How can we protect the Mahadayi / Mandovi river?

Known as Mahadayi in Karnataka and Mandovi in Goa, diversion of the river's water could have catastrophic consequences on the region's biodiversity and climate

Published: Jul 25, 2023 02:11:06 PM IST
Updated: Jul 25, 2023 04:59:00 PM IST

How can we protect the Mahadayi / Mandovi river?The Mandovi River, often referred to as the ‘lifeline’ to Goa supports wildlife and humans and provides drinking water to millions of people along its 117 kilometers journey through Karnataka and Maharashtra, down to the Arabian Sea at Goa. Image: Vijay singh /Shutterstock
The Mandovi river begins its life as the Mahadayi river in the Bhimgad sanctuary of Karnataka, in a series of swift springs and streams. Crisscrossed across a wet evergreen forest in one of the largest contiguous stretches of national parks and sanctuaries in the Western Ghats, the river with two names is legally protected at its source, Bhimgad, where efforts to protect an endemic and endangered species of bat—the Wroughton’s free-tailed bat—resulted in the notification of the Bhimgad sanctuary in 2011.
But not only endangered bats depend on the diverse ecosystem of the Mandovi River. The river supports wildlife and humans and provides drinking water to millions of people along its 117 kilometers journey through Karnataka and Maharashtra, down to the Arabian Sea at Goa.  It is often referred to as the ‘lifeline’ to Goa which it supplies with fish, drinking water and water for irrigation.

Since water is regulated by state governments in India, the importance of water created a dispute between Karnataka and Goa, both of which depend on it for their own sustenance and prosperity.  
The 2011 Notification of Bhimgad as a sanctuary provided legal protection just one year after decades-old water disputes between the States of Karnataka and Goa resulted in the setting up of the Mahadeyi Water Disputes Tribunal in 2010 through interventions in the Supreme Court of India.
Diversion of Mahadayi’s waters to supply about 30 water-scarce villages in Karnataka was first planned in 1970 and in 1989, when the Government of Karnataka planned to build across two major tributaries, Kalasa and Banduri to divert drinking waters to the Malaprabha River and supply Dharwad, Belgaum and Gadag districts with water for irrigation. The dispute escalated when farmers’ protests in Dharwad district resulted in police brutality against them in 2016 and the issue continues to remain contentious while both states claim the supremacy of their need for water.
Diversion of water affects the entire river as a whole and causes irreversible changes to its ecosystem. The course of human history can be traced through changes in rivers and the ecosystems they support. “Some river civilisations have faced chronic problems; that is, regular, incremental changes over decades or centuries (eg, salinisation) and which in some instances are manageable from year to year. Others have faced sudden, acute and catastrophic events (for example, flooding, prolonged drought), occurring during single or successive seasons. Despite the different timescales, both forms of change can lead to irreversible impacts on riverside societies, and in some cases have resulted in total societal collapse,” says a featured article of the Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health, University of Lincoln (UK).

Also read: World Rivers Day 2022: Why we need a new relationship with nature, water and river ecosystems

A 2016 study by  AK Chaubey of the National Institute of Oceanography found that in one glacial period about 1,20,000 to 20,000 years ago, Goa’s two main rivers, the Mandovi and Zuari, flowed into the Arabian Sea together as one. The combined river was swifter, deeper and the volume of water was much higher than it is today. Over the millennia, the rivers separated through sedimentation and acquired their meandering, tranquil nature that define their flow through Goa today.
However, while natural processes change ecosystems over time, human interventions pose significant threat to the river and all those species who depend on them much faster and create emergencies immediately.

