- The proposed Pamba-Achankvoil-Vaippar link envisages diversion of water from Pamba and Achankovil rivers in central Kerala to Vaippar basin in Tamil Nadu. It is estimated that the project would result in irrigation benefit upto 91,400 hectares of agrarian land in the drought-prone districts of Tirunelveli, Virudhunagar and Thoothukudi.
- It is among the thirty river linking projects identified by the central government. The Tamil Nadu government has urged the central government to take it up under the National Perspective Plan as in the case of Ganga rejuvenation project.
- The project is expected to submerge about 2,000 hectares of virgin forest area apart from causing irreparable damages to the backwater agricultural region of Kuttanad in Kerala’s Alappuzha district. It is also expected to impact job security of about 500,000 fish workers.
Effluent carrier of the Sivakasi-Virudhunagar-Toothukudi industrial belt in southern Tamil Nadu, Vaippar now looks almost like a river on a deathbed. Numerous chemical factories dot both banks of the east-flowing river along with units involved with printing, matchbox production and firecracker manufacturing.
Despite the existence of stringent laws, the waste from these factories is directly disposed into the river. In addition, untreated sewage from all the urban conglomerates of Virudhunagar and Thoothukudi districts of Tamil Nadu are making their way into the river every day.
“Four decades ago, when rapid industrialisation started sweeping Sivakasi and its surroundings, the river (Vaippar) was the lifeline of the region and its pristine waters had mesmerised the local agrarian community. It was our pride. Now, the river looks stagnant with chemicals and filth … it no more supports our agriculture,” said K.S. Vanchinathan, a 78-year-old farmer who lives on the banks of the river on the outskirts of Sattur town of Virudhunagar district.
Another farmer, 64-year-old P. Muthupandi, while watching the river from the newly built bridge across the river at Sattur, points out that the colour of the river is thick green. He said algae formation because of stagnancy of water might have been the reason for the green colour.
Will there be any possibility for the river to regain its lost glory? The question made both Muthupandi and Vanchinathan optimistic and they both had no doubt about the implementation of the long-awaited Pampa-Achankovil-Vaippar river linking project sooner or later.
For them, the situation is quite conducive for the implementation of the project as the central government has already made inter-linking of rivers one of its major focus areas. River interlinking was one of the major promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its manifesto before the 2019 parliament elections.
Even the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led government in Tamil Nadu has river interlinking as its top priority. Even the opposition leaders in Tamil Nadu are in support of the project. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader K. Kanimozhi, who is also Thoothukudi’s elected representative to Lok Sabha (parliament ) has also declared it as her prime agenda.
“The project was on the back-burner for long because of stringent opposition from Kerala government. However, the centre has assured Tamil Nadu that it would pressurise Kerala to share the excess waters of Pampa and Achankovil with the project and now steps are on the right track. We are hopeful that the project would be a reality in another one decade,” M.S.R. Rajavarman, a member of Tamil Nadu’s legislative assembly from Sattur told Mongabay India.
“As far as we are concerned, waiting for a consensus with a non-consenting neighbouring state would only delay the implementation of the project,” Rajavarman added.
The link is one among the 30 river linking projects proposed by the central government and it also comes under the peninsular river development component, which comprises of 16 river linking projects of top priority. Tamil Nadu government has already urged the centre to take up the project under the National Perspective Plan as in the case of Ganga rejuvenation project.
While the project enjoys a lot of support in southern Tamil Nadu, there are serious apprehensions in Kerala about its possible environmental and livelihood impacts.
Serious environmental impact of the project
As per the data of the Tamil Nadu government’s irrigation department, the Pamba-Achankvoil-Vaippar link proposal envisages diversion of 634 million cubic metres of water from the surplus water available in Pamba and Achankovil rivers in central Kerala to the deficit Vaippar basin in Tamil Nadu. Benefits from this proposal include irrigation to 91,400 hectares of agrarian land in the drought-prone districts of Tirunelveli, Virudhunagar and Thoothukudi apart from the generation of peaking power of 500 megawatts (MW) through a pumped storage scheme.
The proposed project aims at constructing three dams in Kerala – a 150-metre high concrete dam on Pamba at Kallar, 160-metre high concrete dam on Achankovil River at Punnamedu and a 35-metre high concrete gravity dam on Achankovil River at Kottavasal. Tunnels across forests in the Western Ghats would interconnect the dams. The tunnels would then be linked with a canal with an estimated length of 50.68 kilometres to take waters to Alagar Odai, a tributary of Vaippar River.
“Water sharing is always a bone of contention between the two neighbouring states. If the union government gives unilateral green signal to the project, that would aggravate the ongoing strife,” Thiruvananthapuram-based environmental expert S. Faizy told Mongabay-India.
