Restoring the Soul of Salcete
By Dr Nandkumar M Kamat
GSPCB has only been engaged in academic research for last 20 years. GSPCB, which enjoys powerful mandate under very strict laws, somehow forgets that the first commitment of the chairman and members of the Board is first to the people, then conservation of environment and finally their political bosses. People in the Sal river basin should know that the GSPCB has not been following the MINARS national guidelines (known as MINARS/27/2007-08) for water quality monitoring despite having manpower and expensive analytical instruments. These were issued by the chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Mr Mauskar on December 28, 2007. I checked available data about the pollution status of the Sal River from latest available annual report of GSPCB for 2009-10. GSPCB appears to have censored the data on dangerous pesticides - Alpha BHC, Beta BHC, Gama BHC, (Lindane), OP-DDT, PP-DDT, Alpha Endosulphan, Beta Endosulphan, Aldrin, Dieldrin, 2, 4-D, Carboryl (Carbamate), Malathian, Methyl Parathian, Anilophos, Chloropyriphos.
I suspect that for political reasons GSPCB may not have carried out these tests once a year, during the monsoon season, as recommended by CPCB. GSPCB has not informed the people on the eastern and western banks and the fishermen making a living from the river about the significance of their pollution findings.
GSPCB report hides MINARS normal values/criteria for water. Does GSPCB expect people in the Sal river basin to develop cancers? GSPCB monitors Sal River at Jacknibandh, Kharebandh, Orlim, Rumdar, Mungul and Pulwado. It has another station at Pazarkhoni, Cuncolim.
The values at the Cuncolim station show that, most probably, metallic pollutants from metallurgical industries within the Cuncolim industrial estate have entered the river. Besides, dissolved oxygen levels show shocking values indicating the slow death of life in river. This is very bad news because the concentration of heavy metals like chromium, cadmium, lead, nickel and copper is reaching alarming levels. These metals were supposed to be below detectable levels.
People should immediately give up exploitation and consumption of shellfish from this area because heavy metals get concentrated in their meat. Two years ago, in the April of 2009, I wrote a series of four articles in this daily to draw the attention of the people and the government to the ecological tragedy of the Sal River. I had urged Velim MLA, Filipe Neri Rodrigues, a constituency nursed by the same river, to form a River Sal Basin Management Authority (RSBMA) and prepare a detail project report for eco-restoration of the river. With a length of 35 kms, basin area of 301 sq kms and runoff of 700 million cubic metres per year, Sal River is the third largest in Goa and needs treatment deserving that rank. It is high time the people of Verna, Consua, Cuelim, Cansaulim, Arossim, Majorda, Calata, Seraulim , Benaulim, Varca, Orlim, Carmona, Cavelossim, Nuvem, Margao, Navelim, Sirlim, Deusua, Chinchinim, Cuncolim, Assolna, Velim and Betul unite to demand for a systematic eco-restoration, conservation and sustainable management of the river. Their ecological security, security from natural calamities such as flash floods similar to Canacona in October 2009 depends on the health and ecological integrity of this river. The river has maintained and sustained all these beautiful villages for several centuries.
The freshwater zone from source at Verna to Margao needs special attention because massive encroachments and siltation of the channel have truncated its normal course. Near Margao the river is almost unrecognisable. The saline tidal zone from Kharebandh to Betul is very eco sensitive. The salinity of the river increases as it reaches Sinquetim, Navelim.
Just a century ago this entire area was a major salt production zone of India. The mosaic of salt pans, visible even today from Google Earth satellite images, shows the lost economic glory of Sal River. Meticulously the local communities had built this massive infrastructure. The tidal effect in Sal River becomes more pronounced beyond Sinquetim. It is felt strongly at Varca. From Varca to Betul, the river assumes an interesting identity of being India’s only tropical estuary which follows a course parallel to the coastline or the beaches.
Sal River had a violent tectonic berth. Now human interference in her ecosystem and ecological neglect may spell an equally painful demise for this river. How? Pollution values show that the river is fighting for oxygen because of the sewage, domestic effluent and trade effluents that are dumped in it. Very wisely GSPCB has not published the values for phosphorus otherwise the growth of aquatic weeds would have matched these values. After the river continuously receives pollution load, heavy metals, oil, grease, pesticides, nitrates, phosphates, and faecal matter that boost pathogens, the Sal River will become the sewer of Salcete - an open drain similar to Panaji’s Santa Inez creek. If the death of the river is slow it is because of the tidal effect and the monsoon discharges. But the bottlenecks near Betul and Cavelossim are causing difficulty for the tidal clock.
The first indication of a dying river is already seen in oxygen depletion and eutrophication. The second stage will be the decay of organic matter due to anoxic conditions, the death of the remaining fish and shellfish and the generation of offensive odours due to methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide gasses. Dead fish will be reported from both banks of the river. The third stage will see increase in siltation, heavy shoal formation and congestion of flow. At this stage, flooding of interior areas near both banks will be reported - especially in low lying villages. The effect would be transmitted upstream and would impact the entire Verna-Nuvem-Margao sub-basin. In her last hours the dry bed of the Sal River will see extension of the urban areas with constructions coming up right inside her channel. The river now narrowed to a few metres would get trained by the developers and would end up as an open gutter.
Finally, in the next 20 years, the map of the river will have to be redrawn because only the stretch between Cavelossim to Betul would survive. Considering the high population and settlement density of Salcete and continuous expansion of urban pockets on eastern and western banks of the river- the future scenario is very grim. Death of Sal River would also spell doom to coastal occupations and beach tourism in Salcete. When the soul is lost – Salcete will be lost. Whatever remains will be claimed by rising sea levels.Expectedly, the Sal River, the soul of the Salcete taluka, is again in the news. The credit for the neglect this river suffers goes to indifferent village panchayats, heavyweight politicians of the area, and the inefficient Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB).