Interlinking of rivers: Should we really go ahead with it?

India's mega civil engineering project entailing interlinking of its rivers could have far-reaching ramifications, say experts.

To call the interlinking of rivers an ambitious project would be a gross understatement. For a nation as vast and topographically varied as India, home to over a billion people and numerous political parties with vested interests, this is not just going to be a massively expensive project but also one riddled with a hundred unsolvable challenges.

Sweeping in its scope, the idea was mooted during the British era to bring about an even distribution of water on the subcontinent and avert floods.

Now being given shape by the Modi 2 government under the National River Linking Project (NRLP), it aims to link some 60 rivers, including the Ganges, crisscrossing the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

Government nod has already been received for the Rs.11, 676 crore Ken-Betwa link project and Rs. 4,900 crore Kosi-Mechi link project involving the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Those would attempt to transfer excess water of one region to drought-prone areas elsewhere.

Going forward, there are plans of channelizing some of Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers’ waters to the highly water-stressed regions in the west and waters of peninsular rivers such as Godavari, Krishna and Mahanadi to the drier south.

If implemented properly, the interlinking of rivers could reduce droughts and floods, provide farmers with water for irrigation year-round by helping store more of it and generate 40,000 MW hydroelectricity!

Estimated total cost of the gargantuan project - Rs 5.5 lakh crore!

This mind-boggling cost and scale, however, has left experts questioning the feasibility of the project.

Solutions for droughts and floods could be far more simplistic and far less capital guzzling, as per them.

Surveys have showed that India’s peninsular rivers are drying up not because of erratic rainfall and protracted dry season. The nation receives around 4000 billion cubic meters of rainfall annually, enough to replenish its rivers and groundwater sources such as lakes and marshes.

The main reason behind them drying up is the over extraction of groundwater for agricultural purpose. Yes, a lion’s share of the extracted groundwater goes into agriculture, mainly for growing water-guzzling crops — rice, wheat and sugarcane. Most of these crops are already seeing a global glut and yet they are being produced all across the nation. One explanation for this is the successive governments’ procuring rice and wheat to support farmers.

Being a crucial vote bank, no government has so far thought of denying the farmers their outsize share of groundwater or for that matter procurement of their rice and wheat. This has led to cultivation of the two crops even in the drought-prone areas!

All these have turned the “gaining” rivers to “losing” rivers by gradually depleting base flows of groundwater, states a report prepared under water planning expert Mihir Sharma.

One solution for this could be switching to cultivation of less water-intensive crops such as millets, oilseeds and pulses. The same could be bought by the government thus creating a steady demand for them.

To prevent floods, on the other hand, more efforts could be made to preserve natural lakes and prevent encroachment of natural waterbodies while marching ahead with ill-planned urbanization.

Cost aside, ecological impacts of the mega civil engineering project is also a major cause of worry. Water planning experts and environmentalists predict that it would reduce flow of the northern rivers – the Ganga will see a 24 percent decrease in flow and its tributaries will see more than half of their flows reduced; the Brahmaputra will see just a 6 percent loss, while its tributaries Manas, Sankosh and Raidhak will see massive flow reductions. Further, by changing the course of water through a network of concrete canals and dams, silt formation will be affected. Fertile deltas will dwindle and diminish threatening livelihoods of many. This would defeat the very purpose of the project of supporting irrigation on a much greater scale.

Already, natural and man-made processes has led to reduced flows and consequent shoreline losses in the Krishna, Godavari and Mahanadi rivers. The NRLP will compound the problem.

Large scale deforestation to build canals and dams would further serve to increase India’s carbon footprint. The Ken - Betwa link, for example, will submerge the Panna tiger reserve.

In the long run, the project could affect India’s monsoon system altogether, fear environmental experts. With the numerous dams being built under the mega civil engineering project, flow of fresh water to the sea could be drastically lessened. So far, the flow of fresh water into the sea bringing about lower levels of salinity and higher temperatures have helped to create low-pressure areas in the upper layers of the Bay of Bengal. This is what brings about copious rainfall in the nation.

With questionable benefits (during monsoons the volume of water in the Ganga is around 20 lakh cubic feet per second or cusecs and a manmade canal would be only able to divert 70,000 cusecs which is less than 5 percent of the total water) and such dire possible consequences, frankly spending such huge sums for river linking seems unforgivable.