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CBD failed in protecting India’s Rivers and Riverine biodiversity  

Monday June 09, 2014


"CBD has been of no help for the Indian rivers, riverine biodiversity and dependent communities. On the contrary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), another UN Convention, certifies hydropower projects of all sizes as climate-friendly projects under the CDM mechanism. All of these projects have severe adverse impacts on biodiversity and related livelihoods.


Himanshu Thakkar & Parineeta Dandekar


India has very large number of rivers rich in biodiversity; it is considered mega diverse country in the context of freshwater biodiversity. Millions of people depend on the riverine biodiversity and rivers for their needs and livelihoods. E.g. 10.8 million people depend on riverine fisheries in India. However, Indian rivers and riverine biodiversity are under continuous threats, the biggest impacts coming from the large dams, diversions and hydropower projects. The threats are so serious that free flowing, biodiversity rich rivers are India’s most threatened species.

In this context the two decade old UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to at Rio in 1992, with the main objectives of conservation, sustainable use, and access and sharing of benefits for the local communities could have been boon for the riverine biodiversity. However, CBD has been of no help for the Indian rivers, riverine biodiversity and dependent communities.


On the contrary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), another UN Convention, certifies hydropower projects of all sizes as climate-friendly projects under the CDM mechanism. All of these projects have severe adverse impacts on biodiversity and related livelihoods. Thus, while one UN convention is supposed to be working for protection of biodiversity, another UN convention is incentivising destruction of biodiversity and the two do not seem to talk to each other.

Similarly Govt of India’s decade old National Biodiversity Act of 2002 has been of no help for rivers and related biodiversity. In India there has not been any credible enviro-socio-cultural impact assessment of projects in the context of riverine biodiversity. Those affected are not even considered for compensation or rehabilitation, leave aside participatory decision making or benefit sharing. These issues were discussed at a side event on “Impact of Dams on Biodiversity: Socio Ecological Dimensions in Changing Climate”, organised by SANDRP and 5 partner organisations: Himdhara (Himachal Pradesh), Himal Prakriti (Uttarakhand), Samvardhan (Maharashtra), River Basin Organisation (Assam) and International Rivers (India) at the COP 11 of CBD now ongoing in Hyderabad.

Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP opened the session with an introduction to impacts of large dams on riverine biodiversity and livelihoods and the ineffectiveness of CBD and Indian Government in trying to address these. Dr. Nilesh Heda from Samvardhan, Vidarbha talked about impacts of dams on fish diversity, fisher folk communities, traditional conservation practises and the need to build riverine governance through communities and not the other way round. Nachiket Kelkar from NCF talked about impacts of dams on biodiversity in Ganga, especially indigenous fisheries and dependant livelihoods, stressing on the need for targeted riverine protected areas, through community participation. Prakash Bhandari from Himdhara, Himachal Pradesh shared the terrible impacts of hydroelectric dams on terrestrial biodiversity and livelihoods in Himachal Pradesh and the near-total absence of any participatory Environmental Governance.

Ashish Kothari from Kalpavriksh responded on how CBD can possibly be used in this context, stressing ecosystem approach highlighted by COP V and using the Akwe Kon guidelines. He raised basic questions about power and stressed that the GDP-driven development model of India is leading to huge negative impacts on all other aspects.

Himanshu Thakkar, on behalf of SANDRP summed up the session, highlighting the failure of CBD in being effective in any way for India’s rivers. He also brought out the irony of one UN agency protecting biodiversity (CBD) while the other, through UNFCCC’s CDM mechanism actually incentivising biodiversity destruction. He put forth following recommendations which were supported by over 60 participants from various countries present at the side event.


We urge the Indian Government specifically,

● To amend the EIA notification to require that all large dams, all hydro projects over 1 MW capacity and also projects impacting aquatic biodiversity will need to do Impact assessment in consultation with local people.

● To urgently review plans of big dams, hydropower projects and interlinking of rivers that adversely affect aquatic biodiversity and livelihoods, conduct socio-cultural-ecological assessment as per the Akwe Kon Guidelines.

● To mandate cumulative impact assessment whenever more than three projects are proposed on any river.

● To urgently come out with a policy and law for protection of rivers.

● To include Rivers in definition of wetlands in the Wetlands Rules (2010). Declare specific rivers as no go protected zones in each state and in each ecological zone and, as per the Aichi Protocol.

● To formally protect rivers which are socially and culturally important and rivers sacred to indigenous communities.

● Provide legal protection to community conserved river stretches.

● Review operation of existing and under construction dam projects to ensure adequate freshwater flow all round the year in downstream river stretches.

● To stop certifying CDM hydro projects as “sustainable development projects” without impact assessment and mandatory participatory process that requires prior, informed, consent from the gram sabhas.

● To improve reporting to the CBD to include dedicated Program on Work on Rivers & aquatic biodiversity.

We hope the Presidency of COP11 will help Parties to make progressive and bold decisions:

● Define clear norms for participation by affected communities; and help them realise community sovereignty over their biodiversity.

● Obtain Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) from affected communities before any decisions are taken that might affect their access to inland waters and aquatic biodiversity resources.

● Strengthen the reporting framework on Inland Waters Biodiversity by all countries.

● Publish best practices studies that show how protection of aquatic biodiversity is essential and possible, without sacrificing the justifiable development needs of affected people.

● Communicate with the UNFCCC to ensure that the current incentivising of destruction of aquatic biodiversity that is now going on in the name of CDM hydropower projects is stopped.

These recommendations have been endorsed by over 60 persons present at the side event on Oct 8, 2012. We hope this COP will make a bold Decision on Inland Waters and also stimulate governments to make the necessary changes in policy and practice before it is too late.

[Authors are known Activists working on water issues and are associated with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). Himanshu Thakkar can be contacted at and Parineeta Dandekar can be contacted at]


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