How can we protect the Mahadayi / Mandovi river?The Mahdeyi River cascades over the verdant cliffs and valleys of the Western Ghats in spectacular waterfalls like the Dudhsagar before morphing into the Mandovi River at Goa. Image: Nomadographer/Shutterstock
In 2022, in acknowledgment of the importance of water, the first UN Climate Change Conference (COP27)  highlight the links between waterbiodiversity and global warming, Csaba Kőrösi, president of the United Nations General Assembly, reiterated: “This is the water COP”.
Like other rivers originating in the Western Ghats, a Unesco World Biodiversity Hotspot, the Mandovi river supports various species of endemic and other fish, including the barramundi and mangrove jack.  A recent study identified 84 species of fish in Goan rivers.
Nevertheless, scientific studies to identify the totality of the biodiversity surrounding the river and the effects of diverting its water are insufficient. “If the water flow of the river is reduced, [by diverting water to the Malaprabha river] then obviously the fauna will also change” says naturalist Parag Rangnekar, an ecologist based in Goa. “If the fresh water is reduced, salinity will also increase, again impacting fauna. This is understood by everybody. But which fish will be impacted, how the fauna will be affected…commissioning proper studies is very crucial.”
In present-day Karnataka, the Mahadayi river cascades over the verdant cliffs and valleys of the Western Ghats in spectacular waterfalls including the Dudhsagar and Vajrapoha waterfalls before morphing into the meandering Mandovi river at Goa. The Goa portion of the Mahadayi /Mandovi river has seven species of the 16 species of endemic birds found in the Western Ghats.
However, the fragile ecosystem is being threatened among ever increasing water needs as water-intensive sugarcane farms in Karnataka along the way expand and replace traditional farming.
In Goa, the river faces further challenges. Environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar traces the chronology of  Goa’s water woes, pointing out its long history of environmental mis-management "Watershed destruction in Goa has been persistent since its independence. Initially, the government promoted timber logging, which affects the river catchment,” he says.
Extensive mining in Goa has also destroyed its ground water table and it is ironic that some of the same mining companies, after exhausting Goan mines, are now looking towards the catchment areas of another major Goan river, the Tiracol, which originates in the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor of Maharashtra, despite an order passed in Awaaz Foundation’s petition by the Bombay High Court to declare Sawantwadi-Dodamarg as eco-sensitive, where mining is banned.
Kerkar also points out that more recently, “Tourism was hailed as the dream vision towards economic prosperity. However, persistent water shortages and crises destroyed the infinite growth model. Now, the construction boom and over-concretisation is showing absolute lack of 'water literacy' among the policy makers and citizens, equally."

Also read: 5 difficult but feasible steps to reverse the climate crisis

Even during the British Raj in India, water conflicts between states were already escalating, and in 1956, the government constituted the national Inter-State Water Disputes Act. However, in the decades since then, threat to water security has only intensified and created political conflict and has given rise to sustained protests and social and environmental movements in various locations across India.
The Godavari and Krishna Dispute Resolution Tribunal was set up in April to settle the dispute between Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. As a result, bilateral and tripartite water sharing agreements were reached between States in the 1970s. “The Tribunal gave its Award in July, 1980,” says the government’s website of Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. However, new projects in the states have resulted in numerous litigations thereafter and the matter remains pending in the Supreme Court of India today.
Water from the Narmada river is disputed among the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. Although the central government attempted to mediate these disputes in 1963 and 1965, their attempts failed and the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) was set up on 6th Oct. 1969. The Narmada river disputes and the Sardar Sarovar Dam gave rise to one of India’s most prolonged struggles to rehabilitate those who were impacted by the construction of the dam which spanned several decades.
The Kaveri river waters too are disputed between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. During a drought in Tamil Nadu, when the Supreme Court ordered the release of extra water to Tamil Nadu, riots in the streets of Bengaluru in Karnataka resulted in hundreds of cars, buses and trucks set on fire, shops vandalised and death of two people.
Within this situation of long-standing conflict over water, the Government of India is in the process of diverting multiple rivers arising in the Western Ghats and across the country. The Minister of State for the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Bibeshwar Tudu, said  in response to a Parliamentary question in December 2021 “the interlinking of rivers programme is being pursued based on the principle of consensus and agreement among the concerned states. An interlinking project would reach the implementation stage once agreement amongst party states is reached on water sharing.”
Water disputes also fuel the climate crisis through political imperatives that ignore the biodiversity loss and consequent climate crisis which they fuel. Even as we await the COP28 in November and December 2023 ordinary citizens of Goa, Karnataka, across India and the rest of the world face worsening climate woes including heatwaves, wildfires and landslides.
The United Nations has taken note of the linkages between water and climate change. UN Secretary General António Guterres at the first United Nations Water Conference in March 2023 said “We are draining humanity’s lifeblood [water] through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating.” 

