Why downstream fishermen want cancellation of Bhadbhut dam, seek rejuvenation of Narmada


By MSH Sheikh*

The Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) is managing the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat over river Narmada.  Recently the Narmada Control Authority allowed the closing of all 30 gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada at Kevadia Colony, which will help raise level of water in the reservoir to 138.68 meter from the present 121.92 metre. The decision will help swell the dam’s live storage from 1.27 million acre feet (MAF) to 4.73 MAF.

However, despite the increase in capacity of the dam the release of freshwater downstream from the dam is very less compared to the flow in the river 10 years back. The dam authorities believe that the release in the downstream is wastage of fresh water. They have no value for the 150 km of Narmada river downstream from the dam. They are building Garudeshwar dam, downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam, so that they can stop even water released during power generation at the river bed power house to flow downstream, to the Narmada estuary.

The authorities have no study or plan to sustain the river downstream of the dam with continuous release of freshwater. The decrease in water flow has resulted in devastating environment and ecology of river Narmada, estuary and the Gulf of Khambhat.  Narmada is the biggest west-flowing river, which once had the continuous freshwater flow necessary for fish breeding throughout the year. The flow has come down drastically to  merely 20 meters in the riverbed at Chandod in winter in the downstream. Before the dam was built, the width of the flow used to be 250-300 metres.

The non-release of fresh water has made tidal water intrusion much deeper than before. The salt water is affecting farmers and fishermen. Farmers on the river bank cannot take river water for agriculture as it has no dilution of freshwater. Tidal effects are depositing silt into the mouth of the river from Bharuch to Dahej, creating the various islands of mud over the last few years. The morphology of the river and the riverbed is totally changed due to the decrease of river flow.

There was a delta of river Narmada when the Sardar Sarovar dam was not constructed. It  was called Aliyabet having lush green “Aal” grass. Villagers of northern and southern portions of the river would graze the animals on it. After the construction of the dam, and non-release of adequate fresh water, this delta has totally disappeared. The southern portion of the delta has merged with land and created a desert. The decrease in the river water level has made the entire estuary very shallow.

The fishermen do not have adequate depth inside the estuarine mouth. The uneven topography is permanently changing the river estuary and the delta. Thus, the dam has played a major role in changing the geographical condition of the entire area. It has reduced the freshwater fish, reducing the fish catch in the delta hugely.

The fisherman who were fishing before the dam was constructed from Hansot to Kantiyajal in a 20 km stretch in the southern portion of the delta do not have any river at all, as it is merged with the mainland and became desert. Pagadiya fishermen have to go 20 km away from their native villages for fishing along the coast situated on west side.  Boat fishing is now limited between the Dahej and Bharuch region, though earlier it would take place on both sided of the river, as also in the creeks network in the delta. The dam has changed the entire coastal ecology while creating permanent long-term effects on topography. No mangroves are available on the Aliyabet and no Aal grass is available on the 40 sq km area of the delta, which was lush green with it earlier. Pagadiya fishermen have permanently lost more than 50 sq km of inter-tidal zone on which they were dependent for fishing before the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Proposed Bhadbhut Dam and its impact

The proposed Bhadbhut Dam project, which is supposed to be part of the Kalpasar project is planned with these aims:

  • To protect the fertile land from salinity ingress
  • To protect the river banks from erosion, and
  • To provide the road connectivity between Hazira and Dahej industrial estates.

The reduced release of water from the dam has resulted in hugely reduced river water flow. The downstream river has mostly dried up and lost its characteristic as a river. The river banks are filled with silt and it has lost its natural beauty. To sustain the fresh water in the river and the development of  religious ashrams, the state government has proposed Bhadbhut dam to reduce the impact caused by the illegal act of non-release of adequate water from the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Location of the Bhadbhut dam falls within the CRZ area. The map prepared by the National Center for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthpuram, one of the authorized agencies of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), has shown the CRZ area very deep inside the upsteam of the proposed site. The present EIA report and maps show only the end of the CRZ line at Bhadbhut village, which is totally wrong.

Fishermen are opposing the Bhadbhut dam as they are fishing in the flowing river during tidal water in the river and the estuary. The closure of the estuary at Bhadbhut will shorten their fishing and breeding ground of Hilsa fish, which is one of the major fish species in Narmada river and estuary. The movement of the water flow will stop. It will stop breeding of the species, which requires the brackish water area with varying  salinity. The Macrobrachium rosernbergii prawn which comes from fresh water to estuary for breeding will not breed in the fresh water reservoir. So the species’ loss will be a major threat to the riverine environment.

The Nikora region is a tribal belt and people are collecting some of the seeds of the prawn and traditionally sell these for their livelihood. They will lose their livelihood and resources completely if Bhadbhut dam is built. Dilution is totally nil in the estuary, as there is no fresh water flow. Against this backdrop, the continuous round-the-clock release of the chemical effluents in to the river mouth is worsening the water quality.  Polluted waters from Ankleshwar, Jhagadia, Panoli and Dahej industrial estates reach the estuary through sub-sea pipelines. Fishery is at risk in the present scenario, and after the proposed Bhadbhut dam, things will only worsen.

There are about 25,000 fish workers in the Narmada river, estuary and coastal part of Bharuch district. The barrage will separate the estuarine and riverine system permanently. The fish ladder proposal will not serve the purpose, as only fishes will pass through it. But fishes will not find  brackish water, hence its breeding cycle will not be completed. Indeed, the future of hilsa and prawn is at risk. These species may face existential problems.

The dam will also create very high siltation in the mouth of the estuary, which will create problems of uneven surface in breeding in the fishing zone. It will also create navigational problems  for the fishing boats. This way, fishermen will face major economic threat due to the creation of the reservoir of fresh water. Also, freshwater has limited number of fish species. Their market rates are very low, Rs 80 to 100/kg, in comparison to estuarine species, which fetch between Rs 300  to 1200/kg.

Not without reason, fishermen are opposing the barrage project as their livelihood is at stake. They had no other option but to oppose the laying of foundation stone of the Bhadbhut dam on October 8, 2017 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Bharuch. Fishermen took out boat rallies with black flags, and fisherwomen took out a silent march.

On World Fisheries day, November 21, 2017, we appeal to Gujarat and Central governments to:

  • Cancel the Bhadbhut dam,
  • Ensure sufficient flow in Narmada river downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam and the proposed Garudeshwar dam all round the year to not just ensure stopping salinity ingress and dilution for pollution, but also survival of the fishing community’s livelihood
  • Compensate fisherfolk that have already suffered due to the reduced flow of water in Narmada river downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam since the reduction of the flow.

We hope the authorities will listen to the just demands of over 25,000 fish workers dependent on Narmada river, and also listen to the need of the river and biodiversity of the river.

*Brackish Water Research Centre, Surat. Source: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/

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