Once known for harbouring dacoits, the Chambal badlands in central India, have another, and not so notorious, reason for their fame – the river Chambal and its wildlife. The region is home to the critically endangered gharial and endangered species like dolphins. Several infrastructure projects in the Chambal river and its nearby area are putting pressure on the region and its resources, with the latest related to a water supply project for Madhya Pradesh.
The construction of an “intake well in Chambal river and laying of water supply pipeline for Sheopur” was discussed in the August 29, 2019 meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) where wildlife division officials proposed the use of 1.267 hectares of land of the protected area from the National Chambal Sanctuary for construction of an intake well in the Chambal river and for laying of drinking water pipeline.
The National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) is home to many species like the critically endangered gharial, red-crowned roof turtle and endangered Ganges river dolphin, crocodile, smooth-coated otter, striped hyena, Indian wolf, rhesus macaque, langur, golden jackal, Bengal fox, common palm civet, small Asian mongoose, Indian grey mongoose, jungle cat, wild boar, sambar, nilgai, blackbuck, Indian gazelle, northern palm squirrel, Indian crested porcupine, Indian hare, Indian flying fox and Indian long-eared hedgehog.
Poor water level connects river islands to the main banks of the river thereby allowing human disturbance. Photo by Rohit Jha.
The committee was also informed that the Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) has not recommended the proposal as the “construction of intake well is in close proximity of the habitat of crocodile, gharial, Indian skimmers, turtle and dolphin”. The CWW also highlighted that in 2011 the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had suggested that the minimum flow required to sustain the ideal habitat for gharial in Chambal river is 151-165 m3/sec and for the dolphin the minimum flow required to sustain the ideal habitat is 266.42 – 289.67 m3/ sec but in December 2017 the WII monitored the discharge of the Chambal river which was found to be 67 m3/sec.
“So taking water from Chambal river will affect wildlife adversely in the long run for sustaining viable populations of critically endangered schedule-I species. The Standing Committee of (the National Board for) Wildlife decided in 22nd meeting on April 25, 2011, that no new projects could be considered by said committee in future for taking water from Chambal river,” CWW informed.
However, the ministry’s wildlife division officials informed the SC-NBWL that the Madhya Pradesh’s State Board for Wild Life in its September 2018 meeting recommended the proposal. Now in its August 2019 meeting, the SC-NBWL, noted that the “CWW/or representative from the state (Madhya Pradesh) forest department was not available to comment on the proposed project” and therefore “decided to defer the proposal.”
Rohit Jha, a wildlife biologist who is currently working at the WII, explained that Chambal river flows through a largely semi-arid region, especially in the stretch designated as the National Chambal Sanctuary separately in the three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, beginning from the downstream of Kota barrage until approximately 10 kilometres ahead of its confluence with Yamuna river.
“By virtue of the sanctuary being downstream of the above-mentioned barrage and three other large dams, and no mechanism in place for maintaining the river’s environmental flow, the water flow in the river is greatly reduced, especially during the summer months. Further to these major hydroelectric and irrigation projects, there are several dozen small- and medium-scale water abstraction projects either already operational or in the pipeline. This has resulted in the Chambal, otherwise a perennial river, dependent only on its tributaries such as Kali Sindh, Parbati and Banas (which are seasonal rivers and themselves severely stressed) and being reduced to a trickle in much of its run as the National Chambal Sanctuary,” Jha told Mongabay-India.
Tarun Nair, a research associate, at the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), expressed surprise at the state board for wildlife recommended the Sheopur project.
“Anyone familiar with that region knows the critical low-flow conditions in the Chambal during the dry season, which is also when water abstraction demands are at their peak. Water abstraction must be subject to cumulative impact assessments. While the impact of individual projects may appear to be limited and independent, it must be remembered that flow regimes in the Chambal River are already severely compromised with the four upstream dams on the Chambal, and many more on its tributaries. Even for existing water abstraction projects to continue without further damage to the river ecology, there needs to be a mechanism to release water from Kota Barrage that not only maintains ecological flows for the Chambal river and sanctuary but also to off-set the uptake by these intake wells. But sadly, no such mechanism exists,” Nair told Mongabay-India.
Home for endangered species in the heart of India
The Chambal river originates from the Janapao hills in Indore district of Madhya Pradesh and flows through Indore, Ujjain, Ratlam, and after Mandsaur through Rajasthan. It enters Morena district north to Nitanvas and makes the inter-state natural boundary between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and flows ahead. After that, it joins Yamuna river in Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh after traversing for over 950 kilometres.
Sand mining along the river Chambal is threatening the existence of wildlife. Photo by Rohit Jha.
Chambal is home to critically endangered gharial and nearly 80 percent of its global population is found in this region. The estimated population of the critically endangered gharial according to International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List is about 650 and of that, about 77 percent (500) are in Chambal area alone.
It is also critical for dolphins. The World Wildlife Fund-India had identified optimal habitats in nine stretches in eight rivers as ideal habitats for Ganges river dolphin population for conservation. Chambal River, up to 10 kilometres downstream of the National Chambal Sanctuary, was one among those sites.
River dolphins are the national aquatic animal of India. They are found in Ganga river in the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) in Meerut, in the River Chambal in the National Chambal Sanctuary and in River Gerua in Bahraich district’s Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary.
While replying to a query about projects in and around Chambal region, Suyash Katdare, a senior research fellow at the WII, said that the demand for fresh water from the Chambal currently poses the biggest threat to the river, after illegal sand mining.
