Plans for parts of the Indian Rivers Interlink were mooted in the British period. In 1972 the then Minister for Irrigation K. L. Rao proposed a 2640 kilometer long link between the Ganges and Cauvery rivers. In 1974 plans were proposed for the Garland canal. In 1982 the National Water Development Agency was set up to carry out surveys of the links and prepare feasibility studies.
The Interlink would consist of two parts, a northern Himalayan River Development component and a southern Peninsular River Development component.
The northern component would consist of a series of dams built along the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in India, Nepal and Bhutan for the purposes of storage. Canals would be built to transfer surplus water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganges to the west. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries would be linked with the Ganges and the Ganges with the Mahanadi River. This part of the project would provide additional irrigation for about 220,000 square kilometres and generate about 30 gigawatts of electricity. In theory it would provide extra flood control in the Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins. It could also provide excess water for the controversial Farakka Barrage which could be used to flush out the silt at the port of Calcutta.
The main part of the project would send water from the eastern part of India to the south and west. The southern development project would consist of four main parts. First, the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery rivers would all be linked by canals. Extra water storage dams would be built along the course of these rivers. The purpose of this would be to transfer surplus water from the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers to the south of India. Second, those rivers that flow west to the north of Bombay and the south of Tapi would be linked. Due to the irregular fluctuations in water levels in the region, as much storage capacity would be built as possible. The water would be used by the urban areas of Bombay and also to provide irrigation in the coastal areas of Maharashtra. Third the Ken and Chambal rivers would be linked in order to provide better water facilities for Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Finally a number of west-flowing rivers along the Western Ghats simply discharge into the Arabian Sea. As many of these as possible would be diverted for irrigation purposes. The Peninsular part of the project would provide additional irrigation to 130,000 square kilometres and generation an additional 4 gigawatts of power.
Long-distance inter-basin transfer of water has been in practice in India for over five centuries. The Periyar Project, Parambikulam-Aliyar Project, Kurnool-Cudappah Canal and the Telugu-Ganga Project are some of the examples of inter-basin water transfers executed in south India in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Periyar Project is the most notable endeavour of the last century in trans-basin diversion. A 47.28 metre high gravity dam was constructed across a gorge on the west-flowing Periyar River. A 1740 metre long tunnel with a discharge capacity of 40.75 cubic metres was drilled across the mountain barrier to convey the waters eastwards to the Vaigai basin. The project was commissioned in 1895 and provided irrigation to 58 thousand hectares initially. This has since been extended to 81 thousand hectares. There is also a power station of 140 MW capacities.
The Parambikulam-Aliyar Project is a complex multi-basin multipurpose project. Seven streams-five flowing westward and two towards the east- have been dammed and their reservoirs interlinked by tunnels. The water is ultimately delivered to the drought-prone areas in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu and the Chittur area of Kerala. The project has a command area of 1.62 lakh hectares with 185 MW of power generation capacity.
The Kurnool-Cuddappah canal is 304 km long with a capacity of 84.9 cubic metres extending from the Krishna to the Pennar basin for irrigating an area of 53 thousand hectares of land. The Telugu-Ganga Project brings the Krishna waters from the Srisailam reservoir through an open canal to Somasila reservoir in the Pennar valley. From Somasila the water is taken through a 45 km long canal. By agreement among the riparian States 12 thousand metric cubic metres (TMC) of water will be delivered to Tamil Nadu to increase the water supply to Chennai.
Similarly in Himachal Pradesh, inter sub-basin transfers in the Indus basin and the Rajasthan Canal is some of the projects executed in the 19th and 20th centuries. A diversion dam, Pandoh, 140 km upstream of Pong on the Beas River enables the diversion of its water to the Bhakra reservoir and generates 165 MW of power on the way. The Beas-Sutlej link is 37.25 km long. Of this, 25.45 km passes in tunnel through difficult rock formations. The Rajasthan Canal Project diverts water from the Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan. The project comprises of a huge multipurpose project constructed across the Beas River at Pong, a barrage at Harike and a Grand Canal system. Executed both in the southern and northern parts of our country these projects have been highly beneficial and have not caused any noticeable environmental damage.
