Opencast iron ore mining reduces the groundwater table and causes surface water pollution. The village of Pissurlem in the mining-belt of north-east Goa used to be brimming with water; it is now entirely dependent on government tankers.
By Supriya Vohra
Sunita Shashi Gawade is a 46-year-old woman living in Dhatwada, a sub-ward of Pissurlem, a mining-affected village in North Goa district. She lives with her husband and two children. Gawade works at the local anganwadi as a helper and earns approximately Rs. 6000 a month. Her husband, who used to work as a supervisor in a mining company, lost his job when mining in Goa was halted.
Sunita Gawade has a low haemoglobin count, which often manifests itself in various physiological troubles. A visit to the hospital sets her back by about Rs. 3000. Currently, she has trouble walking.
Outside her house sit two 200-litre-capacity plastic drums, for a family of four. A tanker from a mining company fills it with water every day. The water is suitable for bathing and ablutions. For drinking and cooking, another water tanker arrives daily and parks itself at a distance from her house. She carries two kalsis (water containers) every day on foot and fills them with water from the tanker. “Sometimes we need more water, so I have to make more trips,” she said in a conversation with Mongabay-India.
The family has a piped water connection, set up by the PWD, at home. But there has not been a “drop of water in the last two years,” said Sunita. “We get billed Rs 189 every month. But no water.” Her husband, Shashikant Ramachandra Gawade, reminisced about the past. “Until about twenty years ago, there was water everywhere — a big stream used to flow in the lower part of the village, our wells were full of water. We did not need these external agencies to provide us with water. Now everything is gone.”
Pissurlem is one of many villages affected by iron-ore mining in Goa’s eastern belt. The once self-sufficient, water-rich villages, teeming with springs, streams and wells, brimming with water, have been sucked dry. As a result, they are now completely dependent on an external, erratic supply of water by tankers and piped connections. There are days when tankers don’t turn up, and there are months when water is unable to snake its way through the pipes to reach households. There are disparities in water distribution, access, and storage. “Every day, we have to wait and watch: are we going to get any water today? What time will it come? How long will it last? It’s a mystery every day. Oh, and we have absolutely no water for our fields,” said 65-year-old Babuso Shabulo Gawade, a resident of Dhatwada.
Paani kay Khaani: Either water or iron ore
Goa is drained by nine independent rivers originating from the Western Ghats and going into the Arabian Sea. All rivers form estuaries with tidal waters, reaching several kilometres inland and making navigation possible. The two major rivers are the Mandovi and the Zuari, forming 69 percent of the total geographical area of the state.
Goa has two aquifer systems that are the source of its groundwater: the top laterite layer and the powder ore. The laterite layer forms an unconfined aquifer, or the water table, with a continuous surface. It is permeable and gets recharged immediately after rains. Generally, this aquifer is tapped into through dug wells for both domestic and agricultural purposes.
Another important aquifer in the mining area is the iron ore itself, consisting of blue dust including chert, manganiferous gravel, and sand. These aquifers are long and narrow and confined within clay layers. Groundwater occurs under semi-confined and confined conditions.
In other words, the source of the mineral is the source of storage of water. The porous rock and the ore are like little vessels that hold water. When the rock and the ore are removed, the capacity to hold water is removed.
How does opencast iron ore mining impact water ecology?
Opencast mining requires the digging of a hill formed by laterite, a porous, weathered rock. When it rains, some of the water forms streams and joins the river while some gets absorbed by the porous rock. This eventually oozes out of the rock and joins the river, thus maintaining a base flow.
“When you convert a hill into a mine, you essentially dig a bowl into the ground,” explained Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow in environmental policy and governance at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). The bottom of the bowl, he said, is usually much below the groundwater level of the surrounding area. “When you have intercepted the groundwater, dug vertically downward into the rock, the seepage of the water, instead of flowing away from the hillock into the rivers, will automatically flow into the bowl or the mining pit. So, you have effectively drained the aquifer into the mine,” he said.
In January 2006, A.G. Chachadi of Goa University published a study on the village of Pissurlem, examining the water levels of wells in the village. The area of the study was the catchment of the Kudne river, a tributary of the Valvon river. Both rivers eventually join the Mandovi. Its total catchment area is 4325 ha. The southern half of the catchment is the mining belt. The main settlement areas are Havarlem, Onda, Pissurlem, Kudne, Saleli, Bhuipal, and Gaothan.
In his study, Chachadi estimated the annual groundwater pumpage to be about 610 hectare metres. drawn from just three mines, which, the study says, is “about 44 percent of the total groundwater storage.” Chachadi also examined the impact on river base flow.
According to the study, “under natural conditions, rainwater percolates down into the soil and slowly emerges at the stream banks as lean-period flow or base-flow. As most of this flow emerges after the rainy season, this forms an important resource for various purposes. In Goa, most of the mines are located in close proximity to the rivers. When groundwater from mine pits (which are far below the riverbed level) is pumped, the base-flow getting into the river is cut off; besides, the riverbed itself may go dry if the mine is very close by. Mining in Goa has not only diverted the base-flow component from rivers but the nearby surface water bodies, springs and even soil moisture in nearby agricultural lands have also been depleted.”
This results in ponds, tanks, and wells drying faster than usual, said Shripad Dharmadhikary, an activist and researcher studying water and energy issues through the lens of sustainability, equity and justice. “We usually pump up the groundwater, and here it is being sucked down into the mining pit. This is why wells run dry and surface water bodies dry faster. Once they get recharged by rain, they will drain away in a matter of months. There is nothing to hold it,” he said.
While walking through Pansche, a ward situated on a higher altitude in the village of Pissurlem, 74-year-old Arjun Patigaori took us through little funnels in the ground. The funnels are hardened and covered in silt. “There used to be a gushing stream here not more than thirty years ago,” said Patigaori. “This village had always been water-rich. Pipe and tankers were unheard of. Look where we are today,” he said with a sigh.
