Sahyadri Conservation Series: 24 ENVIS Technical Report: 54,  April 2013
http://www.iisc.ernet.in/
Kumaradhara River Basin, Karnataka Western Ghats: Need for Conservation and Sustainable Use
http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/
1Energy and Wetlands Research Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore – 560012, India.
2Member, Western Ghats Task Force, Government of Karnataka, 3Member, Karnataka Biodiversity Board, Government of Karnataka
4Member, Tree Authority  Mangalore (Rural),  Government of Karnataka
*Corresponding author: cestvr@ces.iisc.ernet.in
OBJECTIONS TO IRRATIONAL INTERVENTIONS IN WESTERN GHATS
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Kukke Hydro Projects Pvt. Ltd. (KHPPL) has purposed a power project to generate 24 MW Hydroelectric power utilizing naturally available potential energy in the water flows of Kumaradhara River near Kunturu Perabe village in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, and supply the same to Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited (KPTCL). The Kukke hydroelectric project is proposed as a run-off the river scheme across the river Kumaradhara.

Project will not fit into clean development mechanism: The proponents of the project aver that “As the project utilizes naturally available hydro potential of the Kumaradhara river for power generation and do not consume any fossil fuels, the project activity contributes for reduction of greenhouse gases to the extent of 60,306 t CO2 eqannually to the grid, which would have, otherwise, been generated by the operation of grid-connected power plants and by addition of new generation sources.” The argument that the project aims at generating hydroelectricity which is clean energy cannot be supported as the project will submerge/destroy forests and farmlands (including rubber) in 1524 ha causing release of greenhouse gases. Average above ground stored carbon/ha of forests, as per the samples studied, is to the tune of 427.27 t/ha. Removal of 878 hectares of forests will amount to the emission of 3,75,395 t of Carbon. Loss of annual carbon sequestration potential will be 1.13 t C /ha /yr.

While making such a claim that generating electricity from running water is clean development the proponents are not divulging the fact that the project is going to submerge over 800 ha of forests, which include even the relics of riparian rain forests on the banks of Kumaradhara, geologically one of the most ancient rivers in the world. These rainforests are the only places in the world where the last live specimens of the tree Madhuca insignis (a rain forest relative of the Mahua tree) survives. Despite heavy human pressures this forest still harbours some of the last remains of the Myristica (wild nutmeg) swamps of the Western Ghats, which probably owes their origin to the Gondwanaland. Not only the forests get submerged but also will perish some of the best farmlands growing spices and arecanut, and of late rubber (Table 3). The area that will fall in the submersion zone is several times larger than the area projected by the proponents, and hence the Government and the public are being misled. As already Kumaradhara River is prone to flooding, execution of the dam will badly impede rainy season flow flood the neighboring farmlands forcing the farmers to vacate them without even compensation settlement.

The proponents conceals that the riparian forests to be submerged at  FRL of 83.5 m and the trees have high basal areas wherever they are intact. This is mainly due to their profuse branching from their bases for the river bed and bank trees, storing high biomass. In some patches just above prevalent flood levels trees are taller and bulkier and tend to gain enormous biomass. The details of estimated basal areas/ha, above ground biomass/ha in tons and above ground carbon sequestration/ha in tons are given in the Table 9.

Table 9: Transect-wise vegetation quantitative features and carbon sequestration

Transects Locations Nature of landscape element Basal area/ha (m²) Above ground biomass- tons/ha Above ground carbon storage- tons/ha
1 Koodige-Gundia river Riverbed 56.55 380.58 190.29
2 Koodige-Gundia river Riverbed 108.57 733.28 366.64
3 Koodige-Gundia river Riverbed 46.55 312.78 156.39
4 Koodige-Gundia river Riverbed 139.74 944.64 472.32
5 Kemmadakutir-Kunturu River bank-Sacred grove 67.33 453.66 226.83
6 Kemmadakutir- Kunturu Riverbed 81 546.37 273.19
7 Kemmadakutir- Kunturu Riverbed 98.09 662.22 331.11
8 Dolpadi Riverbed 46.66 313.52 156.76
9 Dolpadi River bank 331.52 2244.89 1122.44
10 Dolpadi River bank 190.12 1286.22 643.11
11 Palechar Kuttruppady River bed 134.12 906.54 453.27
12 Palechar Kuttruppady River bed 217.55 1472.19 736.09
Total 1517.79 10256.89 5128.44
Average 126.48 m²/ha 854.74 t/ha 427.27 t/ha

