India’s River-Linking Scheme: A case of troubled waters

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Forum of Environmental Journalists of India, India

With the exception of some select fields, few other issues in India have raised as much passion as the inter-state sharing of river waters. And, stemming partly from this socio-political acrimony together with environmental and economic concerns, India’s grandiose National River Linking Project (NRLP), has been on the potboiler ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2003 set up a Task Force on inter-linking of rivers, headed by then Environment Minister Suresh Prabhu.

The broad aim of the NRLP is to transfer excess river waters from the flood-prone eastern areas of the country to water-starved areas in western India, through 16 river links in the Himalayan river basins, or area drained by a river and its tributaries, and 14 links in the peninsular river basins. The main ‘donor’ basins are the Brahmaputra in the Himalayan belt, and Godavari, Narmada and Mahanadi in the peninsular basins. The NRLP has initial plans to add increased irrigation acreage of 35 m hectares from surface water and another 10 million ha more from increased groundwater recharge, to be added to India’s current potential of 140 million hectares. But hydro power generation is also being sought “on a massive scale”, estimated at 34,000 MW, as per Suresh Prabhu, erstwhile chairman of the NDA government’s task force on interlinking rivers, back in 2003. A network of canals traversing 14900 km and 3000 storage structures is planned to be constructed. When completed, NRLP is slated to handle four times more water than China’s Three Gorges Dam project. The projected main benefit is to add 34 m ha of new irrigated croplands at an outlay of approximately one lakh crores annually for the next 50 years, and was set to cost a staggering US$123 billion in 2002; figures now will have increased substantially due to inflation.

The matter, which took a backseat amidst a storm of protests on its unfeasibility and subsided after the fall of the NDA government, is again back on the agenda after a Supreme Court diktat in 2012 requested the government, this time the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to complete the project by 2016, an already-impossible deadline. The fact that two opposing parties while in government have approved of the NRLP, points to, interestingly, a common government phenomenon: to use large plans and projects for various gains, either their own electoral and political interests or the perceived thinking that huge schemes will actually help the country. NRLP proponents however argue about India’s dire necessity to increase per capita water, projected to reduce to a critical 1140 m by 2050 and alleviate severe regional inequalities in accessibility, add 34,000 MW of hydropower to the grid, supply much-needed drinking water and industrial water to water-starved regions, mitigate floods in eastern India, besides its irrigation potential. More recently, the NRLP has been touted as aiding food security and rural livelihoods. To get an idea of the rivers in question being linked, it is necessary to first outline India’s major water-supplying river basins. There are 13 major river basins encompassing 82.4% of the country’s drainage area, constituting 85% of all surface water flow and holding 80% of India’s population on its land surface.

There are, in addition, 28 medium river basins, spanning from 2000 to 20,000 sq. km, and another 52 minor basins with less than 2000 sq. km in each fold. Rainfall remains the major source of water but highly seasonal and varying in all the basins. In northern and eastern India the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra river systems form the Himalayan river basins, while the main peninsular river basins are the Narmada, Tapti, Godavari, Mahanadi, Krishna and Cauvery, flowing in both an easterly and westerly direction, the latter having lesser waters. The current condition of these river basins however is less than optimistic. First, a tripling of population from 1951-2010 has decreased per capita availability of water from 5,177 m3/year in 1951 to 1,588 m3/year in 2010,while inadequate governance, over-exploitation and pollution has caused a majority of river basins to be in crisis. In addition to this, a phalanx of dams on all major rivers has dwindled flows, quite apart from raising questions about their efficacy. India, the world’s third largest dam-builder, currently has 5196 dams, of which 2013 are large (above 10 metres in height), with 375 more under construction, the majority for irrigation and hydropower. Rs. 351,000 crores have been spent on these since the first Five Year Plan.

Yet the 12th Five Year Plan notes that the performance of dams in India has been ‘dismal’, has caused controversy over construction costs, displacement of communities and loss of livelihoods as well as ecological degradation of both land and river. The dwindling of water resources has played its part in the acrimonious, complex and long-drawn battles over river waters and the conservation of river basins, especially in the rivers Cauvery, Krishna, Godavari, Mandovi, Narmada, Ravi and Beas. And it is within this socio-political, economic and environmental context that opponents of the NRLP have found a stronger voice that drowns out NRLP proponents thus far. Opponents begin by saying that the basic assumption that there are enough waters in one basin to transfer elsewhere is flawed. Most basins today are overused and in most there is regional tension between old rural users and new industrial entrants into the scene. In 2012, the magazine Down to Earth (Feb 16-29, 2012) highlighted the inadequate flows of the Mahanadi basin, planned to be linked to the Godavari as an illustration of this flawed assumption. Additionally, the huge storage facilities required to transfer flood waters is exorbitant, having massive environmental impact and with already a poor record of re-settlement of those displaced, adding lakhs more to the rolls of displaced and un-resettled communities is in no one’s interest. The most basic of environmental concerns are those of submerging forests and lands, thus losing precious biodiversity and ecosystems and arable lands. Even more damning: current irrigations projects on the anvil are still stalled, while the majority are functioning inefficiently.