The USA, which is water-rich and scarcely populated, is transferring 45 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water through inter-basin transfer and plans to add 376 BCM. In Canada the existing schemes are designed to transfer 268 BCM. In comparison, India is transferring 10 BCM through the existing schemes and has plans to add about 200 BCM. China has a scheme under implementation which will transfer about 45 BCM. This indicates that India is already late in implementing the water transfer links.
In India 30 links have been identified as technically feasible and economically viable on the basis of pre-feasibility studies. These are: Mahanadi (Manibhadra – Godavari (Dowlaiswaram) link, Godavari (Inchampalli Low Dam) – Krishna link, Godavari (Inchampalli) – Krishna (Nagarjunasagar) link, Godavari (Polavaram) – Krishna (Vijayawada) link, Krishna (Almatti) – Pennar link, Krishna (Srisailam)- Pennar link, Krishna (Nagarjunasagar) – Pennar (Somasila) link, Pennar (Somasila) –Cauvery (Grand Anicut) link, Cauvery (Kattalsi)- Vaigai-Gundar link, Ken-Belwa link, Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal link, Par-Tapti-Narmada link, Damanganga-Pinjal link, Bedti-Varda link, Netravati-Hemavati link and Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar link.
Similarly, based on various water balance studies carried out for the Himalayan component, the link proposals identified for preparation of feasibility reports include the Manas-Sankosh-Tista-Ganga link, Kosi-Ghagra link, Ghagra-Yamuna link, Sarda-Yamuna link, Yamuna-Rajasthan link, Rajastan-Sabarmati link, Chunar-Sone Barrage link, Sone Dam – Southern Tributaries of Ganga link, Ganga-Damodar-Subernarekha link, Subernarekha-Mahanadi link, Kosi-Mechi link, Farakka-Sunderbans link, and Jogigopa-Tista-Farakka link.
Advantages of Interlinking
Interlinking of rivers in India is expected to greatly reduce the regional imbalance in the availability of water in different river basins. Surplus water which flows waste to the sea would be fruitfully utilized. It is assessed that the inter-linking of rivers will provide additional irrigation benefits to 35 million hectares (Mha) -25 Mha from surface water and an additional 10 Mha from increased ground water recharge- which will be over and above the ultimate irrigation potential of 140 Mha envisaged from the conventional irrigation projects.
Construction of storage dams as proposed will considerably reduce the severity of floods and the resultant damages. The flood peaks are estimated to come down by about 20 to 30 per cent in the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins.
The benefits of drought mitigation from inter-basin water transfers will accrue to an area of about 25 lakh hectares in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Hydro power could also be generated on a massive scale by the storage dams proposed under the interlinking of rivers. Hydro power development has not kept pace with the potential and requirement in our country. Against a potential of 84,000 MW, only about 22,000 MW capacity for hydro power generation has been developed so far. For an efficient working of electrical energy generating system, the mix of thermal to hydro should be about 60:40. In our country it is about 75:25. The storage dams proposed under interlinking of rivers will greatly improve this situation. The total hydro power potential of the interlinking systems is estimated to be 34,000 MW.
Most of the mega cities and urban centres in our country are already suffering from water shortages. Many of the metropolitan cities depend upon long-distance inter-basin transfer of water for their domestic and industrial water supply. Delhi gets parts of its water supplies from the Ganga and Sutlej, while Mumbai gets water from Vaitama and Batsai, over 100 km away. Water supply in Chennai is being increased from Srisailam on the Krishna river which is 500 km away. A major part of the future requirements of big cities will have to be met from long-distance inter-basin transfer of water. In the link proposals under study, water supply to Mumbai and Delhi and many other villages and habitations enroute the link canals are proposed to be raised.
India, with its geographical area of 329 million hectares but consisting of only 2.45 per cent of the earth’s land mass, supports a population of about 1027 million as per the 2001 census. This is about 16 per cent of the global population. The renewable fresh water resources of India at 1869 billion cubic metres (BCM) per year is only about 4 per cent of the earth’s fresh water resources. Thus the average Indian has hardly one-sixth of land and one-fourth of water as compared to the world average. In view of the severe disparity in regard to water and land, its optimal use is essential to ensure a comfortable living for the people of India.