Table 9 illustrates that average above ground stored carbon/ha of forests, as per the samples studied, is to the tune of 427.27 t/ha. As the high water storage at 83 m will cause forest elimination (through clear-felling or submersion) of 878.59 ha, an entire stock of carbon amounting to over 3.75 lakh tons, only from above ground tree biomass (excluding roots and other woody biomass in shrubs, lianas and saplings etc.) stands to be released into the atmosphere. The rain forests’ ability to sequester carbon in the soil also will halt with forest submersion. Release of methane from the reservoir, especially emanating from the incompletely oxidized biomass in the reservoir will also add to the greenhouse gases.

Moreover the submersion of horticultural (arecanut-coconut-cocoa-mango-jackfruit etc. and rubber plantations), to the tune of 645 ha, with or without removal of their woody biomass, again will result in reduced capacity in future for carbon sequestration.

River Kumaradhara flows through biodiversity hotspot of Western Ghats, through some ofthe richest Reserve Forests and has astounding aquatic biodiversity. Many studies have proved that Kumaradhara has one of the highest endangered fish populations. A study identified 56 different fish species from Kumaradhara River out of which 23 are endemics, 11 are Vulnerable and 8 are endangered by IUCN and feature in Red List of threatened species (http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/pubs/ces_tr/TR122/section2.htm). Rivers like Kumaradhara-Gundia are the last domains of this diversity and any negative impact onthese will be extremely short sighted, and detrimental to sustainable development.

Threat of submersion to high endemism forests: A major reason for declaring Western Ghats as one of the Global Biodiversity Hotspots is the prevalence of high degree of endemism among the biological communities. The riparian forests of Kumaradhara river bank could be one of the richest in endemism in central Western Ghats, taking into consideration the tree community. This is obviously on account of the high evergreenness of the tree community that fosters high levels of endemism. Such endemic species being irreplaceable we should not venture into major interventions in the form of hydel projects that can decimate the endemic species, both on the land and in water, like the endemic fishes for instance for which Kumaradhara is rich.

Figure 10 on evergreenness and endemism, based on our studies of 12 transects of riverbank and riverbed tree vegetation along the Kumaradhara River, in the portion threatened with submersion in case of execution of the minihydel project, there is perfect synchronisation between evergreenness and Western Ghatsendemism  among the trees. Whereas four of the 12 transects have almost 100% evergreen trees 3 others have over 80% evergreen trees. Some samples like. Percentage of tree endemics vary from nearly 60% to just over 80%  in the forest patches  of transects 1, 2 and 4 in Koodige village of Gundia river bank (tributary of Kumaradhara also going to be affected by the proposed project), of 8 and 9 at Dolpadi and and 11at Palechar at Kuttruppady. The lower evergeenness of some forests are on account of t vicinity of horticultural gardens and hamlets which depend on adjoining forest patches for meeting their biomass demands. Even these have good proportion of endemic trees ranging between 35 to 55%.

