Overexploitation and mismanagement have placed intolerable stress on the Cauvery river in southern India, but no remedy is in sight yet
The Cauvery river in southern India is perhaps the most contentious river in the country, with the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fighting perpetually over its waters. Overexploitation and mismanagement has taken its toll on the Cauvery, which is known as the lifeline of southern India. Running practically dry for most of the year, the river and its banks are often exposed to human activities that impact the river adversely.
Climate change has added to the problem by making the annual monsoon rains more erratic, forcing people to depend more on water released from dams upstream – the bone of contention between upstream Karnataka and downstream Tamil Nadu. Add to that sea level rise due to climate change, and the Cauvery delta is becoming more and more saline all the time.
In the districts of Salem, Erode, Karur and Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, people consider the Cauvery a sacred deity, but that hasn’t stopped overuse and exploitation. The state of Triveni Sangamam at Kooduthurai, the confluence of Bhavani, Cauvery and the mythical Amudha rivers and a place of Hindu pilgrimage, is now pitiable.
The river now stands still in many of its stretches in Tamil Nadu, covered with a thick layer of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). The wide leaved plants grow rapidly, sometimes covering the entire surface of the river. This plant spreads across the stagnant river and the authorities are apathetic about clearing this weed. Not only do mosquitoes breed in it, the weed poses a difficulty in getting water pumped to the Bhavani Kattalai Barrage 2 for the generation of hydroelectricity.
Further downstream, near Ashokapuram in Bhavani in Erode district, effluents of dyeing units along the riverside are discharged into canals carelessly. These canals drain into the Cauvery. Bhavani, the municipal town named after the eponymous river, houses hundreds of illegal dyeing units. Not to make their discharge evident, the units release colourless dyes during the day and the coloured dyes at night. Other areas such as Pallipalyam and Kumarapalyam house a number of power looms and dyeing units that also discharge their untreated waste into the canals that drain into the river.
The banks of Cauvery between Pazhaiyapallam and Bhavanipallam accommodate a stretch of some 1,500 houses that are built by encroaching on the riverbed. The consent for illegal occupation and building of residences on the riverbed is given more on political considerations rather than any consideration about the degradation of the river’s floodplains.
The traditional cultivators of Namakkal and Karur have turned to the locally found Korai grass, growing it in order to withstand the pollution, inadequate monsoon rains and lack of water. The grass is traditionally used to make mats. However, with increasing water scarcity, growing the grass has become difficult. The survival of cottage industries that rely in weaving mats is now threatened.
Anusha Sundar is a photojournalist based in Chennai.