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The aquaduct that has been built on the Kalasa river

Goa and Karnataka slug it out over water

Derek Almeida, Panaji

Published: Jan. 28, 2023
Updated: Apr. 28, 2023

NARAYAN Fatu Naik was the lone person wandering around near a gorge excavated at the village of Kanakumbi where the waters of the Kalasa, a tributary of the Mhadei are being diverted to the Malaprabha in Belgaum district in Karnataka.

Naik has lost 7.5 acres to the project. Other families have also lost their fields. But even as they seethe with anger a much bigger battle is taking place between Karnataka and Goa.

The Mhadei, which is also known as the Mandovi,  begins in Karnataka but flows into Goa. It is the lifeline of Goa. Diversion of the river has been a long-standing dispute with the decision of a tribunal awaited in August.

But in the meantime, Karnataka has gone ahead and diverted water from the Kalasa tributary, destroying local agriculture and biodiversity and bringing matters with Goa to a flashpoint.

“They paid me `18,000 per acre four years ago, part of which went to my lawyer,” laments Naik. But his loss is larger. Naik’s is one of the 30 families who have lost their land.

Naik and his brothers used to grow paddy as one crop. His fields would yield around 25 bags of grain per year. Today, these lands are covered with red soil dug up with excavators and farming is no longer an option.

Although Kanakumbi’s residents like Naik are in Karnataka, they are betting on Goa winning the ongoing legal battle before the Mhadei Water Disputes Tribunal in New Delhi. The last hearings have been completed and an order is expected by August when the term of the tribunal ends.

Unknown to Naik, a political skirmish between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress has fuelled a war of words and political brinkmanship over the Mhadei.

In December, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that the state was willing to share water with Karnataka for drinking purposes. The statement followed a letter (now public) by Parrikar to Karnataka BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa declaring his intent to share.

Parrikar’s statement came as a shock to the Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan (MBA), which has been opposing Karnataka’s plans to divert water for nearly a decade.

Says Rajan Kerkar, general secretary of the MBA, “Parrikar’s statement came as a surprise because he was instrumental in ensuring that the tribunal worked by offering it space at Goa Sadan in Delhi.”

As pressure mounted, Parrikar backtracked but Karnataka went ahead and blocked flow from the Kalasa tributary into Goa.

Kerkar is literally Goa’s sentinel on the state’s northern border. “I was the first person to reach Kanakumbi when work started in 2006 and clicked the first photo,” he recalls.

A lot of surreptitious work, being carried out by Karnataka, would have gone unnoticed if not for Kerkar. He was the first person to report on the blocking of the Kalasa tributary by Karnataka in total violation of the Supreme Court and tribunal’s orders.

Rajan Kerkar, general secretary of the Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan 

GENESIS OF THE CONFLICT: The fight over diversion of the Mhadei's water can be traced to 2000 when it became public that officials of the Karnataka government had met World Bank representatives on 15-17 June that year. Soon after, a letter by San Francisco-based Sierra Club followed. It urged the president of the World Bank not to fund the project without undertaking “the most rigorous scientific appreciation of this watershed’s unique and priceless biodiversity”.

Kerkar, who founded the Vivekananda Environment Awareness Brigade, was also part of the 1999 delegation which convinced the then Goa Governor J.F.R Jacob to notify the Mhadei and Netravalli wildlife sanctuaries. He was an environment witness for Goa at the water tribunal hearings.

As we walked along the edges of the deep gorge in Kanakumbi, Kerkar said, “The Kalasa river has been completely destroyed. Karnataka has dug up reserved forest areas to build a five-km underground conduit to divert water from the Kalasa and Haltara tributaries to the Malaprabha river. All this work was undertaken without clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the National Board of Wildlife or the Planning Commission”.

In 2009, Ravendra Kumar Saini, a former Army officer, filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court to stop work being carried out in forest areas. In 2013, the court ruled that since Karnataka had not obtained clearances from the Union Environment Ministry and the National Board of Wildlife all work in forest areas should stop. Karnataka claims that work is being undertaken in non-forested areas.

At stake in this legal battle is 7.56 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water which Karnataka wants to desperately transfer to the Malaprabha irrigation project which it claims is water deficient.

Both the Mhadei and the Malaprabha start in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats near Kanakumbi and are a few kilometres apart. While the Mhadei flows westward into Goa, the Malaprabha flows eastward to join the Krishna river.

 Karnataka claims that it requires water for the drinking needs of the twin cities of Hubbali and Dharwad. Goa rebuts this claim and alleges that the water is being acquired for irrigation as the twin cities can easily draw water from elsewhere. Goa is also strongly opposed to the diversion of water from one river basin to another. It is, however, not opposed to water being utilised by Karnataka within the Mhadei basin.

Justifying Goa’s stand against diversion of water, Kerkar says, “The Mhadei cannot be compared with the larger rivers that flow in other parts of the country. The Malaprabha has a length of 304 km and a catchment area that is five times that of Mhadei so both rivers cannot be treated in the same manner. Besides, the Mhadei is water deficient.”

The Mhadei is 111 km in length and its basin spreads over three states. About 1,580 sq. km. of the river’s basin lies in Goa, 375 sq. km. is in Karnataka and Maharashtra has only 76 sq. km.


RISING WATER DEMAND: So, what is Karnataka’s game plan? Karnataka’s initial demand was for 7.56 TMC which was to be achieved through the Kalasa nullah diversion and the Banduri diversion scheme. But it later added an additional requirement of 16.59 TMC to power the Kali diversion and Kotni hydropower diversion. This roughly translates to over 24 TMC which could prove detrimental to the Mhadei river and Goa.