Of the most notable of the evergreen species is the riparian evergreen tree Madhuca insignis, a Critically Endangered tree according to the IUCN Red List, and Kumaradhara River bank is the only place in the world where it occurs today. The tree was thought to be extinct for long time but rediscovered after a long gap of 120 years by Krishnakumar, HS Shenoy and Kaveriappa (2004). Until its rediscovery there were only two type collections of the species in the world (as herbarium specimens),  one in Germany  and the second in the British Museum of Natural History, London. Syzygium travancoricum is yet another tree species, also considered extinct from the world once, but was rediscovered from the forests of Dakshina Kannada, mainly Netravathi basin, by Krishnakumar and Shenoy (2006). This tree, also  Critically Endangered as per IUCN  occurs very sparingly in the threatened submersion area of Kumaradhara.  Associates of M. insignis include also the Endangered and endemic species such as Hopea ponga and Vateria indica and Ochreinauclea missionis  and Gymnacranthera canarica (both of Vulnerable stauts according to IUCN). Other notable riparian species include Euonymus indica, Carallia brachiata, Madhuca neriifolia, Calophyllum apetalum, Elaeocarpus tuberculatus, Vitex leucoxylon etc. The presence of over 40% and above tree endemism in 10 of 12 transects is something remarkable for any riparian vegetation of Western Ghats. Kingiodendrum pinnatum, Hopea spp., etc. T8-Dolpadi and T9-Dolpadi were not only endemically rich but also had very good populations of large sized Myristica malabarica or wild nutmeg trees.

That the region threatened with submersion is a hot bed of several more rare species is evident from the discovery a rare fern Helminthostachys zeylanica from the areca gardens of Kumaradhara-Gundia basin in Dakshina Kannada. This fern discovery by Shenoy and Krishnakumar (2007) is altogether a new record to Karnataka. Elsewhere in the world the fern is attributed with medicinal food values.

Siltation threats: Removal/submersion/destruction of natural and man-made vegetation of such great proportions is an ironical situation and much beyond the what is commonly comprehended as a mini-hydel project. Such a submersion is due to the main fact that the project envisaged is rather on a flatter terrain, not having sufficient altitude to gain the proper head necessary for generation of power. Blockage of running water by a dam at FRL of 83.5 m from msl will have submersion area much more than what is portrayed by the proponents. Moreover, in such situations, siltation due to soil instability due to vegetation removal in a very heavy rainfall area (4000-6000 mm) can be quite damaging to the reservoir storage affecting adversely the minimum critical height necessary for electricity generation.

On the claims of contribution to sustainable development: The project proponent’s claim that “The project activity results in alleviation of poverty by generating direct and indirect employment during construction of the project as well as during operation.” Our observations are that, as the project, with dam height of 83m and installed capacity of 24 MW will create submersion of almost 1883 ha of land and river courses, creating complete dislocations of traditional livelihoods associated with agriculture, horticulture, cattle wealth, forest based livelihoods etc. It is difficult to believe, how the project “creates indirect employment opportunities for the inhabitants of the village” except as laborers and helpers or petty traders after already disturbing an energy efficient, non-polluting, rural economy based on one of the best areas for plantation crops, rice and rubber, along the foothills of Karnataka.

That the  “project activity would increase the availability of power in the area” (page 37c, DPR) is a dubious statement . In spite of bigger hydel projects in the rivers such Kali and Sharavathi many are the villages cut off from the  main centres of life because of the waterspread in the reservoir, and many villages go even without the electricity (many villages close to Linganmakki and Joida for eg.).

The statement of the proponents in page 3d that: “As it is a run-of-the river project there is no storage and no submergence of land, hence no loss of species. Hence the project does not cause any resettlement or rehabilitation of the people” could be quite misleading and can be used as a ploy to smoothen the way for project clearance indicating the likelihood of getting CDM benefits. The project indeed, with a dam height of about 83 m above msl is expected to submerge  1883 ha of forests and river beds and rural landscapes with one of the richest crop diversities (rice, coconut, arecanut, black pepper, kokam, mango, banana, jackfruit, nutmegs, cocoa, rubber etc.).

Importance of the forests threatened with submersion: The riparian and other lowland forests threatened with submersion are of very special kind, highly evergreen in nature and with high percentage of Western Ghat endemic species. The results from 12 forest transects that we made   in the vulnerable forests are self-revealing (Table-8). Patches of riparian forests with high percentage of evergreen trees speak about the ideal humid tropical forest conditions. Four of the forest patches surveyed happened to be of 100% evergreen species. These forests are rich repositories of endemic tree species of Western Ghats.  Even the poorest evergreen patch sampled, Transect 9 with 45.45% of evergreen trees had 36.36% endemics.