“The water flow of the Chambal has been compromised due to the presence of the large storage dams upstream – Gandhi Sagar (in MP), Rana Pratap Sagar and Jawahar Sagar (both in Rajasthan) and the Kota Barrage at Kota in Rajasthan. Maintaining the water flow regime of a river is necessary to sustain ecological connectivity, biodiversity, nutrient and sediment flow,” Katdare told Mongabay-India.
He emphasised that the Chambal river is at a critical level where further unsustainable water extraction will alter the habitat to below-optimum level for several endangered species, especially the gharial.
The collective impact of small projects puts Chambal sanctuary under pressure
According to scientists and wildlife researchers that have been working in the region for a while, the whole area is marked with hundreds of small developmental projects which alone may not have a significant impact on the ecology but together, the cumulative impact of such projects is heavy on river Chambal and its ecology.
Recently, during the meeting of the expert committee on the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), a proposal to decide the ESZ around the National Chambal Sanctuary was discussed. The committee makes decisions on marking eco-sensitive zones around protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves.
During the September 30. 2019 meeting of the expert committee, P.D. Gabrial, a forest department official of the Madhya Pradesh government, informed that the draft ESZ notification of the National Chambal Sanctuary was published on June 11, 2019. As per the minutes of this meeting, the draft ESZ notes that that the area of the sanctuary is 435 square kilometres and an area of 0-2 kilometres was proposed as ESZ around the sanctuary.
“It was mentioned that National Chambal Sanctuary is the first and only tri-state riverine protected area in India for a breeding population of Gharial. Zero extents of ESZ was proposed towards the interstate boundary with Uttar Pradesh. The Committee suggested adding justification of zero ESZ extents while processing the final Notification. After detailed discussions, the Committee recommended for the finalisation of the draft notification,” the minutes noted.
On this, Nair of ATREE noted that the fact that an ESZ for the National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) being discussed is welcome and said this was one of the many recommendations made by the generic tri-state management plan prepared by the national tri-state Chambal Sanctuary Management and Coordination Committee (NTRIS-CASMACC). He said similarly, the Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Wildlife Warden “not recommending” the Sheopur intake well in the Chambal river for ecological reasons mentioned is commendable.
“Since the NCS lies at the juncture of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the proposed extent being zero along the state boundary is entirely understandable. However, keeping the ESZ at a uniform one kilometre (in Uttar Pradesh) along the rest of the perimeter is a missed opportunity that could have otherwise afforded protection to both banks of the lower Yamuna River, and extensive ravine habitat along the lower Chambal, Yamuna, Kunwari and Sind rivers. In the case of Madhya Pradesh, while its proposed ESZ is better at two kilometres, it too misses covering the entire ravine network and dry-scrub/thorn forest habitat of this region which at places extends over five kilometres from the boundary of the NCS,” he added.
Surya P. Sharma, a junior research fellow at the WII, stated that the National Chambal Sanctuary is a success story of the Project Crocodile, under which captive-reared juveniles of gharial and marsh crocodile were released into the river since the early 1980s and as of now, it holds the largest breeding population of Gharial.
“Along with two species of crocodilians, five species of hard-shell turtles and four species of softshell turtles inhabit the NCS. The sanctuary and the adjacent ravines, which is a unique ecosystem in itself, harbour several threatened and endangered fauna. Chambal is the last remaining hope for the critically endangered gharial, as well as other threatened aquatic fauna such as the red-crowned roof turtle, three-striped roof turtle and the Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle,” Sharma told Mongabay-India.
Chambal a breeding site for birds
Besides being home to many endangered species, Chambal is also one of the most significant breeding sites for threatened birds such as the Indian skimmer and black-bellied tern.
Rohit Jha, who is working at the WII on a project deciphering aspects regarding the nesting ecology of certain river-island nesting bird species in the National Chambal Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh, explained that these birds nest exclusively on sandbars and sandy islands (thus isolating them from most land predators) on large rivers in south and south-east Asia in the summer season (March to July).
“As water level starts rapidly dropping from April onward in Chambal, many of the nesting hitherto river islands become connected with either bank, facilitating access to unfamiliar land predators such as dogs, jackals and hyenas which then easily predate on the birds’ eggs and chicks. Humans too start using these stretches to cross to the other side, often with their cattle. This results in additional accidental trampling of eggs. All this has resulted in very low nest survival of these threatened birds, thereby endangering their long-term survival prospects in the region,” Jha said.
He stressed that rampant and wide-ranging sand mining all along the river, including within the sanctuary, directly impact and sometimes have obliterated known (and potential) nesting sites of the critically endangered gharial, apart from altering the river morphology in ways that we are yet to fully comprehend.
“A lack of a political will has resulted in entrenching the sand mafia into the DNA of the landscape, which is now very difficult to stop. Many brave frontline forest (and police) staff who have tried to implement the law of the land have paid with their lives,” said Jha.
He emphasised that the need of the hour, thus, is to implement the environmental flow standard (computed keeping the ecological requirements of the gharial and Gangetic dolphin in mind) recommended by a WII study in 2011, rather than further reducing the quantum of water that flows as the remnant “river”, especially during the water-stressed summer months.
He stated that this will not only keep the river alive and rejuvenated for continued human use, but also give a fillip to the survival and conservation of the suite of threatened species that call Chambal their home, without which the river loses its character and cultural significance.