated cultural claims of temporally confined territory, following their foraging preferences and site usage. But depending on the nature of the river’s hydrological dynamics, there may be variable maintenance of fixed ‘territories’ by fishers adopting a roving mode of fishing, and neither legal nor cultural claims can be reconciled to a level that the conflicting parties can reach mutually. With regards to their economic viability and status, a large proportion of the traditional fishworkers fall Below the Poverty Line (BPL), and are recorded as Economically Backward Castes, and also have been assigned the status of Scheduled Castes. Annual incomes from fishing alone, according to the few estimates available, range from INR 25,000/- to INR 50,000/- (pers.obs., F.pers.comm.).

Large dams, flow regulation and Gangetic basin fisheries : The singular key problem of fisheries today is that it lacks water in the dry-season, because of flow regulation by dams, barrages and hydropower projects. More water flow releases are needed for the protection of riverine fisheries in the Gangetic basin. Widespread river habitat degradation, industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution, altered flows and modification of sediment and nutrient fluxes by dam projects, and resource overexploitation (by fisheries, agriculture or industry) have had major consequences for the unique biodiversity and fisheries of floodplain rivers across Asia. Obstruction and fragmentation of river flow, habitat destruction, accelerated erosion and siltation, long-distance water diversions (involving huge amount of transmission losses and waste) and poor flow releases are the major direct threats of dam-canal systems in the Gangetic plains.

Flow volume problems: Lower-than-minimum flows have been consistently recorded across the Ganga, Yamuna, Chambal, Kosi, Sone, Ken, Betwa, Ghaghra and Gandak rivers. Along with these large rivers, almost all others (Rapti, Baghmati, Mahananda, Teesta, Kamla, Burhi Gandak, Punpun, Gomti and others) have been highly regulated64,69. The reduction of freshwater discharge reaching the Sunderbans because of the Farakka barrage has led to high degree saline ingress throughout the estuary, causing die-offs of considerably large tracts of mangroves and aquatic vegetation, as well as severe losses to the upstream fishery. Downstream, fishing practices suited to brackish and fresh waters now have to adapt to saline intrusion into the estuary’s waters. Globally, fragmentation and flow regulation have caused the most severe impacts through drastic alterations to riverine biota and ecology. Low flows and fragmented connectivity of river channels lead inevitably to fish population declines and breeding failure. Over time, dams have probably led to genetic isolation of fish populations as well as river dolphin / crocodile populations, destruction of fish breeding habitats and spawning triggers and loss of valuable wild fish germplasm. These losses are so large in their ecological value and opportunity costs that they cannot be recovered with artificial fish culture techniques or hatcheries.

Aggravation of pollution effects: The Ganges basin is one of the most polluted large river basins in Asia, especially with regards to domestic sewage and agricultural runoff. Poor flows reduce the dilution and self-purification capacity of river water to reduce concentration of pollutants and local impacts on fishes. . Agricultural fertilizers (organophosphates, organochlorines, nitrates etc.), heavy metal pollution from industrial effluents, thermal power plants, oil refineries, distilleries and tanneries, and nitrogen-rich sewage, waste-water and non-biodegradable substances such as plastics, mercury, radioactive compounds and hospital wastes can cause fish kills or even worse, lead to high levels of toxicity in tissues. Pollution problems are especially acute in highly regulated river reaches, especially around Delhi (Yamuna River), and the Gomti at Lucknow, Yamuna until Panchnada in UP and Ganga River at Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, Barauni, Bhagalpur and Farakka.

Polluted Ganga at Allahabad Photo: National Geographic
Polluted Ganga at Allahabad Photo: National Geographic

Siltation in dam reservoirs and barrage gates: Excessive siltation in the Ghaghra barrage has led to, as per local fishers, breeding failure in Labeo angra (Ghewri), a preferred spring-fisheries target in the region. The fishers claimed that over the past 5 years they have not captured a single fish with eggs inside it, and also added that catches have plummeted heavily (F.pers.comm). Siltation of gravel/sediment in reservoir or storage zones is a problem of huge magnitude for fisheries, especially through breeding failure. Accumulated silt in reservoirs is estimated to be so high (in tens of meters height) that it cannot even be easily flushed out, and leads to nearly 60-90% reductions in sediment fluxes of rivers in monsoon and non-monsooon seasons. Siltation adds to obstruction of flow release through barrage gates. In the Farakka barrage, sediment load accumulation is leading to breakage of gates every year, adding to maintenance costs.

