A River Interrupted
One of the chief sources of water and livelihood in South India, the Cauvery is both revered and ravaged in equal parts. In this article, we dive into its depths to measure out the incredible biodiversity stored within, even as we question the unpredictability of its future.
I am not sure what others think when they stand before raw nature. With an endless ocean before me; a majestic mountain range holding up the sky in every direction; or a great rain forest replacing the sun with a green universe—I cannot help but feel humbled, very small, very temporary when surrounded by such wonder. If I can be in such awe, I assume that others would perhaps feel the same.
But when I sit at the edge of the wild Cauvery River, there’s too much on my mind to care about what the rest think. I see the impossible perfection of nature; how an infinite number of raindrops produce a countless number of streams to feed a giant life force that, in turn, feeds part of a subcontinent. I see how ceaseless flow carves rocks and shapes the very earth; and how it provides a consistent enough environment for species to evolve, adapt, specialize, and thrive. I see, from my mortal perspective, eternity. May be sitting at the riverside for countless hours, silently waiting for a bird or small mammal to make an appearance has led to much introspection; but nevertheless, the Cauvery has helped shape my perspective of nature and our place in it.
The Cauvery begins in the district of Coorg, in Karnataka state. A spring in the Brahma giri hill,now surrounded by an ancient temple built to worship the creation of the river, empties into the temple’s stone tank and serves as its symbolic origin. From this point, thousands of other monsoon-fed streams join the temple waters to merge and form South India’s mightiest river,which flows from jagged, forested hills down to thirsty plains; across two states, from a height of 1,276 m down to the sea, 790 kms away.
For me, this characteristically Indian river always seemed to be a metaphor of the Indian elephant, another quintessential symbol of the subcontinent. Both are naturally wild; only partially controlled by man for his needs, but still untamed at the core, surviving not for our benefit, but despite it. Rangers let female elephants go back to the forest to find wild mates and produce more elephants of sufficient genetic diversity to keep working the forestry camps. And the Cauvery: we may build dams and aqueducts to harness her bounty, but she is fed by a monsoon, for which prayers are perhaps man’s only feeble attempt at influencing its existential grip on a billion lives.
The duality is not limited to wild versus tame. Like the elephant, the Cauvery has been worshiped for millennia, and simultaneously slaughtered. Both have lost vital territory they need to survive, despite the importance of their survival to our own. Both are unquestionably and universally revered, yet simultaneously poisoned and despoiled by greed; their plight obscured by ignorance, indifference, or both. And while both these icons of India straddle mythology and reality,their realities are coarse and violent – due to us,their misguided adherents.
From my first visits to its banks, the Cauvery enticed me. Its clean, fresh water seemed more welcoming and nurturing than the corrosive seas in which I normally dive. Water that feeds our plants, water that we can drink—it just felt like soothing shelter.
I would rest under the shade of a holaematthi tree and watch the swirls and eddies, the ripples and churns of the rapids; I would crouch in my blind at the edge of the river waiting to photograph birds,otters, elephants, deer, wild boar—the myriad wildlife that comes to her shores to quench their thirst – but as I watched the broody waters, I also wondered what lay beneath. As it turned out—quite a lot.
Close to 100 species (some studies even document 265 species!) of freshwater fish occur in the Cauvery, of which at least seven are endemic,according to Dr. Rajeev Raghavan, South Asia Co-Chair of the IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialist Group. And there are probably many more fish,crustacean, invertebrate, and possibly even amphibian and reptile species, that have not yet been discovered or identified. “Even without new discoveries” says Dr. Raghavan, “taxonomic revisions will likely reveal new, endemic species among animals already discovered, but currently classified under a wider-distributed, similar species”. Already, however, with its own species of freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacustasowerbii)and probably more species of mahseer than any other river in India, the Cauvery’s waters are rich in diversity and numbers.
But the richness had to be seen to be believed.My bulky scuba tanks were useless in the shallow,fast-moving currents. Instead, I would simply free dive: holding my breath, I’d go to the bottom and jam my hand under a rock or log to anchor myself, and spend as long as I could in this new dimension before burning lungs sent me backup. The first dive was like a leap through a portal.Crocodile spotters on the highest rocks to keep me safe, I felt like the earliest undersea explorers must have, jolted by the sudden revelation of a profusion of life, a parallel world where we did not belong. A whole new world
Small fish scuttled around the rocks; eels peeked out from algae-lined cracks and recesses; and Pink and Carnatic Carp rested in eerie passage way gaps between underwater piles of boulders. Snakehead Murrels poked out from under slate stones, perfectly camouflaged to look like the pebbles of the river bottom, waiting for small fish or freshwater shrimp to come too close;while cleaner fish scuttled over the tops of every surface, feasting on algae.
And then there were the mahseer – the great fighting fish of India is plentiful in the deep reaches of the Cauvery’s protected stretches.Many species of mahseer, going by a greater number of common names—Humpback, Deccan,Malabar, Golden—moved in swirling groups of multiple species, sometimes propelling themselves so fast that the water made a crackling sound, their bodies a blur. It was truly overwhelming to see this fish in its habitat; not on a line, not in an angler’s arms for a souvenir photograph, but as the rightful king of his domain.Setting my camera on the maximum shutter speed possible in the murky waters, I photographed many of the species, but the great, black Humpback mahseer always stayed out of range of a good shot. He was my reverse-chromatic Moby Dick.
