The Narendra Modi-led government has given nod to one of the most ambitious and daring projects of interlinking rivers in India. It has a gross initial cost of $87 billion – and it’s considered to be a big step towards tackling hazards like floods, droughts and storms.
Interlinking of rivers isn’t viable, and it disrupts the normal, natural course and flow of riparian landscapes. The Himalayan and peninsular rivers have distinct characteristics as they flow through diverse landscapes and geographies comprising of distinct ecosystems and their biodiversities.
This project shall cause serious ecological degradation and biodiversity-depletion. Still, the ecological, economic and social feasibility assessments are yet to be studied. This project will harm large-scale forests and cause biodiversity losses, especially in the downstream regions of donor rivers.
A river has a natural course and it flows according to the landscape. There isn’t such a concept as surplus or deficit water-holding by a specific river. A river can carry as much water as it can. Secondly, a river isn’t a pipe that we can stretch and fold. When you construct a canal for large-scale diversion, we also displace and rehabilitate a large number of settlements and ecosystems.
For example, there is a disastrous intervention going on in the core area of the Panna National Park while interlinking the Ken and Betwa rivers. The government wants to conclude the project, mainly for the political mileage, without bothering about the warnings and the costs of doing so.
This is like redrawing the geography of this country. Perennial rivers flow through all seasons – and it’s obvious that they will sometimes carry surplus water, causing floods. This is how natural ecosystems work – and it will be more profitable to study the ‘invisible economics’ of flood and fertility of riverine plains than interlinking rivers.
There is hardly any scientific basis for the interlinking of rivers. One should instead explore other available alternative options like watershed development, rainwater harvesting, ground water recharge, optimising existing infrastructure, cropping patterns, restoration of water bodies like wetlands, before adopting a plan like interlinking rivers.
So far, the government has failed to deliver on such alternatives. Neither have the state governments implemented such alternatives on ground. In my opinion, the government just wants to cover up its failures by embarking on the massive project of interlinking rivers.
Rivers carry vast ecological and cultural regimes. Therefore, a thorough and comprehensive ecological and social impact assessment needs to be carried out before the execution of the project.
This project requires a massive fiscal allocation – much more than the $87 billion which the NDA government has currently allocated. Such a huge funding is the biggest challenge before the government. It’s possible that the government may have to divert money from other sectors (like education and healthcare) to fund this project.
The project aims at constructing 30 major canals stretching over around 15,000 kilometres, and 3,000 small and large reservoirs with the potential to generate 34 gigawatts of power. Consequently, 5.5 million people (mainly people from tribal communities and farmers) may be displaced and may need to be rehabilitated.
Water is essentially a state subject. However, India has also had a long history of river water disputes. This project will lead to serious inter-state relationship crises. It is possible that water-surplus states may not agree to release water to the water-deficit states. This will lead to a situation where the untimely release of water (if any) may affect the cropping pattern in the water-deficit regions.
Also, one of the major challenges is that of de-silting the canals and reservoirs. This will need additional costs and space. The project fails to clarify these environmental and community issues.
In long run, the project may heavily impact the flow of the water channels of donor rivers downstream. This may badly harm wetlands, mangrove ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain. Consequently, these ecosystems will become more vulnerable to disasters like storms and floods.
However, the current rate of the completion project is quite slow. It does not seem that it will be completed before 2050.
Firstly, I don’t think that this project can have any positive environmental effects whtsoever.
On the other hand, channelising and interlinking 37 major rivers by canals and reservoirs may help fulfil the need of arid, semi-arid regions or places with scanty rainfall. This will largely help our farmers who incur agricultural losses every year due to floods and droughts. While there are some regions which experience frequent floods, there are others which suffer from droughts – and here, interlinking of rivers could address the problems. Interlinking of rivers will also increase India’s utilisable surface water by 25%.
The project will help to irrigate an additional 35 million hectares in the country. It can also potentially help create new business and employment opportunities in agro-based value-added industries and agro-marketing. This will, in turn, encourage technological inputs and attract larger financial investments. This project can open new dimensions in the fisheries industry as well.
India’s National Water Development Authority says, “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 etc. would accrue.” Going by the statistics, the project can help create 87 million acres of irrigated land and transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year.
However, there are some obstacles in the way ahead. For the larger part, water is a State subject, and barring inter-state rivers, the Union government cannot impose its whims on states. Moreover, there are rivers which cross over to another countries – and India has witnessed international river water-sharing disputes. These need to be solved before the completion of the project. Therefore, the project needs quite some time to be completed as there are prevailing local, intra-state, inter-state and international impediments.
Being a lotic ecosystem, a river is essentially a flowing mass of water. Let them flow flawlessly. Let them breathe. Don’t create advanced scientific obstacles in their courses. Stop using your grey cells to grow your ‘green energy economics’ by crafting monstrous dams or interlinking rivers and killing them.
Rivers symbolise our existence. If they turn up dead, we will be inviting our own extinction. Rivers need freedom, and one can’t simply imagine the disaster the project will cause!
Interlinking will also severely affect the normal cycle of rivers. Rather than addressing our demographic disaster, we are making the rivers slaves to our policies. In fact, we have been treating simple injuries with the wrong doctors and medicines over a period of time now.
Ecosystem marginalisation will also create class rifts.Such a policy blunder may satisfy a section of our community in short term – but it won’t help us reduce the disasters and hazards and may in fact end up amplifying them.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.