Event ReportsPublished on Jul 25, 2019
The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) programme in India — an ambitious project, envisioned on a massive scale — will attempt to link 37 rivers, through 30 links, covering a distance of 15,000 km that will transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year.
Will interlinking of rivers solve floods and droughts?

In the backdrop of the severe floods in Assam and Bihar and the drought in Tamil Nadu, ORF Chennai organised an interaction on “Interlinking of Rivers: Prospects & Problems,” on 20 July 2019. Dr. S. Janakarajan, president, SaciWATERS, Hyderabad, and V. Ponraj, an associate of late former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, initiated the discussion. They said the subject, whether interlinking of rivers can simultaneously deal with both issues of flooding and drought, assumed special importance in view of the current situations — flood in some states and drought in some others at the same time.

Water equity goal

Ponraj argued that the main objectives of the government’s Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) programme was to address these twin issues together. The mission of this programme, he said, was “to ensure greater equity of water by enhancing availability in drought prone and rain-fed areas.”

According to Ponraj: “Interlinking of rivers can play a major role in water management in the country.” The history of ILR in the country is a long one. It has been practised for over five centuries, he pointed out. In colonial India, British irrigation engineer, Sir Arthur Cotton, first suggested linking the Ganges and the Cauvery, though this was for navigational purposes. “Further, ILR has been successful in China…” he said.

Ponraj quoted former President Kalam, who in a speech in 2002, had stated: “It is paradoxical to see floods in one part of the country while some other parts face drought. The need of the hour is to have a water mission which will enable availability of water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year even while maintaining environmental purity. One major part of the water mission would be networking of our rivers. Technological and project management capabilities of our country can rise to the occasion and make this river networking a reality with long-term planning and proper investment.”

Human & ecological costs

The ILR programme in India is an ambitious project and envisioned on a massive scale, attempting to link 37 rivers, through 30 links, covering a distance of 15,000 km that will transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year.

Dr. Janakarajan, however, was not convinced of the scope of this project and believed it would face several challenges — political, economic and above all ecological.

“Though the project may be technically feasible, perhaps the money may even be found, but the political costs need to be weighed, particularly the human aspect,” Dr. Janakarajan said. Feasibility studies have not addressed the question of rehabilitating the 13 million people whose livelihoods will be affected by this project.

Simply diverting rivers by declaring surplus basins to those that are said to be in deficit ignores the ecological costs to the ecosystem, warned Dr. Janakarajan. Diverting rivers will have an impact on downstream biodiversity. “Unfortunately, no studies are being done on the ecological costs and the losses to the ecosystem. These are not one-time losses, but cumulative, and therefore need to be studied at a deeper level,” he said.

River–linking in South

The incumbent Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that the plans to link rivers Godavari and Cauvery will resolve water issues between four southern States. It was argued that “1,100 tmcft water is going waste into the sea while there was a dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over 45 tmcft of Cauvery waters.”

Ponraj said the project will cost between Rs 50-60,000 crores, and funding is being sought from a range of sources, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. However, Dr. Janakarajan felt the Detailed Project Report (DPR) of Godavari and Cauvery was “inaccurate.” He questioned the estimated figure of Rs 60,000 crores, when river- linking costs each State Rs 30-50,000 crores. He also referred to the recent success story of Telangana linking rivers internally, but the cost was Rs 70-80,000 crores, he pointed out.

Water accounting

In conclusion, Ponraj admitted that there were likely to be administrative issues and that rehabilitation had to be looked at more seriously. However, he said: “Even if we go beyond the estimated five years and take ten years, double the amount of time to complete this project, it is a dream worth achieving.”

On the other hand, Dr. Janakarajan argued, “This is a political move more than anything else. It is egregious that the ecological costs of these projects, the threat to the biodiversity of estuarine ecosystems have not been taken into account. These States can make better use of their local water bodies instead of diverting rivers.” He said it was important to ask: “Do we really have a water scarcity problem or a problem in water management? Have we harnessed all local water supply options?”

Dr. Janakarajan recommended developing better practices in water accounting and auditing (WA&A), which according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations is based on the “thorough understanding of the water balance, including water supply and demand and its spatial and temporal dimensions. The aim of WA&A is to make better use of water-related information.” Such a thorough study and accounting of water was sadly lacking in India, Dr. Janakarajan said.

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

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