The only way to acquire this much water was by building a series of dams across tributaries and nullahs feeding the Mhadei and using gravity to transfer the water to the Malaprabha river through underground aqueducts.

Work on the first dam across the Kalasa to divert 3.56 TMC is already underway. Two minor dams across the Haltara and Potli nullahs will augment water in the Kalasa reservoir. The Banduri tributary will be blocked with a dam to divert another 4 TMC of water.

First conceived in the 1960s, the Mhadei Hydro-electric Project was proposed with a dam at Kotni which would, in turn, be used to generate hydropower with a generating capacity of 320 MW.

Lastly, the Kalinadi Hydro Electric Project and the Katla and Palna Diversion Scheme envisage diversion of 5.527 TMC to the Supa reservoir.

“The Kalasa dam will have a height of 32.6 meters and a length of 340 meters,” explained Kerkar. “A second dam across the Haltara nullah at Chorla at a height of 33.6 metres and length of 200 metres is proposed. Water from there will be transferred to the Kalasa reservoir through a 1,180 metre open channel. This will result in a loss of 178 hectares of reserved forest in Kanakumbi, 14.58 hectares in Parwad and 64 hectares in Koda”.

Goa’s submissions before the tribunal mention that “at present, salt water ingress and tidal influence is felt almost 36 km upstream in the Mhadei. This corresponds to around 69 percent of the river’s length in Goa. A drastic reduction in fresh water flow is a sure invitation for near destruction of the river as tidal influence will advance significantly beyond Valpoi which is 40 km upstream.”

The Mhadei basin is also a biological hotspot. It is home to 240 varieties of birds, 40 of which are rare. So far, 40 species of mammals, 50 reptiles, 30 amphibians, 192 butterflies, 31 spiders, 22 fish, four scorpions and three crabs have been listed as endemic and rare varieties. This balance of wildlife is now under threat.

 Karnataka is desperate to draw water from the Mhadei because the decision to grow sugarcane has dramatically increased its need for irrigation. Agriculture here used to be rainfed and crops were different.

A study of hydrology and water allocation in the Malaprabha, carried out by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research in 2008, bolsters Goa’s claim of water mismanagement by Karnataka.

The Malaprabha catchment can be divided into three zones — upper catchment in the Western Ghats (Zone 1), middle catchment (Zone 2) and lower catchment near the dam (Zone 3). Almost 80 percent of the monsoon’s river flow is generated in Zone-1 while 60 percent of the post-monsoon runoff is generated in Zone-2 and Zone-3.

The report states, “Most of the water is extracted for irrigation in Zones 2 and 3, which were traditionally rainfed areas, but are now under extensive irrigation, thereby resulting in water scarcity in the area.”

The study further states that a 35 percent increase in water shortage is due to 56 percent conversion to sugarcane as a crop. It also found that, “an average 50 percent reduction in the intensity of water scarcity can be achieved with 56 percent reduction in the sugarcane area.”

In 2008, the total demand for irrigation in the Malaprabha basin was 832 MCM while drinking water demand was 53 MCM. The total water available for allocation at 100 percent efficiency is 563 MCM. Since then, demand for water has risen and water scarcity has become more acute.

The math is clearly not in favour of Karnataka. Ten years after construction of the Malaprabha dam, Karnataka realised that the dependable yield of the project had dropped from 44 TMC to 26.6 TMC.

 “The state government should have enforced demand side management and ought to have controlled water utilisation, giving highest priority to drinking. Instead, it promoted sugarcane and paddy which are water intensive,” says a statement made by Goa before the tribunal.

 The initial battle between the two states before the tribunal pertained to the Kalasa-Banduri projects and the drinking water requirements of Hubbali and Dharwad. While Karnataka referred to two inter-state meetings in 1996 and quoted the Deputy Chief Minister of Goa as saying that “it is a good project which will benefit both states”, it also did its best to put the drinking water needs of the twin cities at the top of the agenda. On this ground, it sought removal of the Kalasa-Banduri projects from the dispute before the tribunal.

Goa, on the other hand, wanted the tribunal to also adjudicate on whether the drinking water needs of the twin cities could be met from other reservoirs in the area.


MORE CLAIMS: An added complication to this dispute is the claim by Maharashtra, which is also constructing a dam across the Haltara nullah at Virdi. This nullah originates in Karnataka, enters Maharashtra near Virdi and after flowing for 6.6 km enters Goa to join the Valvanti river.

Maharashtra, in its submissions to the tribunal, agreed that the catchment area of the Haltara, which lies in Karnataka, almost entirely contributes to the flows in the nullah near the village of Virdi. The proposal by Karnataka to dam the Haltara would cut off flows in the post monsoon season and in summer. This would jeopardise water supplies to the inhabitants of Virdi.

Maharashtra has laid claims to 180 MCM and argued that in case diversion is allowed then Karnataka must be directed to maintain flows in the Haltara in the post-monsoon season.

Even as the three states battle it out, the village of Kanakumbi is a mute spectator. At this time of the year, the village should have been a picture of greenery. Instead, it is brown all over. The traditional village tank in front of the Maulidevi temple has collapsed. For a village which is totally dependent on agriculture, no one is certain what is in store for them. They continue to oppose the project, but with a population of 1,700, their voice is not loud enough to be heard in Bengaluru. 


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