Just before Christmas, I was at Thekkady, and the day I reached one of the most beautiful spots in Kerala, the water level at the Mullaperiyar Lake had just come down from the highest level of 142 feet to 141.5 feet. Last year, it had reached 142feet, but the difference was that it was only for a day, marking the first such instance in 35 years. The rise in water level in the 120-year-old dam has sparked panic in Kerala and triggered a lingering dispute with Tamil Nadu, which has the right to control its waters. But as we stay fixated on the dam’s safety, we are overlooking another disaster in the making -- the massive impact on the environment.
When water level rose to 142 feet at the lake, as much as 568 hectares that included more than 100 hectares of evergreen forest and grasslands, were submerged. This means the prime habitat and grazing ground for a number of animals such as deer and gaur were washed away. Even after the water recedes, the grass decays, leaving the animals bereft of food.
No animal in this terrain has lived long enough to know other ways of finding food. They are used to walking through these grasslands, and suddenly their way is blocked. For most of the animals, this is happening for the first time in their lifetime, and the bewildered beasts are now abandoning their natural habitat of the lake shores. This is evident from the fact that sighting of wild animals in the area has come down in the days when water level rose from 136 feet.
It’s not just herbivores that are affected. When their populations dwindle, that affects tigers, leopards and wild dogs as their prey is in short supply. A direct result of this tilt in balance can be increased instances of man-animal conflicts.
We always create a ruckus when we see a fallen tree on the road side or a tree is cut as part of road widening. But in the Mullaperiyar area, thousands of trees were destroyed when the water level went up. And along with the submerged trees, many species of birds were also affected as their nests, eggs and chicks were destroyed.
Whatever has happened at the Mullaperiyar Lake is against the law of the land. As per the Environmental protection Act of 1986, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, we can’t do anything that harms the forests. But it’s rather surprising that none of the environmentalists or any organizations have taken up the issue and gone to court. It’s high time that we woke up to this atrocity against nature.
(Photographs by Johny Thomas and Manu Remakant)