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It's now official: Karnataka second only to Rajasthan in stressed water availability

Counterview Desk 
Power and climate policy analyst Shankar Sharma, in a representation to the DG, Environmental Management Planning and Research Institute (EMPRI), Bengaluru, with copies to senior Karnataka and Government of India officials, even as welcoming a recent EMPRI report which says that over half of Karnataka districts stare at water crisis, has expressed concern whether the top government agency would work out requisite policies.
He says, “A list of about 25 linear projects in these thick and all important rain-forests, and with a potential to destroy about 25 lakh high value trees, which are in different stages of planning/ implementation, should provide a clear indication of how Karnataka’s water policy has never been on the right path.”

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On the occasion of International Forest Day (March 21), felicitations to all in the state forest department, and to all those who have been working tirelessly to protect and enhance the forest/ biodiversity wealth in the state. It is noteworthy to observe that the advertisement in the newspapers by the state government on this occasion emphatically linked a sustainable forest policy to a healthy society, through critical provision of clean air, potable water, nutritious food, and medicinal herbs.
Please convey my congratulations to all the concerned staff at EMPRI for a highly relevant report on fresh water availability for the state, as referred to in the media report below. I am not aware of any other highly useful report of true relevance to our people as prepared by EMPRI. This report by EPMRI has not come a day too soon in the larger context that not only the country but also most parts of the globe are facing multiple concerns as far as fresh water availability to humans and animals is concerned.
"With water scarce in some places, in excess elsewhere, polluted or otherwise problematic, the United Nations addresses this week a global crisis that has been long overlooked even as the welfare of billions of people is at stake...
"We take too much water from our ground. We pollute the water that is left and there is now so much water in the air that it is impacting our environment, our economies, our communities, through climate change. This means there is drought in some places and flooding in others, in a cycle that is worsening around the world because of global warming triggered by human activity. The UN says 2.3 billion people today live in countries with water stress."
It has been the general expectation of the people of the state that a government agency such as EMPRI, which is entrusted with the responsibility of research and planning on environment management related issues, to see a lot of credible reports/ recommendations to the state government on the effective management of our natural resources.
Many more credible reports on forest, trees, wildlife, pollution of air, water and soil, energy related environmental concerns etc. would have provided EMPRI a suitable and high profile in the state. But it is unfortunate that EMPRI has chosen / been made (by the state government?) to keep a low profile, so much so that not many people (even in the environment awareness circles) seem to have heard of its existence.
Anyways, now that such a good report has come out, the truly concerned environmentalists in the state will expect EPMRI to do all that is possible to become a sort of authority and a true centre of excellence on all the environment related issues in the state. In order to do so, it must have effective interactions with various stakeholder groups and domain specialists at frequent intervals, also to do justice to its mandated role.
Whereas this report by EMPRI has come to the conclusion that over half of Karnataka districts stare at the water crisis, the same has not come as a surprise for those of us who have a modest knowledge of the geographical strength and weakness of the states. It has been well known for many years that officially about 73% of the state's land area is arid/ semi-arid, and that about 52% of the state's geographical area is prone to droughts.
It is also well known that the state is second only to Rajasthan in the Union (maybe even the first) as far as the stressed water availability to its people is concerned. The EMPRI report has only corroborated that official status. It is pertinent to note that Karnataka’s climate action plan has already warned of significant variation in rains and river streamflow due to the phenomenon of Climate Change.
It is our fervent hope that this EMPRI report will stir our officials and politicians from their stupor, and urgently initiate all possible measures to reduce the associated hardships to our people. Few of the recent news reports, as in the links below, can highlight the associated global concerns.
The above-mentioned news report about the EMPRI conclusion has said: "DG Jagmohan Sharma said Karnataka’s water policy has already placed it on the right path. There is a need for supply and demand-side management to conserve water. Aggressive adoption of measures like drip irrigation, rain water harvesting and reuse of treated water is required”.
Whereas there can be no doubt about the critical need for aggressive adoption of measures like drip irrigation, rain water harvesting and reuse of treated water, what is surprising to people like me is your contention that Karnataka’s water policy has already placed it on the right path. The ground reality, for any modest observer of fresh water related issues in the stake, can be said to be vastly different, and has given rise to serious concerns, to say the least.
As is being wrongly approached by many societies from around the world on fresh water related issues, our state should not commit the mistake of viewing it in an isolated manner. As it should be evident from the basic environmental science, and as corroborated by the global scientific community such as IPCC, the true health of a sustainable and potable water supply scenario in any geographical region is intricately linked to the overall health of the environment in that region.
Since the factors such as an adequate cover of natural forests, trees and various kinds of vegetation; purity of air and soil; the health of wildlife, microorganisms and other life forms etc. will determine the adequacy and purity of fresh water in any geographical region, our state must adopt a holistic approach to the entire environment of the state; in particular the forest wealth in the state.
A modest understanding of the status of all these factors should reveal the potential for multiple crises ahead of our state. Even if we consider only the fast shrinking cover of forests, trees and agricultural land, the enormity of the water related crisis should become evidently clear.
For a state which has 73% of its land area termed as arid/ semi-arid, and with about 52% of its geographical area known to be prone to droughts, there should have been a very strong focus to preserve the forest and tree cover, at least at the level of national forest policy target of 33%.
Instead this cover is less than 23%, which is also the national average. Almost all of the natural forests in the state are in the Western Ghats, which are also of global natural heritage value in the context of Climate Change. But sadly, even this inadequate forest cover is facing serious threats because of the demand for forest land diversion for one or the other project every year.
