The future of Mahanadi River is uncertain. The construction of dams on Mahanadi river by Chhattisgarh government is going to affect the agro and industrial sectors of Odisha alike. In a thorough conversation with Sandhyarani Sahoo , Ranjan Panda, the water man of Odisha narrates the dangers lying ahead for Odisha from the mal-handling of Mahanadi river and about his initiative: Mahanadi Peace Initiative.
Q: The dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh on the Mahanadi river is widely being discussed now-a-days. You have started the Mahanadi Peace Initiative to address such a problem. The name sounds quite unconventional. Peace for a river? What do you mean by this and what are you trying to achieve by the initiative?
RP: You heard it right, ‘Peace’ that is now being termed ‘unconventional’! For us however, that’s the mantra if we want to solve the growing conflicts around our rivers that have become battle fields. Within the country of outside it, rivers -that we share with our neighbours – have to be respected as natural ecological systems that will be further stressed with any form of conflicts. We have enough examples, from around the country and world, that should be learning enough for us not to enter into a conflict with our riparian neighbours. The Mahanadi conflict, that has erupted between Odisha and Chhattisgarh last July, is comparatively a very newly brewing one. I kept on warning both the governments and the central government about this for more than a decade now, however they took it lightly. Now that they have realized the gravity of the problem, they should also look for peaceful solutions to it. The solution lies in dialogue, in peace. Examples teach us, waging a war around river waters would only complicate the matter and take us away from any sustainable solution. Peace, therefore, is the only way!
Q: Who is at fault? Odisha or Chhattisgarh? And is it correct that the interest of Odisha will be affected by the move by Chhattisgarh to construct more dams?
RP: Both the states are at fault. The central government too. From more than a decade we kept warning the Odisha government that dams and barrages being built by Chhattisgarh upstream, being constructed without any proper planning and without consulting the lower riparian state, would drastically reduce the water flow of the river affecting the functioning of Hirakud, Asia’s longest earthen dam, and also the livelihoods of millions of farmers dependent on the river water; ecology of the basin and more specifically that of some of the sensitive ecological hot spots such as Debrigarh wildlife sanctuary, Satkosia gorge, Bhitarkanika, Gahirmatha and Chilika. The Odisha government, ill advised by a few bureaucrats and engineers, did not pay heed to it. In fact, in response to one of our warnings in this regard, the previous water resources secretary gave statements to the press saying ‘even hundreds of barrages upstream would not affect Mahanadi’s flow.’ Now the government is cribbing. Had it yielded to our warning that time, things would have been completely different. At least a process of dialogue could have started much before. Chhattisgarh is wrong because it has been obstructing Mahanadi water in arbitrary manner without consulting Odisha. The central government – both previous and current – also did not pay any attention to our warnings, and role of agencies such as the Central Water Commission has been dubious. There is also a historic angle to this conflict, which we will discuss when time permits.
Q: Will you tell us on how exactly will the interest of Odisha be affected?
RP: To understand that we need to discuss the ‘interest’ around Mahanadi. From my observations of the political tug war between both the states, what I can conclude at this point is that the interests are ‘political’ in so far as the Odisha government is concerned. But ask me and the issue of water scarcity is real. Mahanadi is a dying river despite all the statistical play outs by all the related governments to project it as a ‘water surplus’ basin. And the scarcity is already impacting the farmers, the major stakeholders of Mahanadi waters, hugely. By farmers, I mean the entire farming community of the basin from both the states. The fight about Odisha’s interest has thus far neglected the real issue: that of coal fired power plants. In fact, Chhattisgarh has built most of the barrages to supply water to such power plants and other industries.
In the year 2010, referring to several studies, we had pointed out that out of the 118 proposed projects being pursued by Chhattisgarh, for which data was available, 33 plan to draw water from the Mahanadi, Chhattisgarh’s main river. The water requirement of projects drawing water from the river stands at 1,500 mcm per year. If the water requirement of projects drawing from its tributaries—Lilagarh, Hasdeo and Seonath—are added, the withdrawal jumps to 2,700 mcm. Say, the water withdrawal of the existing industries is 1,000 mcm, total withdrawal from the Mahanadi would go up to 3,700 mcm. Thermal power plants, known to guzzle water, would be drawing close to 1,500 mcm every year. The estimate is based on data of just a fragment of the projects planned. The dependable water availability in the Mahanadi (measured at Kasdol, Raipur; it lies upstream of Raipur) over the last 10 years is an average 1,528 mcm annually, according to state Water Resource Department. With industry set to withdraw 3,700 mcm, water budgeting in the state will clearly be highly deficit, I had warned.
