The sorry state of Mahanadi River and of the majority of people living in its basin is due to poor planning that has ignored the water-energy-food nexus. Lives can be improved only by taking the nexus into account

Near the Hindalco factory, one of the many industries that pollute the rivers in the Mahanadi basin (Photo by Ranjan K. Panda)

Near the Hindalco factory, one of the many industries that pollute the rivers in the Mahanadi basin (Photo by Ranjan K. Panda)

The devastating fly ash slurry pouring out near Katikela village near Jharsuguda in western Odisha is one way rivers in the Mahanadi basin are being polluted; heavy use of chemicals in agriculture is another; untreated sewage a third. See earlier reports in this series: Coal power plant blights livesThe wounded Mahanadi

It is taking a heavy toll on fishing and the livelihood of fishers. In Dhama village on the banks of the Mahanadi south of Sambalpur, three quarters of the 200 families still manage to rely on traditional fishing, but catch fewer and smaller fish all the time. The fish varieties have decreased as well. And when the monsoon comes, pollutants from the upstream industries wash down and kill off many of the fish.

The fishers say the problems started in the time of their fathers, with the building of the Hirakud dam, and the situation has become progressively worse. But the biggest threat now, they say, is the aggressive fishing method employed by a “fish mafia”, “outsiders” who use explosives to stun fish and bring them to the surface in greater numbers. The practice is illegal but mostly unchecked. Traditional local fishers lose out.

Turning to fishing

In some places, farmers who lost land to the Hirakud dam and reservoir have turned to fishing to survive. In the village of Balbaspur at the edge of the reservoir, live several families whose fathers and grandfathers had lost their land when the reservoir engulfed it. Narayan Bhue animatedly says his family lost 12 acres to the reservoir, that his father received Rs 1,900 (about USD 380) as compensation, with which he could buy only 1.5 acres.

Farming the smaller parcel does not feed the family, so Bhue does daily wage labour, sometimes rolling bidis to survive. His neighbours who have turned from farming to fishing complain about the pollution, and about government restrictions that keep them from fishing in the reservoir.

Subrat Kumar Bhue, who supports his family by fishing, says his grandfather was one of six brothers. Together they worked 22 acres of farmland. They received compensation for half their land, but the family dispersed, unable to make a living in Balbaspur. He doesn’t know where most of his relatives went, and isn’t sure whether the family still owns any land.

This all-too-familiar tale foreshadows what could happen to farmers in Katikela village near Jharsuguda, whose crops and lands were ruined when fly ash slurry surged over their land in 2017.

Confrontation to cooperation

Due to damming, diverting and industrial pollution, the Mahanadi can no longer carry out the essential functions of a river – hydrological, social or ecological. There simply is not enough clean water for everyone.

Water activist Ranjan Panda says the situation can be improved, but a necessary starting point would be cooperation between the governments of Odisha and upstream Chhattisgarh, the state where the Mahanadi has its headwaters. That would mean a major change from the current confrontational posture. Odisha officials object to a half dozen barrages under construction upstream; Chhattisgarh maintains it is not obstructing the flow of water as much as the downstream state claims.

Blaming each other can only lead to the kind of dispute that has bedevilled the Cauvery River for decades, Panda says. The need is to recharge the river instead, according to him. A legal solution would focus on the amount of water that remains and how to divide it up between the two states. Panda says, “Tribunals are not the solution to the river’s problems. They can only provide a temporary solution to states fighting over the current amount of water available. The goal should be to work on restoring some of the damaged ecosystem.” He hopes to promote interstate planning and cooperation before the two-year-old conflict gets further entrenched.

The river basin can be recharged over time, says Panda, by rejuvenating streams and feeder rivers and by supporting healthy traditional forests. The catchment area of the Mahanadi still has a few such forests, managed by tribal residents. And communities along the river, especially fishermen who still have some traditional knowledge about how the river and fishery once operated, should be brought into the planning process, according to the water activist. “There is currently no system for them to be stakeholders in planning management of the river.”

Water-energy-food nexus

The challenges facing the Mahanadi basin are but one example of what India faces due to piecemeal short term planning that ignores the water-energy-food nexus. The current trade-offs among the three are not working. Panda says decreasing the use of coal for energy production throughout India is the most important first step. Criticising the “governments’ mad rush to bring in more thermal plants because this is such a rich coal area,” he points out that India’s commitments in the Paris climate accords should also reduce the use of coal in the coming years. The commitments include generating 40% of the country’s electricity through from renewable sources by 2030.

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