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Climate change in Western Ghats to hit water supply

The warning comes in a report titled ‘Water Section Options for India in a Changing Climate,' which was published on the eve of World Water Day

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Climate change in Western Ghats to hit water supply
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It’s bad news for all – from farmers to policymakers. Yields of tea, coffee and cardamom from high altitude plantations in the Western Ghats are falling because of the changing regional climate. Worse, the region is likely to see a 1.7-1.8 degrees C rise in temperature by 2030. Rainfall may increase in most parts, but the number of rainy days will go down. If that is not all, sediment yield is on the rise with the increasing intensity of rainfall.

The warning comes in a hardhitting report ‘Water Section Options for India in a Changing Climate’, published on the eve of World Water Day by the New Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP).

“What this means is that for the overwhelming number of people staying in the 63 districts of six states from Gujarat to Kerala, protecting natural forests that can help retain the precipitation to make it available in rest of the year is crucial. Creating small local reservoirs where possible and protecting them where they exist should also be part of the strategy,” said Himanshu Thakkar, convenor of SANDRP.

That is why the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP) are important for water, livelihood, food, energy and environment security of the people in a changing climate, not only for those residing in specific Western Ghats locations, but also for the people of the larger region whose rivers originate in this region, says Thakkar.

The SANDRP report points out a contributing number for the crisis that is looming large on 245 million people living in peninsular India: increasing drought, lowering soil and atmospheric moisture, degradation of the surrounding forests, changing rainfall pattern and intensity, drying up of forest streams after the rains and drier soils.

Latha Anantha and S Unnikrishnan of the River Research Centre in a case study on ‘Forest – Agricultural Plantation Settings in the Western Ghats’ point out, “Global and regional climate change is a reality we have to face. However its ramifications for different sectors are just evolving. Since they are cultivated in high altitude, high rainfall, high humidity and congenial temperature regimes, plantation crops like tea, coffee and cardamom were rarely irrigated. The changing climate is altering all that.”

The Western Ghats have witnessed drastic landscape changes in the last 200 years – mostly because of the cash crops plantations. Now, it is these very plantations which are having to face the brunt of the changing climate. In the Coorg region, some areas have already seen rainfall drop by one-third – from 106 inches per year to 70 inches.

Coffee and tea growers are already under pressure due to climate change. Many crops are near their thermal limit, and even a slight change in average annual temperature could not only disrupt flowering, but even halt it entirely. Coffee growers who had never given a thought to irrigation in such a wet climate have had to dig deep, high-volume wells, lowering the water table in the region.

The attitude of the authorities towards the Western Ghats too should raise eyebrows. The Government of India’s Climate Change Action Plan (National Action Plan on Climate Change, NAPCC) has not considered sustaining Western Ghats Ecosystems as one of its missions. The Sectoral and Regional Assessment Report of the Indian National Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA), however, has tried to assess the climate change impacts on water and agriculture in the Western Ghats region. Along with the Himalayas, the North Eastern region and the Coastal plains, the report recognises the Western Ghats as one of the four climatically important regions in India.

Parineeta Dandekar, also with SANDRP, looks closer at the issue in the backdrop of climate change. She points out, “More than 200 mini-hydel power plants have been planned on rivers and streams of Karnataka, many of which are fraudulent schemes, only to escape environmental clearances and lap up the carbon credits through the CDM Mechanism. Such projects are causing damage to the water and ecological security. Large hydro projects like Gundia and Athirapally are being pushed despite local protests and flouting laws like the Forest Rights Act and the Forest Act.

The WGEEP report, in fact, categorically states that no diversion of rivers or streams should allowed for power projects. And if some exist already, those should be stopped immediately. In case of the Gundia and Athirapally projects, the panel has recommends that “Ministry of Environment and Forests should refuse environmental clearance to these two projects. WGEEP further notes that the process of proper assignment of rights under the FRA has not been completed in either of the areas and therefore it is quiet improper to accord environmental or forest clearance to any of these projects.”

Most interventions need to focus on the upper catchment areas. , say Anantha and Unnikrishnan. There is where the cue lies – the Western Ghats form the catchment area for a complex of rivers and streams, including the east-flowing rivers like Cauvery, Krishna and Godavari.

 If the Western Ghats are in trouble, the water crisis plaguing Bangalore now would be a dream compared to the nightmare that might hit the city 20 years from now.

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