How can we protect the Mahadayi / Mandovi river?Many state bird of Goa, Flame-throated Bulbuls are sighted along the way from the Mandovi river to the Vajrapoha Waterfalls. Image: Edwin Godinho/Shutterstock
In 1972, to safeguard environment, legal philosopher Christopher Stone proposed that environment should be granted legal personhood with a legal guardian tasked with safeguarding of rights. However, it was only in 2017 that the first river in the world was actually granted personhood, the Whanganui River in New Zealand. Thereafter, across the world, other rivers have been granted person-hood, with legal rights similar to people who are minors, with guardians. The rights include the right to flow freely.
In March 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court granted legal personhood to the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. However, in July the same year, the Supreme Court reversed the earlier Order, stating that the rivers are not living entities even though Ganga-mata is revered and more than 500 million people depend on her.
Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres said in his closing remarks on the first United Nations Water Conference in March 2023 “As humanity’s most precious global common good, water unites us all.  And it flows across a number of global challenges. Water is about health, sanitation, hygiene and disease-prevention.  Water is about peace. Water is about sustainable development, fighting poverty, supporting food systems and creating jobs and prosperity.  Water is about human rights and gender equality.  That’s why water needs to be at the centre of the global political agenda.”
The political tensions surrounding water between Karnataka and Goa have intensified once again in recent times, as elsewhere in India. In these times of worsening climate change and its effects on the daily lives of ordinary people, disputes over water continue to escalate political tensions between Indian states and further fuel the climate crisis.

Also read: Revisiting The Indus Water Treaty: A Path To Sustainability And Stability In The Face Of Climate Change

Although Goa Chief Minister Pramod Samant’s message while presenting the State Action Plan on Climate Change for The State of Goa for Period of 2020-2030 says  “We wish to reiterate our preparedness for climate related adaptation, mitigation and emergencies related to climate change. Our approach will be inclusive and balanced keeping interest of all stakeholders and ecological sustenance of our State”, the Plan itself goes on to say “water security scenario in the state is likely deteriorate further under climate change scenarios.”

Exactly 25 years ago, in July 1998, Nature enthusiasts, including co-author, Anand Pendharkar, on behalf of Sanctuary (Asia) Magazine, embarked on a wildlife survey of the Mahadayi and Bhimgad regions. Their aim was to document the quality of forests, biodiversity and life of the communities residing along the course of the Mandovi (Mahadayi) river. From Sanquelim, the team traced the Mandovi river all the way to the Vajrapoha Waterfalls. En route, they had many sightings of the state bird of Goa, flame-throated bulbuls. Besides that many endemic creatures such as the Malabar grey hornbill, Malabar giant squirrel, flying lizard or draco. Sadly, a dead gaur and king cobra, too.

These were some of the best evergreen forest stands, which led to the limestone Caves of Barapeda, housing the world's only known nesting population of Wroughton's Free-tailed bats. The survey urged then Governor, PC Alexander to squash the plans of mining around the Bhimgad caves and build mega dams along the Mandovi and Mahadayi parts of the river, and temporarily averted the crisis. They urged the Governor to declare these regions as a sanctuary as they were vital tiger and elephant corridors, besides rich repositories of medicinal plants.

The importance of science and scientific knowledge about endangered species served to protect the habitat of Wroughton free-tailed bat as Bhimgad sanctuary in 2011. Will the recommendations of science to protect the entirety of Mahadayi and Mandovi rivers be imperatives towards action today, within the escalating effects of biodiversity loss, water scarcity and climate change?
(Abdulali is the convenor of Awaaz Foundation and Pendharkar is an ecologist and CEO, SPROUTS)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated