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Cry me a river

India
Rivers
Sustainability
River illustration

© Jackie Morris

Author Suprabha Seshan writes:

‘The words, thoughts and images in this piece are traces left in my life by various river people, including activists and ecologists. The voice however, is singular: of a woman by the Kabini River in southern India, listening to the news and thinking of women along the Chalakudy River fighting the Athirapally dam.’

Sister, it is said that you can have a river and dam it too.

That the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Kaveri, the Narmada and the Krishna are our mothers, that small rivers like the Chalakudy (where you live) and the Kabini (where I live), are small mothers. That these rivers (our mothers), must be managed, for our collective prosperity.

There are 40 rivers in Kerala. And 60 large dams. It is said that these are beautiful places to picnic. That these are few dams for a densely populated state. It is said that the people need more power between 7am and 11pm, and that areas suffering seasonal shortages in drinking water can be aided by storing the water in reservoirs, released from time to time, as the need arises. That this is the most practical way to distribute resources, between those who have (free flowing water, upstream), and those who have not (urban areas, downstream).

Sister, it is said that even if you block, divert and empty a river, there will be always be fresh water flowing through. It is said that some rivers in the country have surfeit water, and others a paucity, especially in the hot months preceding the monsoon. That this imbalance can be solved by linking up all our rivers, at zero cost to ecology and society. In fact, it is assumed that society is independent of ecology. That soon, perennial water will be delivered to all homes and fields (even when glaciers have melted, aquifers run barren, forests fall to open-cast mines, and monsoon winds blow topsy-turvy). That this is enumerated and apportioned, and that we, the commoners (the fisherfolk, the tribal peoples, the farmers, and all the ordinary freshwater-dependent people, including the plant people and the animal people), can check the expert analyses. It is said that we can trust the authorities, that they understand our needs, as they do the rivers’ capacities. That their analyses are consistent and all-encompassing, conducted for the greater common good, never ridden with contradictions, falsified information nor negligence, despite rebuttals by the most-affected communities, and independent expert committees.

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Rivers are our life’s blood, it is also said. They sustain hundreds of millions of people. 

It is decreed that the people must ignore the consequences (short and long term) of emptied, diverted and dammed rivers, that we can trust that there’ll always be water, for this is a blue planet, ever bearing, infinite, forgiving of any atrocities. It is said that people must ignore the clarion call of the Greens, those self-serving environmentalists hugging trees, ungrateful, complaining too much, doomsayers all. We must all learn to sacrifice more, and complain a little less.

Jackie Morris

It is said that billions of people worldwide need more electricity, that they don’t need water or food from rivers; those items are now the governance of the honourable ministries (fetching rice from China, as mountains of grain rot in granaries).  

It is henceforth decreed that mothers can be dammed, diverted, polluted and emptied, and powered down to power up their sons in big cities crunching into the wee hours of the morning on their cybermachines.

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Rivers birthed civilizations, it is said. Civilizations destroyed rivers (it is omitted). That they (the civilizations) collapsed when they drew down their water base (an inconvenient but negligible detail).

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The submission to the Legislative Committee on 22 October 2008 by the Chalakudy River Protection Forum reads: ‘The Kadar tribes have been consistently opposing the dam project all these years… The State Tribal Rehabilitation Commissioner had also made a site visit in January 2007 based on the complaint to the Honourable Minister for Forest and Wild Life from Geetha, an anganwadi teacher from Vazhachal settlement. The Tribal Rehabilitation Commission had also been convinced that Vazhachal is just 500 metres downstream of the proposed dam site. It concluded that the construction of the dam will have a social, economic and ecological effect on their habitat which must be “suitably addressed”.’ The report refers to the rich flora and fauna of the area and the valuable rights of the tribals which has to be assessed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

It is said that the opposition by primitive tribal groups stands in the way of the needs of the civilized people and of progress, hence they are to be damned.

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The word currency comes from the Middle English word curraunt, meaning circulation, flow. It is said that the currents in the economies are more valuable than the currents in the ecologies. All these flows (material and immaterial, invented and real), are interchangeable. It is said that cash flow is like river flow, that money equals currency equals flow equals ecology equals economy equals happiness equals food equals dynamic business deals, equals the construction industry equals upliftment of poverty.

Jackie Morris

It is said that the living world is an illusion, and the electrified world is real. It is said that the living world is needed to deliver us to the pinnacle of prosperity exemplified by the machine world, and that this is our glorious destiny.

Rivers are not alive, it is said. They are, like factories and cars, systems that can be taken apart and put together. It is said that the world’s economy needs the world’s rivers, the world’s oceans, the world’s forests, and the world’s people. That the world’s economy is infinitely more important than the world’s ecology, which is now measured at $33 trillion (only). That the currents between bank accounts flow sweeter than the waters of a river, enabling our evolution as a species, by nourishing our bellies, our minds and hearts and ever-demanding bodies. Nearly all the rivers in the world have been dammed, what’s your worry, are you not being supported by the economy?

Rivers are needed for progress, it is said. Communities along rivers can be sacrificed for modern culture. Historical and continuing injustices are irrelevant, it is said, for now there is progress. Resettlements, the disfigurement of ancient homes and biomes, and the shunting of land-based cultures into digital smart cities (unsmogged, unpolluted, uncrowded, uncriminal, unreliant on the earth) are necessary undertakings of India Shining. For powering the virtual flow, delivering more goodness, happiness and wellbeing than the rivers could ever do if they were free flowing.

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For a society accustomed to transplants, implants, plastic surgery, prosthetics, life support, dialysis, hormone therapies and radiation treatments, hooked to a few decades of hydro-electric power (and fossil fuels), the issue of why rivers should not be further dammed sounds a bit weak. After all, humans can fix any problem, we have the technology.

