On the eve of World Fisheries Day, twenty groups, eminent scientists and a member of National Board of Wildlife and National Tiger Conservation Authority have sent a letter to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and its expert appraisal committee on river valley and hydropower projects to take urgent steps for protection of inland water fisheries and millions dependent on them. The letter highlights how several species have been wiped out already and others are nearing extinction due to dams.
“It is time for a reality check of our inland water fisheries in general and riverine fisheries in particular,” warns the letter.
“Even waters categorised as derelict waters in statistics are not derelict to the community residing by its bank as these could be a source of nutrition for the poorer (sections of society),” the letter points out.
Parineeta Dandekar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People which is a singnatory to the letter told DNA, “These official figures could be a gross underestimation given the widely dispersed nature of inland fisheries production (unlike its marine counterpart which is largely landing-centre based) and also due to only big marketable species being counted.”
“The small indigenous varieties often considered to be trash (in market parlance) play a huge role in ensuring nutritional security of the poorest of the poor. The Indian inland waters are also home to 877 indigenous species of freshwater fishes and 113 species of brackishwater species,” she said.
“Though our inland waters are biodiversity-rich, supporting millions in terms of fisheries-based livelihoods and /or food (fish provides a cheap source of protein), this very environment is constantly under threat of depletion and degradation due to the changed land and water use pattern,in the name of development." she said, adding, "The major culprit as shown by an increasing number of studies, reports and local experience are the 5,100-plus large dams of India."
These dams, says the letter, hamper the water cycle by drying up rivers, changing hydrology, increasing sedimentation, concentrating pollution/ pollutants, etc. This blocks migration, destroys spawning grounds and spawning cues among other things, affecting fisheries and thereby fisheries-based livelihoods as well as the source of cheap nutrition for poor.
The letter also blames water pollution, overfishing and introduction of exotic species as adversely affecting freshwater fisheries.
Expressing shock that the fisherfolk are often not even considered for rehabilitation or compensation when affected by dams, the letter takes a dismissive view of the half-baked measures taken by the government.
“Efforts at mitigation see establishing of hatcheries by the Environment Management Plans of such projects. Effectiveness of such intervention is rarely assessed by MoEF or any credible agency. A credible baseline study on the biodiversity of the affected rivers is an imperative step prior to the approval of any projects, but that is not happening either as part of the Environment Impact Assessment nor are there any credible cumulative impact assessment and carrying capacity studies before approving multiple projects on the same river,” laments the letter.
Interestingly, though India is a signatory to Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a huge loss of its aquatic biodiversity in general and fish biodiversity in particular continues unabated. Both the CBD and National Biodiversity Authority haven’t been able to address the problem.
Lashing out at the government for not monitoring the compliance of environmental laws, the environment management plan or the conditions of clearances, the letter asks why the MoEF has become a mute bystander even as several dams have being sanctioned in bio-diverse areas without proper appraisal and well-researched mitigation measures such as fish ladders, fish passes or environmental flow (e-flow) regimes.
The letter asks why Fisheries Management Plans hinge on setting up cost-intensive hatcheries and fish farms which do not always help local species and communities and whose efficacy on river biodiversity is entirely unassessed.
“Fisheries Departments are getting crores of rupees per dam as compensation and an additional amount for setting up hatcheries, so they are happily sanctioning more and more dams on hereto free-flowing rivers like in Himachal, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir and North East.”
The letter also takes on the EAC “for relying on entirely cooked-up and false” environment impact analyses (EIAs). “The comprehensive EIA for 200mw Gundia hydro-electricity project says that there are no endemic fish species in the region,” points out the letter which asks, “How could this be when more than six new fish species have been discovered just in the past six months alone?"
India is second in fisheries production in the world with a production recorded at 9.3 million tonnes (MT). 60% (5.8 MT) of the 9.3 MT is contributed by inland fisheries according to the FAO. Inland fisheries sector of India is not only a livelihoods provider (75% of 14.49 m fisherfolks are from the inland sector), but a crucial source of food/ nutritional security to millions of poor lining the banks of its 7 million hectares of inland water area including 45,000 km of rivers, 1.2 million hectares of floodplains, lakes and wetlands.
At least one river per state should be protected, no-go zones for dams and hydropower projects to conserve fish biodiversity.
Appropriately designed fish ladders and passes must be fitted to all existing barrages and dams where possible.
E-flow norms should be stringent, river and species specific. E-flow releases should happen preferably happen through fish passes and ladders, certainly not additional turbines.
The free-flowing distance of river between two dams in a cascade should be minimum 5km, not the current 1 or less than 1km.
Amend EIA notification 2006 to include dams for drinking water, industrial supply, embankments and hydro above 1mw to require clearances. Strong punitive action against shoddy EIA consultants submitting false reports.
Consider the rivers from an ecosystem perspective rather than just as a source of water or just considering a particular stretch of river.