Examining Environmental Flows Critical for River Ecosystems in India

Jenny Binstock

It’s no secret that in South Asia, dam building is on the rise. India alone has already constructed over 5,000 large dams with many more in the pipeline. The Himalayas have already been targeted by the Indian government, along with the governments of Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, to construct hundreds of mega-dams on the many mountain rivers that serve as a lifeline for those living throughout South Asia.

The legendary Jog falls are a shadow of their former self after damming
The legendary Jog falls are a shadow of their former self after damming
(Photo: Dr. Latha Anantha)

Each and every dam that is constructed impacts the larger ecosystem supported by a river and its tributaries: the volume, timing, and quality of water flows is critical to sustaining freshwater habitat for plants and animals, and overall ecosystem health is fundamentally sustained through essential patterns of healthy river flows. When dams are planned and constructed, their design rarely speaks to the many intricacies of the ecosystems that are manipulated through the control of flows. Moreover, river-dependent communities rely on their knowledge of natural river flows to support their livelihoods, and dams threaten the harmony that exists between river communities and the environment. Environmental flows, or “e-flows,” is a concept that has developed to inform and support equitable and sustainable water management strategies by addressing the need to enhance a river’s natural flow regime to promote healthy ecosystems. 

Last month, International Rivers co-organized a workshop on e-flows in Dehradun, India, along with The Himmotthan Society to address the many issues surrounding key questions of river health and management in India:  "How do we view our rivers? Are they mere conduits to be exploited to meet different needs? Or do we value them for their ecosystem services and revere them for their spiritual significance?"

The day-long workshop featured discussions led by experts in river conservation and management from the River Research Centre in Kerala, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP), the Peoples Science Institute, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Topics addressed included:

  • “Overview of environmental flows”: Dr. Ravi Chopra of the Peoples Science Institute, Dehradun, provided an overview of the history of river conservation and addressed the history and current state of environmental flows in India.
  • “Why, what and how of environmental flows”: Dr. Latha Anantha of the River Research Centre in Kerala gave a talk on declining flows in rivers, and pressed the importance of adequate instream flows for healthy river systems.
  • “Objective setting for environmental flows”: Parineeta Dandekar examined current methods of environmental flow assessment, and the complex issues surrounding how ‘management objectives’ are set for rivers.
  • “Environmental flows assessment for the upper Ganga”: Nitin Kaushal and Suresh Babu of WWF shared their experience of conducting an e-flows assessment of the upper Ganga by describing methods, offering recommendations, and highlighting lessons learned.
  • “Critique of cumulative impact assessment as done today”: Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala discussed cumulative impact assessments of biodiversity in the Alakananda and Bhagirathi basins conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India. Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP further explored cumulative impacts by stressing the importance of impact assessments for entire river basins, rather than simply for individual dams.
Dr. Latha Anantha explains the necessity of adequate instream flows
Dr. Latha Anantha explains the necessity of adequate instream flows

Videos of all of the workshops can be viewed here, and presentations can be downloaded here.

The workshop concluded with the development of several action points centered on the need for participants and colleagues to actively engage in critiquing environmental impact assessments, and for further study and dialogue surrounding environmental flows. A six-day course on e-flows for teachers and practitioners of IWRM, environmental consultants, policy makers, NGOs and CBOs is currently being planned.

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