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The same aforementioned 2008 submission quotes eminent ecological expert Dr Sathis Chandran Nair: ‘Chalakudy River is perhaps the only major river in Kerala where along the main river channel, some stretches of the riparian vegetation remains in spite of so much destruction. One of these locations is along the river from below Poringalkuthu powerhouse to immediately above the Vazhachal waterfall. This is the most extensive riparian forest along the lower reaches of any river in Kerala. It is entirely within the submergible area of the Athirappilly Hydro-Electric Project. The most important aspect is that this riparian patch facing submergence has not even been subjected to exhaustive studies as to its role as a wildlife refuge, its species diversity, niche specificity, and role as an ecological corridor.’

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It is said that there is life after this planet.

It is said that you may not kill a cow, but you may dam a river. It is said that the goddess resides in the temple, and no longer in the living river. It is said that men did not trap the goddess indoors, that she came willingly.

It is said that goddesses (of rivers, forests, soils, and all things organic) are fecund, generous, never denying, ever demure and obedient, even when depleted, diverted, blocked, eviscerated, broken, burned and poisoned, for they are all Shakti, the female principle of divine energy.

It is said that the senses, the body and the real world are illusory, that your suffering is in your mind, not in your body. That you drink the poisoned, diverted, toxic sludge of a river is your imagination, not verifiable reality. That your perception’s your undoing, and needs to be fixed; Coca Cola’s better than water, as it’s the real thing.

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Waterfalls form along rivers. As do rapids, pools, sand banks, alluvial plains and plumes of mist. A river can start from a glacier, a lake, an underground spring, or seeping from the forest floor.

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It is said that the Kerala economy needs more electricity, and that this electricity will come from dams, even if the existing dams are running at low capacity with poor efficiency, and even if elsewhere in the world dams are being taken down. It is said that the beautiful waterfalls in Athirapally and Vazhachal, comprising the seventh wonder of Kerala, attracting hundreds of thousands of people, are henceforth irrelevant. It is said that hornbills, elephants, amphibians, Kadar families (primitive and thus even more irrelevant), and the 104 species of fish (the greatest diversity of fish in any one river in Kerala) are all irrelevant.

Jackie Morris

Fish everywhere are now decreed to be officially irrelevant (90 per cent of the large fish in the oceans are gone). Freshwater fish are particularly irrelevant, like the ones in a small, still-not-fully-dammed 140-kilometre-long river, the Chalakudy. Irrelevant to the ecology of the plains downstream, and the creatures of the Arabian Sea. Coastal inhabitants are independent of the sediments borne by the Chalakudy River from the Anamalai mountains, borne down to the mighty sea-feeding fish; the coastline heaving with fish-loving people.

It is said that the mingling of the fresh with the salt water is not required, that the sea does not need this tiny river. That one more dam can surely not hurt a wounded and dying planet. Besides, look how many they are constructing in China, and in Brazil!

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On 12 August 2015, the papers said, the 163-megawatt Athirappilly hydroelectric project, proposed across the Chalakudy River, received the go-ahead from the Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects. The panel observed that there were no endemic species specifically of the project area, that there were no species for which mitigation methods were not available. The damage due to submergence of flora and fauna of the area is mitigable, it said.

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Sister, it is said that they can fix it, and that you and I must trust that they will fix it (as they will our bodies, the land and the winds; the waters, the biomes and the planet).

It is said (in the small print) that we must make a choice between electricity and fish. It is said that all damages to the river, the fish, the forests, the tribal people and the fragile ecologies of the coast waters are mitigable. It is said, in the finer print, that humans have become free of the planet; of nature. It is said that we can survive on electricity. It is said that our security is the same as the economy’s security, which needs corporate projects, and thus the electricity.

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Sister, years ago I stood in a human chain against a proposed dam in the upper reaches of the Kabini.

Our homes were in the proposed area of submergence. We’d have to move with our friends and families, our dogs and cows, and forsake our homegardens and fields, the plants we had planted, the birds, butterflies, frogs, snakes, and other beings of this valley, and this tiny headwater of a stream we’d nurtured.

The project was shelved, momentarily at least. The church was active in this case, luckily. And very few of us were adivasis.

Sister, I’ll never forget the feeling of impending displacement, of grief mixed savagely with rage at the thought of being forced to leave my home, for the sake of someone else’s electricity.

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Rivers are transport systems for trade, it is said.

Rivers are beautiful, it is said.

River-front property is costly, it is said.

Rivers attract millions of tourists, it is said.

You can’t step into the same river twice, it is said.

Rivers make great metaphors, it is said.

Life is like a river, it is said.

Riverlike, we flow, it is said.

Rivers are the arteries of the planet, it is said.

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A friend wrote upon hearing your story. ‘And did you hear salmon and sturgeon are dying in the Columbia River because of the heat?’ Another friend, now 84 years old, talked of the death of a glacier in Switzerland from which streams used to emerge, also dead now, from the heat.

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I hear that you and your comrades, the brave people of Vazhachal, are unanimously fighting back, that you stand with your river, that you will sue the government.

Sister, I hear your cry from across the mountains: the further damming of this river is a violation of the inalienable rights of an ancient peoples and this ancient ecology; the two are entwined as blood and organs in one body.

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The tale of the 25-year Athirapally resistance must be told everywhere.

Rest assured, on this tiny strand of irrefutable sanity, my sister, when the dams come down (by earthquakes, decay, hubris or our own decommissioning actions), when our beloved rivers flow unfettered once more, there will be fresh drinking water, fish, and fertile soil for children, the land, the trees and the animals, for all our descendant generations, and perhaps even for you and me.

You cannot dam a river and have it free.

Suprabha Seshan is an environmental educator based in Kerala, India.