Residents, activists claim new Goa airport construction has impacted water availability

Image shows a man standing on a bridge with a small stream flowing by
  • Local residents of North Goa routinely face water shortages that they allege is due to the airport construction on the Barazan plateau.
  • The geology of the plateau, with laterite rock below ground surface facilitates groundwater recharge. Through an intricate web of perennial springs and rivulets, the plateau would supply drinking water round the year to over 7,000 residents of six villages situated in close proximity to what is now the airport.
  • An increase in diversions of water from local reservoirs to the airport is further threatening the water security of citizens.

Every morning, Uday Mahale turns on his bathroom faucet to freshen up and he notices that it is still running dry. A farmer and taxi driver by profession, Uday has grown up in Mopa village, located in Goa’s northernmost Pernem taluka (sub-division) of North Goa district. “For generations we have lived here and never had any water problems,” he says. “However, now, we do not get water for several days in a row.” He blames the new Mopa airport for this situation.

Constructed over 9.19 square kilometres (2,271 acres) of the Barazan plateau, spanning across six villages of Pernem, the Manohar International Airport has been at the centre of discussion since it was first proposed in the year 2000. Local residents have consistently opposed its construction, fearing destruction of dense forests of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world.

In addition to perceived threats to the environment, allegations of illegalities in the land acquisition procedure have led to several agitations by local communities since 2008. Thereafter, discrepancies in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure, led to continued protests and a slew of litigations against the project. “The EIA Reports prepared for the project said that there was not a single tree in the area, not a single person who lived here,” said Abhijeet Prabhudessai, an activist associated with the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, an umbrella organisation comprising various Goa-based social interest groups. The omissions in the primary EIA Report were observed by the Supreme Court, who set aside the Environment Clearance given to the airport and ordered a reassessment in 2019. The second EIA Report prepared thereafter, included four rivers, 42 reserve forests, two wetlands, mangroves and 10 ecologically sensitive areas notified by the MoEF&CC, as per the Kasturirangan Committee. The re-recommended Environment Clearance was given in 2020 and the airport was inaugurated on January 5, 2023.

People living in Pernem, however, have been routinely facing shortages in water supply, that they say is primarily due to the construction on the Barazan plateau that, on account of its geology, supports sufficient groundwater recharge and springs that the local residents access for water. They also allege an increase in diversion of local water resources to the airport by the government.

The new Goa airport at Mopa is on the Barazan plateau. Photo from Environmental Impact Assessment Report for Proposed Greenfield Airport at Mopa, Goa, dated April 2015, prepared by Engineers India Limited for the Government of Goa.

Construction on the Barazan plateau

The Barazan plateau was selected as the site for the airport because of the vast flat land in an otherwise mountainous region of northern Goa. The airport was constructed on the flattened plateau that was levelled and concretised.

Prior to the airport construction, the plateau would act as a groundwater recharge zone. The area receives an average of 2,932 millimetres of rainfall each year. The substantial deposits of laterite rock below ground surface in the plateau area provided the essential porosity required for rainwater percolation. This unique geology of the area contributed significantly to recharging the water table in the aquifer below. Through an intricate web of over 40 perennial springs and rivulets, the plateau would supply year-long drinking water to over 7,000 residents of six villages situated in close proximity to what is now the airport. The water would also support dense orchards, paddy fields and vegetable gardens downstream.

With an estimated annual water discharge of 2.2 million cubic metres, local agricultural communities received sufficient water resources round the year. “The reason Pernem could flourish for all these years was because of its plentiful water resources,” says Vinayak Kashinath Mahale, the former sarpanch of the Mopa village, who had been raising discussions on the adverse consequences of the airport in the area.

Vinayak’s concerns were supported by scientific research that was undertaken prior to granting of the Environmental Clearance (EC) for the airport. A report published in November 2015 by the Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management detailed hydrogeological studies carried out on the Barazan plateau. The report observed that mega infrastructure projects such as the airport were “likely to disturb the recharge zones for the aquifer system feeding the natural springs of Barazan plateau”, imperilling the integrity and safety of the natural public drinking water sources.

