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DAMS FOR COORG OR DAMNING OF COORG?

Much debate has been going on in Coorg about the building of dams in the district, and more specifically at several sites on the Barapolay River located inside the Oorti and Kerti reserve forests, which form part of the core area of the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary of the Western Ghats/Nilgiri Mountains, as well as the drawing of high tension electricity cables through some of Kodagu’s pristine virgin forest areas. While the residents of Coorg may benefit from receiving more electricity from the power plants, (although even this is in question since it is rumored that both the water and electricity from the dams will be given to Kerala, and the high tension wires to be drawn are specifically for delivering electricity to Kerala with no benefit to the residents of Coorg at all), additional electricity can be delivered and generated in far better, less environmentally destructive ways—such as wind power, ocean thermal power, and solar power plants like those in the USA, Europe, and even in parts of Northern India—than felling over 4000 trees in virgin forest for overhead cables or building a series of no less than four dams in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary.
In any case, the state government has granted a total of Rs. 15.5 crores for establishing various power supply projects in the district, including establishing two 66 KVA sub-stations at Madikeri and Suntikoppa respectively which will connect to two 66 KVA lines from Kushalnagar and Ponnampet. “These projects will ensure a total solution to all power related problems in Kodagu,” according to Mr. H.D. Revanna, state minister for Power and PWD. Then where is the question of needing to construct dams?
Captains of Indian industry like S. Ramadorai, CEO, Tata Consultancy Services, and Hemendra Kothari, Chairman, DSP Merrill Lynch have recognized the value of India’s wildlife sanctuaries. While launching a new program to galvanize the business community behind environmental conservation efforts, Mr. Kothari stated, “Wild habitats (like our Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary) really hold the key to India’s water security, soil health and thus agriculture. Almost all of those are vital water catchments and will be lost, affecting the lives of millions who depend on this most basic natural resource for their very survival. From just 28 tiger reserves across India, more than 300 rivers (like the Barapolay River) originate.”
While new dams are being proposed for Coorg, dams are being dismantled in Europe and the USA. Why? Because of the disastrous effects dams have had on the environment, which has led to economic disaster as well for the areas in which the dams have been located. The proposed dams at the Barapolay River located inside the heart of the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary of the Western Ghats/Nilgiri Mountains will also be environmental, ecological and economic disasters for the entire Coorg district, as well as for Karnataka and southern India.
The Western Ghats/Nilgiri Mountains that run through Coorg are the watershed for the entire south Indian peninsula. The rainforests covering these mountains are the heart of the watershed. Already deforestation of these mountains has reached an alarming rate, with 60,000 acres of forest cover having been lost in just two years in the Coorg district alone, according to the Geological Survey of India, Dehradun. This has, in turn, led to a drastic reduction in rainfall and subsequent droughts year after year in areas all over Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra, not to mention areas of the Coorg district itself. Additional deforestation and destruction of the rainforests will further endanger these vital water resources.
There is sure to be large-scale destruction of these same rainforests during the construction and running of the proposed hydro projects. Vast tracts of forest will be cut down, not to mention being inundated by the dammed waters, all of which will have a drastic effect on the watershed, i.e., streams and rivers will dry up. No trees means no rain. What good are dams if you cut down the source of water—the rainforest? How much electricity can the dams generate if there is no water to turn their turbines to generate the electricity?

The Lessons of Brazil—Loss of Carbon Credits

The residents of Kodagu should learn from the mistakes made by Brazil. In compliance with the Kyoto Accord on Environment, countries that have large tracts of forest—specifically equatorial rainforests like India—will be awarded ‘carbon credits’ since these forests act as ‘carbon sinks’, soaking up/sponging up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Brazil was banking on being able to trade/sell these credits to industrialized nations like the USA due to its vast Amazon rainforest. However, Brazil has also built several dams on the Amazon. As a result, deforestation of the Amazon basin, coupled with the methane gas being emitted by the decomposition of the submerged forest areas, has completely negated these credits. On top of that, the deforestation and flooding of the rainforest by the dams has led to a dramatic decrease in rainfall in the Amazon area resulting in empty dams and no electricity. Rolling blackouts across Brazil are now common. Is this what we want in Coorg? Karnataka? South India?
The concept of ‘carbon credits’/compensation for loss of logging revenue for states/districts/panchayats/individual landowners that forgo cutting of their forested areas has been floated by the Indian Supreme Court as well. Proposals include compensation being given to those states, districts, panchayats and even directly to individual landowners that protect their forest areas. Should we in Coorg lose this opportunity of an assured income for the profit of one company? And that too, a company that appears to have deceptively cloaked itself in the guise of four companies when surveying the sites and submitting pre-feasibility reports for the proposed dams whose costs will be almost 100 crores, according to a press release by M.C. Nanaiah. Why this secrecy and concealment of facts?
To date, no information has been released regarding the Environmental Impact Assessment that is required by law to be done before licensing and construction can begin. Judging from the track records of other dams constructed around the world and in India in particular—specifically the dams in Idduku in Kerala, Koyna Dam in Maharashtra, Tehri in Uttaranchal as well as the series of Teesta mini dams in the Northeast—earthquake tremors have plagued not only the dam sites, but also areas around and below the dams.
What’s more, blasting and other construction activities, including noxious fumes—which will go on for years—will drive the wildlife from the Sanctuary into neighboring plantations, further increasing wild animal/human confrontations while crops are damaged and destroyed in the process.

