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This is the ninth story in a series of articles launched by Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.

“Who are you to report this?”

When a 13-year old Parineeta Dandekar called up local officials to report that she had spotted a dead buffalo near a polluted area of the Godavari river, this was the response she got. Perplexed, Dandekar turned to her father, who had encouraged her to bring this to their notice. In a calm tone, her father said, “tell them that you are a concerned citizen.” Even at that young age, she understood the power of those words.

Parineeta Dandekar continues to keep an eye on our rivers, but today when she reports an issue, not many authorities ask her who she is. Dandekar is the Associate Coordinator for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) – an advocacy group that focuses on raising awareness and sharing relevant information about river-related infrastructures and policy issues. Born and raised in the city of Nashik, Maharashtra, along the banks of the Godavari, rivers have been an integral part of her life from a young age. When it came to deciding what she wanted to do for a career, there really was only one answer.

Dandekar holds a Masters degree in Environmental Science from Pune University, a Diploma in Integrated Water Resources Management from Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, and a Certificate Course in Integrated River Basin Management from the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and Hohai University, China. She is the recipient of the JWH Environmental Leaders Fellowship by the Joke Waller-Hunter Initiative, Netherlands. In 2018, she was also awarded the Vasundhara Mitra Award for her contributions towards river conservation and rejuvenation. Dandekar is driven by her passion for seeing better water policies established in the country, a fact that becomes clear within minutes of conversing with her. She seamlessly steers the conversation from latest reports about a river to the etymology of its name and its references in our historical texts, giving a swift overview of its overall significance.

In this interview, Parineeta Dandekar talks about the reality of our dams and why we need better metrics to measure our dam performances and the impacts on our river ecosystems.

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Parineeta Dandekar is the Associate Coordinator for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) – an advocacy group that focuses on raising awareness and sharing relevant information about river-related infrastructures and policy issues. Photograph courtesy Parineeta Dandekar

How did your journey with SANDRP begin, and what are some of the main objectives of the organisation? 

After my Masters, I took up a job with Gomukh Environmental Trust and began working on the Bheema River Basin in Maharashtra. It exposed me to the challenges of working on water-related issues. Additionally, my Diploma was a rigorous one, and it jolted me to the reality of what is at stake. I realised that advocacy work involves outcomes that are way beyond your expected timelines. In the meantime, I got in touch with Himanshu Thakkar, founder of SANDRP. I was very impressed by the extremely analytical and cutting-edge reports that SANDRP was producing. In January 2010, Himanshu, the late Dr Latha Anantha – who was also a river activist – and I conducted the first civil society workshop for Environmental Flows (flow provisions made within a river to maintain ecosystems) at the national level. That was a fantastic experience for me, and I had a great time working with them. It was so refreshing to work on something without having an academic compulsion or the compulsion of greater media visibility. I started working with SANDRP right after that.

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 In picture; the Karli River, Sindhudurg, Maharashtra. Photograph: Parineeta Dandekar

SANDRP is basically an advocacy organisation. We are an extremely small group of five people right now, but we are also supported by a network of well-wishers and volunteers who share our vision. What we do is monitor decision making processes around rivers and their infrastructure within the country and the subcontinent, as we share river basins with neighbouring countries. The real objective is, and I know this is in our tagline, but I think it best conveys what we do – working as if democracy, participation and transparency matter. SANDRP came to be as we don't have many such organisations in the country and we do need them. We need people who will analyse decisions and document how they impact communities, the environment, ecology and the economy. Whether the impacts are good or bad, we need to understand them and learn from them. That’s what we do. 

Our policies focus on dams to help alleviate the water crisis, but a recent report by Economic & Political Weekly shows that by 2050, almost 4000 large dams in India will be 50 years old or more. What is the significance of this finding?

The lifetime of a dam is a very interesting concept. There are no fixed rules on what would be the end of a dam – so to speak. As you know, some of the dams built on the Cauvery are extremely old and they are still functioning – the Grand Anicut dam on the Cauvery is one of the oldest dams in the world. If we are paying attention to dam safety and dam operations, both of which are very important parameters, and the dam is functioning well, then the age of the dam is not really a concern. But if we don't have these monitoring systems in place, then even a new dam is a liability. Consider the case of the Tivare Dam in Maharashtra which was hardly 25 years old when it collapsed or the Panshet Dam which collapsed in 1961 when it was under construction. So dam safety and age is a complex mixture and what it really boils down to is transparent monitoring of the systems that we have put into place.

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The Grand Anicut dam on the Cauvery  is one of the oldest dams in the world. Photograph courtesy Wikimedia, by user Beckamrajeev under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Why is this important? Because we have so many dams. We are the third-largest dam-building country in the world. Our definition of large dams, which is also the international definition, is a dam that is taller than 15 m in height. Now if you start accounting for the smaller dams, then we will be the dam-nation of the world. On paper, we do have systems in place for monitoring dams, but how do we know that these systems are being implemented, and what can people do if it is not happening. In the case of the Tivare dam, for example, people were petitioning about leaks from the dam for almost two years before the actual collapse happened. In the Konkan region, where the rivers are swift and fast, there are several dams which are leaking; the spillway is cracked and people are worried. Even if there are safety protocols in place, how do they translate to on-ground implementation? The Tivare dam mishap happened last year, and we still don't know all the details. The reports are not available to the public. All this needs to be discussed and not just the age. 

