The following report is from Ashish Kothari of the New Delhi-based
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
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
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
Contents copyright ©1995-8
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