River-linking project: Motley of hopes and threats

By GovernanceToday
In Cover Story
May 4, 2016

The project has a potential to generate 34 Giga-watts of power and spell displacement of 5.5 million tribal people and farmers


Originally 30 rivers were identified which was later increased to 37

Scarcity of water has raised its ugly head in India and not only Maharashtra; percentage may differ, but almost every state in the country is facing the crisis. In the wake of such a situation, river linking project may seem to be a big respite. However environmentalists and ecologists warn of dire long term consequences.

The ambitious plan to link India’s 37 rivers was mooted during the rule of the first NDA government in 2002. Initially, 30 rivers were identified and the number finalized to be 37. The aim of the project was to link these rivers with artificial canals to provide water to the states that do not have enough water for their own. The interlinking 37 major Himalayan and Peninsular rivers is expected to carry water to the arid, semi-arid and drought prone regions through some 30 big canals and around 3000 small and large reservoirs within an estimated stretch of around 15,000 kms. The idea if implemented will certainly improve irrigational facilities, drinking water facilities and also be useful in generating hydroelectricity but at the cost of irreversible ecological losses, as argued by many experts.

The project, after being approved in 2002 did not make much progress for one year, which was folloed by the Supreme Court intervention that triggered a series of impact assessments. These assessments analyzed the project on environmental, social, ecological as well as economical aspects. Finally, in 2006 the courts ordered spearheading of the project. But the implementation yet faced roadblocks from various ecological groups and environmentalists who advocated that changing the course of the rivers would lead to disbalance in the natural cycles, thus affecting seasons adversely. Yet, the then NDA government, went ahead with the implementation and the project would have made progress had the government not fell.

As a consequence of government change, the project was put on back burner for 10 long years. The UPA did bring up the issue on some occasions but the environmental lobby and undeniably the political lobby did not allow the project to start.

However, now that the project has taken off once again, the attitude of people has changed. The reactions evolved as the expected results were seen following the linking of Krishna-Godavari rivers.

The linking of these two rivers have provided much needed water to the coastal towns and also paved a way for perennial irrigation of the rayalaseema region, popularly known as the rice bowl of India. Since September, there has also been improvement in the lives of the farmers of the region as they do not depend on rain for irrigation anymore.

However, the diversion of the river water has left the Panna Tiger reserve parched. Water shortage has been affecting the flora and fauna of the reserve, especially of the migratory birds of the reserve. So while farmers rejoice, the wildlife is being affected. An improved water conservation efforts and technology can however be a way out of this imbalance.

The apparent success of the Krishna-Godavari linking, there is strong resistance from multiple experts to the project. “Interlinking of Rivers isn’t viable and it violates normal and natural course of flow of riparian landscape. Himalayan Rivers and peninsular rivers share distinct characteristics streams flowing through a diverse riparian landscape and physiographic which comprise of distinct ecosystems and their biodiversity. This project shall cause serious ecological degradation and biodiversity depletion,” said Kumar Deepak, environmentalist, United Nations Development Program.

The project will force large scale forests and biodiversity losses downstream of the Donor Rivers. Environmentalists allege that there is no scientific basis for such interlinking of rivers. A river has a natural course and it flows according to the geographical cycle and landscape.

“There isn’t such concept of surplus or deficit water holding by a specific river. A river can carry water as much it can. Secondly river isn’t a pipe that we can stretch and fold it from its normal discourse. When you construct a canal for large scale diversion of water, in the meantime we displace and rehabilitate large number of settlements and ecosystems,” said Kumar.

Kirshna and Godavari

Kirshna and Godavari are the first two rivers to be connected under the project

As per a report, the project threatens tiger reserve as well and it is likely to submerge 58.03 sq. km (10.07%) of the critical tiger habitat of Panna Tiger Reserve.  There is going on a disastrous intervention within the core area of the Panna National Park while interlinking the Ken-Betwa Rivers.

Ecologists allege that the Government is desirous to conclude the project for the political score and mileage without any sort of clearances.