Do we actually invest in studies to see if the dams we build are having a beneficial impact?

Our approach so far has been solving our water problems by building bigger and larger surface water bounding systems like dams. But the reality of the matter is that our irrigation and drinking water supply depend on groundwater. This has been our reality for a very long time, and it will be our reality for the distant future. What you have just asked me is the heart of the issue. We are spending thousands of crores on large water infrastructures over the years, but these infrastructures have come at not just a high economic price, but also at a high social and environmental price. We have displaced millions of people and lakhs of hectares of forest area has been sacrificed for these structures. But we do not have systems in place that compare goals and objectives when a particular dam was sanctioned with what is happening today. This is not an academic or an advocacy exercise – it is a very practical exercise to see how your investment is functioning and what can be the scope for improvement. There are no such studies by the people who build these dams. At SANDRP, we have done a few studies, and I would like to highlight some of the findings to show how they can help in informed decision-making.

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The proposed Par-Tapi-Narmada Link project in Maharashtra would submerge nearly 7500 hectares of land, including 3572 ha forestland, and would affect more than 35,000 tribals. Pictured here is a village in the Par Nar Basin, which would be affected by the project. Photograph: Parineeta Dandekar

Most of the water that is impounded in dams is meant for irrigation; although, now increasingly for urban water use and industry use as well. Irrigation takes place through canal networks. When we looked at the actual area irrigated by major and minor canal systems in the country, we found that since 1995, this area is decreasing. This is a constant decline and not an aberration. One of the major reasons for this is that canal-based irrigation does not happen in most cases. Canals are just not built and water which is supposed to irrigate a larger area and a variety of crops gets used up in a smaller area for water-intensive crops like sugarcane. Benefits of the stored water go to a smaller number of people who are more powerful. We are favouring the powerful over and over again at the cost of people who never have access to water. 

The fact is that about 70 per cent of our agricultural land is irrigated using groundwater – it may be more. Groundwater withdrawal has been going up since the pump revolution started. We have pumped so much groundwater that we are now the highest groundwater users in the whole world. Isn’t it ironic that we are spending thousands of crores on surface irrigation systems while spending next to nothing for replenishing groundwater? Basically, we need to analyse and understand the outcomes of our actions. Without doing so, we are bloating the benefits and the actual results lead to unsustainable systems.

You have been vocal in the past about environmental flow assessments for rivers. How can this tool be utilised for making informed decisions, and where are we failing with it?

Let’s first understand how environmental flows or e-flows work. There are policies in place for building a dam, but there are no policies that say rivers should have water in them. A dam can completely dry out a river downstream, and on paper, this is fine. E-flows were brought in to ensure this does not happen. It instructs that a dam should release water downstream of the river for the ecosystem, and for the social and cultural aspects of the river. The concept has been evolving over the last 25 years or so. We have been emphasising this concept because the flow is the pulse of a river, the way you distinguish a river from any other water body.

It is amazing to see how cultures, traditions, folklore, poets, and writers have intuitively understood this concept. I have said this many times before, the word Ganga originates from the Sanskrit phrase which means ‘that which flows’. If you take the word Nadi (river in Hindi) – the root of the word is naad or sound; a body of water that makes noise while flowing. Similarly, Reva which is another word for the Narmada, originates from the word rava – which means sound. This is everywhere! The flow also dictates the ecosystem around the river – the phytoplankton, the zooplankton and the riparian vegetation – all of it comes from this component. So, when a flowing system is converted to a stagnant system it has a tremendous impact on all these accompanying benefits. It is true that not all rivers flow all the time. But the essential point is, we need to consider e-flows, but we have to do it in the right manner. 

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Aghanashini is one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in India and also, the world. Arising in Sirsi town in the Western Ghats in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, Aghanashini flows for about 117 kms to meet the Arabian Sea at Tadadi. Photograph: Abhay Kanvinde

These methodologies have been developed in other countries, and their dependence on rivers is different from ours. We need to have systems in place based on our social, cultural and economic interaction with rivers. Consider the proposed Etalin Hydropower project in the Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh; the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) has said that just 10 per cent of the summer flow is enough for the Dibang river – a percentage that was arrived at by looking at a single fish species. Can you base the entire performance of a river on one species? Our systems and methodologies are ad hoc at best and even they are not being followed and monitored. In the case of the old dams, there are no flow provisions, to begin with. This is where we stand. The late Dr Latha Anantha and I had written a primer on this. 

At the same time, we also need to protect some of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in the country from further fragmentation. We have only a few left, and they aid us in understanding how rivers function. For example, the free-flowing River Simsang in Meghalaya with its unbelievable community of conserved fish sanctuaries integrates conservation and livelihood concerns. I have worked on a report on free-flowing rivers in South Asia and across the world, and it has been a fascinating experience for me.

SANDRP's report on the August 2019 Krishna basin floods shows the need for timely water release from our reservoirs and effective utilisation of catchment areas to prevent floods. We have also seen this concern arise with the Chennai floods. Could you talk more about that?

