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Amid Resistance from TN, Experts Say Karnataka’s Mekedatu Dam Will Worsen Human-Tiger Conflict

River Cauvery in Mekedatu, Karnataka. Courtesy: WikimediaCommons

River Cauvery in Mekedatu, Karnataka. Courtesy: WikimediaCommons

If the Mekedatu project goes ahead in its current form, it will submerge 4,096 hectares of forest land, threatening the survival of protected species and exacerbate human-tiger conflicts.

Bengaluru: The Karnataka government’s proposed Mekedatu multi-purpose balancing reservoir project has run into rough water with environmentalists who have alleged that it will spell death-knell for protected wildlife and also possibly kick off another water sharing dispute with Tamil Nadu.

While the project on river Cauvery is being touted as a solution to Bengaluru’s crippling water crisis, experts warn that the resultant ecological impact would be devastating.

According to project documents issued by the state department for water resources, 4,096 hectares of forest land will be submerged once the Rs 5,912-crore dam is built. This will fragment the 1,027 square kilometre Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS), threatening the survival of protected species such as the grizzled giant squirrel (Ratufa macroura)—a threatened species found only in a few regions in southern India and Sri Lanka. It will also affect the habitats of the elusive honey badger (Mellivora capensis). Approximately 15 lakh trees are expected to be submerged if the reservoir comes up as well.

Sanjay Gubbi, a conservation biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Bengaluru, who has carried out extensive field work in the region, says, “The Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary hosts unique and endangered wildlife species, and their habitats that needs to be protected. The surplus tiger population from BR Hills Tiger Reserve is moving into the CWS which acts as a shock absorber, and if this is lost, there will be human-tiger conflicts near BR Hills and MM Hills.”

He adds, “With the submersion of the riverine habitat, the entire grizzled giant squirrels’ population and their only habitat in Karnataka will be lost.”

The project has become yet another conflict point in the long standing river dispute between the two southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In this instance, if environmentalists’ allegations are proved true, the dam will not only exacerbate conflict between the states but also have an adverse impact on wildlife in this ecologically sensitive region of the Western Ghats.

The Mekedatu project has been mooted by the government of Karnataka as a solution to Bengaluru’s water woes. Currently, Bengaluru receives 1,350 million litres per day (MLD) of Cauvery water. Water requirements for Bengaluru are expected to rise up to 2,285 MLD by 2030 and Karnataka Water resources officials claim that this project will go a long way in satisfying this demand.

The project also proposes to ensure timely and accurate quantum of water to be released to Tamil Nadu as well as generate 400 MW of energy annually. The Tamil Nadu government opposes the project and has appealed to the Supreme Court against the approval given for the project by the Central Water Commission (CWC). In their appeal, they have asked the apex court to “restrain the state of Karnataka from proceeding with the construction of reservoirs at Mekedatu …or any other new projects across the river Cauvery in Karnataka which are not contemplated and/or permitted in the final decision of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT).”

R Subramanian, chairman, Cauvery Technical Cell, Tamil Nadu, who oversees all things related to the Cauvery in the state, says, “We are not for this project. We believe if this project comes up, it will further reduce the quantum of water that Tamil Nadu receives. This is one of the primary reasons why the Tamil Nadu government has challenged the project in the Supreme Court.” He adds, “This damage to wildlife is an additional problem with the project.”

Himanshu Thakkar of Delhi-based South Asian Network on Dams, River and People (SANDRP), says, “This project is unnecessary, costly and destructive. It is a lazy proposal and will further destroy the already battered Cauvery River. In the context of climate change, the appropriateness of such a project is further diminished.”

Experts on Water have also stated that there are better options to deal with the water crisis in the state. Bengaluru-based water conservationist, Vishwanathan Srikantaiah, says, “The project is not a good idea ecologically. While in terms of water sharing between the states, this can work, the impacts outweigh the benefits. Decisions like water sharing should be looked at with a larger ecological perspective and the river should not be treated like a water drain.”

Instead of building the reservoir at its current location, conservationists have proposed an alternative to build it 30 kilometres upstream. “If the reservoir is built in the Shivanasamudra area, there is a deep, saucer like gorge, suitable for a dam construction project. In fact, as I understand, the original project report had suggested this location,” says Sanjay Gubbi.

He adds, “I think it was shifted to possibly protect eight private mini-hydel power generation projects that exist in and around Shivanasamudra. All of them will be submerged if the proposed project is built at Shivanasamudra.”

Apart from the forest regions, six villages, namely, Bommasandra, Galebore, Madivala, Kogge Doddi, Nelluru Doddi and Sampatagere Doddi will be submerged if the project becomes a reality. The popular tourist destination, Sangama, where the Arkavathy River joins the Cauvery, will also be submerged.

Asked about the ecological concerns with regards to the project, DK Shivakumar, Minister for Water Resources, Karnataka, says, “I do not have much knowledge regarding this right now. The detailed project report will be out soon and we can look into this issue following the release of the report.”

(Author is an independent environmental journalist based in Bengaluru. He tweets @sibi123.)