There are more inequities in the distribution of the water resources. The total renewable water resources as of the year 2001 correspond to about 1820 kilo litres (KL) of water per person per year. The population of India is expected to stabilize at around 1500-1800 million by 2050 when the per capita availability of water would further come down to nearly 60 per cent of the availability as in 2001. At that time, the per capita availability in the Brahmaputra basin would still be around 9000 KL and in the Sabarmati basin below 200 KL. This is against the minimum requirement of 1000 KL per person per year.
In view of the large variations in rainfall over space and time, the country experiences frequent floods in some parts and severe droughts in some others. Floods are a recurring feature particularly in the Brahmaputra and Ganga rivers which carry 60 per cent of the water resources of our country. Flood damages, which were of the order of Rs. 52 crore in 1953, went up to Rs. 5846 crore in 1998 with an annual average of Rs. 1343 crore, affecting Assam, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh besides causing untold human sufferings. On the other hand, large areas in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu face recurring droughts.
It is expected that by 2050, India would need about 450 million tonnes of food grains. In order to attain this target, it would be necessary to increase the irrigation potential under all-food crops by 2050.
Most of the link canals will be 50 to 100 metres wide and more than 6 metres deep. That would greatly facilitate inland navigation from the north to down south. A boost to fresh water fisheries is also expected as a result of the programme. Apart from these benefits, guaranteed minimum flows in the rivers will enhance ecology and environment.
Benefits and Pitfalls in all areas
The projected benefit in terms of agriculture include 25 million hectares of irrigation from surface water, 10 million hectares by increased use of ground water, totaling to 35million hectares which will be over and above the ultimate irrigation potential of 140 million hectares. India has one of the lowest yields of cereals at 2134kg/hectare of land. Hence expanding the irrigated land area is only one way of increasing food production. Another way may be changes in farming technology, the kind of crops grown (generally hybrid varieties use more water than the indigenous varieties), better management of available land and water. Indiscriminate irrigation over a period of time can also lead to problems like water logging and rise in salinity in soil. Hence, besides increasing the area under irrigation, implementation of mixed agriculture and other such techniques of sustainable agriculture need to be emphasized on.
It is estimated that net 34,000 MW of hydro-power will be generated as a result of this project. But this figure is a little hard to believe because in most cases of inter basin transfer, it is understood that the requirement for pumping water across basins exceeds that produced by tapping the potential energy of the water. The pumping energy requirement is exceptionally high in this case as water will be pumped across the entire length and breadth of the country.
Flood Control and Drought Mitigation
While flood control is one of the major motivations behind this idea, it is now generally acknowledged that big dams play only a modest role in flood moderation. Flood cushion tends to get eaten into by the more powerful demands of irrigation and power generation. The safety of structures sometimes necessitates the release of waters causing ‘man-made’ floods downstream. Reliance needs to shift from structural to non structural measures for the purpose of flood control. Floods in moderation have certain benefits too. They are a free source of minerals for the land, help in recharging groundwater resources, help in conservation of biological diversity, give bumper harvests, flush out silt from riverbeds to deltas, prevent intrusion of saline water from the Sea and most importantly wash out saline deposits on the top soil. So what has been termed as ‘surplus’ is not really surplus? It is performing salient functions which are extremely important for the preservation of ecological balance and is helpful for the farmers.
The project aims at mitigating drought by transferring water from ‘surpluses to ‘deficit’ areas. The problem of drought is something that we have a solution to already in the form of rainwater harvesting structures. The success stories are numerous and so are the solutions implemented. Also, even if the Linking of rivers project is implemented, it will take water to only a fraction of the drought prone areas, large parts of rain fed areas will remain unaffected.
It has been proposed that some of the canals will be opened for inland navigation. It will not only connect the North with the South but will also lead to multiple economic benefits and substantial saving in terms of imported fossil fuel. The cost of this set up will amount to about 24 billion usd.
The national water development agency has estimated a budget of 112 billion usd at 2002 prices for the entire project. However, it is estimated and accepted widely that the cost may go up to 200 billion usd. Other sources cite that large projects have had cost overruns in the region of 400-500%. Apart from estimated cost, recurring expenditure would be incurred in maintenance of dams, de silting reservoirs, relining canals and creating artificial drainage where needed. External costs like those arising from harm done to the environment, ecology, wildlife and social costs have not been taken into account.