A list of about 25 linear projects in these thick and all important rain-forests, and with a potential to destroy about 25 lakh high value trees, which are in different stages of planning/ implementation, should provide a clear indication of how Karnataka’s water policy has never been on the right path; at least since year 2000. What is most disconcerting is the fact that even as late as 2023 the state government has no qualms about proposing to build hydel power projects even within the legally protected Wildlife Sanctuaries needing highest levels of protection.
Such credible concerns can be corroborated by a classic case of environmental indifference in recent years. The main concerns of the controversial Hubli-Ankola railway line project proposal have been the irreparable loss of very high value biodiversity, forest wealth, and impact on local water resources. Recently a seven-member central experts’ committee constituted by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to look into this project proposal, along with nine earlier appointed committees between 2002 and 2022 by courts, have all rejected the proposal citing similar reasons on environmental grounds.
It has, in particular, highlighted the possibility of landslides during monsoon, and also warned that Gangavali and Bedthi rivers will be impacted the most due to the project. 
 It has said: “The project will have an irreversible impact on the fragile ecosystem of Western Ghats and no amount of mitigation measures will be in a position to compensate for the huge cost of ecological damage to the region.”
Another glaring example of such a continued indifference towards climate change issues by the state government is the recent approval for a large mining operation in the virgin forests of Sandur taluk in Bellary district for Kudremukh Iron Ore Corporation Limited (KIOCL). The potential loss of cutting of 99,330 trees in these sparse but rare forests in water stressed and hot district of Bellary district for an enormous export-oriented mining project, can only exacerbate the water crisis in the district/ region while also aggravating the hot climate of the region.
All other projects are also projected to have similar serious concerns to varying extents. But the state government is reported to be unwilling to cancel such high impact projects, and to explore less impact projects to achieve the associated so-called developmental goals. What is even more appalling is the fact that none of such high impact projects are proven beyond reasonable doubt, as essential to the true welfare of our society, and that there are no credible alternatives.
It is a highly deplorable scenario that the concerned authorities seem to be conjuring up such project proposals without due diligence, and are refusing to address the associated concerns, and/ or to consider any of the alternatives as recommended by civil society, as exemplified in the case of few power projects.
Three hydro electric power project proposals in Wildlife Sanctuaries of the state, as in the list attached, cannot be justified as essential by any means, and each of them have many benign alternatives with very low societal level costs. Such an irrational and dangerous attitude of the concerned officials has led many people to believe in the serious allegation of the state government succumbing to lobbies by contractors and timber merchants.
To exacerbate the overall ecological scenario in the state, the commercial and industrial activities are being encouraged without any pause, as an integral part of a high GDP growth rate paradigm, with the inevitable impact of unsustainable burden on our natural resources, especially water and forests. In such a scary scenario it is irrational to state that "Karnataka’s water policy has already placed it on the right path."
In the light of the above facts, it amounts to unethical attitude for EMPRI to blindly endorse the unsustainable/ irrational policies of the state on issues associated with not only water related policies/ practices, but generally on any issue associated with climate change.
In view of the fact that such unsustainable/ irrational policies on issues associated with climate change are also being pursued by various governments around the world, which have resulted in the latest IPCC Synthesis report warning the global society that " Humanity is at the climate crossroads: highway to hell or a livable future?", should mandate government agencies such as EMPRI to take a vastly more critical role in recommending effective action plans to minimise the impacts of Climate change for our people. The serious concerns for our people are not restricted to the freshwater crisis alone, but all the projected impacts of climate change.
It becomes pertinent here to emphasise what our National Forest Policy says. In section 4.1 (Area under Forests) it says: “The national goal should be to have a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country under forest or tree cover. In the hills and in mountainous regions, the aim should be to maintain two-third of the area under such cover in order to prevent erosion and land degradation and to ensure the stability of the fragile eco-system.”
It should be no rocket science to be convinced that adequate quality and area of forest & trees for the state/ country (at least as per the national forest policy target) is critical not only to address the water crisis in the state, but also to minimise the impacts of climate change on our people.
The plethora of credible reports from the global scientific community including IPCC, which have focused on Climate Change, have all unequivocally concluded that a BAU scenario in our developmental paradigm will not be in the interest of our people, and hence, needs a drastic change with a strong focus on adequately protecting our natural resources, such as air, water sources, soil, and forests etc.
Whereas the continued indifference to manage our water resources efficiently and responsibly will constitute a serious and long-lasting threat to our people, it can also be construed as a crime against our people and against humanity, if we consciously ignore to consider the entire gamut of environmental management issues from the correct perspective of Climate Change.
Hence, the state government also needs to undertake a thorough review of our developmental priorities, keeping in view the strengths and constraints of the state’s geography, our people’s needs, and the fast-looming threats of Climate Change. EMPRI should soon get into a position so as to suitably guide all the associated policies of the state in this regard.
In this larger context, may I take this opportunity to urge EMPRI to take a more critical role in proper environment management planning for the state, by taking a holistic view of the entire spectrum of environmental issues from the perspective of the overall welfare of our people and the climate change? In this onerous task, civil society groups and domain experts can be expected to be happy to provide all possible support to EMPRI.
In this regard, people's recommendations on the state's climate action plan as compiled for the KSPCB, is as enclosed, and can be considered as a basic discussion document in EMPRI's efforts to prepare a sustainable and effective environment management plan for the state government.
Through your good offices, may I also request the state government to accord the necessary status and all the required support for EMPRI to become a leading environmental research institute in the state, and to become a highly effective player in protecting our people from the scourges of Climate Change?

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