Aquatic diversity:

56 fish species were reported from Kumaradhara-Netravathi fresh water complex. Out of these 23 were endemic to Western Ghats. Two were Critically Endangered and eight of them Endangered. Checklist of freshwater fishes of Nethravathi River and Kumaradhara Rivers (Gururaja et al., 2007) is provided next.

Species name,  Distribution and IUCN Status

  1. Anguilla bengalensis (Gray) India VU
  2. Aplocheilus blocki (Arnold) India DD
  3. Aplocheiluslineatus (Val.) India LR
  4. Barilius bakeri (Day) Endemic VU
  5. Barilius canarensis (Jerdon) Endemic DD
  6. Barilius gatensis (Val.) Endemic DD
  7. Brachydanio rerio (Ham.) India LR
  8. Channa orientalis (Bl. & Schn.) India VU
  9. Channa striatus India LR
  10. Cirrhinusreba (Ham.) India VU
  11. Clarias dussumieri (Val.) Endemic VU
  12. Cyprinus carpio communis (Linne.) India Intro
  13. Danio aequipinnatus India LR
  14. Danio malabaricus (Jerdon) India LR
  15. Esomusthermoicos (Val.) India LR
  16. Etroplus canarensis Endemic CR
  17. Etroplus maculatus (Bloch) India LR
  18. Garra gotyla stenorhynchus Endemic EN
  19. Garra mullya (Sykes) India LR
  20. Glossogobius giuris India LR
  21. Horabagrus brachysoma (Gunther) Endemic CR
  22. Hyporhamphuslimbatus (Val.) India DD
  23. Hypselobarbus kurali Menon and Rema Devi Endemic EN
  24. Labeo kontius (Jerdon) Endemic EN
  25. Lepidocephalusthermalis (Val.) India LR
  26. Mastacembelus armatus Lacepede India LR
  27. Mesonemacheilus petrubanarescui Endemic DD
  28. Mystus cavasius (Ham.) India LR
  29. Mystus malabaricus (Jerdon) Endemic EN
  30. Oreochromis mossambica (Peters) India Intro
  31. Osteochilichthys nashii Day Endemic VU
  32. Poecilia reticulata (Peters) India Intro
  33. Pristolepis marginata (Jerdon) Endemic VU
  34. Pseudosphromenus cupanius (Val.) India DD
  35. Puntius amphibius (Val.) India LR
  36. Puntius arulius arulius (Jerdon) Endemic EN
  37. Puntius bimaculatus (Bleeker) India DD
  38. Puntius conchonius (Ham.) India VU
  39. Puntiusfilamentosus (Val.) India DD
  40. Puntius melanampyx (Day) Endemic LR
  41. Puntius melanostigma (Day) Endemic EN
  42. Puntiussarana subnasutus (Val.) Endemic LR
  43. Puntiussetnai Chhapgar and Sane Endemic DD
  44. Puntiussophore India LR
  45. Puntiusticto (Ham.) India LR
  46. Puntius vittatus Day India VU
  47. Rasbora daniconius (Ham.) India LR
  48. Salmostoma acinaces (Val.) India LR
  49. Salmostoma boopis (Day) Endemic LR
  50. Schistura denisonii denisonii India VU
  51. Schistura kodaguensis Menon Endemic DD
  52. Schistura nilgiriensis Menon Endemic EN
  53. Schistura semiarmatus Day Endemic VU
  54. Tetraodon (M.) tavancoricus Hora & Nair Endemic EN
  55. Tor khudree (Sykes) India VU
  56. Xenentodon cancila (Ham.) India LR
  57. Note: CR – Critically Endangered, EN – Endangered, VU – Vulnerable, LR – Lower risk, DD – Data deficient,  Intro: Introduced species

