Drying rivers of Madhya Pradesh: Narmada on the cusp of extinction with six big dams, sand-mining, pollution threatening its survival

Manish Chandra Mishra | Mar 7, 2019 | 5 min read


Dying Rivers of Madhya Pradesh: What dams, deforestation and illegal mining have done to the Narmada


Bhopal: Shrinking every year, the water level in the Narmada is now so low that during a bad season you can even cross the river bed on foot and that too near its origin.

“I crossed the river last year by walking with small kids. The river has dried at many places just near its source. The Narmada is dying day by day and the river linking projects will destroy the river completely," laments renowned activist Medha Patkar.

In 2018, Narmada had dried up at many places for the first time in hundreds of years.

One of the largest rivers of the Peninsula, Narmada rises near the Amarkantak range of mountains in Madhya Pradesh. The biggest water source for Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, it is the fifth largest river in India and the largest one in Madhya Pradesh.

With 6 big dams and power projects on it, the river has been facing environmental threats from illegal mining, deforestation, and now the river linking project.

Earlier, people displaced after dam projects used to face floods but now they are facing the problem of drought, Patkar adds.

Existential crisis

report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) has categorized the Narmada as one of six major river basins in the world facing an existential crisis. The report says that in 2017 the river faced water crisis and as a result, the Gujarat government had to stop using water from the Sardar Sarovar dam for irrigation.

Vinayak Parihar, another activist working to save the Narmada, explains, "The tributaries of Narmada are drying almost every year. Sand mining is the biggest threat."

The International Water Management Institute points out that the scarcity of water is due to the increasing dependency on the Narmada basin.

In February, a report released by the Madhya Pradesh Water Resources Department said over 28% of dams built on the Narmada Tapti river have almost dried up with less than 10% of water against its holding capacity.

Only 14 reservoirs out of 53 have over 90% of water. However, the two important dams on the Narmada — Bargi in Jabalpur and Indira Sagar Dam in Khandwa — are filled with 97% of its full tank level capacity.

The overall situation of water is also not good in the state as 71 reservoirs out of 241 have less than 10% of water as on February 28, says a report released by the state water resources department. Only 42 reservoirs have over 90% of water against its full capacity.

Water expert Vinod Sharma, who works on the conservation of Narmada river, raises his concern over the scarcity of water. "Narmada has never faced this kind of situation. Around 29 cities get water supply from the Narmada and almost every part of Madhya Pradesh gets irrigated from the river.”

“I saw the condition of the river near its source Dindori which is just 85 km away from Amarkantak. Dindori is facing a water crisis and the city does not get water every day. The situation will worsen in May-June this year. The river contains only 2% of water flow during summer which is an indication of the alarming situation.”

He is disappointed with the unscientific approach of sand miners and governments. "Dams are not good for rivers but we are still not demanding demolition the dams. It is important for development but what about river conservation? Sand mining is affecting the Narmada the most but the government is still allowing miners to use machines to dig near river banks,” argues the activist.

Vinod is disappointed over illegal deforestation. "The Narmada is not a glacier river, but the source of the river is a forest. A large chunk of the green area store rainwater and release it in the Narmada. Deforestation ruins its source and as a result, the crisis is here in front of everyone,” he adds.

The forest cover of Madhya Pradesh has been decreasing year by year. As per the latest report released by the Forest Survey of India, in 2017 the total forest cover of Madhya Pradesh was 77,414 sq km against 77,462 sq km in 2015, 77,700 sq km in 2011, and 1,35,785 sq km in 1991.

Pollution another headache

Another big challenge for the Narmada is the dumping of untreated industrial waste and civic sewage. A study conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) says that the 160-km-long flow of the river from Mandla to Bhedaghat and 80-km-long flow from Sethani Ghat to Nemawar are highly polluted. The CPCB has declared the entire stretch of the river flowing in MP’s Jabalpur district as polluted in its latest report.

"I found some pollutants, which can even cause cancer, in the Narmada during my research work. Although the number of pollutants is still not big it is an indication to save the river now,” points out IIT Delhi doctorate student Kartik Sapre.

All 41 tributaries of Narmada under threat

According to his study, all the 41 tributaries of Narmada are facing difficulties in survival. The water level of the river is at an all-time low, said Sapre, who is also associated with Narmada Samagra.

A white paper on Narmada river prepared by Vichar Madhya Pradesh has highlighted that there are 24 cities that discharge their polluted water without any treatment in the Narmada. A total of 102 nullahs have been discharging polluted water since years. The report also pointed out the use of chemical fertilizers in farmlands near the Narmada.

Sand mining is also one of the major factors responsible for the plight of the Narmada.

"Illegal sand minors are active in 28 districts of Madhya Pradesh. They use boats and pipeline to excavate sands from water, which is highly objectionable and an unscientific practice. The sand absorbs water and then recharges groundwater too. This practice is destroying the natural process of the river,” explains activist Vinayak Parihar.


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