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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Barrage across Narmada: promise of sweet water, worries about hilsa

The Rs-4,167-crore Bhadbhut project in Bharuch is meant to solve freshwater problems in this region of Gujarat. It has also faced protests from local fishermen for its likely impact on fishing patterns, notably those of hilsa.

Written by Avinash Nair | Ahmedabad | Updated: August 18, 2020 8:43:19 am
The Rs-4,167-crore Bhadbhut project in Bharuch is meant to solve freshwater problems in this region of Gujarat. (Express Photo/Representational)

The Gujarat government recently awarded the contract for a barrage project to a joint venture of Dilip Buildcon Ltd and Hindustan Construction Company Ltd. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017 laid the foundation stone; Chief Minister Vijay Rupani last week announced the beginning of construction.

The Rs-4,167-crore Bhadbhut project in Bharuch is meant to solve freshwater problems in this region of Gujarat. It has also faced protests from local fishermen for its likely impact on fishing patterns, notably those of hilsa.

What is the Bhadbhut project?

It is planned to be a 1.7-km causeway-cum-weir barrage with 90 gates, across the river Narmada, 5 km from Bhadbhut village, and 25 km from the mouth of the river, where it flows into the Gulf of Khambhat. The barrage will stop most of the excess water flowing out of the Sardar Sarovar Dam from reaching the sea and thus create a “sweet water lake” of 600 mcm (million cubic metres) on the river.

The barrage will also have a six-lane road that will connect the left and right banks of the river and provide shorten the land distance between two large industrial estates in Surat and Bharuch.

The project also aims to prevent flooding in years when rainfall is higher than normal. Embankments 22 km long will be made and will extend upstream towards Bharuch, from either side of the river.

Why was the need felt?

The main purpose of the project is to prevent salinity ingress. At the beginning of the 21st century, an estimated 16.30 million acre feet (MAF) of water used to be released from the dam. By 2017, when the height of the dam rose, flow into the river reduced to 4.7 MAF. Due to the reduced flow of fresh water, saline seawater gushes into the Narmada estuary during high tide, thus increasing salinity along the banks.

The sweet water from the reservoir will aim to meet the residential and industrial water requirements of Bharuch, Ankleshwar and Dahej.

The project is part of the larger Kalpasar Project, which entails construction of a 30-km dam across the Gulf of Khambhat between Bharuch and Bhavnagar districts. The reservoir is meant to tap the waters of the Narmada, Mahisagar and Sabarmati.

Why are fishermen upset?

The barrage is expected to interfere with the migration and breeding cycle of hilsa. A marine fish, hilsa migrate upstream and arrives in the brackish water of the Narmada estuary near Bharuch for spawning usually during the monsoon months of July and August, and continue doing so till November. Once the barrage is built, it is expected to block their natural entry.

Fishermen in Bhadbhut village told The Indian Express that the hilsa catch between July and September every year has dropped to 10-15 fish a day from the earlier 50-100 a day. According to a study by Kolkata-based Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), fish production from the Narmada estuary has fallen from 15,889 tonnes in 2006-07 to just 1,618 tonnes in 2014-15. The hilsa catch during the same period has fallen to 419 tonnes from 5,180 tonnes. The reduced outflow of water from the dam, industrial effluents flowing into the river and salinity ingress are believed to be the major causes of this decline.

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What is the government’s stand on this?

Government officials say the entry of hilsa will not be restricted on account of the barrage. “We have planned fish passes for hilsa fish. The Kolkata-based CIFRI has been asked to study the migration patterns and they have already submitted a primary report,” said an official of the Narmada Water Resources, Water Supply and Kalpasar Department, which is executing the project.

“Designs will be made by the EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contractor based on this report. Studies have been on for the last one year and it will take another year for the institute to submit its final report. According to our estimate, the fish pass will be about 5 metres wide and that should be enough for this species to migrate into the estuary without any hindrance. The height of this fish pass will be decided on the final report of the institute. This fish pass will remain open almost throughout the year,” the official said.

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How will fishermen from Bhadbhut, and villages that are located upstream, access the river?

The barrage will have a fishermen navigation channel that will allow fishermen owning boats and living upstream on the Narmada beyond the barrage to get access to the sea. This channel will be about 10-15 metres wide and will have a gate that can be opened and shut as necessary.

The barrage design also has a navigation lock to enable any future plans to run a ferry service or boats under the inland waterway scheme. The navigation lock is a passage about 18 metres wide and will allow larger vessels to cross the barrage, say officials.

The Inland Waterway Authority of India has given clearance for this project.

What other areas will the project impact?

Part of Aliya Bet, and island in the delta of the Narmada and known for shrimp farming, is likely to get submerged. A portion of the forest in Aliya Bet too will get affected by the project. Most of the Aliya Bet is downstream from the barrage.

“We have already got the first stage of clearances from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climates Change,” the government official said. He declined to reveal the area that will get submerged due to the accumulation of water in Bhadbhut reservoir.

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