Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri, Paavani Pegatraju

“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere” –  Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

Interlinkages of Rivers (ILR) has been floating since the early 19th century. However, the idea gained attention recently as the current government, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, has decided to implement this idea as a nation-wide project. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has proposed to create a separate body called the National Interlinking of Rivers Authority (NIRA).

The consequences of this project were discussed by Manoj Misra, Convener of the ‘Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan’ Campaign, in a webinar as part of ‘The State of the Environment: #PlanetTalks organized by the Center for Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) at IMPRI, India Water Portal. He shed light on the potential ecological and environmental impact and explored alternatives for the way forward.

Manoj Mishra_Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) - A Flawed and Avoidable Concept
Manoj Mishra_Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) – A Flawed and Avoidable Concept

History of ILR           

The concept of ILR first emerged in 1834 when Colonel Arthur Cotton suggested the ‘Orissa scheme’ and proposed linking Mahanadi, Godavari, and Krishna rivers with Cauvery. The primary rationale behind the idea was to divert water from water-surplus river basins (flood-prone areas) to water-starved regions (drought-prone regions). However, Colonel Cotton soon realized the potential’ injury to the coastline’ due to the irrigation works on the rivers.

Mr Francis Day, a fishery expert, confirmed Col. Cotton’s fears of adverse impact on fresh-water fish and fisheries. The National Water Grid plan and the ‘Garland Canal’ scheme were rejected in 1972 and 1977. The National Perspective Plan (NPP) for Water Development was prepared in 1980, primarily focusing on these links, and the National Water Development Agency was created in 1982 for its implementation. It only gained traction in 2002 when the then Honorable President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, spoke of going forward with the ILR project as a flood mitigation strategy.

Subsequently, in 2014, several committees were constituted to carry out this project. However, these committees were politically dominated, with no independent experts on river or coastal ecology at the table and very few non-officials (social activists) who made fewer contributions. The committees were primarily filled with men, lacking female representation. The project involved constructing 3,000 dams and 15,000 km canals to transfer water from one river basin to another. As of 2018, the construction’s estimated cost – excluding charges concerning the rehabilitation of people and other expenses – stood at 8.44 lakh crores.

“In essence, it is a Dam, Reservoir and Canal (DR&C) construction project and not ILR”, says Mr Manoj Misra.

For and Against ILR

ILR proponents defend the project mainly on three grounds,

  • water in a river flowing into the sea unutilized is a waste of resources
  • there are surplus and deficit river basins
  • as a flood and drought mitigation strategy, water from flood-prone areas can be transferred to drought-prone areas for mutual benefit.

They argued that it would add irrigation potential by 25 million hectares of surface irrigation, 10 million hectares of groundwater irrigation and generate around 34,000 MW of hydropower. Though this project looks promosing but these claims were hollow when considering the other costs.

One must recognize that a river is an ecosystem and home to many living organisms. It is not a pipeline. They are more than channels carrying water, and have a more extensive network of tributaries and distributaries. Assessing the viability of ILR as a flood and drought control measure is essential.

Dr Bharat Shah, Professor of Emeritus at IIT Rourkee says “Any water resource engineer will immediately discard the idea of interlinking of rivers as a flood control measure”. The idea is impractical since the canals connecting one river to another have a maximum conveyance capacity of 10,000-15,000 cusec (cubic foot per second). In contrast, rivers like Brahmaputra, Ganga, and Yamuna carry a couple of lakhs cusec (cubic foot per second) during normal high floods. Additionally, the argument that river water flowing into the sea is a waste highlights our bias against the ecologies, coastal areas, and people in the deltas. A river flowing into the sea is an essential part of the Water Cycle.

Are there ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ river basins?

Mr Misra argues that this is an absurd notion since a river basin is a well-defined, unique, self-contained ecological entity with a very distinct character. “It is a product of its topography, spread, geology, and size. Its endowments such as some tributaries, total precipitation, high or low flows, sediment, biodiversity etc., are a function of its location. People in different river basins have different cropping patterns, housing, clothing, culture, language, identity etc around their rivers”, he adds. Forcibly and artificially transferring the flow from one basin into another could have disastrous consequences.

When a river is equated wrongly with the amount of water flowing in it, the problem of measuring the amount of total available or surplus/deficit water in a river basin, emerges. Another concern pertains to the infrastructural capacity. Nearly INR two lakh crores have been spent constructing dams and canals in the last 70 years to target 110 million hectares of surface irrigation capacity. However, only 64 million hectares of the capacity is generated.

Even this is falling as our infrastructure ages, explains Mr.Misra, indicating that projects’ ratios have perhaps been inflated. The Ken-Betwa link project, which aimed to make water available to water-deficit areas of the upper Betwa basin through substitution from the surplus waters of Ken basin, is a classic case of this flawed concept.

Five different hydrological studies from 1982-2010 on River Ken at the proposed dam site have produced different and varying results of ‘Surplus’ in Ken. (4490 – 6590 MCM).
“A viable alternative, which can be implemented speedily with the people’s active participation at a low cost, is returning to traditional tanks and farm ponds. Restoration of tenurial rights over these tanks to local communities can go a long way in their revival and maintenance”, suggests Mr Misra.

Consequences and Way Forward

Today, in the 21st century, this project is more dangerous when climate breakdown is imminent, and forests and biodiversity, including aquatic biodiversity, are crucial to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Further, the deepening water crises across the country over the past few decades aggravates the situation. In this context, employing a ‘business as usual’ mindset where human interests alone are seen as paramount would be dangerous.

The Supreme Court of India has held that the Doctrine of Public trust indicates that states do not own natural resources but only keep them in public trust on behalf of the entire nation. Therefore, when a state wishes to interfere with natural resources, it has to be very circumcinct. “When we build a dam on a river, it fundamentally changes the character of the river/stream, and it’s a ‘traumatic’ interference”, says Mr Misra. The adverse impacts of dam construction and such projects on the ecology and the environment are irreversible.

To conclude, Mr Misra maintains that the ‘National Perspective Plan on Water Development’ (NPP) 1980 is outdated and suggests instituting a new, more representative experts panel to work towards a new NPP, taking into account our current 21st-century context. In his view, long-distance water transfers should be a rarity and the very last option. “ILR plans as they exist today, including the Ken-Betta link, must be put on hold till a new NPP is in place. Let us keep in mind that rivers in south Asia, especially the Himalayan rivers, which are the so-called Donor basins, are trans-boundary beyond national borders”, he warns.

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