Environmental/Ecological flow refers to the minimum flow of water to be maintained in a water body (river, lake, etc.) to sustain ecosystem services. Understanding environmental flow is important to ensure the local ecological and social (people, agriculture and horticulture, etc.) needs in a sustained and balanced way, while designing large scale projects (such as hydro-electric, river diversion, etc.). Western Ghats are the mountain ranges extending from southern tip of India (Tamilnadu – Kanyakumari) to Gujarat. These mountain ranges are rich in biodiversity with diverse and endemic flora and fauna, and is birth place to numerous perennial rivers namely Netravathi, Sita, Sharavathi, Aghanashini, Krishna, Cauvery, etc. Western Ghats is often referred as water tower of peninsular India, due to the water and food security provided by the ecosystem through array of services. The region is also one among 35 global biodiversity hotspots. However, deforestation due to large scale land cover changes has affected the water sustenance in the region evident from the quantity and duration of water availability during post monsoon period. Forests in the Western Ghats along with the soil characteristics and precipitation plays a major role in storing water in sub-surface (vadoze and groundwater) zones during monsoon, and releases to the streams during post monsoon periods catering to the needs of the dependent biota including humans. Some of these undisturbed/unaltered natural flow conditions in rivers and streams have proved their worth with the presence of rich and diverse species and array of ecosystem services, which also has helped in sustaining the livelihood of dependent populations. The undisturbed flow conditions guarantees the natural flow as well as minimum flow in streams to sustain the ecosystem services, which helps in meeting the social and ecological needs. Growing demand to cater the demands of burgeoning human population coupled with accelerated pace of deforestation due to unplanned and senseless developmental projects in the ecologically fragile regions have led the water scarcity even in regions receiving high amount of rainfall. In the current communication an attempt is made to understand the linkages between the hydrological dynamics across varied landscape with the anthropogenic and ecological water needs. If the available water resource meets the societal and environmental demands across seasons, the catchment is said to achieve the minimum flow requirements.
The federal government has plans to divert the water from rivers in Western Ghats region to the dry arid regions in Karnataka. In this regard, environmental flow assessment of Yettinaholé river in Central Western Ghats is carried out to understand the feasibility of river diversion through the assessment of hydrologic regime with the analysis of land use dynamics (using remote sensing data), meteorological data (rainfall, temperature, etc. from IMD, Pune), hydrological data (from gauged streams) apart from field investigations in the catchment. The catchments receive annual rainfall of 3000 – 5000 mm (Department of Statistics, Government of Karnataka). Land use analyses reveal that Major portion of the catchment is covered with evergreen forest (45.08%) followed by agriculture plantations (29.05%) and grass lands (24.06%). Water yield in the catchment computed for each of sub-catchments based on the current land use and other related hydrological parameters using empirical method. The total runoff yield from the catchments is estimated to be 9.55 TMC. About 5.84 TMC is required for domestic purposes including agriculture, horticulture and livestock rearing. The quantum of water required to sustain fish life in the streams is about 2 TMC, computed based on hydrological discharge monitoring and fish diversity in streams during 18 months (covering all seasons) in select streams in Western Ghats. Considering the available water is sufficient only to meet the anthropogenic and ecological needs in the region, the sustainable option to meet the water requirements in dry arid regions would be through (i) decentralized water harvesting (through tanks, ponds, lakes, etc.), (ii) rejuvenation or restoration of existing lakes/ponds, (iii) reuse of waste water, (iv) recharging groundwater resources, (v) planting native species of grasses and tree species in the catchment (to enhance percolation of water in the catchment), (vi) implementation of soil and water conservation through micro-watershed approaches. Implementation of these location specific approaches in arid regions would cost much less compared to the river diversion projects, which if implemented would help the section of the society involved in decision making, construction and implementation of the project.
Keywords -Ecological flow, Yettinaholé River, watershed, land cover, fresh water ecosystem