Habitat destruction and alteration of erosion-deposition dynamics: Soil erosion by erratic and sudden releases before floods can potentially lead to alteration and destruction of fish breeding habitats and stock depression. Changes in depth and flow velocity lead to fish not being able to receive natural physiological cues for movement and spawning that are otherwise provided by variability in discharge. Flow alteration also alters hydrological connectivity and sediment transport with wetlands and confluence channels during flooding. As a result these productive breeding habitats often become unavailable for catfishes and carps. These factors together become a problem for pre-settlement fish juveniles and recruits, which move into the main channels.

Threats to cold-water and foothills fisheries from Hydropower Dams: Overall, despite their projected low impact situation, hydropower projects can have serious large-scale effects on mountain streams as well as rivers downstream. Globally, despite mitigation measures in hydropower constructions, fish migration and development have largely been deemed as failures. In India, hydropower projects, especially run-of-river projects in higher altitudes, often have disastrous effects on natural thermal regimes, cause sediment blockages and perturb natural flow variability at diurnal timescales through releases varying across several orders of magnitude. These changes severely affect not just breeding and migration in higher-altitude cold-water fisheries of snow trout and Mahseer in Himachal, Sikkim and Uttarakhand, but also downstream fisheries of catfish and carps in the foothills and plains due to altered flows. Their cumulative downstream impact can also potentially risk fisheries-based uses of river water without being exposed to the risk of sudden flow releases every day.

Globally, through extreme perturbation of natural flow dynamics, dams have homogenized and altered many crucial river-floodplain processes, and have had disastrous impacts on biodiversity and fisheries. There is an urgent need to ensure ecologically necessary, adequate and natural flow regimes in all rivers of the Gangetic basin. The current water scarcity is so severe that projects such as river interlinking, apart from their ridiculous proposed costs, are simply impossible to conceive of, water itself being the limitation. There is no doubt that further water developments will prove disastrous for a whole section of people and their livelihoods, and must be scrapped. Rivers that need urgent attention in this respect are the Chambal, Yamuna, Ken, Betwa, Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Sone, Damodar, the Ganges at Farakka and Allahabad, Sharada, Ghaghra and all other rivers especially in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar0. Run-of-river hydropower projects, flow diversions and links, pumped irrigation, embankments, agricultural intensification, groundwater depletion and sand mining are highly destructive threats that will affect not just fisheries but the whole social fabric of river users in the near future.

Despite the demonstrated folly of not allowing rivers to flow from headwaters to estuaries and deltas, engineers, technocrats and politicians talk of “rivers flowing wastefully into the sea”. This statement would imply that the thousands of species and millions of fisher livelihoods that need flowing water in rivers are of no value to the state policy on water resource development. Such statements are ignoring important societal needs and hence are evidently irresponsible.

No post dam-construction compensation schemes exist for fishers, who may lose their entire livelihood because of flow-regulation and loss of hydrological connectivity due to dams. Downstream fisher populations must be ideally compensated for the lost fishing catch and livelihood opportunity, but in general there has been scant attention towards the communities’ livelihoods (F.pers.comm). Downstream water allocations through on-ground consultations with fisher communities are urgently needed (F.pers.comm). In India, water resources development is so strongly irrigation-focused (and now strongly focused on industry and hydropower), that, in comparison, riverine fisheries are not even acknowledged as legitimate and in need of conservation and livelihood protection. These biases mean that only pond aquaculture receives any attention. If river conservation and development groups can actively work with fishing communities in order to develop an informed and aware constituency or interest group, fishers will gain political voice in making negotiations about water availability in river basins.

Fisherfolk of Ganga Photo: Gangapedia
Fisherfolk of Ganga Photo: Gangapedia

Fisheries incur ‘colossal losses’ every season due to irregularities in dam operations, and always fall severely short of demand. But now, through the boom of artificially managed pond aquaculture and wetland fishing especially in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the nature of supply itself has radically changedThis boom has contributed to India becoming one of the largest producers of inland freshwater fish in the world. But such ranking hides a lot of miserable facts about river degradation. Although net production shows increases, the collapse of river fisheries that still support millions of poor people who don’t get access to aquaculture, get totally ignored under such swamping. This is why farmed fish in fish hatcheries can barely replace riverine fisheries despite the fact that they have cornered the attention of fisheries development.

