In order to address the concern of hydrological imbalances in different regions of the country due to the uneven rainfall and unequal distribution of water resources, Government of India has proposed interlinking of the rivers under the National River Linking Project (NRLP).
This gigantic civil engineering model, officially known as National Perspective Plan (NPP), envisions transfer of water from surplus river basins to deficit river basins of the country.
The ambitious project has the potential of generating 34 gigawatt of power and irrigating 35 million hectares of land. It also has huge adverse impacts on the climate, environment and forests.
Context: Over 70% of India’s water is available to only 36% of the land area. This is happening mainly due to the unusual monsoon patterns in the Indian states. For example, the rivers in the Ganga and the Brahmaputra basins get surplus water during the monsoon while the rivers in Gujarat and Rajasthan receive limited rainfall.
These imbalances in the rain patterns are the main cause of farmers committing suicides in the drought-hit areas of the country.
Meanwhile, the available 4% of the world’s groundwater in India is also being overexploited rapidly due to the high population growth rate in India. With the fast depletion of the water resources, it has been predicted that by the year 2025, India will be a “water-stressed” state and by 2050, the country will be “water-starved”.
So, to ensure the optimum utilization of water resources, Government of India constituted National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has identified 30 inter-basin water transfer links—14 in the Himalayan River Basin and 16 in the Peninsular River Basin—that will provide the surplus water to the water-deficit areas of the country for different purposes viz. irrigation, power generation, promotion of inland water transport and pisciculture etc.
Alleviating droughts and flood control
The proposed interlinking of rivers will help alleviate droughts in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country like the southern and the western parts when enough water is provided to these areas from the surplus river water basins. The move will also help in controlling the frequent floods during the monsoon season in the eastern and central regions of the country like Assam, Bihar, Karnataka, and parts of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. This will also reduce the number of human and livestock deaths and the property and other agricultural losses in the calamities.
India’s agrarian economy will also get a boost when the flood water is diverted to the drought-prone areas like Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand. With farmers getting enough water for irrigation, suicides will also be prevented in such areas.
The diversion of water to the dry areas through canals will also raise the commercial activities like fishing around the artificial water bodies, thus employment opportunities to the people. Inland water transport through these canals will also reduce the cost of transportation.
Since the interlinking of rivers involves creation of large dams and water reservoirs on the main rivers and their tributaries, water stored in the dams will also help the states in generation of hydroelectric power, thus regular power supply and revenue to the states. The channelization of water through the canal system will also ensure the availability of drinking water to the people throughout the year.
The river water sharing is also expected to promote the feeling of national integration among the countrymen.
Huge economic, social and ecological implications of the project
The rivers interlinking project requires lakhs of crores of rupees for the construction of a huge network of canals, tunnels and other navigation channels. It is believed that the funds for the same will either be sourced through international channels or by diverting the budget meant for other departments. Cost overruns are also expected since the project will take several years to complete.
Environmental implications of this massive civil engineering project are also worrying some environmentalists as according to them, millions of trees would be cut to make canals and tunnels through the forests. Massive deforestation, according to them, will result in dislocation of lakhs of animals and people, particularly tribal population living in the forests. Building dams and water reservoirs would also jeopardize biodiversity. For example, the environmental experts have been warning that the Ken-Betwa River link aimed at providing round-the-year water supply to Betwa River from ever-flowing Ken River will submerge the Panna Tiger reserve due to the construction of a dam at Daudhan Village in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh.
Due to the interlinking of rivers and construction of dams and reservoirs on them, there will be a decrease in the amount of water entering other states and neighboring countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and this will result in disputes with them. For example, Bangladesh is by-and-large an agrarian economy. Hence, the country would definitely raise the concerns when the water supply to its boundaries is decreased by India.
The river interlinking, as per the environmental scientists, will also disrupt the monsoon cycle and affect the microclimate management due to the large-scale deforestation.
As such the environmentalists have been suggesting that the Indian government should consider interlinking of small rivulets initially to check whether the gigantic civil engineering project of interlinking large rivers is feasible.
An independent journalist based in Jammu, Bivek Mathur can be reached at [email protected] He tweets at @89jammu.