ALERT member Alice Hughes, an ecologist who has worked extensively in tropical Asia, weights in on serious threats to the waterways of India:
India currently boasts only six national waterways. These are major stretches of navigable inland waters on which roughly 44 million tons of cargo are shipped annually.
However, on April 11, India issued a new act to convert an additional 106 waterways to canals for the transport of people and goods. This would massively increase the amount of navigable waters, from about 4,500 kilometers to 14,500 kilometers of waterway across the country.
Current proposals call for the decentralization of ministerial administration, and the development of a “special cell” to ease the process of getting required clearances from wildlife and protection authorities.
India has nearly 12% of the world's freshwater fish species, in 65 different families. A significant number of these are endemic to the nation, including over 280 freshwater fish and numerous turtle and terrapin species found nowhere else on Earth.
In addition, these rivers are also the main refuge for the endangered Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica). The development of these new canals could dramatically increase the probability of extinction for the species.
The critically endangered Gharial, a fish-eating crocodile, might also be driven to extinction due to the planned avalanche of canal construction.
Tearing Up the Rivers
The process of canal development involves a number of environmentally destructive procedures including dredging, channelization, sand-mining, barrage construction, and the loss of marsh areas that offer vital habitats for wetland birds.
The loss of riparian habitats resulting from channel development is also frequently underestimated. In India all states except Kerala no environmental concerns were raised, though a global analysis shows freshwater ecosystems are seriously under-protected.
These new canals pose a major threat to the future of India’s diverse freshwater biodiversity. At a minimum, externally monitored environmental impact assessments are desperately needed to attempt to mitigate the impacts on regional biodiversity.
Those canals that don't pass muster -- that would have serious or irreparable impacts -- should be cancelled. A failure to do so could provoke an environmental crisis for India's rich aquatic biodiversity.