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Subcontinent Rivers under Covid-19

screenshot from meeting showing live discussion and ongoing chat

Discussion on Impacts of Covid-19 Virus upon Indian Subcontinent Rivers

In attendance:


(left to right) Sheikh; Letro; Himanshu; Ram Devi

Bangladesh - Sheikh Rokon; Riverine People.

Bhutan - Letro Letro; Department of Forests and Park Services.

India - Himanshu Thakkar; South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Nepal - Ram Devi Shah; Aquatic Ecology Centre, Kathmandu University.

Pakistan - Syed Naveed; local river community activist.

Sri Lanka - John Wilson; Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka.

(left to right) Syed; John; Adrian; Steve


Steve Lockett - Mahseer Trust

Adrian Pinder - Mahseer Trust/Bournemouth University

While we discuss and debate impacts, there is still an ongoing battle against poaching in all forms. Last week’s news of the taking of a mature hump-backed mahseer from Harangi Reservoir, Karnataka has been followed by equally tragic news from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.

A forest guard, Deep (Dipu) Singh Rana (aged 24) was on a routine patrol through Ghatigaon Wildlife Sanctuary when a person, believed to be from the Mongia tribal community, fired at him from a concealed position. The shot hit Deep in the chest and he died despite being rushed to hospital.

At the time of writing, the reports are very new and are not fully verified. However, they show that there are great levels of conflict between those enforcing the laws on poaching and the rising levels of food poverty under the emergency powers.

We extend condolences to his family and colleagues and hope that those who are trying to preserve the wild spaces in the region should be able to do their jobs without such threats.

Over the geographical area of the Indian subcontinent, there are many varied freshwater habitats, but this meeting was called to contrast and compare the impacts of the virus and lockdown across them all.

It was common to all that there have been visible signs of improvement in river quality and associated wildlife activity, although, as Himanshu Thakkar pointed out ‘the reports of dolphins swimming in new places in the Ganges are mostly where dolphins were already there. People can see fish from bathing ghats may be because the river is less turbid and looks cleaner? Do we have credible information about biodiversity improvements in rivers?’

Once again, the importance of quality, reliable information cannot be overstated and is the primary reason for Mahseer Trust convening these meetings.

Summary of Main Points Raised

+ All countries can compare impacts and approaches

+ Increased understanding of importance of clean water and clean rivers

+ Opportunity to do much needed research

+ Chance to gather data by non-government bodies and compare with official figures

+ Improved water levels and quality demonstrate huge impacts of industry

+ Reports of decreasing turbidity

+ Religious activity, including cremations and associated pollutions halted

+ Improvements show lockdown does what official pollution control cannot.

+ Sand mining halted or reduced (except Sri Lanka and Bangladesh)

+ Plastic pollution has fallen dramatically

- Although appearing cleaner, rivers may not actually be cleaner

- Diversion of officers leaving rivers vulnerable (report from Bhutan and Sri Lanka)

- Reports of increased wildlife movement due to clarity, not increased activity

- Loss of fishing markets

- Developing freshwater ecotourism hit badly

- Local streams increasingly used for waste disposal

- Protected Areas of Sri Lanka report huge increase in sand mining

- Loss of tourists leading to increase in illegal activities

- Possible virus pathogens in river water

- Potential for increased soil run-off as locals clear vegetation to plant food (Bhutan)

Sand mining and other river extraction processes were discussed in more detail. It was mentioned that in some areas, particularly those with lower levels of industry, the halting of mining may be the primary reason for increased water clarity. Most countries show a greatly reduced amount of mining activity, but, worryingly, Sri Lanka is an exception.

‘Around Mahaweli Flood Plains National Park there are reports of new sand mining activity taking place,’ John Wilson said. ‘This is encroaching into protected areas as there is now no enforcement and no official data. Mahaweli means the ‘great, sandy river’ and is the one largely affected. However, the Kelani River, closer to Colombo, is improved due to industrial shut down.’

Himanshu suggested that 'there is a need for asking in all south Asian countries for collecting and testing of river water samples for all key rivers for all key parameters at all key locations, by official agencies. Also, there is need for wider collection of samples so that official datasets can be challenged.'

He also wondered about levels of virus pathogen in sewage water, saying; 'this is something that needs to be investigated and the potential impacts studied.'

It was agreed by all that using biological monitoring protocols would be useful. Adrian Pinder said ‘biological communities provide standard tools for assessment of ecosystem health (including water quality and specific anthropogenic stressors), in Europe. This provides a biological response to longer term water quality (including sudden spikes in pollution) which may not be detected using a spot sample water chemistry approach.’ Along the same lines, Himanshu said; ‘fish are the ultimate evidence of river health.’ Adrian added that ‘auto-monitoring stations for chemical sampling can provide valuable data, but a combination of biological and chemical monitoring is desirable.’

Ram Devi said that there is an existing biodiversity protocol - Rapid Field Assessment Protocol - used in Nepal, ‘we have protocols developed for mountain and lowland regions, so will be suitable for rivers from Pakistan, India, Nepal across to Bhutan. Research scholars from Bhutan and India have been using the protocol since its development in 2008.’ Asked if it is suitable for lowland countries as well, she said it has been used in the Terai, so would be useful in Bangladesh, peninsular India and Sri Lanka.

Once again, the socio-economic impacts of lockdown were in evidence, mainly through fishing communities losing access to markets. Also, increased signs of rural communities having to resort to fishing, sometimes using destructive methods, as a way of finding a meal. Sheikh Rokon quoted from Manik Bandyopadhyay’s classic novel ‘Boatman of the River Padma’, saying; ‘fishermen are the poorest among the poor.’ The impacts of the pandemic upon the poorest riverine communities are something we may need to battle with for a long time to come.


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