Dams mean Disaster for Agriculture

No matter what type of dams are built, the dams themselves will mean ‘disaster’ for agriculture for several reasons. The leaves from the native trees in the wildlife sanctuary produce a rich ‘nutrient soup’ when they fall into the river. The nutrient-rich river water flows downstream with the annual monsoon to the benefit of all agriculturalists, greatly increasing the fertility of the soil. Once the dams are built, this annual replenishment of nutrients will cease and soil fertility will drop, as the water flowing out of the dams’ tunnels will be devoid of this nutrient-rich silt. This lack of silt also means additional soil erosion on the sides of the river downstream. Plus, the turbidity of the fast-moving water as it exits the dams’ tunnels coupled with the increased temperature of the water will further increase erosion and have a negative impact on the agricultural sector downstream.

Free-flowing river water is constantly being cleansed and enriched by oxygen as it flows downstream. The water in a dam is static, heats up and becomes oxygen-deficient. This, coupled with the additional silt, leads to both a change of variety and an increase in vegetation in the water, further depleting the water of oxygen. This in turn leads to a higher concentration of heavy metals in the water, including mercury. While mercury exists naturally in an inert form in dry soil, when it is submerged under the oxygen-deficient waters of a dam, it undergoes a chemical change into methylmercury—the most toxic and deadly form of mercury. Mercury then enters the food chain by poisoning the fish in the water, and goes on to poison those who eat the fish—animals and humans alike. Some of the results of mercury poisoning include birth defects, kidney disease, neurological diseases and gastrointestinal problems, just to name a few.
Add to this the problem of the increase in the salinity/salt content in the discharged river water (excess salt in irrigation water means a drop in crop output) along with the threat of oil and chemicals leaching into the water from going through the dams’ turbines and more disasters are seen for our planters and farmers. On top of that, water-borne and water-related diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever will increase not only due to the lack of movement of the dams’ water, but also to the decrease in the natural predators of the mosquitoes’ larvae (like fish) that spread these diseases.

 

Disaster for Wildlife and Humans

All types of wildlife in the areas of the dams will be catastrophically affected for a number of reasons. Study after study on the impact of dams on wildlife done in the USA (where the most technologically and environmentally-friendly dams exist) prove this point. Fish will get caught in the dams’ turbines and be killed. The fish that normally swim upstream to spawn/reproduce during monsoon will be unable to do so. The impact of the warmer water temperature of the dams will inhibit the normal reproductive life-cycles of the aquatic animals in the river—fish, frogs, crabs, etc.—as well as those who prey on them—birds, snakes, larger animals and humans. This will lead to a drop in food supply, which will disrupt the larger animals’ ability to survive and reproduce as well. The change in vegetation brought on by a dam (versus a flowing river) translates into less food for the animals that have adapted to that area’s original vegetation.
The dams will mean a loss of habitat for many species of animals. In addition, they will also change the normal flow pattern of the river’s water. This in turn will lead to disruption of the normal migratory and reproductive patterns of the animals in the area, as well as a reduction in the number of species that can survive there.
The area in question is one of the 8 ‘Hottest Hotspots’ of biodiversity in the entire world (as designated by the UN.) It is the ‘home’ for trees, plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet, with as high as 63% of the tree species found nowhere else. Animals found in the area include the extremely rare Lion Tailed Macaque, Travancore Turtles, the Great Indian Hornbill, and many other birds, reptiles and amphibians, not to mention elephants, tigers, and leopards. The dams will reduce that biodiversity and adversely affect the immense economic opportunity for Eco-tourism—specifically Wildlife Tourism—from which the residents of Coorg can benefit greatly, not to mention creating a new tax base for the state of Karnataka and a new source of revenue for the state’s Forestry Ministry.

