29 October 2003
China and India both face the twin problem of floods and droughts. While building dams has been the typical way of dealing with this problem, both the countries are exploring the more controversial project for water transfer between river basins, with China taking the lead with its South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP).
Since India is also planning an ambitious project of interlinking its rivers, it would be useful to study and learn from China's South-North Water Transfer Project experience. The SNWTP seeks to alleviate the twin problem of floods in the south and drought in the north of China by transferring water from surplus to scarce river basins. It involves the building of three canals that link the Yangtze River in the south to the 3-H river basin in the north, drained by the Yellow, Hai and the Huai Rivers. In India, the 'National Water Grid' of 1959 sought a solution to the problem of water scarcity. However, the recent interest in the interlinking of India's rivers arises from a Supreme Court order of October 31, 2002, after which the government set up a task-force to look into the feasibility of the project. Although there has been a lot of media coverage recently, there is a lack of technical information and data on the environmental costs while the benefits of the project remain unsubstantiated.
Whereas the cost of China's space programme is beyond public scrutiny, the cost of China's daring South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) has been the subject of estimates from various quarters. Pegged at a mind-boggling $50 billion 1 , there is no doubt that the cost of the project will increase as it nears completion; which will not be before the year 2050. First mooted by Chairman Mao in 1952, the project was finally given the go-ahead by Chinese Premier Zu Rhonji in December 2002. Although the World Bank was involved at the proposal stage, China has decided to go ahead with the project, which will aid in transferring up to 44 billion cubic metres of water per year; through the Eastern, Central and Western canals.
Officially, work on the Eastern Canal began in December 2002 itself. Compared to the proposed Central and Western canals, the eastern section is going to be easier to build as it will piggyback on the existing irrigation and water transportation infrastructure of the Grand Canal. However, the project will meet its waterloo in the western section where work is scheduled to begin only in 2010. Here, the upper stretches of the Yangtze and the Yellow River will be linked through 100 km tunnels built in remote and mountainous terrain with an altitude of 4000 metres. The Western Canal will most likely not be built although regional pressure will try to make the government stick to its planned course.
The 3-H river basin has acute water shortage and a high density of population. Many of the rivers of the region are dry for almost 5 to 8 months of the year. Home to 2 out of 5 people, it is also known as the breadbasket of China. About 40 per cent of China's cultivated area and 31 per cent of its gross industrial output depends on only 10 per cent of China's water resources. While China's government cannot be faulted for providing its citizens with water in deficit areas, what is questionable is the lack of public debate in the National People's Congress and scrutiny by civil society before the project was passed.
Being a democratic country, India, unlike China, cannot afford to embark on a politically and environmentally risky project. The cost of the river linking project will cost India somewhere to the tune of $120 billion. 2 However, factoring in of a 400-500 per cent cost overrun involved in large water projects, the final cost will undoubtedly be higher 3 ; necessitating external help from private donors. Market principles will need to be applied to the consumption of water; that is, the price of water will have to be increased proportional to the paying capacity of each sector of the economy. Consequently, related problems like determining the price and the pilfering of water will crop up. Also, the very idea of water surplus is questionable; the flow of water into the sea is not a 'loss' but an integral constituent of the hydrological cycle. Lastly, the logic of water security cannot be detrimental to issues of human security. China's project will no doubt entail the relocation of more than 330, 000 people and will raise the subsequent demand for compensation and resettlement. In India, the anti-dam movements center on the serious social failures of the projects. The track record of the Indian government has been unimpressive in terms of resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced people and the percolation of benefits to the local community.
For India, the river linking project will raise the problem of increased friction between the state and the centre while increasing chances of disagreements over water resources between states. In India, a change in the ecosystem linked to the Himalayan Rivers would no doubt impinge on the human security of neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh. India is not ignorant of this; having itself suffered flash floods in the state of Arunachal Pradesh caused by a breach in the dam constructed on the Tsangpo in Tibet (called the Siang in Arunachal before it becomes the Bhramaputra) in the year 2000. More than 50, 000 people were left homeless while the exact cause of the landslide remained unconfirmed. Hence, such big earthworks, like the linking of rivers will no doubt raise unforeseen costs that will have to be endured across territorial borders. This will surely have an adverse effect on inter-state relations.
Despite the secrecy that surrounds most of China's projects, India must watch China's river linking project very closely. Both India and China face similar problems in terms of water and human security, feeding a huge population and the need for economic development. India must learn from China's mistakes. While the involvement of agencies like the World Bank in such projects helps reduce the possibility of corruption, India like China must independently guard against the environmental hazards that such endeavours cost the people. Meanwhile, India should focus on water harvesting techniques that aim at recharging groundwater reserves and help in conserving water that can be later used in drought conditions. In this effort, India must draw lessons from Israel's experience rather than go the China way.
1 According to The Economist, the cost of the SNWTP in China will cost $50 billion, twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, in the "Survey on Water: Damming Evidence," July 17, 2003.
2 The Economist, Survey on Water: Damming Evidence, July 17, 2003.
3 Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, 'And Quiet Flows the River Project,' South Asian Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, Available at: http://www.saciwaters.org/Jayanta.html According to Bandyopadhyay, the final cost could be around $500 billion!