Odisha’s dependence on Mahanadi too is the highest (among all the rivers) for its industries, irrigation and drinking water. Chhattisgarh’s obstruction will affect the functioning of Hirakud dam and thus all farmers and industries dependent on it. In 2010, we had found out that the construction of many dams and barrages by Chhattisgarh, intercepting 23000 kilometers of the basin, has drastically changed the annual average flow into Hirakud reservoir. Just in three decades this flow had reduced from 39.5 MAF (million acre feet) to 24 MAF. The current situation must be worse. We are working on latest estimations.
Then there is an ecological dimension of the loss which will be huge but finds very less space in the conflict. Odisha government heeded to our request to consider discussing the ecological issues at the Chief Ministerial level meeting held on the conflict at Delhi with mediation of the Central Water Resources Minister. However, the same government is not doing much to preserve the basin’s ecology. Mahanadi’s ecology is at threat and reduced water flow upstream will make it worse.
Q: The excess water storage in Hirakud dam cause flood in rainy season. Do not you think that more dams on the up-stream of Mahanadi will address the issue of flood in Odisha?
RP: Floods caused by faulty reservoir management during monsoon is not going to be reduced by the dams and barrages upstream. In fact, the chances of floods mismanagement may increase simply because most of the barrages upstream are placed at close distance of the Hirakud dam. During extreme rainfall times, when all of the dams in close proximity receive heavy rainfall, each one of them will struggle to discharge the extra water they receive. That’s going to be a dangerous time. The way climate change has wreaked havoc in the basin, I would not be surprised if we get more such scary times. Hirakud, an old dam, is already fighting safety issues and such situations would not be good for the dam. That’s another danger we may have to face.
Q: What is the attitude of central government towards the conflict on Mahanadi issue?
RP: So far, callous. As such a central government’s role is very limited in such conflicts. However, a strong and willing government can always play a better role. River basin management has always faced this problem in the country. Then the fact that both central government and Chhattisgarh governments are ruled by one political party is not favourable to Odisha’s positions on the conflict. History of river conflicts and their solutions has been ridden with such examples where the political parties’ interest have taken over the real interest of the river and the people.
Q: Several Rivers in India pass through multiple states and it’s but natural that states will have differences on ways of water use from river. Is legal mechanisms like the ‘Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956’ sufficient to address them? Do we need any better mechanism?
RP: The Interstate River Water Disputes Act (IRWDA) has not been an effective tool. It needs to be revised for sure. The Constitution itself needs to be amended to include all aspects of water, which was missing in the initial entries. While we need more time to discuss on the alternative mechanisms, one point that needs to be brought home with seriousness is that conflicts such as this should not give any right to the central government to take away water from the state list. Each conflict and failure of solving it is an indicator of the fact that we have messed up with our rivers by throwing them at the mercy of our greed. Laws can only work if we have a proper vision. Our vision for rivers has only been that of ‘exploitation’ and not ‘rejuvenation.’ As our rivers go dry and pollutants increase, conflicts around Rivers will increase. If without working proper river basin recharging and rejuvenation plans we just depend on Laws, we will end up in further chaos. Water is life and has already started to define fate of governments. State governments will be forced to defy even Supreme Court judgements but won’t dare to lose trust of their voters.
Q: Climate change is emerging as a major issue for the globe. What will be its consequence on the inter-state conflicts on rivers?
RP: Climate change is already impacting our river basins. Mahanadi is one of the most vulnerable rivers to climate change impacts. The basin has seen increasing frequency of droughts and floods; experiences a very high temperature rise and a fast trend of desertification. Climate change will induce more conflicts for sure and that’s exactly what we have been urging upon the governments to factor in while talking about inter-state disputes and river basin management.
Q: Hirakud dam completes 60 years of existence this year. What are the prospects and threat to the biggest mud dam in Asia?
RP: Hirakud dam is aged and ailing. It certainly needs a better attention now than ever before. A dam designed for 100 years has already lived 60 years but the high volume of siltation and degradation of catchment may not help it live the full term. It may have to do away with its key functions in about 15 to 20 years, if a strategic intervention is not initiated at the soonest. High time the government devises a decommissioning plan for the dam with alternatives that does not impact the irrigation and drinking water supply. Rest of its functions can be done away with. As such also the dam has done more damages than the benefits it has given. Twenty years are enough to devise such a plan.
Hope the governments listen to us this time. We had predicted the Mahanadi inter-state conflict a decade and half ago, they ignored our warnings. Ignoring the warnings about Hirakud may be much more dangerous.
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