The report stated that construction for projects like the airport will pose a severe threat to the downstream ecology and also to the livelihoods of downstream populations in the long term. In January 2023 residents of village Korgao, situated downstream of the airport, had water supply cuts for eight days, suspecting diversion of water to the airport.

Rainwater percolated at the Barazan plateau being carried to downstream villages through natural springs that have, of late, experienced a drop in water flow. Photo by Maitreya Prithwiraj Ghorpade.

In addition to groundwater depletion, construction on the plateau has also intensified floods, as the natural water channels originating from the plateau are blocked. “Huge boulders flowing with the rainwater rushed down from the plateau during the rains in 2022, which nearly annihilated our village,” recalls Vinayak.

The impacts of construction on the plateau were considered by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) in 2019, where they observed that “if natural water channels that feed the local water bodies are not protected then there will be water deficiency in the villages for agriculture, fishing etc. Further, there will be an impact on the groundwater levels in the villages.” Upon submission of certain proposed mitigation measures by the project proponent, however, the EAC gave its sanction for the airport project.

According to a paper published in the Indian Journal of Environmental Sciences in 2020, “weak measures” for incorporating rain water harvesting methods for ground water recharge have been proposed, which are incomparable to natural ground water recharge by porous rocky cover on the plateau.

Diversion of water from local reservoirs

The primary source of water for the construction and operation of the airport project is the Tillari Irrigation Canal, constructed as part of a joint venture between the provincial governments of Maharashtra and Goa. This canal was operationalised to supply water for agriculture in North Goa. The diversion of water from the Tillari Canal to the airport has therefore angered the local farmers, claiming the diversion of water reservoirs is a subversion of their rights.

“The government acquired farmers’ land for the Canal and said it was being constructed for us,” says Uday Mahale, “but now they’re only interested in the airport.”

Routine maintenance of the Tillari Canal has led to problems in water supply to the airport. However, local authorities have allegedly sought to remedy these shortages by diverting water from various local water bodies to the airport, thereby directly impacting the water security of various villages of Pernem.

“We never needed taps for water, there were always streams flowing,” recalls Sandeep Kambli, a local farmer and convenor of the Mopa Vimantal Pidit Shetkari Samitte (Mopa International Airport Affected Farmers Committee), an organisation of farmers affected by the new airport. “All the trees around our house are dying because of a lack of water,” says Kambli. “And now, they want to take what little water we get by building dams over all the streams flowing from the plateau.”

A farmer from Varconda village, Kambli’s family house is located close to one of many streams flowing from the Barazan plateau, that is now being dammed by the local government in order to supply water to the airport. According to Kambli, small dams are being constructed across tens of streams flowing from the Barazan plateau, which would otherwise provide water to the downstream population.

Additionally, significant amounts of public funds are now having to be spent on water treatment projects, pump-houses and other water-related infrastructure. Two pumphouses on the Bailpar river were constructed at a cost of Rs. 27 crore to facilitate supply of water from the Bailpar river to the airport. However, since the Bailpar river itself witnessed a gradual drop in water-levels, a barrage project worth Rs. 350 crore on Chapora river in Bicholim is now being constructed, so as to transfer water from the Chapora river to the Bailpar river, which will then ultimately be supplied to the airport.

Construction work being carried out to build a small dam across a natural water stream in Varconda village, located downstream from the Mopa Airport. Photo by Maitreya Prithwiraj Ghorpade.

Airport expansion

The EIA Report prepared for the airport states that the airport is being constructed in a phased manner. Under the present Phase I, the airport services 4.4 million passengers annually. In Phase IV, envisioned to be completed by 2045, the airport will service an annual 13.1 million passengers. Additionally, hotels, casinos and employee housing infrastructure proposed within the airport premises are all likely to significantly increase the water requirements of the airport.

The area’s water problems raise concerns about the proposed expansion of the airport and necessitate a substantial reconstruction of the existing airport infrastructure, say activists and residents, so as to ensure restoration of the plateau’s natural water channels and the right to water for Pernem residents.

The author is an independent environmental law practitioner and a reporter/researcher at Land Conflict Watch.


Banner image: A small dam across a natural water stream flowing from the Barazan plateau under construction. Photo by Maitreya Prithwiraj Ghorpade.

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