In India, the country’s water situation is both precarious and in crisis, caused mainly by mismanagement. India has 16% of the world’s population as compared to only 4% of its water resources.

There have been several other environmental concerns echoed in 2003 itself: that of seismic hazards in the Himalayan belt with all the new ‘altering’ of the landscape; of river pollution and risk to species through inter-flowing basins; of the huge enviro-social costs of such a massive scheme through the disruption of land, waters, livelihoods and communities. The construction of canals in the peninsular region alone is expected to displace nearly 600,000 people and submerge huge areas of forests, agricultural and non-agricultural lands. Yet, the linking of rivers is neither new to India or the world. The Periyar project, Parambikulam-Aliyar project, Kurnool-Cuddapah Canal and the Telegu-Ganga project, all constructed during the 19th and 20th centuries, are some examples of inter-basin transfers that were highlighted by the NRLP task force in 2003. The Periyar basin transfer was commissioned in 1895 and irrigated a total 81,000 ha, also having a 140MW power plant. The Parambikulam-Aiyar transfer involves seven streams that have been dammed and their reservoirs interlinked by tunnels, delivering water to drought-prone Coimbatore and Chittur in Kerala. In Himachal Pradesh, inter sub-basin transfers in the Indus basin and the Rajasthan Canal were implemented in the 19th and 20th centuries, whilst the Pandoh dam, 140 km upstream of a tributary of the Beas, enables diversion of beas waters to the Bhakra reservoir, generating 165 MW of power on the way. These projects have been highly beneficial and not caused any noticeable environmental damage, according to the NRLP task force in 2003.

After independence, the idea of bringing waters to dry western regions continued, with Dr. K.L.Rao, a well-respected technocrat, suggesting in the mid 1960s a Ganga-Cauvery link from a point below Patna. A few years later, Capt. Dastur, a pilot suggested a garland of canals around peninsular India, to be linked to a bend of canals from the Ravi in the Himalayas to the Brahmaputra in the east. Though not followed up in letter, in spirit the idea of linking continued right through different governments, ever since Indira Gandhi set up the National Water Development Agency to come up with a master plan for interlinking. Worldwide, too, river linking projects have actually been executed. In spite of controversies surrounding it, China has transferred 48 km3 of water from the Yangtze river to the dry plains of northern China. In the US, an old examples is the transferring of waters from the Colorado river basin to the Missouri-Mississippi river basin to the east. It provides water to 29 municipalities and irrigates 251,000 ha of land, generating hydropower along the way. This project too faced protests and controversy, but that has evolved over the years to increased legislative safeguards as well as an increased awareness on managing environmental concerns that such big projects bring it their wake. In a developing country context, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project bringing water from economically poor, but water-rich Lesotho to the wealthy province of Gauteng in South Africa is one of the world’s largest inter-basin transfer projects, still currently underway. In India, the country’s water situation is both precarious and in crisis, caused mainly by mismanagement. India has 16% of the world’s population as compared to only 4% of its water resources. Nationally, the country’s population has more than tripled since 1951, leading to a per capita decline in water from 3000-4000 cubic metres per person in 1951 to a maximum of 1000 cubic metres per person, well below the water-stressed level of 1700 cubic metres per person (Nat Institute of Health, US, 2010). Compare that to the US’s almost 8000 cubic metres of water per person. Over and above this, inefficient use of water has been the primary cause of today’s severe crisis in the sector. Groundwater usage has been both unregulated and promoted by the authorities themselves in the country’s drinking water supply schemes, leading to depleting and dangerous levels in many parts of the country. The rapid explosion in sinking tubewells, linked to free subsidies in electricity in the agricultural sector has also led to a groundwater crisis.

Additionally, water quality has suffered immensely due to poor implementation of waste management laws, leading to large-scale pouring of effluents and sewage into rivers and water bodies. The country has erratic distribution of its rainfall, with instances of floods and droughts both occurring simultaneously in different parts of the country. A majority of its river basins are water-stressed or polluted, or both. The scarcity has led to several instances of conflict between states and between industrial and rural users of water. Climate change is now worsening the situation with unpredictable rains and disturbed hydrological cycles. Water-service delivery is highly inequitable, leading to a crisis in water and sanitation issues in India. A recent report of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme estimates economic losses from lack of water and sanitation to the tune of 6.4% of India’s GDP in 2006. In such a scenario, perhaps another version or a related system to the NRLP will be one that can actually be implemented without angst on any side.