The failure of river fisheries has led to large-scale outmigration for labour from the Indo-Gangetic plains (F.pers.comm.). This might be a significant contributor to the magnitude of labour-related migrations from the Gangetic plains, which has been a rising exodus. Today, fisher folk from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal provide a large proportion (20-40%) of construction and manual labor force across India (F.pers.comm). Others who stay behind have to take to menial jobs such as rickshaw-pullers or servants (F.pers.comm; pers.obs). Some are forced to take to crime to be able to feed themselves and their families. These factors can weaken the social resilience of production systems and create poverty, disparity and community breakdown. It has been argued that ethnic conflicts between local Indian populations and illegally immigrated Bangladeshi refugees are linked to poor water releases from the Farakka barrage in West Bengal, to downstream floodplain reaches in Bangladesh.

Mitigation measures like Fish ladders and hatcheries
There is little existing research on the construction design, functioning and efficiency of fish ladders in tropical and subtropical large floodplain rivers. Across the tropics, monitoring studies on fish ladders do not show positive results. A handful of barrages in India have constructed fish ladders, but owing to numerous problems they have been largely a failure. These problems are all related to the extremely low discharge rates from the dams – as there is simply not enough water volume allocated for migrating fishes, which therefore cannot access the ladders and fish lifts. Other problems are linked to siltation in reservoirs and turbulence of flows near the fish passages. For instance, the Farakka fish lifts do not seem to have been of any help due to the extremely low outflow of the Ganga River from it, and the commercial extinction of the Hilsa fisheries both upstream and downstream is clear with an estimated 99.9% decline. Fish passes constructed at barrages on the Yamuna River (Hathnikund barrage) and the Ganga barrage at Haridwar have been monitored by CIFRI and the results suggest that they have had very low success for migration of cold-water species like the Golden Mahseer Tor putitora. Similar structures on the Beas River and Mahanadi River (Salandi dam, Orissa) have found to be ineffective in buffering the adverse impacts on fisheries production in these rivers. India has dominantly followed reservoir hatcheries development, and therefore consideration for effective fish ladders has always been low priority. However, as we have seen, hatcheries themselves bring about several problems for native fish populations – and are not an ecologically viable solution, despite being economically profitable to certain interests. Given the poor success of existing fish passages, it is important to consider modern designs in existing and proposed dams that are suited to the ecology of our own fishes. A whole body of interdisciplinary research – spanning engineering and ecology, is needed to address the significant gaps in our understanding of making fish passages work. We need to monitor existing examples well to assess reasons for their failure. Again, just the act of allowing higher dry-season flows and timely adequate releases in the river could be a far more effective strategy for fisheries improvement than other intensive technology-driven practices to enhance fisheries production (F.pers.comm)

River restoration and alternative livelihoods: Given the current state of riverine fisheries, there is an urgent need to consider possibilities for large-scale ecological restoration of rivers by modifying dam operations and improving ecological flows. Alongside restoration, it is crucial to consider alternative livelihoods to fishers, which regard their traditional knowledge and provide them with clearly defined user rights and responsibilities over management of wild-caught or cultured fish resources. Ecological restoration of all major and minor rivers in India needs to be undertaken urgently, to ensure ecologically adequate, naturally timed flow releases, consistent dry-season flow regimes, hydro-geomorphological habitat maintenance, flood maintenance and reduction in pollution. Dam re-operations to ensure adequate flows and variability in river discharge remain a neglected aspect of river management in most regions today. Flow restoration can lead to improved health, numbers and availability of native commercial carps and preponderance of larger fish sizes through improved juvenile recruitment, along with other advantages to surface hydrology and local groundwater availability. Large-scale scientific research and monitoring programs must be instituted to study the response of inland wild-capture fisheries and take further steps to mitigate local threats. Restoration also needs to involve stringent restrictions on release of untreated domestic and industrial effluent, especially in urban belts such as Kanpur, the National Capital Region of Delhi, Allahabad-Varanasi, Mathura-Agra, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh; Patna, Barauni in Bihar and the Durgapur and Kolkata regions in West Bengal. Strict restrictions are needed on sand-mining, riverfront encroachment and embankment construction, especially in the Chambal, Ghaghra, Gandak, Baghmati, Rapti and Kosi Rivers. In this regard, more judicial interventions, such as seen recently in the case of sand-mining closures from river beds based on a review by the National Green Tribunal, are critical in reducing wanton and unregulated destruction of riverfronts, when implemented effectively. In terms of reducing the most direct impacts, there is a need to regulate fishing pressure and completely curb destructive fishing practices like dynamiting, use of mosquito-nets, beach seines, and gillnets below allowable mesh-sizes, poisoning, use of long-lines etc. Traditional fishers must be involved directly in monitoring and banning the use of destructive practices by the government monitoring agencies.

