Interlinking of Indian Rivers: Boon or Bane?

Context:

It is widely accepted that the interlinking of rivers will have adverse impact on environment and lives of million people.

What is the National River Linking Project (NRLP)?

  • The National River Linking Project (NRLP)is a proposed large-scale project that aims to link Indian rivers by a network of reservoirs and canals
  • It aims at reducing persistent floods in Eastern India and water shortages in Southern and Western India
  • The project is being managed by India’s National Water Development Agency (NWDA), under its Ministry of Water Resources

Background

  • Sir Arthur Cotton’s Navigational Plan in 1858
  • K.L. Rao’s proposal for Ganga-Cauvery Link and National water Grid proposal (1972)
  • Dastur’s Garland Canal Proposal (1978)
  • Rao and Dastur’s proposal were not found techno-economically feasible
  • National Perspective Plan- 1980- Ministry of Water Resources. This later came to be known as the national River Linking Project (NRLP)
  • In October 2002, the Supreme Court ordered the Central Government to initiate work on inter-linking the major rivers of the country.
  • A task force was appointed and a deadline of 2016 was set to complete the entire project that would link 37 rivers
  • In Feb 2012, the Supreme Court ordered the constitution of a “Special Committee for Interlinking of Rivers” headed by the Minister of Water Resources.

What is the scope of NRLP?

  • The National River Interlinking Project will comprise of 30 links to connect 37 rivers across the nation through a network of nearly 3000 storage dams
  • It has two major components: Himalayan Component and Peninsular Component
  • The NRLP has three major donor river basins: the Brahmaputra in the Himalayan component, and the Mahanadi and the Godavari in the peninsular component
  • The Himalayan component proposes to transfer 33 BCM of water through 16 river links.

It has two sub component linkings:

  1. Ganga and Brahmaputra basins to Mahanadi basin and
  2. Eastern Ganga tributaries and Chambal and Sabarmati river basins
  • The Peninsular component proposes to transfer 141 BCM water through 14 river links.

It has four sub component linkings:

  1. Mahanadi and Godavari basins to Krishna, Cauvery and Vaigai rivers
  2. West-flowing rivers south of Tapi to the north of Bombay
  3. Ken River to Betwa River and Parbati, Kalisindh rivers to Chambal rivers
  4. Some West flowing rivers to the East flowing rivers

What is the current status?

  • Godavari River had been formally interlinked with the Krishna River at Ibrahimpatnam near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh in September 2015.
  • Ken-Betwa link project has been declared as National Project by the Government of India- the Ken-Betwa link envisages diversion of surplus waters of Ken basin to water deficit Betwa basin.

Source: National Institute of Hydrology 

Why is there a need for interlinking?

  • The rainfall is highly variable across India- the east and north get most of the rain, while the west and south get less
  • India also sees years of excess monsoons and floods, followed by late monsoons with droughts.
  • This geographical and time variance in the availability of natural water versus the year round demand for irrigation, drinking and industrial water creates a demand-supply gap.
  • Proponents of river-linking project claims that India’s water problem can be solved by conserving monsoon water in reservoirs and delivering this water to water-scarce regions using rivers interlinking projects.

What are the proposed benefits of river interlinking?

Transport:

  • The project is expected to offer potential benefits to the transport sector through navigation
  • River transports is cheaper
  • It is a non-polluting transport alternative-It has a low carbon footprint.
  • The proposed grid is expected to ease pressure on railways and roads by introducing inland navigation
  • It will serve India’s need of infrastructure for logistics and movement of freight, particularly for ores and food grains.

Irrigation Benefits:

  • The project is expected to provide additional irrigation to 35 million hectares in the water-scarce western and peninsular regions.
  • This will further create employment, boost crop outputs and farm incomes
  • The benefits would get multiplied through backward (farm equipment and input supplies) and forward linkages (agro-processing industries)
  • The irrigation benefits would also ensure food security in the country.