“The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has already stated that the project on its implementation would divert 634 million cubic metres of water from Pampa and Achankovil to Tamil Nadu. Water availability in both the rivers is depleting fast due to climate change and Kerala’s requirements are now increasing. Moreover, the environmental cost of the project with many new dams and numerous underground tunnels would be heavy. The construction activities will have to be undertaken in some crucial parts of Western Ghats,” Faizy cautioned.
However, Tamil Nadu legislator Rajavarman stated that irrigation and increased agricultural activities would help improve employment opportunities and that would facilitate the general prosperity of the people in the entire Vaippar river basin. “The environmental cost would be very meagre while comparing with the perceived gains,” he said.
Sivakasi-based agriculture researcher R. Chokkar said that Kerala is blowing the environmental impacts out of proportion.
“The project aims at simply transferring water from surplus basins to water-deficit basins. The surplus water from the two rivers will also benefit the dried-up streams of southern Tamil Nadu like Nichibanadhi, Kamba, Alagalar, Kottamalaiar, Kal Odai, Uppu Odai, Solapuram Odai and Kayalkudi Idai. This project involves minimal submergence of land in Kerala. Diversion of water will be largely by gravity and there will be an increase in power production. Above all, it will guarantee 150 million cubic metres of water for Kerala during lean periods,” Chokkar told Mongabay-India.
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Has Kerala delayed the project?
According to Tamil Nadu government officials, the river linking project was delayed so far because the central government waited for Kerala to give its consent. The feasibility report for the project was completed long ago in 1995 by the National Water Development Authority (NWDA).
Tamil Nadu claims that the project will utilise just 20 percent of the surplus flow in the Achankovil and Pamba rivers. It was because of the pressure exerted by the then J. Jayalalithaa-led Tamil Nadu government on the union government that the NWDA did the feasibility report for the project in 1995.
When contacted by Mongabay-India, Kerala’s Water Resources Minister K. Krishnankutty said that the state government has already taken precautionary measures to prevent implementation of the controversial project, which according to him is a lurking environmental disaster.
“If implemented, it would adversely affect the environmental equilibrium of the highly vulnerable low lands of Kuttanad backwater region in Alappuzha district. The Vembanad lake ecosystem with high biodiversity importance would be badly affected if the project gets implemented,” said Krishnankutty.
N.K. Sukumaran Nair, who is the general secretary of Pampa Parirakshana Samithi said that the “claim of the NWDA about excess waters in Pampa and Achankovil rivers is absolutely wrong.”
“The Pampa river stretch between the famous pilgrim centre Sabarimala and Aranmula town is witnessing an acute scarcity of water for more than 180 to 200 days every year. Only the tailrace water from the Sabarigiri hydel project is the remaining relief to river Pampa. The flow in Achankovil too has reduced significantly in recent years and it remains almost dry during the summer months,” Nair said.
According to K.G. Padmakumar, director of International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming, the Vembanad lake ecosystem depends fully on the floodwaters of Pampa and Achankovil rivers.
“Construction of dams and diversion of water will destroy the already vulnerable system. The salinity of the lake doubles during summer months causing hardship to farmers who use the water for irrigation. If the flow of river water to the backwater region decreases, it will spell doom for the entire agriculture in the region,” said Padmakumar.
He explained that the river linking project could create extreme water scarcity in Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts, affecting three million (30 lakh) people.
The number of annual pilgrims to Sabarimala comes around fifty million (five crore) and they all are dependent on Pampa. Nair said that the level of pollutants in the Pampa is already high because of the increasing number of pilgrims and the linking will make the situation worse. He said besides the impact on the lake and river, the temple would get affected too.
According to Kerala officials, the estimated cost of the project is Rs 25.88 billion (Rs 2,588 crore) as per the 2000-01 estimates and it would be much higher if the project is implemented now. All the proposed three reservoirs will submerge 2,000 hectares of virgin forest. In addition, forest land extending to 10 square kilometres in Konni and Achenkovil divisions (in Kerala) will be destroyed.
In the Kuttanad region alone, Pampa waters are purifying the Vembanad Lake and support paddy cultivation worth 125,000 (1.25 lakh) tonnes twice a year.
“Once the flow gets reduced, the depositing of sediments and intrusion of saline water will destroy agriculture of the whole region. In addition, more than 500,000 (five lakh) inland fishermen will be rendered jobless. Drinking water supply in many parts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha districts will get affected,” said K.V. Thomas, former head of the Coastal Process Group of the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
“Tamil Nadu is pressuring the centre to unilaterally implement the project. But we will not allow its implementation without addressing the ground realities. River linkage would not be any solution to the water needs of both states. We have to find alternatives,” said Krishnankutty.
Banner image: River Vaippar at Sattur town. Photo by K.A. Shaji.