Protecting Biodiversity means Money from Eco-Tourism

Eco-tourism is the fastest growing sector of the largest industry on Earth, with Wildlife Tourism being ‘Number One’ on the charts, increasing by 30% annually. Developing nations around the world are cashing in on Wildlife Tourism, with it being Africa’s largest industry. An example of just one type of wildlife tourism—bird watching—gives a hint at the fantastic potential of this business. There are between 50-to-70 million bird watchers (‘birders,’ as they call themselves) around the world. This group of dedicated wildlife enthusiasts are known as ‘low impact tourists’ since they are very careful not to harm the environment while enjoying watching birds. In addition, they spend money freely on their hobby. Example: in just one year in one state in the USA (Virginia), wildlife tourists spent $1,000,000. In Texas, ‘birders’ spend an average of $1000 per day on just one of the state’s bird watching trails.
Birders travel all over the world in search of sighting rare species. According to Dr. S.V. Narasimhan, there are at least 305 species of birds native to Coorg, and many of these are rare and endangered. Hence, the forests of Kodagu present themselves as a ‘birders’ paradise.’ And here is where the Forestry Department/Ministry can earn extra revenue: by developing ‘Eco-trails’ in the outer ring of national parks and forests (not the inner core of the forest) for ‘birders’ and other wildlife tourists to trek on. Limited numbers of wildlife tourists can be guided through these trails by forest guides with fees being collected from the tourists for the same. In addition, scientific study of this rich biodiversity hotspot can also benefit the Forestry Dept. and the state with a similar fee-charging program for scientific/biological/ecological research within the forest areas. This is another area of revenue from the forests that the Costa Rican government has tapped. Some of the funds received can be reinvested in solar and other eco-friendly electricity projects.
‘Community-based Eco-Tourism’ (as practiced in Himachal Pradesh) and ‘Real Eco-Tourism’ (as practiced in Kenya)—where the ownership and profits are kept in the hands of local people—can be developed here, too, with private lands becoming part of Bird Watching Trails that wind not only through the forest, but through privately owned plantations. Again, this idea has been practiced in Costa Rica—where Eco-Tourism is the third largest industry after coffee and bananas. Fees are paid to the private landowners who agree to include their lands in the bird watching trail.
Besides making money by charging fees to wildlife tourists for trekking with guides on Nature/Eco-trails in the outer ring of the national parks and forests, the Forestry Dept. can collect small annual fees from the private landowners that want their land to become part of the 'Bird Watching Eco-trails. 'So one can see that bird watching is big business.
Other ways in which the local community can benefit monetarily from properly promoted and properly monitored Eco-tourism include: providing food and lodging for visiting tourists (in the forms of ‘bed and breakfast’ as well as small guest houses that emphasize Coorgi hospitality and culture), sale of local produce and artifacts, cultural programs and displays for tourists, and the creation of innumerable jobs for local people, especially as forest guides due to their unique knowledge of the area and its native flora and fauna. So we can see that since Wildlife Pays, Wildlife should Stay!

RS. 745 Crores for Biodiversity Conservation Project

In recognition of the urgent need to protect not only our vital water sources, but also the vast biodiversity located in the Western Ghats, the State Government is set to launch the Karnataka Sustainable Forest Management and Biodiversity Conservation Project with funding from the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation to the tune of Rs. 745 crores, with an implementation period of eight years. The strange thing is that the biodiversity the government is seeking to protect and preserve on the one hand is threatened with destruction by these proposed dams.
An additional threat which has just surfaced is the implementation of a new programme to draw high-tension cables through 60 acres of virgin reserve forest areas of Kodagu to deliver electricity—not to residents of Coorg or even Karnataka—but to Kerala. This project will open these virgin forest areas up to human intrusion for the first time and will mean large-scale denudation of these reserve forests with over 4000 trees slated to be chopped down. Once again no details about the Environmental Impact Assessment have been released, and its very authenticity is being called into question. Moreover, the company involved has refused to accept a proposal from Karnataka State Government to run the cables underground in order to minimize damage to the forest areas, claiming they have approval from some nameless bureaucrat in the Union Government.
We in Coorg must see that destruction of our precious forests due to both of these ecologically and economically disastrous projects does not happen. Each and every one of us must become involved in this effort to protect not only our forests, but also the wildlife they contain, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of generations to come. This must be the legacy, the heritage we pass on to our children—forests alive with the abundance of life in all forms—plant and animal.
To quote Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Industries, “All of us in India should be concerned with the wanton destruction of our indigenous wildlife. Tigers and elephants are a part of India’s history and heritage. We need to protect these indigenous species from poachers and gangs who profit from killing these animals for monetary gain from the sale of skins, claws, teeth and tusks (and from greedy companies that think only of their own profits). Our inability to act today will cause this heritage to be lost to us forever.”


From the Trustees of SAI Sanctuary Trust

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