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Inland Waterways: A Threat To Aquatic Life, Communities Dependent On Rivers?

Are Inland Waterways worth the benefits in the form of trade, tourism, etc. or are they more harm to the aquatic life, environment, and people than good?

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waterway work

The development of inland waterways are profitable to sectors: trade, tourism, etc. The Government of India is developing National Waterway (NW) 1 running on Ganga from Haldia to Varanasi with assistance from World Bank, as per Shipping Ministry. More than 50 operators are moving cargo on National Waterway-1 alone including integrated movements on NW-1, Indo-Bangladesh Protocol route and NW-2 (on Brahmaputra river), as per Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI). However, the entire endeavor has been argued to come at cost to environment. River water pollution due to oil spillage, damage to aquatic life are primary concerns.

Building new inland water systems require dredging river beds making waters muddy – a possible threat to aquatic ecosystems. Dr. Brij Gopal, Coordinator at Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia National Institute of Ecology, says, “Dredging of rivers, like Hooghly, happen on a regular basis. It not only affects the species but can possibly change the courses of rivers.” The inland water-transportation is not something new. It was there even before Brits arrived in India though under their rule waterways received little attention. With the building of NW-1 and other waterways, the nature and magnitude of implications have to be enquired from fresh.

Dr. Jitendra Nagar, Founder and Secretary at Environment and Social Development Association (ESDA), says, “The ships passing through the inland waterways create huge vibration and sound that severely affects fishes, vertebrates, and insects.” “The aquatic species are very sensitive and either die or they migrate on a large scale, hampering their habitat from inland water traffic,” Dr. Nagar further adds. More water traffic can lead to more accidents, river pollution, and oil spillage. Rajendra Singh, well-known water conservationist and environmentalist also known as “Waterman of India”, says, “The transportation through waterways bring pollution and affects the gene-pool, diversity, and threat to endangered species. So it is surely not good for nature.”

In response to the above claims, the IWAI propounded that a detailed Environmental Assessment has been undertaken as per Environmental and Social Safeguards Policy of the World Bank, who is providing financial support. As per IWAI, only after a thorough Environment Management Plan (EMP) that the Wildlife Clearance for navigation through the Kashi Turtle Sanctuary, Varanasi; Coastal Regulation Zone clearance for Multi Modal Terminal at Haldia has been granted. Environment friendly enhancements were incorporated such as ‘cleaner’ vessels that follow international standards for waste-water discharge, efficient fuel system, ‘zero-discharge’ infrastructure, quoting IWAI.

Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) Agreement holds for the use of waterways for trade commerce between the two neighboring countries. River Kosi has been declared as National Waterway (NW-58) which will provide scope for Nepal’s connectivity to Bay and Bengal through India’s Inland Waterways. It is not unlikely that India will be exploring more of those in the future. Should Indian government be walking along those lines?

Singh says that pact with Bangladesh is not a problem because Bangladesh wants to build water transportation on their rivers which have huge quantity of water. “However, the rivers in India are mostly dry and inland waterways on rivers with less water is not appropriate,” says Singh. The question arises, which rivers in India are apt for inland waterway system? Singh says that mostly Brahmaputra and Ganga are the major rivers that have enough water at the lower levels. “The main environmental issue with the inland waterways is that of dilution of the water. And, the rivers in India are unable to handle the dilution,” Singh adds.    

Dr. Nagar says, “60 per cent of the rivers have become seasonal which remain dry for the rest of the year. So having inland waterways on these rivers would be deeply problematic.” Though IWAI has discredited any such figure and states that 72 million tons of cargo are already on the move on National Waterways in India.

There is another view that we ourselves have created all the issues that our rivers are facing. Dr. Rajiv Sharma, Professor at Dept. of Ocean Engineering, IIT Madras, says, “We always had some form of transportation through rivers. The fact is we have allowed our rivers to die down because of deep encroachment.” “If properly undertaken the inland water system will be successful,” Dr. Sharma ads.

The inland waterways also said to put the lives of fishermen and agrarian communities at risk who are dependent on rives for their livelihood. People involved with small businesses and trade by the rivers will find it difficult to adapt with the changing economic activities in the area due inland waterways. Singh says, “The livelihood of fishermen and people who are dependent on rivers are threatened due to inland waterways.” “If at all they are to be built there must be balance between them and the habitat with the inland water system,” Singh adds.

“If it affects the livelihood significantly, the alternative livelihoods support is necessary,” says Dr. Debashis Mondal, Senior Scientist at Indian Association of Soil and Water Conservations. According to IWAI, advocacy and outreach initiatives among communities living alongside river Ganga has been held to address their concerns. However, how far those initiative are successful there is a need for a detailed study. Dr. Nagar adds to the issues, “Government should instead build artificial canal system, like Suez Canal for instance. It will also help with the irrigation system of the area.” “Canal system is very resourceful. We have to make India non-reliant on monsoon so that we can avail the benefits of waterways throughout the year,” adds Dr. Sharma. 

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