Athirapally dam threatens tiger and elephant forests
June 2001: The proposed Athirapally hydroelectric project on Kerala's Chalakudy river has run into stiff opposition from local groups. The project will require the diversion of over 130 ha. of forest land and will sever the only link between the Peechi Vazhani Sanctuary and the Idamalayar basin of the Periyar river. The vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests will also be affected.
These tiger and leopard forests are home to the Great Indian Hornbill, Nilgiri langur, liontailed macaque and the rare Cochin forest cane turtle. The beautiful Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls would also be lost. Five new fish species were recently discovered in the Chalakudy river, the highest river in Kerala.
In 1998, the MoEF approved a hydroelectric project at Athirapally using the tail end waters of the existing Poringalkuthu dam (constructed across Chalakudy river in Thrissur district in Kerala State). Subsequently, the Govt. of Kerala gave clearance in February 2000 for the diversion of 138.60 hectare of forest land for the construction of the Athirapally dam.
The Kerala State Electricity Board had commissioned the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Trivandrum to undertake the EIA for this project. The EIA that was prepared has several shortcomings:
1. The EIA report is silent on the actual volume of trees that will be lost from the area that will be submerged.
2. The plant growth in the submergence area seems to be high - some 402 plants. The report does not show the size classes of the trees present. Table 12 does not reflect this.
3. The EIA seem to have been conducted only from September to November 1996, over just three months. To get a clear picture of the biodiversity value of the area, the study should have covered all seasons, summer, both the monsoons and winter.
4. Most birds breed during February-April; as this period was not covered, one does not know the dependence of birds, especially endangered species on the riparian vegetation for breeding. The same is the case with many other life forms.
5. The EIA does not seem to have given much importance to amphibians and reptiles. One would expect many more species in such a riverine system.
6. Components of the fauna and flora of the aquatic system were not sampled adequately as the report itself admits under para 2.9 that - "The field visit was scheduled during the monsoon and hence, the whole stretch of the river was flooded due to prevailing heavy rains. This made collection of parameters like depth, aquatic plants, benthos, algae, fish fauna etc difficult and in some cases impossible". Therefore, the EIA report presented does not reflect the fauna and flora.
7. While the EIA report is silent on the uniqueness of the riverine vegetation, the importance in maintaining the continuity of the similar vegetation, down stream and up streams, rarity of such vegetation in that particular altitude; it enthusiastically adds under each heading that construction of the dam will not affect the particular vegetation/flora/fauna.
Aside from these obvious lacunae in EIA, the area is of ecological importance for several reasons, none of which are taken into account in the report:
1. The Chalakudy river system is known for its faunal peculiarities.
2. The 144 km. long Chalakudy river system has a record of 99 fish species (BNHS and ZSI records) Athirapally is one of the five important areas for fish in this river system.
3. Five new fish species were recently discovered in the Chalakudy river and altogether 71 out of 99 species recorded from the Chalakudy river basin have been recorded from the altitudinal zone where the dam is proposed. 35 species of fish located in the Chalakudy river are endemic to Kerala; out of which 12 are rare. This is not mentioned in the EIA report.
4. Lagenandra nairii is a new species reported only from Athirapally. Another species, Gymnema khandalense is reported only from Athirapally in Kerala.
The area to be submerged is vital because of its location, as it connects the down stream and up stream riverine ecosystem, which is otherwise surrounded on all sides by plantations.
The EIA report on the riverine vegetation mentions in para 3.6.2 that "any repatriation of these floral elements outside its natural habitat will be a futile exercise due to their rich specificity".
Clearly, the EIA has several serious flaws and shortcomings. There is a need for another more comprehensive EIA report, conducted by a reputed natural history institution such as SACON or the BNHS.
Write a letter to protest against the project, or ask that another EIA be prepared by a reputed institution.