Fresh water fish “Dwarf Puffer” Carinotetraodon imitator was discovered from Kumaradhara by scientists of Conservation Research Group (CRG) of St. Albert’s College, Kochi. (Ref: Endangered fish found in Western Ghats. Times of India, 2012 November 30). Recently the same researchers,  Anvar Ali and Rajeev Raghavan from the Conservation Research Group, St Albert’s College, Kochi and Ralf Britz from the Natural History Museum, London, UK discovered a new species of fresh water catfish Pseudolaguvia Lapillicola, only the second member of the genus to be found in peninsular India, from Kumaradhara River. The discovery has been reported in the latest issue of the leading taxonomy journal Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters.The new species is found in clear water streams with sand, gravel and stone as substrate. Anvar Ali stated :“The streams around Kumaradhara were poorly explored until our expedition last year. We had come across many other potentially new species which are being studied before a formal announcement is made. The habitat at Kumaradhara needs to be protected as it harbours an amazing diversity of fish species, many of which are restricted to this location. The habitat is facing a threat from sand mining. One species, Pangio Ammophila, lives in the sand bed. Hence, removal of sand will be detrimental to the species.” (as reported in Bangalore Mirror 2013 March 20)

High percentage of endemic fishes and several threatened species highlight the conservation importance of the running water ecosystems. Ironically enough proponents have claimed in PDD that “the project shall not affect the aquatic life available in this stream, which at present is insignificant”.  What the document had ignored was that the Kumaradhara river has one of the highest endangered fish populations in the Western Ghats.

Impact on Malnadu-Kodagu landscape corridor: The Western Ghats harbours wide-ranging species such as the Asian Elephant, Tiger, Asiatic Wild Dog, the greater spotted eagle, the white-backed vulture, and the long-billed vulture whose conservation cannot depend upon a site-based approach and needs the protection of larger landscapes, involving major habitat types and linking corridors of natural vegetation facilitating movement of various important animal species.  Hence, the areas that provide connectivity for the movement of such wide-ranging species and the areas that provide buffers of suitable natural habitats to the existing protected areas are considered while identifying the landscape corridors for conservation of such species. However, most of the information available in good quantity was pertaining to the tiger and elephant which are the ‘keystone’ and ‘umbrella’ species in the ecosystem respectively (Wickramanayake et al. 1999, Venkataraman et al. 2002). Within these larger landscapes, the critical links provide crucial connectivity between sites or buffer existing sites, especially protected areas and consist of various habitats ranging from Myristica swamps or Ochlandra reeds in the southernmost subregion, dry scrub, and open deciduous forests in the Mysore plateau-Kaveri subregion to high elevation grasslands and associated shola ecosystems in the central Western Ghats and moist deciduous forests in the northern regions.

Five landscape-scale corridors have been identified in the Western Ghats which are known as 1. Periyar-Agasthyamalai, 2. Anamalai, 3. Mysore-Nilgiri, 4. Malnad-Kodagu and 5. Sahyadri-Konkan corridors. The Malnad-Kodagu corridor covers an area of about 21,345 square kilometres, making it the largest corridor in the Western Ghats. A total of 36 site outcomes are contained within this corridor of which seven are protected areas comprising of about 18% of the total protected area network of Western Ghats. The main vegetation types in this corridor include tropical wet evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous forests, grasslands, and scrub. The Kunturu RF of Panja Forest Range and Subrahmanya forest range including the Nakur, Subrahmanya, Kombar, Mujur and Konaje Reserve Forests (most of which fall in the catchment region of Kumardhara-Gundia river) are ‘critical links’ of the Malnadu-Kodagu corridor. There is already high degree of fragmentation of natural habitats in this corridor especially due to the coffee, arecanut plantations and leaf manure forests (CEPF, 2007). The riparian forests along with the river and stream courses are vital components of the wildlife corridors. Submersion of sizeable portions of the Kumaradhara riparian areas and of Gundia River (tributary of Kumaradhara) due to mini-hydel projets will amount to not only submersion of considerable extent of productive farmlands of betelnut, coconut, cocoa, nutmegs, rubber, banana etc. but also result in losses of rare species sheltering riparian forests causing further disruption of a major wildlife corridor.

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