Finally, the quest for sustaining fisheries in the Ganga River basin in the long-term will require rethinking of current dominant paradigms to move towards ecological restoration of rivers, their biodiversity, as well as socially just, rights-based and equitable socio-political restoration of traditional fisher communities and fisheries management systems.

-Nachiket Kelkar

Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Srirampura Royal Enclave, Jakkur, Bangalore 560064, India. (The views expressed are of the author and do not belong to the institution where the author currently works)

Member, IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Email: rainmaker.nsk@gmail.com, nachiket.kelkar@atree.org

 

Twelve-point recommendation from traditional fisher communities for sustaining riverine fisheries and livelihoods in the Gangetic basin.

Rank Need Recommendations
1 Water Provide enough water, adequate natural flows in all rivers. Allow fish movements upriver, currently blocked by large dams and barrages. STOP new dams and mindless, high-cost, destructive and unsustainable engineering projects such as river interlinking.
2 Ban on destructive fishing practices Curb destructive practices of fishing, especially mosquito-netting, poisoning, dynamite-fishing, trawling and beach-seine netting everywhere.
3 Poverty alleviation and social security Fishers are in need of government dole or loans, technical know-how, permits and I-cards, housing, education and displacement packages. It is alleged that these benefits are hardly reaching them, although the allocations of funds reach farmers easily. Fishers need government security from criminals / mafia / anti-social elements / pirates that harass them and grab fish catch.
5 Define fisher rights and responsibilities Clearly define fishing use and access rights across all riverscapes, provide clear guidelines on multi-objective management of fisheries amidst other economic activities
6 Reduce pollution and mass fish-kills Urgent need to reduce the presently excessive river pollution, especially industrial but also domestic wastes.
7 Alternative livelihoods River fisheries are currently in a state of ecosystem-level decline or collapse. Trash fishes have become the most common catch, replacing many commercially viable carps and catfishes. People require alternative livelihoods in situ, to check problems related to migration and exodus to work as construction laborers or rickshaw-pullers. Community-based, cooperative pond carp-culture fisheries seem highly promising. Other alternative livelihoods include working with river management authorities, conservation agencies, ecotourism, agriculture etc.
8 Fishery co-operatives Focus on community-based management of river fisheries and help it develop in an ecologically friendly and sustainable manner. Replace the systems of private contracts and free-for-all fishing by power-equitable, social dignified resource-sharing arrangements
9 Ensure compliance of fishers towards biodiversity conservation and monitoring Needs to be ensured through continued monitoring of fishing activity and behavior, including by-catch or hunting of species. This will help safeguard endangered wild species such as gharial, turtles, river dolphins, birds etc. This can also help the spread of exotic food fishes that are rapidly invading our rivers (the worst examples are Tilapia species, Chinese and Common Carps, and more recently, Red-bellied Piranha.
10 Use of Food Security Act, Rural Labor Programs Can facilitate daily incomes by which fisheries losses could be offset; while also providing a solid community-level incentive to regulate and monitor fishing.
11 Restoration of native riverine fish communities Very important given the huge decline in native carp species of high commercial value. Fisheries need to protected not only by revival of stocks, facilitating better fish recruitment, but also by protecting fish breeding habitats from
12 Adaptive management of water tenure in fishing areas Owing to natural uncertainty linked to flow regimes and channel course changes, new flexible systems of tenure in fisheries are required. Such systems would fit in well with providing a clear definition to fishing rights in any riverine stretch.