The estimated cost itself represents 20% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, 2.5 times the annual tax collection, 2 times the foreign exchange reserves and equals the amount spent on irrigation in the last 44 years. According to the Government’s Economic Survey for 2001-02, this amount is higher than the Gross domestic savings, and also the total outstanding external debt of the country. The total pending cost for incomplete major, medium and minor irrigation projects sum up to 30 billion usd.
The above numbers imply that the cost of the project is huge and the burden arising from it will have to be borne by the government and the people for a very long time. Starting a project of this magnitude, when there are so many incomplete projects trying to solve the same purpose are pending, seems impractical.
Criticism of Interlinking
The idea of interlinking the rivers of India was actually cited by President Kalam in 2002 and pushed by Chief Justice Kirpal. River basin management in the context of gigantic water planning is discussed in national and international laws. Inter river transfer has come under criticism since the Irrigation Commission of British days, and plans such as Captain Dastur’s “garland canal” rejected decades ago, even when big dams were in full swing. Interlinking rivers was rejected in the nineties by the centre, on advice of experts and bureaucrats such as Dr. M.S. Reddy.
The basic aspects of each river basin, including catchment area treatment, command area development, benchmark survey of the affected population, impacts of the reservoir and canal system on farmers, and fisheries, and public health should be studied. Environmental Impact Assessment will be inevitable. Compensatory and mitigatory plans must be rationally conceived. The River Valley Guidelines (1983) discuss environmental and social impacts due to transfer of water and people beyond suitability. Unless these become part of the project planning, they are neither considered nor dealt with.
Struggles in the Narmada Valley and on other projects pushed due to political expediency without complete appraisal, have brought out the seriousness of large scale displacement as well as impacts on and injustice to the proposed beneficiaries. Basic questions demand investigation. Will such a linking of rivers actually prevent drought? Or merely transfer drought? What will be the extent of displacement, and provisions for rehabilitation? Canals also displace. In the Sardar Sarovar project, 1,50,000 landholders stand to lose land due to the canal network, of whom 23,500 will lose more than 25% of their land, and 2,000 will become landless. None is considered project-affected nor eligible for rehabilitation.
For intra-river basin transfers, the principle of subsidiarity requires that water be harnessed from where it first drops. The whole crisis of water management today is due to total neglect of water harvesting, either because it is considered peripheral or to be a non-replicable, non-profitable micro-level experiment.
Therefore we see the destruction of cultures, communities, and ecosystems, creating conflicts between states, as in Cauvery, and between state and people, as in Narmada. Conflicts are dealt with more politically than scientifically.
As our national highways have become conveyor belts for enormously polluting noxious emissions, the huge interlink threatens to become an open sewage garlanding India. The canals, designed for carrying irrigation waters rather than large peak flows, will not be sufficient to control or divert floods in the northern states but will transfer silt. Several large dams built to provide the head and storage required to supply the canals will permanently submerge fertile lands, forests, village communities and towns, leaving millions of people displaced or dispossessed. Any attempt to obtain full information, question impacts and demand just compensation requires sacrifice by communities living on the natural resources.
This project will involve coordination between not just States but also countries. Dams will need to be built in Nepal and Bhutan, in order to store the surplus water and later divert it to deficit regions. Water that flows into Bangladesh will now be diverted from upstream by India. Both Nepal and Bangladesh have not been taken into confidence regarding the project as of now. This has the potential of future conflict with these countries. This could also lead to a conflict between India and China in the future as China controls the flow of water in the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej Rivers. China is considering a proposal to build a dam on Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes Brahma putra in India) which will generate 40000 megawatts of energy (more than twice generated by the Three Gorges dam). If this project goes through, the entire equation of ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ in India will change. This project and other similar grand projects being planned by China have the capacity to completely throw India’s plans off the mark.
Within India, a number of interstate conflicts over water, remain unresolved for decades now (for example the Cauvery Tribunal). The Interlinking project, which runs canal from almost every state of India, could become a major source of contention between the Sates rather than uniting them.
Concept of Surplus and Deficit and unknowns in the study of environmental impact
Looking at this project from a reductionist view, the concept of transferring water from surplus to deficit regions and creating a win-win situation sounds perfect. But if we look at it from a holistic point of view, every drop of water performs some ecological service at all times. The ecosystems have evolved over a period of thousands of years to make optimum use of the water available. Hence, any amount of water diverted from or to a region will cause damage proportional to the amount diverted. There is no thing as ‘surplus’ water from the holistic point of view.