Hydropower Development

  • The river interlinking project claims to generate total power of 34,000 MW (34 GW)

Water Supply

  • The project envisages supply of clean drinking water and water for industrial use amounting to 90 and 64.8 billion cum. respectively with a view to meet the demand by 2050.

Flood and Drought Mitigation

  • The project is expected to eradicate the flooding problems which recur in the northeast and the north every year
  • It is also expected to mitigate drought conditions in rainfall deficit areas

Dry Weather Flow Augmentation

  • Transfer of surplus water stored in reservoirs during monsoon and releasing it during dry season will ensure a minimum amount of dry weather flow in the rivers
  • This would help in pollution control, navigation, fisheries, growth of forests, protection of wild life etc.

Increased Employment opportunities in rural areas

  • The proposed link canals and the storages are expected to create large employment opportunities for the rural youths.

Defense

  • The Project is expected to provide for enhancing the security of the country by an additional waterline of defense

What are the major criticisms of interlinking of rivers in India?

Environmental Impacts:

  • Environmental Degradation
  • Climate Change:  if the glaciers don’t sustain their glacier mass due to climate change, the very concept that the donor basin (mostly Himalayan rivers) has surplus water that can be made available for the recipient basin, will change.
  • Loss of aquatic ecosystem
  • Water logging and salinity
  • Submergence of vast areas of land in reservoirs: linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers at the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is expected to submerge an important wildlife habitat which is home to many endangered species
  • Threat to Himalayan Forest: the Ganga basin’s topography is flat, building dams would not substantially add to river flows and these dams could threaten the forests of the Himalayas. This may impact the functioning of the monsoon system.
  • Destruction f groundwater recharge mechanisms

Loss of livelihood and displacement of people:

  • Loss of land, forests and fisheries on which most of the poor and tribal people sustain their livelihood
  • Massive displacement of people : psychological damage due to forced resettlement
  • Rehabilitation of the affected people is a major challenge for the project

Geopolitical Constraints:

  • Some of the inter-linking of rivers schemes has international implications, with a possible impact on countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh
  • Bangaladesh strongly objects to transferring the Brahmaputra water to the Ganga
  • Water transfer in the Himalayan component needs to consider the effects on the neighbouring countries

Massive investment required for implementation

  • The estimated cost for the implementation of the project at 2000 price index is Rs.5.6 lakh crores, which is likely to further increase manifold.

Inter-state disputes

  • In India‘s constitution, water is essentially a state subject.
  • Several states including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Sikkim have already opposed ILR projects
  • There has been dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of water from rivers Cauvery and Krishna

Flood Control- an attempt to fool people?

  • It is doubtful whether interlinking projects can provide flood proofing. Theoretically, a large reservoir can help moderate floods in the downstream areas.
  • However, in case of India experiences have been different.
  • Big dams such as the Ranganadi dam, the Damodar dams, the Farakka and Bansagar dams, and the Hirakud dam have brought avoidable flood disasters to Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, respectively.

Non-viability of large hydropower projects:

  • Interlinking of rivers will need more power to lift the water than what it is likely to produce.

Can there be alternatives to interlinking?

  • By proper management of existing water systems in an efficient manner and by saving rain water, one can irrigate the land.
  • For irrigation purposes, sprinklers and other water saving mechanisms can be put in place
  • Instead of interlinking of rivers, virtual water can be used. For Example: Suppose when a country imports one tonne of wheat instead of producing it domestically, it is saving about 1,300 cubic meters of the local water. The local water can be saved and used for other purposes.
  • Instead of merging rivers, investing money and degrading the environment food grains can be transported to the needy areas.

Concluding Remarks:

  • The river linking project promises a great concern for water conservation and optimum use of available water resources.
  • However, the project has socio-economic, political and environmental implications.
  • There is an urgent need to examine the feasibility of inter-river links. A detailed hydrological, geological, meteorological and environmental analysis of the project should be done
  • A detailed analysis is also required to include possible alternatives to the project.
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