marine wildlife

Gangetic dolphin's habitat lies in the path of a proposed waterway from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal

The dredging of rivers for the construction of national waterway 1 impacts dolphins and the sound of machines impedes the nearly blind aquatic animal's hearing.

In March 2016, India passed the National Waterways Act, which marks 106 rivers to be engineered into cargo-carrying waterways. The rationale is that shipping is “greener” than road traffic. But, according to Nachiket Kelkar of the Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and the Environment, “there has unfortunately been barely any debate on the ecological and social risks the National Waterways Act poses to river biodiversity and to the communities that depend on the river.”

The importance of riverine ecology, and of livelihoods needs, seems to be absent from the radar of not just the administrative and political circles, but also prominent environmental and scientific groups.

As per the plan, National Waterway 1 will go from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal along the Ganga and then along its arms – the Bhagirathi and the Hooghly. It will involve the construction of more barrages along the river and heavy dredging of silt, so that a width of 45 metres and a depth of three metres can be maintained throughout. This would enable passage for barges carrying 1,500-2,000 tonnes of cargo.

A turtle finds refuge on a silt island [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]
A turtle finds refuge on a silt island [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]

“Constructing more dams between Allahabad and Haldia will convert the Ganga into big ponds," said Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. "It will adversely affect the river’s ecosystem. We should allow uninterrupted flow of the Ganga waters." Kumar has turned into the most prominent critic of the Farakka barrage, blaming it for the current floods in Bihar.

The barrage, meant to flush the Hooghly and save Kolkata port from siltation, has had unintended consequences downstream as well.

Kelkar, writing for the South Asia Network for Dams Rivers and People, has analysed the National Waterways Act and clearly called out its implications. Now, as he and I sit by the Ganga watching the sun haemorrhage into the river, his observations come alive.

The sun setting over the Ganga [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]
The sun setting over the Ganga [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]

Dangerous depth

We see a dredger silhouetted against the fiery orange shimmer of the river. It scoops up sediments from the river bed and plumes it back into the main channel. This is crucial to maintaining navigability of National Waterway 1, given the Ganga’s heavy sediment load – and it is also a potential death knell for aquatic species.

“Such dredging dislodges river sediment, thereby destroying fish breeding grounds, habitats for endangered fresh-water turtles, fishes, sensitive aquatic invertebrates, and other organisms," Kelkar wrote. "In particular, substrate-breeding fish species are negatively affected by dredging and might even become locally extinct following failed breeding. As a bulk of fisheries depends on benthic (bottom-dwelling) fishes in most of India’s larger rivers, this will mean important threat to the sustainable production of fish in these systems as well."

As we travel along the river, a more sinister fallout of dredging comes to the fore. The plume that the dredger jets into the river’s main channel settles further downstream and functions like a plug. This plug heightens the riverbed in the centre, and deepens it by the shores. Imagine a “W” shaped river bed, with its elbows resting near the shores. In its turn the river, obstructed by these plugs and trying to find the path of least resistance, rushes into and over these deep channels, scouring off silt from under the concrete of the ghats.

This is where locals and pilgrims take a dip in the holy river. Thus far, no one had any reason to expect a sudden deep fall off. But over the last six months, since dredging has become regular in the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, there have been 20 deaths by drowning in Bhagalpur’s Barari Ghat alone – people washed away because the ground beneath their feet was replaced by fast-flowing undercurrents.

Moreover, to state the obvious, dredging should not be happening in the sanctuary, much less during the vital fish-breeding season.

The plot thickens with the non-appearance of the dolphins.

Where have all the dolphins gone?

The Gangetic dolphin is almost completely blind. Evolving in silty, murky environs for over 30 million years, it has all but lost its eyesight. Its eyes have no lenses, and it can only sense the direction of diffuse light. It lives by echolocation; sound is everything to this most ancient of all cetaceans. It navigates, feeds, avoids danger, finds mates, breeds, nurses babies, and lives by echolocation.

What effects will the sound of the dredger, and continuous navigation by large barges and tourist ships have on this creature?

Ongoing research by the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre has predicted local extinction of Ganges river dolphins from many rivers without adequate flow. River dolphin hearing of lower echolocation frequencies can be masked by dredging and vessel engine sounds, which might seriously limit their ability to find food and navigate. Also, the physical upheaval of river sediment caused by dredging appears to be disturbing to river dolphins.

Kelkar’s team has also identified the negative impacts of heavy dredging on dolphins near Bhagalpur.

“River dolphins, in May 2014, moved about two kilometres downstream from a regularly used hotspot area near Barari, Bhagalpur town and stayed there for nearly one full week during which the Inland Waterways Authority of India conducted intensive dredging operations near the Vikramshila Setu,” the team wrote. Surfacing frequency of the dolphins (breathing time between dives) reduced approximately three times compared to a natural dive-rate of 1.5-2.5 minutes during feeding peaks.

“In dolphins, this is a clear indication of stressful physiological and body conditions,” Kelkar said. “Further, Ganges river dolphins are highly vocal in normal circumstances, but their acoustic activity was noted to be much lower than on an average non-dredging day. Also, river dolphin mortality due to boat propeller hits has been recorded on a couple of occasions from the same area. During the movement of tourist cruise ships, we observed that the impact of loud sounds produced by the engines lasted for over two minutes – in which river dolphin diving behaviour showed signs of suppression.”

Clearly, dredging is not dolphin-friendly. Over 90% of the endangered Gangetic dolphin population overlaps with the proposed national waterways. And this is India’s National Aquatic Animal.

Even if the dolphins had to move, where would they go? The dredgers and barges would be almost everywhere. After I left, the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre team did a short survey on this stretch of the river and confirmed that the dolphin sightings in short stretches around Bhagalpur and Kahalgaon have fallen 66-75%. There have been whispers of dolphin deaths, which are still unconfirmed.

Falling waters

In the pre-monsoon season of 2016, water levels in this stretch of the Ganga are at their lowest ever.

The marks on the rocks show how low the water has fallen [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]
The marks on the rocks show how low the water has fallen [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]

The Ganga and upstream tributaries have been dammed several times over, diverted into canals, sucked up for irrigation, and syphoned off into power generation.

While the monsoons may make it seem like there is a “surplus” of water, it is dry season flows that should be the determining factor. And dry season flows in most of India’s rivers are dismal. There is also the rather inconvenient matter of a rapidly receding Gangotri glacier, which is now receding at 10-22 metres a year. At some point, the freshwater available will begin to diminish.

Add to that the inherent hazards of shipping cargo along ecologically invaluable ecosystems. The consistency of mishaps in the Bangladesh Sundarbans, including an oil spill, should set alarm bells ringing.

The Ganga’s waters feed and support 600 million people. Misguided engineering has already contributed to disastrous social and ecological outcomes (Farakka being just one case in point); mishaps and more engineering may just be the proverbial last straw that breaks this camel’s back.

One evening, after crisscrossing the river taking depth readings and becoming increasingly alarmed at the pronounced “W” of the channel we were in, we climbed an ancient granite outcropping in the middle of the Ganga. Squeezing between and clambering over rocks, half-climbing a tree to reach nearly 100 metres above the river for a bird’s eye view, we watched yet another day dissolve.

It is the last day of May. The waters of the Ganga should have started to rise by now. But the depth meter shows a lower value than two months before. Either there is less melt water this year, or whatever had come down from the Himalayas is impounded behind dams.

Holy water is to be had for cities (that can now be purchased online), water is channelled for farmers and sucked for power. What is left? No water. No fish. No livelihood. No dolphins.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.