GT Marathe from IIT Bombay did another study in the same Usgao-Honda iron ore belt, about 15 square kilometres in area where the aquifer functions as a “single, largely homogeneous, unconfined” unit. The study showed a drop of 20 metres above mean sea level (mamsl) in the groundwater level, from 55 mamsl to 35 mamsl, between 1960 and 1980.
Perennial springs originate from confined aquifers, where they are surrounded by an impervious layer, and release water at great pressure. Mining cuts through their pathways, leading them to dry up completely.
Apart from lowering groundwater and drying surface water networks, experts say that the water from the mine pit must be pumped out. This water is let into a settling pond, and then ultimately discharged into agricultural land or riverbeds before the complete settlement of suspended materials. “This water contains a lot of sediment and, depending on the mineral type, maybe acidic as well,” said Dharmadhikary. “If it is not treated before being used, it could be harmful.” The discharge of this sediment-filled water, say experts, also leads to the choking of riverbeds and silting of agricultural land, turning them into waste barren land.
A 1997 study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has shown that major water bodies and rivers surrounding the mining region have shown a high level of turbidity and pollution owing to the discharge of mine pit water, wastewater from the wet beneficiation plant, rainwater run-off from dumps, barge movement, and effluent from workshops. The worst affected rivers, according to the study, were Bicholim, Mhadei, and Khandepar, and the lakes of Maem and Mulgaon.
Narrating an incident from early 2000s, Ramesh Gauns, a primary school teacher and an anti-mining activist based in Bicholim, North Goa said that the lake of Mulgaon used to be brimming with water and was a popular fishing spot for small-scale fishers of the area. “It used to have a big crowd of people in the evenings, and fishing was the most favourite activity. Fish was found in abundance in these waters,” he told Mongabay-India. “Then, one evening, we found scores of dead fish in the now-shallow water. People were very happy to see so much fish at once. But this was the beginning of the end. The lake never saw as many fish in it,” he said.
Gauns was one of the first activists to file and win a petition against a mining company that threatened to flood a school in the vicinity. During his campaigning years, he coined the phrase — “paani kay khaani” (“either water or iron ore”) to make people aware of the impact of iron ore mining on water.
Disparities in water access
Today, the village of Pissurlem, with its seven wards and nine wadas, is entirely dependent on tankers provided by the mining companies and the government, and piped water connections that do not reach every household. The piped water comes from two sources: for one set of wards, it directly comes from a water treatment plant in Padoshe, a town about 7 km away. For another set of wards, the water travels from the treatment plant to a massive tank in Pissurlem and reaches households from the tank.
Dhatwada has about 33 households, out of which 15 get no water despite having piped connections. Subhash Dhatkar, 46, lives here with his family of four. The pipe is connected to a steel box outside his house with a meter inside. Every month, he gets a bill varying from Rs. 56 to Rs. 189. He has not seen water flowing from the pipe even once in the last two years. “When they came for the bill, I asked them how the meter is showing a reading when I don’t get any water. You know what they said? That the meter runs on air,” he said. Dhatkar is the sole breadwinner of the family, doing odd jobs that pay him Rs. 300 every few days. “We really cannot afford to pay for something we don’t get,” he said.
In Pansche, all 70 households have piped connections, and none get water. “It has been like this for many years,” said Laxman Gawade, deputy sarpanch.
A technical staff member at the Water Supply section of PWD, Valpoi, who did not want to be named, explained that there are technical reasons for water not reaching every place. “Water doesn’t move like electricity. Water travels under gravity, so obviously the first consumers will have more pressure and get more water. The more withdrawals there are, the more the pressure gets redistributed, and the last people will receive less water,” he told Mongabay-India.
Explaining why water couldn’t reach all households in Dhatwada, he said that there were two wards that are getting water from the same pipeline. “One is at 44 REL (reduced level from mean sea level), and the other village, the village of Dhatwada, is at 60 REL. This means that the water has to climb nearly 20 REL within the same pipeline without any interruption. But this doesn’t happen,” he said.
In order to combat the issue, the PWD Valpoi has started work on constructing a separate pipeline for both Pansche and Dhatwada. The work is in progress, officials told Mongabay-India.
So how do the people get their water? Tankers. There are water drums dotted across the village. Outside each house, one can see at least two big blue plastic drums of 200-litre capacity. Some houses have the 500-litre-capacity black Sintex tanks, provided by the PWD, but no water is being supplied into these tanks yet. Others, who can afford it, have the 1000-litre-capacity yellow tankers and big drums placed on a platform inside the courtyard of the house. Water storage capacity thus depends on what one can afford. Households in wards such as Gaokar and Vaghurem are slightly better off and are able to make their own arrangements for storage, whereas households in Pansche and Dhatwada, which primarily comprise of Scheduled Tribe communities and have witnessed maximum unemployment, can only afford the blue plastic drums.
Apart from drinking, cooking, bathing and ablutions, water is also needed for livestock and irrigation of agricultural fields. No separate water is provided for this. A 90-acre paddy field belonging to a community of farmers is choked with silt, and a 10,000-acre paddy field in Pansche is so hardened and deep with five metres of silt that it is now often used as a cricket playground.
Locals are hoping to set up their own water treatment plant at an old mining pit in the village. The PWD officials confirmed that the seven-crore project is in the pipeline. “We used to be self-sufficient, and we want to go back to being atmanirbhar (self-reliant),” said Hanumant Parab, an anti-mining activist and resident of Pissurlem. Will their water woes end? Only time will tell.
— This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
This article was originally published on Mongabay.com.
Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons license.