This is like redrawing the geography of this country. Perennial rivers flow through all weathers and it’s obvious that they would carry sometimes surplus water, causing flood. This is how natural ecosystems work and when one will study the invisible economics of flood and fertility of the plain it would be profitable manifolds than this interlinking of the rivers, adds Kumar Deepak.

The implementation of the project not only sees ecological and environmental challenges but also faces some economic challenges.

This project requires a massive fiscal allocation of approximately 11 lakh crore ($168 billion). Such a huge funding is the biggest challenge before the Government.

The project’s estimated construction comprises 30 major canals and 3000 small and large reservoirs on the stretch of around 15,000 kms of land. This will have a potential to generate 34 Giga-watts of power and will also lead to the displacement of 5.5 million tribal people and farmers.

Political challenges also loom large over the project. The negative factor being that water is a State subject. India has been the history of river water dispute. Analysts believe that this project will lead to serious inter-state relationship crisis. Situations may arise where the water surplus State may deny releasing water or engaging in untimely release of water thus affecting cropping pattern and other occupation in the water deficit regions.

Environmentally, one of the major challenges is of de-silting the canals and reservoirs. This will need additional cost and space to dump the silt. The project fails to clarify the environmental and community issues, points out Kumar adding that in long run, the project would heavily impact the flow of the channel downstream of the Donor Rivers. This would adversely affect the wetlands and the mangroves ecosystems and biodiversity. Consequently, ecosystem based disaster risk will get intensified inducing vulnerability to cyclones, floods and the likes.

There are many challenges in the project but what gives it a green signal cannot be undermined too. There are several hopes pinned to the project and these are good enough reasons to go ahead with the project.

Channelization of 37 major will fulfill the need of the region having arid, semi-arid or scanty rainfall settlements. This will help farmers, vulnerable to crop loss due to floods and droughts every year. Northern and Eastern India frequently experience floods while Western and Southern India experiences droughts and therefore this interlinking could rectify that to some extent. It will also increase India’s utilizable surface water by 25 per cent.

The project will help to irrigate an additional 35 million hectares in the western and peninsular regions. It would explore new business and employment opportunities in agro-based value added industries and agro-marketing. This will encourage technological inputs and attract larger financial investments. This project will open new dimension to the fisheries industries as well, explains Kumar adding that rivers carry vast ecological and cultural regime. Therefore, a thorough Comprehensive Ecological and Social Impact Assessment are needed before persisting with the project.

India’s National Water Development Authority describes, “If we can build storage reservoirs on these rivers and connect them to other parts of the country, regional imbalances could be reduced significantly and lot of benefits by way of additional irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply, hydropower generation, navigational facilities would accrue.”

If one observes the statistics of this project which suggests that this way we could create 87 million acres of irrigable land, and transfer 174 trillion litres of water every year.

The ideas on which the project has been devised can certainly solve big issues. However, one has to explore available alternative options before such complex anthropogenic intervention of diverting inter-basin water is taken up. Some of the viable alternatives include watershed development, rain water harvesting, ground water recharge, optimizing existing infrastructure, cropping pattern, restoration of water bodies like wetlands.

It is only after efficient implementation of these alternatives that embarking upon this interlinking of river plan can somewhere be less detrimental to nature and have a comparatively less of the hind side.

Till now, the government has not been able to work much on such alternatives and the respective government at Union and in States couldn’t implement such alternatives at the grassroots level.

Bringing state and centre and different states on the same page over this project is also a big challenge. The bitter river water disputes between states shows that the project will face major roadblocks on most if not all stretches of the project. Then there are rivers that flow between two countries making matters even more complicated as international water-sharing agreements will have to be looked into.

The interlinking idea is not new.  It was way back in 1980 when the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) had formulated a National Perspective Plan (NPP) for Water Resources Development envisaging inter-basin transfer of water from surplus basins to deficit basins. The concept is decades old and yet we are still mooting. The pace needs a revision and so does the environmental assessment of the project. A project of this scale and complexity cannot be implemented without proper cost benefit analysis, both on monetary and ecological parameters.