Dried and Dusted: A state of the rivers report for Himachal

Himachal Pradesh a mountain state in Indian Himalaya, covering an area of over fifty five thousand square kilometres, has 5 major river basins Satluj, Ravi, Beas, Chenab and Yamuna. Yamuna crosses only the south-eastern border of the state, and but its tributaries originating in Himachal include Giri and Tons which form a part of the Ganga river basin flowing westward. The other four rivers are major tributaries of the eastward flowing Indus River, the longest in the world (2000 miles or 3200 kilometres) with a flow twice the size of the Nile. The Indus becomes a much larger river once it is joined by what are known as the ‘Punjab’ (literally meaning 5 rivers – Satluj, Ravi, Beas, Chenab and Jhelum).While the large rivers are referred to by them locally as dariya, their tributaries (glacial and snow fed) are smaller rivers are called khad, and smaller streams are known as nallahs. The, khads and nallahs, are critical components of the riverine ecosystem, even from the point of view of the local communities, who have a direct relationship with these for their day to day use – drinking water, irrigation, running watermills and fishing. It is rare to find communities residing very close to the larger rivers or dariyas, except in some parts of Lahaul-Spiti or then lower down in the valleys.

The river is a defining feature of a mountain eco-system. And if that ecosystem is the Himalayas then this makes the rivers originating here special for several reasons. Their origin and source to start with, which includes glaciers and snow bound peaks; their length and size, and the area they cover is larger than most peninsular rivers; their rapid, high velocity, meandering flow which is constantly shaping the young and malleable Himalayan valleys; their propensity to carry silt and form rich plains to facilitate a fertile agriculture downstream is another unique feature.  The Himalayan rivers are older than or as young as the Himalayas themselves. And yet, despite, the sense of power and reverence they command and convey and all the life they support, they are vulnerable. This vulnerability is rarely spoken of. The slightest variation and changes in temperature, flow, course and composition of the rivers impacts its surroundings and the shifts in the landscapes in turn impacts all these aspects of the rivers, such is the degree of interdependence and fragility.

Most text books and articles largely highlight the magnitude of the Himalayan river systems and move on to speaking, anthropocentrically, of their energy and irrigation potential, along the lines of what can we squeeze out from them for furthering the cause of ‘human development’.  Rarely ever are these seen as riverine ecosystems that are already providing services and support life systems. Today, we speak of interlinking these rivers but fail to see the existing natural inter linkages between, not just the rivers but among all life forms, the benefits of which are drawn by human beings as well. If these rivers are stressed out, if they are tampered with, if they are tunneled and damned, what would after all be the impact of all other dependent systems?

In 2016, Himdhara, Environment Research and Action Collective brought out State of the Rivers Report final 2017- Himachal Pradesh. In this report we have focused on highlighting the key information about Himachal’s rivers, pointing out the threats that these rivers are facing. We compare the health of these rivers based on the extent of threat that they face. The key threats we have identified are those developments which are interfering with river flows, hampering riverine ecology and changing the nature of the river and dependencies around it. These include: Hydropower development, Sand Mining, Pollution due to tourism, urbanisation and industrialisation and climatic changes. We have looked at each of these developments for the five river basins and made a threat projection – Critical, moderate or low. According to the report, the Beas, Satluj, Yamuna and Ravi are the most threatened river basins. The Chenab as of now and Upper Satluj, with Spiti as the main tributary along with parts of Beas, like the Tirthan are the only wild and free flowing rivers in the State. The report recommends that the blue or wild rivers needs to be protected from the threats and a plan of action needs to be made for the same. At the same time, the areas where there is moderate threat an effort needs to be made by the regulatory agencies – Forest Department. Pollution Control Board and the State Environment Department to take action.

This report is more of a compilation of our understanding, experience and the existing documentation on rivers in the State. It is by no means a complete and exhaustive document. A thorough ‘State of the Rivers Report’ should assess the social, cultural, economic values of these rivers and how these have changed  historically, carrying out a detailed study based on primary data as well as secondary research from a variety of sources. Moreover it is the communities who depend on these rivers who would best describe the changes that have occurred over time. And thus any assessment would be incomplete without a people’s voice in it.  For the purpose of India Rivers Week 2016 we put together this preliminary document that provides some basic information on Himachal’s rivers and the threats they face. We hope that this will generate interest and debate amongst communities as well as policy makers and researchers about the urgency to protect the Himalayan rivers.

We look forward to feedback on the report.

State of the Rivers Report final 2017- Himachal Pradesh

Himachal Watcher,s article on State Of the Rivers Report
The Economic Times story 
The Statesman story

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