Project to link India’s rivers leaves tiger reserve high and dry


A tiger reserve and tribal village are threatened by a plan to dam and divert an Indian river as part of a mammoth hydro-engineering scheme.

Dodhan village inside central India’s Panna Tiger Reserve is in the grip of a severe drought.

About a dozen young women bearing metal pitchers take turns retrieving water from an almost-empty well, while a group of farmers squat nearby in the shade.

The Ken River in the reserve – home to more than 32 tigers, a crocodile sanctuary, seven endangered species of vulture and 10 tribal villages – flows freely in rainier periods, but has been reduced to isolated pools of water.

The area is set to lose what water it has, however, as the national government pushes ahead with plans to dam the river and divert 660 million cubic litres of water per year to the Betwa River in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh.

The dam will flood a third of the reserve upstream and leave the downstream area bereft of water, displacing 1,600 tribal families and leaving its tiger population vulnerable to what one environmentalist describes as a “social and ecological disaster-in-waiting.” Construction is to begin in December.

Local activist Ashish Sagar has surveyed the dry and brittle vegetation upstream of the dam site, where Dodhan and nine other villages will be flooded to create a 9,000-hectare water reservoir. “These people will be paid a paltry sum for their land and made to leave, all in the name of development,” he says.

Dodhan residents only found out about the project when government contractors started arriving at the dam site.

“I don’t know the government’s plans with this land, but I know how much they want it,” says Jamuni, a woman in her seventies who covers her face with a faded pink sari.

“We won’t leave our ancestral home until they meet our demands,” says Jamuni, who says her last name is “Adivasi” – the Hindi word for indigenous.

The locals vary in their demands, but Jamuni was asking 5 million rupees (76,000 dollars) for her family’s nearly three hectares of farmland.

The construction of the dam and the 220-kilometre canal linking the rivers has yet to receive final clearance from a board set up by the Supreme Court.

But the government is pushing hard to move ahead with the project as a proof of concept, the first step of its mammoth engineering scheme that will link 37 rivers across India, creating a 168-billion-dollar water grid.

First conceptualized in the 1970s and now part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious development agenda, the plan aims to solve the perennial problem of floods in some areas and droughts in others.

The National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the government body responsible for the project, says that reservoirs and canals will improve irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply and hydropower.

Dissenting scientists argue that the very idea of interlinking rivers is flawed and that flood mitigation will be minimal. “The idea of linking two rivers that receive their monsoon water load simultaneously is incorrect,” said Himraj Dang, an independent infrastructure consultant based in New Delhi. “Excessive irrigation will damage fertility” by washing topsoil away, he said.

River ecologist Brij Gopal of the Jaipur-based Centre for Inland Water listed the ecological, social and economic impact from the loss of water from the estuarine ecosystem.

Such zealous environmentalists are missing the wider picture, an NWDA official says. “They tend to ignore the fact that poverty itself is India’s greatest pollutant and development is quite essential in reducing it,” he says on condition of anonymity.

But critics also point to the deforestation and quarrying that will be required to construct the dam, as well as the encroachment of approximately 10,000 labourers into Panna’s animal habitat.

The government’s consultation and evaluation has been token at best, conservationists say.

“There are gross blunders in their report,” says Brij Bopal of the Centre for Inland Waters, adding that it mentions the brow-antlered deer, an endangered species that can only be found 2,000 kilometres away in the eastern state of Manipur. “This shows that they did a cut-and-paste job and aren’t aware of ground realities.”

Also of great concern is the impoverished district’s most important source of revenue: its tiger population.

India is home to almost two-thirds of the world’s estimated 3,500 remaining wild tigers, largely thanks to government-managed reserves.

The proposed flooding would significantly reduce the local population’s breeding ground and post-natal habitat and cut it off from neighbouring tiger populations, says Raghu Chundawat, an independent scientist who started researching Panna’s tigers in 1995.

“This will force tigers to move in other directions, escalating the existing human-wildlife conflict and hugely increasing the likelihood of poaching,” says Chundawat, who documented a drop in its tiger population in the 2000s due to mismanagement and poaching.

With the help of nearly 10 million dollars in government funds and multi-million dollar grants from the World Wildlife Fund, Panna National Park has boosted the population back to more than 32 tigers in the past six years.

“People gave their lives for this project,” says an employee of the tiger reserve who says he would face dismissal if he went on the record. “It was hailed as a huge success. But the new government has brought an agenda in which development trumps tiger.”