River Linking is project linking two or more rivers by creating a network of manually created canals, and providing land areas that otherwise does not have river water access and reducing the flow of water to sea using this means. It is based on the assumptions that surplus water in some rivers can be diverted to deficit rivers by creating a network of canals to interconnect the rivers.
Reasons and motivations
For an instance, in India the rainfall over the country is primarily orographic, associated with tropical depressions originating in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The summer monsoon accounts for more than 85 per cent of the precipitation. The uncertainty of occurrence of rainfall marked by prolonged dry spells and fluctuations in seasonal and annual rainfall is a serious problem for the country. Large parts of Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are not only in deficit in rainfall but also subject to large variations, resulting in frequent droughts and causing immense hardship to the population and enormous loss to the nation. The water availability even for drinking purposes becomes critical, particularly in the summer months as the rivers dry up and the ground water recedes. Regional variations in the rainfall lead to situations when some parts of the country do not have enough water even for raising a single crop. On the other hand, excess rainfall occurring in some parts of the country creates havoc due to floods.
Irrigation using river water and ground water has been the prime factor for raising the food grain production in India from a mere 50 million tonnes in the 1950s to more than 200 million tonnes at present, leading India to attain self-sufficiency in food. Irrigated area has increased from 22 million hectares to 95 million hectares during this period. The population of India, which is around 1000 million at present, is expected to increase to 1500 to 1800 million in the year 2050 and that would require about 450 million tonnes of food grains. For meeting this requirement, it would be necessary to increase irrigation potential to 160 million hectares for all crops by 2050. India's maximum irrigation potential that could be created through conventional sources has been assessed to be about 140 million hectares. For attaining a potential of 160 million hectares, other strategies shall have to be evolved.
Floods are a recurring feature, particularly by the Brahmaputra and Ganga rivers, in which almost 60 per cent of the river flows of India country occur. Flood damages, which were Rs. 52 crores in 1953, have gone up to Rs. 5,846 crores in 1998 with annual average being Rs. 1,343 crores affecting the States of Assam, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh along with untold human sufferings. On the other hand, large areas in the States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu face recurring droughts. As much as 85 percentage of drought prone area falls in these States. One of the most effective ways to increase the irrigation potential for increasing the food grain production, mitigating floods and droughts and reducing regional imbalance in the availability of water is the Inter Basin Water Transfer (IBWT) from the surplus rivers to deficit areas. Brahmaputra and Ganga particularly their northern tributaries, Mahanadi, Godavari and West Flowing Rivers originating from the Western Ghats are found to be surplus in water resources. 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 could be gained by way of additional irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply, hydropower generation, navigational facilities etc.
By linking the rivers, vast amount of land areas which will not otherwise be irrigated and are unusable for agriculture become fertile.
During heavy rainy seasons some areas can experience heavy floods while other areas might be experiencing drought like situations. With network of rivers this problem can be greatly avoided by channeling excess water to areas that are not experiencing a flood or are dry.
Generation of electricity
With new canals built, feasibility of new dams to generate hydroelectric power becomes a possibility.
Newly created network of canals opens up new routes and ways and routes of water navigation, which is generally more efficient and cheaper compared to road transport.
National River Linking Project in India
Main article: Indian Rivers Inter-link
The National River Linking Project (NRLP) is designed to ease water shortages in western and southern India while mitigating the impacts of recurrent floods in the eastern parts of the Ganga basin. The NRLP, if and when implemented, will be one of the biggest interbasin water transfer projects in the world.
Issues and Concerns
One of the major concerns is that rivers change their course in 70–100 years and thus once they are linked, future change of course could create huge practical problems for the project.
A number of leading environmentalists are of the opinion that the project could be an ecological disaster. There would be a decrease in downstream flows resulting in reduction of fresh water inflows into the seas seriously jeopardizing aquatic life.
Creation of canals would need large areas of land resulting large scale deforestation in certain areas.
Areas getting submerged
Possibility of new dams comes with the threat of large otherwise habitable or reserved land getting submerged under water or surface water.
Displacement of people
As large strips of land might have to be converted to canals, a considerable population living in this areas must need to be rehabilitated to new areas.
