From Burton and Speke’s expedition to the origin of Nile to the age old Narmada Parikrama or the Chaar Dhaam Yatras (which are as much river journeys as pilgrimages), River journeys have always enthralled travelers and listeners alike.
Theo and Zanskar are on a similar journey (Malika Virdi joined them and is with them on the last part), more fascinating because the father-son duo are travelling nearly 2000 kilometers of Ganges system, not along the river bank, but through the river in a tiny kayak. They are now at the last leg of their journey which started from the headwaters of the Mahakali River where they live, down the Karnali-Sarda-Ghagra-Sarju system and then on to the mighty Ganga, until it’s distributary, Hooghly, meets the sea at Sagar Island.
The Journey ends today, that is Feb 19, 2015!
The Mahakali-Karnali-Sarda-Ghagra-Sarju tributary system is the most biodiverse tributaries of the Ganga, due to relatively lesser dams and diversions, hydropower projects and sparse urban centers. However, all this can soon change as there are plans for about 58 Hydropower dams on Mahakali alone including the MEGA 5600 MW Indo Nepal Joint Venture Pancheshwar Project. Through the disastrous Interlinking of Rivers project, Sharda-Yamuna and Ghagra-Yamuna links plan to divert flow from these rivers to as far as Sabarmati and Chambal.
In this situation, the raison d’être of this journey as Theo puts it is “a creative way, to highlight the critical value of maintaining connectivity and flow-rhythms in the river. We propose to do this by following in particular one fish, and one freshwater crustacean. The Anguilla eel (Anguilla bengalensis), and the freshwater shrimp (Macrobrachium gangeticus). Both these aquatic creatures are migratory, travel great distances to breed, and are most illustrative of the need for connectivity and flow rhythms. While both can take some level of disturbance in connectivity, even clambering onto land and over small barrages and obstructions, they need high flows and low flows in the appointed season, to be able to migrate to the sea and breed.”
The travelers are as unique as the journey. Emmanuel Theophilus, or Theo is an avid mountaineer, ecologist and storyteller and Zanskar is a Whitewater kayaker. Theo recently worked on a report for SANDRP titled ‘Headwater Extinctions’ which looked at impacts of hydropower dams in Upper Ganga and Beas Basins on fish and riverine ecosystems.
Theo briefly chronicles their journey here: https://nadisutra.wordpress.com/. While detailed updates can be found on the Himal Prakriti’s Website here: http://www.himalprakriti.org/?q=content/nadisutra-reports-and-other-reference-links.
The journey so far seems to have been eventful, it involved Theo upsetting the boat with Zanskar in it, groups of crocodiles swimming under the boat, camping on a sand bank in Pilbhit Tiger Reserve, warned of Tigers and then of dacoits further down, groups of Dolphins bumping the boat and having a ball, etc.
The transition of ecosystems and fauna depicted by Theo is breathtaking and unbelievable at times. They find both Eel and shrimps on the second day of the journey itself, where the flood protection works have made a veritable habitat for Eels. Further down, it’s refreshing to see the duo being threatened by a group of otters and Sarus Cranes which sound like “melodius dinosours” near Tanda. They see many Dolphins, 16 at one time, some of whom fish in cooperation with fisherfolk near Sarda Barrage. They encounter crocodiles and muggers sunning on river banks. Just before the Sarda barrage, they hear about diverse fish in the river, from “Tiny swordfish, transparent glass fish, giant catfish, water skippers, amphibious fish, eels and even one like an angelfish which has a sting like a scorpion if stepped on”.
Theo’s narrative chronicles the very real changes in the river as they enter the Ganga main stem through Ghaghra. As Theo puts it, “If there is one statement that could sum up the change in the river that we have ridden on the past two weeks, it is the recurring images, the motif as it were, of mortality. The river is dying, and is near-dead in sections now. After entering the Ganga, we have not seen one single marsh mugger or gharial crocodile. The closest we saw anything resembling a river turtle (which were very numerous upstream on the Sharda and the Ghaghra) was one discarded and muddied styrofoam bowl, and one beached frontal cap from a human skull, come apart at the sutures.”
By now, Theo and Zanskar have crossed Farakka Barrage which is singled out as one of the primary reason for the collapse of fisheries in the upstream. Theo writes, “Consistently and repeatedly we are told of the gradual collapse of fish stocks in the Ganga ever since the building of the Farraka barrage. This, and the great diversions of water into canals upstream leaving very little water for fish to live and survive on in the lean season. They cite all the species of fish and the large Macrobrachium shrimp or Jhangur that have now been wiped out upstream of Farraka due to their passage up from the sea being blocked by the barrage. Hilsa, Sokchi or the Ganga stingray, Pangaar and the Bhulwa.”
The duo has reached Sagar Island ( with Malika in tow), the mouth of Hooghly, one of the distributaries of the Ganga and have completed the epic voyage today which took them down the gurgling, milky Himalayan rapids to the heavy, sluggish and silt laden main channel. Through this journey, they have seen and experienced much and we hope that they come out with a publication on all that they saw.
Theo’s brief descriptions through his blogs an updates are made on-the-go and hence seem clipped and precise. But they are also lyrical. At one point he literally paints with words, “The journey though, has been far from bleak. We see and hear dolphins every day, come up to breathe with a whoosh and a sigh. Their resilience despite the state of the river so far is completely surprising. Late one evening, we saw one exult in a clear leap right out of the water, its tail still flipping in the air, and its wet smoothness glistening in the golden light of the setting sun. Completely breath-taking, in more ways than one. Our grey, cold and foggy mornings are unfailingly lightened by the visit of confiding White Wagtails whirring and chipping near our tent. Western Curlews fly bye in the oddest of ways. A Little Ringed Plover hangs around less than two feet away from us, alternating lightning-fast bursts of walking, and a staring stillness with its yellow goggles. Walk around a sand island in the mist, and you see Little Pratincoles sitting unmoving on the ground, with their shoulders shrugged-up in seeming gloom at the grayness, but when they fly, their unusually long and pointed wings boast such thrilling sophistication. And Sand Martins flying intimately close to the water, their wing-beats the softest of any bird you ever saw.”
All this seems unbelievable to us: the skeptics and outsiders who have only heard and seen the filth and pollution and degradation of the river, of the failure of Ganga Action Plans and the mismanagement of water. It comes somewhat as a surprise to know that mighty rivers are still living and thriving with life and biodiversity..there still remains a treasure to be protected..that it’s not too late… Theo and Zanskar’s river journey is one such fragile reminder that there is still a lot to fight for and to cherish!
We hope media takes interest in this journey, the travellers and their findings.
All pictures by Emmanuel Theophilus, Himal Prakriti
 Their phones could be off during the day but its possible to contact them on these number. Theo : +91-9456105758 and +91-7055655365; Malika : +91-9411194041 and +91-7351114041