Opencast Mining, River Catchment and the Plight of Odisha

By: Himansu Sekhar Patra
Despite being rich in natural resources Odisha is home to the poorest people of India. The government promises growth through development, opening up this region to rampant mining. The impact of this on water and other resources on the contrary is exacerbating the plight of the indigenous population. Is this then the way forward?
Water

Springs have served as a source of drinking water for millennia. The occurrence of most springs is controlled by the structure of rock formations while the flow depends on a number of factors like ground water recharge, season, and most importantly vegetation cover, rainfall, land use, grazing incidence and geomorphology of the recharge zone in a mountain watershed. Any alternation in these affects the flow.

Odisha is considered a water-surplus State as it possesses 11 per cent of the country’s total water resources. It in fact, acts as a catchment for several states in the region and the recent unnatural death of springs with indiscriminate open cast mining in the mineral belts of Odisha is alarming and a great cause of concern. The assumption that water in the State is plenty and pure is being replaced with discourses over water scarcity and deterioration of water quality. The rapid industrialisation through mineral based extractive industries, including iron and bauxite not only increases the water requirement but also poses a threat to the catchment area of this region.

Odisha is India’s main supplier of numerous valuable minerals accounting for 24 per cent of India’s reserves of coal, 17 per cent of its iron ore, 98 per cent of chromite, 51 per cent of bauxite and 35 per cent of manganese ore. It leads the country in iron ore production with a share of 28 per cent. Majority of the States’ mineral resources are found concentrated in the hilly and forested area – inadvertently falling within catchments or along courses of rivers. Over 60 per cent of the coal mines and a substantial portion of the chromite deposits in Jajpur lie within the Brahmani river basin. Coal is also found all around Mahanadi and its tributaries in Sambalpur district. Similarly, bauxite deposits are located in the river basin of Vamsadhara, Nagabali and others originating from Koraput and Kalahandi districts. More than 35 streams originate from Khandadhar iron deposit in Sundargarh district. A number of perennial springs such as Thakurani, Khandadhar, Gudguda, Gonasika and Bolani rise in the hilly tract of Joda–Badbil–Koira of Keonjhar-Sundargarh district.

 

Streams of the bauxite land

The bauxite-bearing soils have a highly porous structure that gives them an increased capacity for water retention. The hill top bauxite-containing soils are sources of perennial water that are crucial for ensuring a continuous water supply in low rainfall season. Several perennial springs with a high discharge rate of 12-20 litres per second flow from beneath the bauxite deposit of Odisha. The Niyamgiri hills, located at the border of Kalahandi and Raygada district forms part of the catchment of two perennial rivers, the Vamsadhara and Nagavalli. In fact from Gandhamardan bauxite deposit of Bargada district alone, around 20 perennial springs have emerged. Similarly, numerous springs originate from Mali and Deomali bauxite fields that help inundate the Kolab water reservoir in Koraput. Scientists are of the view that forests play an essential role in retaining the rain water in bauxite lands. In fact the Jamaican experience of the impact of bauxite mining on the water retention capacity has clearly documented (www.american.edu) that such mining will result in the drying up of streams and underground water resources leading to desertification of the area.

 

Mining impacting river basins

The role of mining in deforming the hydrological profile of a region is being increasingly comprehended. Hard rocks are understood to be major sources of minerals and out of the country’s geographical area of 3.20 million sq km, as much as 1.82 million sq km is built up of hard rocks and is thus, potentially mineral-bearing. Hard rocks however, manifests itself as hilly terrains and are usually forested – both being a major source of water for rivers of central India. Deforestation over mine leaseholds and changes in the watershed characteristics have affected water flows in streams in mining regions – perennial streams have turned seasonal, while some have dried up. With rapid urbanisation and growth in the housing and infrastructure sector, the demand for minerals have been driven up significantly over the past few years. A research study in West Virginia, the USA has conclusively proved the linkage between severe water pollution and mountain-top mining and found that even relatively small mining operations can seriously harm ecosystems.