Interlinking of rivers is a very expensive proposal. It has huge adverse environmental impacts on land, forests, biodiversity, rivers and the livelihood of millions of people. It is a socially disruptive proposition. It will not only add to climate change impact (destruction of forests means destruction of carbon sinks, and reservoirs in tropical climate are known sources of methane and carbon dioxide), but will also reduce our capacity to adapt to climate change.
Take, for example, the Ken-Betwa link which is the government’s top priority. The link will facilitate export of water from drought-prone Bundelkhand to the upper Betwa basin, as the detailed project report (DPR) makes clear. The Ken-Betwa link’s hydrology is effectively a state secret, so there is no way to check if the claim of Ken river being surplus is valid. There has been no credible environmental impact assessment of the link and no public hearings in canal and downstream affected areas. The link’s environmental management plan is still being prepared.
The Ken-Betwa link threatens about 200 sq. km of the Panna tiger reserve, and with it the Ken river and large parts of Bundelkhand. Yet, it does not have an environment clearance, a final forest clearance, and its wildlife clearance is being scrutinized by the Central-empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court. In fact, both forest and wildlife clearance recommendations are under the condition that the power project will be taken out of the forest/protected area, but the environment clearance recommendation assumes the project will be inside the forest/protected area. So even that is invalid.
The government justifies the Ken-Betwa link, and indeed the river interlinking project as a whole, by saying that it will provide irrigation, water supply, hydropower and flood control. But we need to understand that most of India’s water benefits, including irrigation, come from groundwater. In fact, in the past two-and-a-half decades, the net national irrigated area from big dams has decreased by about 1.5 million hectares from a peak of 17.79 million ha in 1991-92, according to government data. But in the same period, India’s total irrigated area has gone up—primarily due to groundwater. Groundwater is our water lifeline and whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, groundwater is going to remain our water lifeline for decades to come.
However, our current use of groundwater is not sustainable. The focus of our water resources development should be on how the groundwater lifeline can be sustained. Will Interlinking of rivers help in this? No, since Interlinking of rivers entails a large number of dams that will lead to destruction of rivers, forests, wetlands and local water bodies, which are major groundwater recharge mechanisms.
So as far as irrigation is concerned, it seems the river interlinking project is likely to create more problems than benefits. The same is true for water supply.
As far as hydropower is concerned, it is clear that large hydropower projects are no longer a viable option in India. The power minister has repeatedly said in Parliament over the last two years that hydropower projects of over 11,000MW are stuck due to lack of finances and questions over viability. The chief minister of Himachal Pradesh has stated that private developers are exiting the sector as they consider the projects to be non-viable. The situation in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh is similar.
It costs over Rs10 crore to produce one megawatt of hydropower, which in turn produces less than four million units of electricity. This means the per unit cost of power from such projects is in excess of Rs8 per unit, when there are no takers for power that costs even Rs3 per unit. In any case, Interlinking of rivers will be needing more power to lift the water than what it is likely to produce.
Can the river interlinking project flood-proof the flood-prone river basins? While theoretically, a large reservoir can help moderate floods in the downstream areas, our experience on the ground doesn’t inspire as much confidence. For example, heads of government, state officials, and the Comptroller and Auditor General have on numerous occasions pointed out that big dams such as the Ranganadi dam, the Damodar dams, the Farakka and Bansagar dams, and the Hirakud dam have brought avoidable flood disasters to Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, respectively.
The other problem with the river interlinking project is that of storing large quantities of waters. Most of the sites suitable for the big reservoirs are in Nepal, Bhutan and in the North-East—and each one has made clear their opposition to big storage reservoirs.
If the water cannot be stored in big reservoirs during the monsoon, which is when some rivers are flooded, then the other option is to transfer the water to deficit basins during this time. But when the Brahmaputra is in floods, so is the Ganga and all the rivers through which the water needs to be transferred, including the Subarnarekha, the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna, the Pennar, and so on. Why should these rivers, that are already facing floods, receive more water?
There is no doubt that if we can store water during the monsoon, we can make it available in the post monsoon months. But the water resources establishment sees big dams as the only storage option. Yet, the biggest, cheapest, most benign, possibly fastest and most decentralized storage option for India is the groundwater aquifer.
In other words, what India needs is not interlinking of rivers but something else to achieve water, agriculture and livelihood security.
Himanshu Thakkar is coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
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