Besides the aquatic species, the land around the river abounds with life. Otters play on the banks, and leopard, barking deer, elephant, wild pig,four-horned antelope, Sloth bear, hyena, chital, sambar, gaur and many other mammal species live in the adjacent forests and come to the Cauvery’s banks to drink. Tiger tracks have been seen again in the Cauvery Wildlife Reserve area for the first time in almost a century. In the trees, Hanuman langurs,macaques and Slender loris make their home. The grizzled giant squirrel is found almost exclusively in the protected zones of the Cauvery. And in the air above, the skies are dominated by Green and Blue–tailed Bee-eaters, Montagu and Pallid Harriers, Brown Fish Owl, Spot bellied Eagle Owl, Slaty-breasted Rails,Painted Sand grouse, European rollers – in all, an incredible 214 bird species, including 11 eagle species – are found along the Cauvery’s length.
Cry for help
Outside of the protected zones however,the diversity and bounty is not so great. For millennia, the Cauvery has provided the people of southern India with the essentials of life—water for crops and drinking; fish for sustenance;forests for homes and cooking. Despite this critical dependence, the human impact on the river has been severe. Dynamite fishing,although now outlawed, continues un abated along with electrocution, and poisoning. Sand mining disrupts the ecosystem and reduces the water-holding capacity of the river to the point that flows are so reduced that vegetation islands form in stagnant water stretches of the river which used to be fast-flowing. These islands catch the detritus and sediment that runs into the river from the surrounding lands, and produces more detritus of its own. The result is that the sandy composition of the river, carved from solid rock over hundreds of millions of years, is giving way to mud; changing the aquascape, water composition, water-holding capacity and clarity of the river—in just a few human generations.According to Dr.Raghavan of the IUCN, 23 speciesof Cauvery fish are threatened with extinction(i.e. listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List).
Just a few kilometers from my dive spots,the protected zone ends. Instantly, fish species, quantity and size drop precipitously as fisherman scramble for any and all animals that have strayed beyond the sanctuary into their nets. Pollution is both visible, by way of litter; and invisible, through sewage, industrial waste and agricultural excess of fertiliser and pesticide. Vinieth M. of the Indian Naturalists Society, a wilderness guide group and direct action organisation sees first-hand what impacts the Cauvery: “Day picnickers come and leave trash, glass bottles, and cause fires.The various temples within the protected zone attract pilgrims who cause major disturbance and litter – and some even carry out animal sacrifices and leave the carcasses near or in the river”. And, in the water itself, says Vineith “a large amount of Bangalore sewage flows into the Arkavati tributary and then into the Cauvery;and the sugar mills of Mandya and many other areas run their waste water into the Cauvery directly, unchecked. It is a lot for any river to take”. Additionally, dams, the scourge of free river environments everywhere, already dot the Cauvery and her tributaries. One more is planned near Mekedatu, right in the heart of the reserve.So much water is diverted for agriculture that the Cauvery no longer reaches the sea: she is devoured by the farmer’s fields of the plains.
The river is so badly hit that fishermen are constantly sneaking in to the protected areas to fish.Considering that 85% of the river is over exploited and polluted, one would think that the people dependent on her waters would want her to recover the bounty she once was, rather than just moving on to similarly pillage the remnants of the Cauvery until there is finally nothing left to feed and nourish us. But our intelligence is not always equal to wisdom; our ingenuity is often used for short-sighted efficiency and exploitation instead of long-sighted sustainability.
There are those that look ahead, however. Private action groups and a government body interested in preserving the Cauvery’s natural wealth have worked together to assess needs and take action. These important steps not only help preserve this unique ecosystem, but symbolize a growing awareness and commitment to action. According to the DCF of the area, Vasanth Reddy of the Indian Forest Service, the protected areas along the Cauvery have been upgraded from reserve forest to wildlife sanctuary, in 2012. Additionally,says Reddy “we have increased the protected area by over 100%, to over 1100sq. km, and anti-poaching patrols have been increased to 24. This river is not just important for farmers and drinking water; it is our precious natural heritage.”
The monsoon rains will stop soon, and the river will start to clear. I cannot wait to go back to its sandy banks and slide once again beneath the waters. As I dive, I will wonder how long this river will be safe. I will worry for those creatures,who have played out nature’s cycle right here for millions of years before the first human existed,and wonder how for long they can continue to do so. I will worry, but I will also hope. And I will keep seeking my black mahseer.
“Since 2003, conservation organisations have been campaigning for protecting the Cauvery catchments in Kodagu district. A presentation on the idea of notifying around 800 sq km as the Greater Tala cauvery Wildlife made to the then chief minister had evoked a positive response. A visionary decision on this would have ensured protection of the fragile rain forests which receive up to 6,000 mm of rain and where several perennial river sand streams including important east flowing rivers of Cauvery, Kabini, Hemavathi, Ramathirtha and Lakshmana thirtha originate. Neither did this involve any major financial implication nor would it have affected the legitimate rights of local people. Yet, petty local political interests and some forest officials acting as henchmen of timber contractors repeatedly stalled these efforts. Cauvery is not the only river which has suffered from such blinkered vision and bureaucratic bungling. For over 25 years the Bhadra was ravaged by open cast mining of iron ore in the rain forests of Kudremukh. The mining company succeeded in misleading most political leaders and the public for several years by generating reports from paid consultants that suppressed the extent of sedimentation and damage to the catchments and river systems.”
—(From Cauvery: Beyond Sharing of Water, in Deccan Herald, 28-02-2007 )by PRAVEEN BHARGAV
This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of Saevus magazine