The recent Kerala assembly resolution calling the proposed linking of three rivers - to divert waters from the Pamba and Achankovil rivers of the state to the Vaippar river in Tamilnadu - discriminatory and unconstitutional may have come as a surprise to the Ministry of Water Resources. The Ministry has all along maintained that it is closer to implementing the first of the proposed 30 links under the ambitious Interlinking of Rivers programme.

For this to coincide with Bangladesh's official protest on what it called `a unilateral move to appropriate transboundary waters' may have surprised the proponents of river linking. The fact that the President and the Prime Minister had to put their weights behind the controversial project in their respective independence day addresses calls for a closer examination of the emerging dynamics of Rs. 560,000 crore investment to link the Himalayan rivers with the peninsular rivers. While the suspecting neighbour has been assured that the proposal is as yet a concept, the government knows well that the assembly resolution conveys just the opposite. Clearly, it may not want to enter into any political tangle at this stage that may scuttle its efforts to build consensus amongst different states.

"Kerala's rivers have a short running span but significant ecological functions to perform from their points of origin in the Western Ghats"
The fact that the legislative assembly of the most literate state in the country has shown uncommon wisdom vindicates the stand by ecologists, and sets an unprecedented trend. `It offers a respite to Kerala rivers that have a short running span but significant ecological function to perform from their points of origin in the Western Ghats,' says Dr. Latha of the Chalakudy River Conservation Organisation in Thrissur. Of the 41 west-flowing rivers in the state, only two flow uninterrupted to the Arabian Sea. Storage and/or diversion of waters for irrigation from the remaining rivers has caused ecological damage reflected in the salinity intrusions along the coast.

Periyar, the longest river of the state with a 244-km stretch, has already lost 22 per cent of its average flow due to diversions. Another river - Bharathapuzha - has its flow reduced by 12 per cent on its 209-km long journey to the sea. Chalakudy, the 140-km long river, has been the biggest victim with 37 per cent reduction in its natural flow.

Interestingly, the tributaries of these three rivers are the prominent culprits as these are locked in a puzzling inter-basin water transfer called the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP). Puzzling because the PAP treaty was signed between Kerala and Tamilnadu on May 29, 1970 whereas the project was commissioned during the mid-1960's itself. Puzzling because the state was reportedly forced to sign the controversial treaty in exchange for the majestic Idukki hydropower project. And especially puzzling, because the three dams - Parambikulum, Peruvarippallam and Thunacadavu - are within Kerala's territory, but the land and operations are still under the control of the Tamilnadu government.

Duped many times in the past over inter-basin water transfers by Tamilnadu, the Kerala government seems to have finally learnt its lessons. If the 106-year-old Mullaperiyar Agreement is anything to go by and the 45-year-old Parambikulam Aliyar Project treaty and the more recent Siruvani treaty are any indication, the misconception of surplus has been consistently proved harmful. The PAP is one of the many cases in Kerala that illustrate how vested interests have hidden facts from the suspecting public.

The facts speak for themselves. Nine dams built on 8 tributaries of Periyar, Chalakudy and Bharathapuzha rivers, as part of the Parambikulam Aliyar Project, have made available a total of 33 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of water for diversion. As per the treaty, Tamilnadu is entitled to 16.5 TMC of water every year from the yield of those three dams (viz., Parambikulam, Peruvarippallam and Thunacadavu) but in fact it is diverting the entire flow into its territory.

Literally by fudging the flow data, Tamilnadu has appropriated the entire available water from PAP by forcing the three tributaries of Chalakudy to run dry for a stretch of anywhere between 5-6 kilometres from the dam sites. All these dried stretches lie in forested areas and are inhabited by tribal populations. Further, as water is not released downstream the Kerala Sholayar and Poringalkuthu hydropower projects on the Chalakudy river run below their installed capacity. More importantly, these diversions have forced the west flowing tributaries to flow eastward.

Kerala is wary of another agreement such as the one that now regulates the use of the Chalakudy river, where diversions of its tributaries by Tamilnadu have forced the west flowing tributaries to flow eastward.
The ecological impact of such unnatural acts is only beginning to be understood across the state. According to noted environmentalist Dr. S. Sathischandran Nair, Kerala has already paid a heavy price for its erroneous conception of surplus flow in its rivers. In the ecological context, no river can have a drop of surplus - a fact the assembly resolution has clearly reiterated.

Since Kerala has a unique topography that undergoes significant elevation changes across its narrow width, the management of its meandering rivers emerging from the forested Western ghats assumes special significance. Since these rivers reach the sea in quick time, they must perform significant ecological functions of sustaining flora and fauna along their short courses. Any discontinuities or reduction in their flow could be ecologically disturbing. The impact of such ecological disturbances has already been felt along the Kerala coast.

The Assembly resolution has come at the right time in reviving a long-lost ecological consciousness. The seeds of this consciousness were already seen blooming in July this year at Thrissur; at the National Conference on Interlinking of Rivers, organised by the Chalakudy River Conservation Organisation and SANDRP, the State Planning Board Member announced that Kerala was opposed to the Pampa-Achankovil-Vaippar link. The Ministry of Water Resources should have been listening.