Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Originally Published 2019-04-02 06:00:22 Published on Apr 02, 2019
River-linking is a myth

The ambitious idea of interlinking of Indian rivers originated in the British engineering thinking with Sir Arthur Cotton, an irrigation engineer, who suggested interlinking the Ganga and the Cauvery rivers for navigational purposes.

The argument

After Independence, KL Rao and Captain Dastur impressed on this. In 1980, the idea was revived in a report titled National Perspectives for Water Resources Development which split the water development project into two parts — the Himalayan and Peninsular components. The idea received a major thrust in 1999, after a new political alliance formed the Central government. On the basis of an unpublished report by AD Mohile, the erstwhile chairman of the Central Water Commission (CWC), Indian river basins were classified as ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’. and the project was conceived of as transferring water from the former to the latter.

This was later modified to include intrabasin development. The Himalayan component of the proposed project consists of a series of dams built along the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in India, Nepal and Bhutan to store water. Canals are proposed to transfer surplus water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the West, and to contribute to flood-control measures in the Ganga-BrahmaputraMeghna basin.

The link is also envisaged to provide excess water for the Farakka Barrage to flush out the silt at the port of Kolkata.

The peninsular component will irrigate an additional 25 million hectares (ha) by surface waters, 10 million ha by increased use of ground waters and generate hydropower, apart from ypothesised benefits of improved flood control and regional navigation. At least two institutions justified the feasibilty of this project based on such large-scale economic benefits — the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER)and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka. The NCAER study is bereft of anything beyond economic benefits (without any consideration of the larger costs), and the IWMI has based its contentions on some flawed presumptions of river-basin governance that have been challenged worldwide.

From a holistic, eco-hydrological perspective of basin governance, every drop of water has an ecosystem function at the scale of the basin, and a role in ecosystem service provisioning. So, assigning river basins as ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ ignores the ecosystem-livelihood linkages and is in contravention of the Integrated River Basin Governance principles.

IWMI even talks of maintaining “environmental flows” (eflows) giving the impression that “minimum flow requirements” can conserve the river ecosystem.This is also flawed from the perspective of global paradigm changes.

The opposition

Concerned scholars questioned the merits of inter-link projects citing lack of holistic assessment of social-ecological impacts. In a 2003 article, Centre for Development Studies honorary fellow A Vaidyanathan brought about the uncertainty about the operations, and uncertainties with water-logging, salinisation and the resulting desertification in the command areas of these projects. In a 2008 paper, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Shama Parveen raise concerns about huge social and ecological costs and question the claimed benefits of ‘flood control’. The concerns have not changed in 2019, despite the claims of completed Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) by the ministry of water resources (MoWR).

On the other hand, the concerns about sediment management, especially on the Himalayan system loom large. When the idea is to transfer water from the ‘surplus’ Himalayan river systems to ‘deficit’ basins of the southern part of India, the differential sediment regime defining the flow regimes need to be plugged into the equation. This will entail changes in ecosystem structures in both parts.

Quantifying damage

Due to the dominance of reductionist engineering paradigm in the MoWR and the CWC, it is unlikely that the changing ecosystem structure and consequent losses in ecosystem services have been accounted for in the comprehensive costbenefit analysis of a project of this scale. Moreover, water storage and distributed reservoirs are likely to displace people.

The apprehension of rivers changing their course remains — there is no clear formula to address this in context of the Himalayan system. Again, the long-standing allegation against the link between Ken and Betwa rivers and others is that interlinking may also cause deforestation. Other fears include transboundary water conflicts on an international scale.

Scholars and activists in Bangladesh have already expressed their discomfort with the Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga link that can have deleterious downstream impacts on the Bangladesh economy, as Manas, Sankosh and Teesta are significant tributaries of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna system that feeds the eastern parts of the Bangladesh. The proposed link can dry up the Brahmaputra-Jamuna channel, destroying irrigated paddy in eastern Bangladesh. Despite the criticism, the government’s position seems to have consolidated in favour of river interlinking. The Godavari-Cauvery link is now being hailed as the way out of the Cauvery water impasse. The issue is already compounded by an unscientific and reductionist award by the Cauvery Water Tribunal and will be aggravated due to reliance on supply-augmentation paradigms leading to the interlinking, and sheer ignorance of globally acknowledged practices of demand management that helps keep water instream.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail today.

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...

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