Water from rivers flowing into the Aral Sea, which was seemingly going waste, was diverted on a large scale from these rivers for irrigation purposes. This led to a boom in the agricultural sector and prosperity in the region in the short term, but in the long run, the salinity of the sea increased manifold, making the water unfit for any kind of human use, also effecting the aquatic flora and fauna. This has led to the collapse of the economies in the area.
It is estimated that this project will upgrade the ecology due to minimum flow guarantee in rivers. The forest cover is expected to increase from 13% to 33%. At the same time, the dams that will need to be built will cause submergence of thousands of hectares of virgin forests.
From a humanitarian perspective, millions of people will be forcibly displaced by this project. A sound rehabilitation and resettlement program for these people needs to be put in place. It has been estimated that 21-56 million people have been displaced by large dams over the past 50 years in India, 40% of them tribal people. Less than 50% of those displaced were rehabilitated. The submergence of land has been 2 to 3 times of that originally estimated in these projects. The displaced are people who had lived in rural areas or forests all their lives and that is the way of living they have known. Even if they are rehabilitated, will they be ever able to resettle? They are the ones, who are paying the price, are they the ones who are benefiting from the project?
The 9th plan document laments that against the national per capita (based on 1991 census) annual availability of 2214 cubic metres of water, the average availability in Brahmaputra river basin is as high as 18470 cu.m while it is as low as 383 cu.m in the east flowing rivers between Pennar and Kanyakumari transfer of river waters. NDA in its manifesto promised interlinking of rivers.
Thereafter in 1974 Captain Dastur suggested a canal known as Garland canal. In July 1982 National Water Development Agency was created to carry out surveys and prepare feasibility reports. In September 1987 the National Water Policy stated that its prime goal is to interlink national rivers. Over all these years none of the feasibility report is made public nor the interlinking of rivers has been undertaken even in a phased manner
The national Water Development agency is only collecting the data offered by various state governments and compiling them into reports. Even to do that the agency seems to be having 2010 as the time frame to complete all feasibility studies. Moreover like previous proposals this may also be jettisoned citing similar reasons or fresh excuses. Thereafter after 2010, India is expected to go for global tenders to make a study of this project and all will be back to square one in 21st century too.
The project prepared by the National Water Development Agency has two components namely Himalayan Rivers Development Component and Peninsular Rivers Development component. Himalayan Rivers Development envisages construction of storage reservoirs on the principal tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, along with interlinking canal systems to transfer surplus flows of the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the West, apart from linking of the main Brahmaputra and its tributaries with the Ganga and Ganga with Mahanadi. The Himalayan component would provide additional irrigation of about 22 million hectare and generation of about 30 million KW of hydropower, besides providing substantial flood control in the Ganga & Brahmaputra basins. It would also provide the necessary discharge for augmentation of flows at Farakka required interalia to flush the Calcutta port and the inland navigation facilities across the country.
Peninsular Rivers Development
This component is divided into four major parts.
Interlinking of Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Cauvery Rivers and building storages at potential sites in these basins.
This is the major interlinking of the river systems where surpluses from the Mahanadi and the Godavari are intended to be transferred to the needy areas in the South.
Interlinking of west flowing rivers, north of Bombay and south of Tapi
This scheme envisages construction of as much optimal storage as possible on these streams and interlinking them to make available appreciable quantum of water for transfer to areas where additional water is needed. The scheme provides for taking water supply canal to the metropolitan areas of Bombay; it also provides irrigation to the coastal areas in Maharashtra.
Interlinking of Ken-Chambal Rivers
The scheme provides for a water grid for Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and interlinking canal backed by as much storage as possible.
Diversion of other west flowing rivers
Heavy rainfall on the western side of the Western Ghats runs down numerous streams, which empty, into the Arabian Sea.
Construction of an interlinking canal system backed up by adequate storages could be planned to meet all requirements of Kerala as also for transfer of some waters towards east to meet the needs of drought affected areas. The peninsular Component is expected to provide additional irrigation of about 13 million hectare and is expected to generate about 4 million KW of power.
While rivers that flow through different countries had benefited such countries with mutual agreements on water sharing, some Indian states prefer waters to be emptied in oceans instead of benefiting fellow Indians.
Dream Dare Win