Our planning does not account for the river basin. It may be urban or rural planning; we do not look at how close to a river we should build infrastructure, how should the water be released; we do not consider warning systems and actual good operating systems for a dam release. In short, we do not account for the presence of natural systems in our development projects.

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The August 2019 Floods in Sangli and Kolhapur districts of Maharashtra proved to be historic, new High Flood Levels (HFL) were reached multiple times at multiple places. In picture; a resident of Shirol Taluka in Sangli shows how high up the floodwater reached. Photograph: Abhay Kanvinde

We do have regulations that dictate the appropriate distance from the river where buildings can come up in some states like Maharashtra, but they remain firmly on paper. The problem is that officials are hand in glove with the companies that build these infrastructures, so permissions are given left, right and centre for unsustainable projects. For example, the Pune Municipal Corporation itself built a road inside the Mutha Riverbed! The next thing that we need to consider is the rule curve of a dam. Rule curves are specific to each dam and they talk about how a dam should be filled and how the water should be released. If you look at all the dam-related disasters in 2019, the performance of the dam against its rule curve has not been made public. It was abysmal. Dams in Krishna Basin were filled nearly to their capacity in the first week of August itself. We cannot afford to do this when the climate is changing and extreme rainfall over a short period has become a repeated occurrence. We have to adapt and act. We need to make our dam operations transparent, and we need scientists and citizen groups to engage more and more with these real-time issues.  

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Situated at the confluence of Krishna and Panchaganga, floods are not new to Narsoba Wadi, near Kurundwad town of Kolhapur District. In the picture, you can see the 2019 flood Maximum Water Levels (MWL) marked by the Water Resources Department at the entrance arch of Narsoba Wadi. Photograph: Abhay Kanvinde

A few days back, one of the members of Maharashtra Flood Committee, Pradeep Purandare, resigned because even he was not given the rule curves of dams! His entire chapter on Reservoir Operations was omitted from a report on floods without giving a reason. This shows how strong the dam lobby is and how it resists any objective evaluation.

In your petition against the Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari Intrastate River Link project in Maharashtra, you reveal how the term 'surplus' is wrongly associated with the river basin from where excess water is diverted. How are river-linking projects devised, and how are these allocations made?

You have just asked me a question that a number of scientists and concerned individuals have been posing to the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), which is the apex agency that looks into river linking. A satisfactory answer has not been obtained.

However you look at it, no river basin is surplus or deficit through the year. In some cases, the same river is termed deficit in one state, and in the neighbouring state, it is designated as surplus and donates water to another linking project. There is no ecological basis for these terms. In the case of projects like Damanganga-Sinnar link, places where the dams are being planned, the so-called surplus areas, have the highest rates of child mortality and malnutrition in the state. The main reason for this is the lack of irrigation facilities. What we need to consider is access to water, and clearly these surplus regions do not have access. 

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"In the case of projects like Damanganga-Sinnar link, places where the dams are being planned, the so-called surplus areas, have the highest rates of child mortality and malnutrition in the state." Photograph: Parineeta Dandekar

The Mokhada region in this project, from where water is going to be transferred to a deficit region, used the highest concentration of water tankers last summer. It is inconceivable that a dam should be built here, displacing the tribals who are already suffering, and displacing water which is much needed. The water from Damanganga and Mokhada is planned to be directed to Sinnar, an industrial area in the state. This cannot be right. This is a clear case of water hegemony, and the labels are extremely misleading. In states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, river interlinking projects are only pushing more conflicts. I have travelled to the areas and have personally witnessed the impacts.

We (citizens) are often disconnected from the discussions at the policy level when it comes to water-related issues. How can we be better informed and partake in these discussions?

I am so happy that you brought this point up because it needs to be explored. First, I think it is important for people to know where their water comes from, and where it goes. Find out if you are connected to a centralised sewage system. You will be surprised to know that many are not. People should also try to visit the nearby sewage treatment plant and learn how it functions. Water governance in India is very confusing, so starting with the basics is important.

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"If we find our way back to understanding our rivers with a sense of unity, wonder and clear-eyed enquiry, it may lead us to a very different future." Pictured here is River Kumaradhara, a tributary of River Netravathi, in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Photograph: Parineeta Dandekar

Also, I think it is important for people to read the literature surrounding our rivers. Cauvery, for example, has so much going on – from Sangam Literature to Tyagaraja Krithis (devotional songs written by renowned music composer Tyagaraja), to even film songs. We tend to treat our rivers in silos – irrigation, hydropower, drinking water supply – but rivers are about so much more. Our literature has beautifully captured these nuances, and reading about it brings us closer to these ecological systems. In the last few years, I have tried to look at our astounding riverine literature from writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Advaita Mallabarman, and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, and our river songs. But there is so much more to explore. As a subcontinent, we are obsessed with our rivers. That does not always mean praise; it also means an empathetic observation and a feeling of oneness with the ecological system. This is by no means a small feat. If we find our way back to understanding our rivers with a sense of unity, wonder and clear-eyed enquiry, it may lead us to a very different future.