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The following report is from Ashish Kothari of the New Delhi-based NGO Kalpavriksh.

IRRIGATION PROJECT THREATENS ENDANGERED MAMMAL

7 January, 1995

The Wild ass (Equus heminous khur), one of the world's most endangered mammals, is now under further threat from the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (SSP). The canals of the SSP are proposed to extend all around the last habitat of this mammal, the Rann of Kachchh, in western India. According to a recent study by the Wildlife Institute of India titled "Impact of Sardar Sarovar Proposed Canal Network Upon Wild Ass Sanctuary in Little Rann of Kachchh", commissioned by the project authorities, both this habitat and the Wild ass will be seriously threatened by the hydrological and vegetational changes which the canals will bring about.

Not surprisingly, though the report is dated June 1994, it appears to have been suppressed by the project authorities. It has not even been circulated to the members of the Environment Sub-group of the Narmada Control Authority, which officially monitors the various environmental aspects of the project.

The Wild ass is an endangered mammal, and is classified as such by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The current official population of this mammal is about 2000. This population is confined mostly to the Little Rann of Kachchh, a unique salt desert-wetland ecosystem which also contains several other rare species.

Though a large area of 4900 sq. km. of the Little Rann of Kachchh had been declared a wildlife sanctuary, the study by researchers from the Wildlife Institute found that the Wild ass mostly uses the fringes of the vast desert area, including the fallow and wasteland which abounds in the adjacent villages. This is precisely the habitat where irrigation will cause drastic landuse and vegetational changes, including conversion into permanent cultivation, replacement of native vegetation which is favoured by the Wild ass into unpalatable weed, and waterlogging/salinisation. In addition, the existing Wild ass movement between the Little Rann of Kachchh and the Great Rann (to its north), where a small population of the species exists, will be cut off, "causing genetic isolation". All these factors, says the study, "would have dire consequences for the long-term survival of the species".

In addition to a threat to the Wild ass, the study reports that "considerable wildlife habitat will be lost" along some stretches of the command area. The Rann of Kachchh is a unique salt desert and wetland ecosystem, not found anywhere else in the world, and several species have adapted to its harsh conditions. Threatened species such as the Wolf (Canis lupis), Houbara bustard (Chlamydolis undulata), and Lesser florican (Sypheotides indica) will also be adversely affected by the canals. The report states that such impacts "have already been observed in the command areas of the Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan".

Finally, the researchers also found that "the livelihood of the transhumant pastoralists, particularly the Bharwar community, will be seriously influenced", as grazing pastures and migratory routes will be drastically altered by the canals.

The report has recommended the abandonment of the branch canal which borders the Rann of Kachchh to the south, as also shortening of several other branch canals which approach the Rann from the east. This will mean a reduction of 8.6% of the total command area of the project. Not only will this again bring into question the already doubtful economic viability of the project, but it will also undermine the official justification that the project will bring freshwater to the drought-prone areas of the Kachchh and Saurashtra.

Noting that there are serious information gaps in the impact assessment of the SSP command, the researchers have recommended a number of other studies over a period of two years, especially on the impact on biodiversity. During this time, they have categorically stated that no work should be initiated on the SSP command in this area.

Considerable controversy has already been generated by the ecological, social, and economic implications of the Narmada project. This report has now cast further doubts on the claim of the SSP authorities that the project is environmentally and socially viable and desirable. Ironically, the project authorities have claimed in their various publications, that the intrusion of "copious amounts of freshwater" will benefit wildlife in and around the command area. These statements were obviously not based on any scientific assessment, but rather on mistaken assumptions that freshwater inputs are necessarily good for any ecosystem or species. What the Wildlife Institute of India report shows is that, for ecosystems which are essentially saline, and for species which are adapted to such ecosystems, such inputs can be highly detrimental.

Globally, as also in India, there is increasing concern about the way in which humanity is pushing other species to extinction. A considerable part of this happens unwittingly. Here is a case, however, where we are knowingly causing the extinction of the Wild ass, for such is the implication of the Wildlife Institute report when it says that there will be "dire consequences of the long-term survival of the species".

The damage has not yet been done; the canals are still to be built. Before it is too late, they must be stopped from threatening the Rann of Kachchh and its unique, endangered wildlife.

Reported by Ashish Kothari
Kalpavriksh, C17/A Munirka, New Delhi 110067, India



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