Bhubaneswar, June 13: Environmentalists are up in arms against the multi-crore Rengali dam in Angul district as they claim the irrigation project will increase salinity levels in Bhitarakanika, the 200 sq km stretch of mangrove forest and a habitat of the saltwater crocodiles.
The dam, which is expected to be complete by 2005, has the potential to irrigate 1.21 lakh hectare area of cropland through its right canal and 1.14 lakh hectare area through the left. Farmers in Angul, Dhenkanal, Cuttack and Jajpur districts stand to benefit from the project.
Environmentalists like Biswajit Mohanty say once the irrigation canals start operating from Samal barrage, the fine balance of fresh and saline water in Bhitarakanika will be damaged, sounding the death knell for its crocodile population.
The barrage will act as a water reservoir and will reduce the flow of fresh water into the Brahmani river, thus disturbing the ecologically-sensitive site.
The estuarine crocodiles will abandon the core sanctuary area and migrate upstream in search of freshwater.
“ If they extend their territory up to the densely populated Pattamundai area, a rise in the man-animal conflict can not be ruled out in future,” said a wildlife official.
The flow of fresh water throughout the year also provides an ideal habitat for the endangered Sundari trees. “The salinity levels will increase as water from Brahmani, flowing through the coastal plains of Cuttack and Kendrapada districts, will be curtailed,” he said.
The situation could be alarming during summers when water level goes down and saline water encroaches up to 75 kms upstream, affecting the local flora and fauna.
Wildlife officials also second the environmentalists’ concerns. Wildlife conservator Anup Nayak, in charge of the sensitive Bhitarkanika National Park, also concurs that the mangrove forest and wealth of wildlife is very dependent on the mixture of freshwater and saline water. The crocodiles will not be the only ones to be affected. There will be a change in the composition of aquatic fauna and many valuable commercial species of prawns and fish might disappear from the areas if salinity levels increase.
Mohanty claims that mangrove forests have in the past suffered from the construction of barrages and dams. Sunderbans, part of both Bangladesh and West Bengal, were drastically degraded after the Farraka barrage was commissioned. It is now stripped of Sundari trees as fresh water flow has come down The Planning Commission has already given a green signal for the 95-km long right canal. The forest and environment ministry, too, has given permission to increase the length of the canal from 59 km to 79 km.