Ken Betwa Project: Water at Any Cost?

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The project impacts the tiger’s habitat and food security

The 14 districts of Bundelkhand region, stretching across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have always had a constant problem of water scarcity. The population has to buy water to survive the most difficult summer months. This is exacerbated by the gradual disappearance of 10,000 ponds that were once a calming source of water supply. State solutions never lasted. The water problems have combined with unpredictable power supply problems to create a double whammy for the fragile agricultural economy. Crops die prematurely from lack of irrigation. The Union Cabinet’s recent allusion to the Ken-Betwa River Interlinking Project has brought a new wave of optimism to the situation. The euphoria goes hand in hand with skepticism about the full impact of the initiative and the associated collateral damage. The project, with funding of Rs 44,605 ​​crore, is a New Year’s gift to Bundelkhand. It is scheduled to be completed in 8 years and will benefit the districts of Panna, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Sagar, Damoh, Datia, Vidisha, Shivpuri and Raisen in Madhya Pradesh and Banda, Mahoba, Jhansi and Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh. But after the study, published in The Current Science, titled “Linking rivers and biodiversity conservation: a study of the Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh,” the project’s environmental and wildlife costs appear to have lost excitement over the announcement of the project. This is compounded by the fact that the required environmental, forest and wildlife clearing for the project has not yet been properly carried out. According to the study report, the implementation of the project will flood nearly 58 square kilometers of the core area of ​​Panna Tiger Reserve. The Panna Tiger Reserve will be included in the Global Network of Biosphere Reserves by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2020 due to the worse times as it will result not only in habitat loss but also in loss of food security as the Project threatens the habitat of chital and sambar, the tiger’s natural prey. These setbacks to wildlife are in addition to the environmental impact of the loss of over 2 million trees that would either be felled or submerged. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the report, the soon-to-be-flooded area has rich tree density and diversity compared to other areas of the reserve. Furthermore, by observing the pattern of regeneration, it becomes clear that seedling diversity, richness and seedling density are high in the submerged area. Obviously, the experts approving the project could not overlook such widespread ecological and wild destruction, but nonetheless the project has received clearance.

The primary objective of the Ken and Betwa River Linking project is certainly human well-being, and that is remarkable, but the fact that the initiative is ignoring collateral damage to the environment and wildlife is worrying. The project architects would have done well to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project and make the EIA report public to accurately assess the perceived damage to the area’s flora and fauna due to the project implementation. Bundelkhand local people and environmental experts could also have been consulted before the project was green marked, which in turn would have shifted responsibility for the project to the local indigenous people. Bundelkhand needs a break from water shortages, but not at the expense of wildlife and the environment. There is still time to think about it before the project starts.

(The author is an environmental journalist. The views expressed are personal.)

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