To expose ore seams forests have to be stripped and rocks splintered with explosives. The rubble is dumped in the valleys, often burying streams. The loss of vegetation and topsoil cause flooding – which debilitates the podu cultivation traditionally practiced by the people of this region – and the water emerging from the debris contains toxic solutes including selenium, metals and sulphates. Mining operations use up water for beneficiation and processing, wet drilling, cooling of machinery, dust suppression (spraying on haul roads, conveyors, waste dumps and loading and unloading points) and domestic consumption.

Of late, a spurt of mining activity in the upper catchment of rivers in the regions of Joda, Koida Banspal and Koraput have resulted in reduced flows. At the iron ore mine sites of Odisha Mining Corporation at Suakati, Keonjhar, five perennial springs have reportedly dried up. At the Panchpatmali bauxite deposits of National Aluminium Company (NALCO), the local residents allege that at least half dozen streams have dried up and the remaining are contaminating the agricultural land located at the valley with mining sediments choking the growth of healthy crops. Brahmani, the second largest river of State is today one of the most polluted river and is listed as the top 10 most-polluted rivers in the country, due to large-scale mining operations in its catchment area. Studies reveal that coal and chromite mines operating in Sundargarh, Angul and Jajpur districts have led to large scale pollution in river Brahmani.

 

Water security and livelihood

Water security during non-monsoon period is low due to gross reduction in the annual flow rate of major rivers of Odisha. Streams originating from hill tops are the only source of water for tribal communities who live here. Any negative impacts on the streams will have disastrous consequences for these communities. It has been documented that the drying of streams at Banspal in Keonjhar has adversely affected the livelihood of indigenous tribes who have no other option but mass exodus leading to loss of livelihoods, apart from loosing an ethos of traditional knowledge and culture. The water in these streams is visibly unfit for consumption and turns red during the rains with suspended particles flowing down from the mining pits and overburdened dump yards. The flow rate of the streams have also reduced drastically in Gandhamardan hills after commencement of mining operations here.

 

Water conflicts and remedial Measures

Conflicts around Odisha’s rivers are drawing overwhelming political and media attention. Increasing perception of the vulnerabilities surrounding water are giving rise to water conflicts of various scales and intensities, from local to regional. The people of Odisha have been opposing bauxite mining on Lanjigarh, Gandhamardan and Baphlimali hills, iron mines in Khandadhar, Malangtoli as they fear that it will result in the ultimate drying up the mountain streams. This is likely to acerbate as water catchment areas of these regions, especially Niyamgiri, are being leased out for mining. A number of reports, studies made by civil society, scientific bodies, and fact finding committee has raised alarm regarding the future water problems that can arise because of anthropogenic interference in the water catchment area.

Most of the mining companies claim no or minimal impact on water resources. However, in the long term, impact on water resources will be visible in terms of water scarcity and water pollution. The impact of mining on water resource is inevitable – it cannot be fully controlled. However, sound mine planning can perhaps reduce the stress. The mitigation measures should be implementable and time bound. Also, the potential water catchment area of major rivers should be demarcated and preserved as inviolate space where no or minimal activity should be allowed.

 

ENDNOTE

According to the sixth State of India’s Environment Report titled Rich Lands, Poor People 2007, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, mining activities in Odisha have had a drastic effect on the flora and fauna of the mining region and have not helped in generating employment and nor contributed to the development of the local area, on the contrary, poverty had increased in these regions. The report adds that Odisha has the dubious distinction of clearing 17 per cent of forest land, the maximum in the country for mining and displacing five lakh tribal people. The report also states that all the mineral-rich districts of the state featured in the list of 150 most backward districts of the country, adding 62 per cent of the people in Keonjhar, the most mined district in Odisha, 79 per cent of the Koraput district, the bauxite capital of the country, live below poverty line.

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The Saxena Committee Report 2010, a report submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests by four member committee investigating the proposal submitted by the Odisha mining company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri, notes the strong interdependence of the tribal groups on forests. They claim that at least 20 per cent of this population will be directly affected by mining at Niyamgiri. Several rapid environment impact assessments between 2002-2008 also conducted by the Saxena Committee observed a trend of increasing pH in the surface waters at Lanjigarh, Kalahandi District, and confirmed that this was due to seepage, leakage or discharge of alkaline wastewater from the alumina plant. The sufferings and loss of the local people, flora and fauna is undeniable – yet the path to development cannot be stopped – making it imperative to find sustainable solutions for a better future for all.

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