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River interlinking: A move in the right direction?

River interlinking: A move in the right direction?

By Priyanka Venkat

After decades of anticipation and debate, the Prime Minister announced that the plan to interlink rivers in the country would begin as early as December. The 5.5 lakh crore project focuses on linking nearly 60 rivers in a bid to handle issues such as droughts and floods that plague the nation, due to erratic rainfall. The project seeks to provide farmers with an alternate source of water during dry times, thereby increasing the amount of land that can be irrigated. It also seeks to equitably distribute water amongst states, due to the inherent variations in the availability of water in river basins.

Need for intervention

Indian agriculture is highly dependent on the monsoons for its survival, which is mostly irregular and uneven. While eastern and northern parts of India attempt to cope with floods, the southern and western regions suffer from shortage. Crop failures, droughts and consequent horrific outcomes such as farmer suicides, are common incidences in the country.  

A large portion of water from rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganga, drain into the sea, thus reducing the amount of water available not only for irrigation but also for drinking purposes. In a country with a rapidly increasing population, food security is becoming a formidable issue that can only be solved by improving access to irrigation facilities.  There is a need for a continuous water supply to facilitate irrigation throughout the year.

At the very core, the project aims to do this by transferring water from those basins that have a surplus, to those who have a deficit. It intends to do this through the construction of 30 canals and 3000 reservoirs that are capable of generating 34 gigawatts of hydroelectric power. In addition to this, it expects to irrigate 87 million acres of farmland through its canals and transfer close to 174 trillion litres of water yearly.

Getting the ball rolling

Dr K L Rao, former Irrigation Minister, proposed a ‘National Water Grid’ in the 1970s, where the surplus water from the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins would be transferred to areas in central and southern India that suffered from water scarcity. The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was formed in 1982, with the objective of assessing the feasibility of inter-linking rivers. However, no concrete action was taken on the reports put forth by it. A glimmer of hope was seen in 1999 when the Vajpayee Government took up the idea and proposed a plan to connect 14 Himalayan and 16 peninsular rivers. Despite forming a detailed plan on the Ken-Betwa river link, it wasn’t taken further because of opposition by the Environment Ministry and constant disputes between states about water sharing contracts.

However, PM Modi has got the ball rolling now, by pushing for and obtaining clearances for the first phase of the project. Ministers have been told to approach Modi directly in case of disputes between the states. The project has been divided into three sections – inter-linking of the northern Himalayan rivers, southern peninsular rivers and linking of intrastate rivers. Over the next three months, work will begin on three projects and the building of two dams. The projects include Ken- Betwa in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Damanganga-Pinjaand  and Par-Tapi- Narmada, in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Ken- Betwa is the first project that the government will be focussing on.

The Ken-Betwa inter-linking project is expected to positively impact the Bundelkhand region by tackling water scarcity and providing employment. The project involves the construction of a dam on the Ken river along with a canal that links it to Betwa. Through its implementation, about 15 lakh acres of land will be irrigated.

Tangible benefits

Irrigation, especially in an agrarian economy, plays a crucial role in ensuring growth and a reduction in inequality. A majority of farms in the country are rain fed, and redirecting the water from surplus river streams to the ones that desperately need it, is a way to handle issues of drought and floods at the same time.

Irregularities in water supply, not only impact farming, but also result in power shortages as many hydroelectric power plants operate below their required capacity. The project ensures a continuous and perennial supply of water through the storage in reservoirs. The waterways resulting from the canal network will provide cheaper transport and aid in navigation. The increase in employment opportunities and income streams such as fish farming in rural areas and the boost to agricultural production are tangible benefits that cannot be ignored.

Destroying ecology, lives and relations

Pertinent harms exist from restructuring and manipulating river routes. They often lead to interstate conflicts that take a long time to resolve. The Mullaperiyar Dam, constructed a century ago, redirected water from the upper reaches of Periyar to a river basin in Tamil Nadu. While this helped Tamil Nadu to fulfil its aims of irrigation and power generation, it negatively impacted Kerala. The poor water quality due to increase in salinity polluted the river in the lower reaches of Periyar.  Both states now fight for control of the dam.

There are also international implications. The river inter-linking will affect Bangladesh drastically where millions of people live downstream of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga. Implementing this project could result in less supply of water in these territories, increasing salinity and ruining the soil. However, Modi has given assurances on his visit to Dhaka that Bangladesh’s interests will be protected.

Another criticism is the assumption that the surplus river stream will eternally remain so. This isn’t necessarily true, considering that climate change is a crucial factor that has to be taken into account. In the event that glaciers do not sustain their glacial mass, the entire system could be disrupted.

The possibility of social and environmental harms resulting from this move, needs to be accounted for by the government. Such projects destroy the ecology of rivers. The Ken-Betwa project would submerge 10% of the Panna Tiger reserve under water and displace close to 2000 families. The government plans to set aside 5% of its budget for the rehabilitation of the tigers and spend Rs 1258 crore to rehabilitate displaced families. However, historically, the government has a poor track record for ensuring quick and adequate rehabilitation of families displaced by its projects.

The path ahead

Critics argue that the government should not go ahead with this project, but rather focus on existing water conservation systems in place. However, if the government goes ahead with the project only after creating systems that preempt and mitigate the ecological, social and environmental impacts, then it might achieve what it has promised. A project of this magnitude is likely to take a really long time to successfully implement because of the various roadblocks in place.

While low water supply is a formidable issue faced by the country, an equally intimidating issue is the improper usage of water resources. The government needs to simultaneously direct its efforts towards educating farmers about water conservation techniques, decentralise watershed development and try to revive existing systems of water harvesting in a bid to equip farmers to preserve and use water optimally. India is now entering uncharted territory with this project that could change millions of lives in the country. Only time will tell, whether the government maintains a balance between development and social and environmental costs.  

Featured Image Source: Flickr

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