With increasing human population, the water quantity available has to meet the rising demands over time. Rivers are the lifeline of human existence, as evident from the fact that the first and the world’s major civilizations emerged on the banks of river. Such is the importance of rivers, that rivers in India are prayed as holy deities.
India hosts a monsoonal climate. As a result, rainfall distribution in India has spatial and temporal variations. India’s river water distribution is thus notorious having river basins which are either perennial or seasonal, surplus or deficit and overflowing or dry.
Inter-linking of Rivers (ILR) is the distribution of water from surplus to deficit regions. It is a massive Civil Engineering project to ensure and effectively manage water resources throughout India. The proposal for Inter-linking of rivers was first mooted by Sir Arthur Cotton, before the Indian Independence and then in the 1970s by the Ministry of Water Resources. It was revived again in 2002 by the Vajpayee government and in the recent years, the NDA government has assigned ILR one of its priority projects.
National Water Development Agency (NWDA) of India, set up in 1982, conducts feasibility analysis of the river linking. NWDA, as a National Perspective Plan, has identified interlinking of 37 rivers, connecting 30 links. The inter-linking of river project has two components - Himalayan and Peninsular. Under the Himalayan Component, 14 projects have been identified, linking Ganga- Brahmaputra system and under the Peninsular system, 16 projects have been identified, transporting 33 and 141 million litres of water respectively, involving creation of 3000+ storages, canals and lifting of waters across watershed ridges.
Since most of the rainfall is received in the months of June to September and most of the basins of water either swell beyond limits or remain inadequate, ILR has the most obvious benefit of mitigation of flooding and droughts simultaneously, ensuring equitable distribution of water, and solving India’s two most dreadful water-related woes, thus reducing the losses of the type occurred in 2002 due to extreme droughts or flooding conditions. This would also substantially increase the irrigation potential by 35m hectares. Agricultural production would be increased from 200m tonnes to 500m tonnes, also doubling the farmers’ income.
Besides, ILR has the potential to create hydropower capacity of 34000MW, ensuring energy security in rural areas. The canals with sufficient depths would have the scope of navigation and transportation capability. These would further broaden the prospects of rural India with the creation of new fishing grounds. It has the potential to create 10 lakh new jobs in the next 10 years. ILR can also create new tourist spots and can streamline afforestation projects. Thus it would play a pivotal role in poverty alleviation. It would foster communication between panchayats and states; reduce regional disparities and further the prospects of law and order. ILR would also help in enhancing India’s security, as it would provide additional waterline defence.
Currently, Ken-Betwa Link, Damanganga-Pinjal Link Project, Par-Tapi-Narmada Link, Mahanadi-Godavari Link, Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga Link Projects are under various stages of implementation.
With all these benefits, however, the issues and challenges are of graving concerns. A component of the plan is estimated to cost Rs. 5.5 lakh crores. Mobilization of financial resources will be of much greater problem. This, coupled with the post-maintenance of the project adds to the woes of already strained fiscal strength of the government. Besides, there are concerns of significant project deadline and cost overruns.
And Millions of people are likely to be displaced and several thousands of village areas are likely to be submerged. Consider the linking of Ken-Betwa Link, it is supposed to submerge about 56 sq km of neighbouring lands. This would add to India’s already a long list of problems of displacement and water-related problems creating social and psychological impacts as happened in the Sardar Sarovar and Tehri Dam projects. Further, rehabilitation is going be to the biggest task to the concerned authorities.
This results in an emergence of domestic and regional geopolitics. There are protests in the states of Odisha, Kerala, and North-Eastern states against ILR. Odisha, for example, dismissed the claim that Mahanadi has surplus water in its basin. The protests from donor states are likely to increase. ILR would also hamper relationships with the neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh, severely straining the already weakened relationship, as Ganga and Brahmaputra are trans-boundary rivers. Recently, Bangladesh showed its apprehension against diversion of River Sharda in Nepal to River Sabarmati in Western India and accused India of violating its commitments of river sharing.
ILR project also changes the entire river-ecosystem affecting the flora, fauna and the aquatic creatures as their life cycles are intensely interlinked. Any disturbance could threaten their very existence. Ken-Betwa Linking is likely to be passed through Panna Tiger Reserve, splitting the tiger population. Population of Gangetic Dolphins are likely to shrink too. ILR could increase the risk of seismic activities on the Himalayan Rivers. Several studies suggest that the flow of rivers into the seas and oceans form an important part of the water cycle on the earth and any changes can have devastating impacts. Additionally, incidences of mosquito-borne diseases are likely to rise. There are, thus, concerns regarding physical, chemical, hydrological, topographical, meteorological, geological and ecological changes.
Further, climate change has already disrupted the rainfall patterns. With studies suggesting melting of glaciers, drying up of existing river watersheds, the ILR project, if undertaken, may fail to yield the intended benefits in the long run.
All these call for, including the feasibility analysis, social, economic and environmental impact assessments of the project of the scale of ILR. There are existing committees and experts studying the impact of ILR. ILR is already being implemented across the world such as Rhine-Maine-Danube Canal in Europe, Illinois Waterway in North America, Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project in China, among others, which can be important sources of study.
Various experts have suggested other alternatives; National Waterways Development Technology (NAWAD Tech) has proposed National Waterways Project (NWP) which uses only the unutilized excess flood water going into the sea. For instance, according to ILR, as water flows from one end to the other, and if Godavari gives water to Krishna, the latter would benefit. However, as per this NWP proposal, water from a river in spate will flow to the other. It works on a give-and-take policy and acts like a water grid, similar to a power grid. This would eliminate friction between the states, and requiring only one-third of the land required for ILR. The project envisages construction of three waterways - in the north, centre and south - which would “impound, transmit and distribute” flood water among river basins.
Until multiple assessments are done, there is also otherwise necessity to provide thrust to water harvesting and storage systems which are socially, economically and ecologically viable and sustainable. Scope should be given for revival of traditional water conservation systems, recharge of ground waters and effective water utilization and recycling, be it agriculture or industry, rural or urban. Benefits of ILR are indeed luring, but the concerns are significantly dreadful. Solution to a problem should not generate more problems.
Mehta, D. & Mehta, N. K. (2013). Interlinking of Rivers in India: Issues & Challenges. 19. 137-143. 10.5281/zenodo.56851.
Ramachandran, S. (2016, July 20). The Cost of Interlinking India's Rivers. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: https://thediplomat.com/2016/07/the-cost-of-interlinking-indias-rivers/
Press Trust of India. (2017, September 10). Expert suggests alternative to interlinking for sharing of river waters. The Indian Express. Retrieved from: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/expert-suggests-alternative-to-interlinking-for-sharing-of-river-waters-4837340/
Kumar, A. (2015, June 7). The debate on interlinking rivers in India. Down To Earth. Retrieved from: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/the-debate-on-interlinking-rivers-in-india-13496
Thakkar, H. (2017, September 20). Do we really need interlinking of rivers? Livemint. Retrieved from: https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/VwhUEH5UUYava6GZISa1zH/Do-we-really-need-interlinking-of-rivers.html
Image source: The Wire
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