River Interlinking

11 02 2007

These two articles were published in February 2003 as a special report on the then proposed river interlinking scheme for India.


THE NATIONAL river interlinking plan has been enthusiastically received for three central claims it makes for itself. One, it would lead to a permanent drought-proofing of the country by raising the irrigation potential to equal the current net sown area of about 150 million hectares. Two, it would solve, or at least mitigate, the annual floods in the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Three, it would add 30,000 MW of hydropower to the national pool.

It is not often that there is such uncritical consensus over a policy issue, with the Supreme Court going so far as to “direct” the Government to interlink rivers within 10 years. As a result, the Government has set up a “Task Force” headed by the former Union Power Minister, Suresh Prabhu, to build national consensus, work out the detailed plans, and complete the entire work by 2016.

River interlinking as a solution for drought and floods is not a new proposal but this wide-ranging consensus has not emerged after a thorough debate over the merits and problems of this plan of hydrological engineering which perhaps has no precedent anywhere in the world.

It was the former Union Minister of Irrigation and Power, K.L. Rao, who, in 1972, first presented his plan to link the Ganga and the Cauvery. In 1974, a similar proposal of a “garland” canal was submitted by Captain Dastur. The Government prepared its own plan in 1980 and in 1982 the National Water Development Agency was set up to carry out detailed studies on the issue.

The NWDA budgets the entire project at Rs.5,60,000 crores ($112 billion) at 2002 prices. But Mr. Prabhu himself says it could go up to $200 billion. It envisions a 30-year plan but following the Supreme Court directive, the Task Force has published a timetable which lists 2016 as the date for completion. No explanation has been provided on how this is to be managed.

Such a project should have been preceded by a detailed assessment of its financial viability, technological capability, ecological sustainability and political feasibility. Unfortunately, the NWDA is yet to publish any “Detailed Project Report” though it has conducted some “Feasibility Studies” over the past two decades.

The NWDA plan has divided the project into two broad “components” — the Himalayan part with 14 river links estimated at Rs. 3,75,000 crores and the Peninsular component with 17 river links estimated at Rs. 1,85,000 crores. A former Secretary in the Union Water Resources Ministry has, however, gone on record that the “latest estimated cost” of only the Peninsular component is about Rs.5,00,000 crores! These links stretch from the Sutlej in the North to the Vaippar in the South and from the Brahmaputra in the East to the Mahi in the West.

If the economics of the scheme seem to make it extremely improbable, serious reservations can be raised about some of its claims and assumptions too. Let us look at two of these — the claim of flood control and the assumption that the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, the Mahanadi and the Godavari are water surplus.

From being a river which supported inland trade and passenger traffic 150 years ago, the Ganga has become a silt-choked shadow of its former self. The British used it to ship their troops from Bengal to Kanpur and Delhi during the 1857 War of Independence. Today, the Calcutta port is so silted up that crores of rupees have been invested to build another port at Haldia. It was to overcome the silting of the Calcutta port that the Farakka barrage was constructed to divert more water to the “Indian” stream. While Farakka has led to drastically reduced water flows to Bangladesh and resulted in constant diplomatic attrition with that country, it has not been able to save the Calcutta port. Where has this water gone?

One, the source of the river is drying up, like almost all other Himalayan rivers. It is well known that the Gangotri glacier which feeds the river has receded by over 14 km in the last century alone. Today you will have to trek two days more than your grandparents did to reach Gangotri! Two, increasing amounts of the river’s waters are already being used for irrigation as well as urban needs. Moreover, almost half of the Ganga’s water at Patna originates in Nepal which has its own “plans” to develop its hydrological resources. Once these come up flows would be further reduced in the Ganga.

Similar stories puncture the claims of the Brahmaputra, the Mahanadi and the Godavari being water surplus. In any case, the riparian States through which these rivers pass have their own plans to use this “surplus” water for “developing” their “backward” regions.

This puts another question mark on the scheme’s political feasibility. Try visualising Punjab parting with “its” water for Tamil Nadu, when neighbouring Karnataka was willing to disobey the Supreme Court on this issue. The political minefield this interlinked river grid would create may perhaps threaten the very unity of India like no terrorist can.

Even on the ecological front, consider the fallout of 200 large water storage reservoirs and an extensive network of canals. Linking these rivers and storage reservoirs would eat into the natural habitats of wildlife and re-shape the ecology of the country with unknown consequences. There are not even any estimates regarding the number of people who would be dislocated. `Guesstimates’ vary from lakhs to a few crores! This would surely add to the political, as well as economic, costs of the project.

But these rivers do have massive flood flows — estimated at 30,000 to 60,000 cubic metres of water per second (cusecs) — during a few days in the monsoons. The plan envisions tapping these flood flows, storing these in the reservoirs and draining this water over thousands of km of canals to parched agricultural lands in southern, western and central India. While this may appear sound, the fine print reveals that only 1,500 cusecs of water is to be lifted from the flood flows! How lifting 1,500 cusecs of water from a total flood flow of up to 60,000 cusecs can solve or even mitigate floods is a mystery.

It must also be remembered that floods are not merely destructive, but essential components of a river’s life. They flush out the river and recharge the drainage channel for water flow. Any attempt to stop (or as it is said “utilise”) all the water in a given river would be disastrous. A river is nature’s method of draining the land of water and it has its own ecological rhythm. Capturing all its water and stopping its natural flow is tantamount to “killing it”. Apart from severe water logging and consequent salinity, this would also lead to a cycle of uncontrollable floods and searing droughts as the consequences of such a massive disruption of the river basin’s hydrological cycle unravel.

Countries with a history of playing around with their rivers and “controlling” them are now investing billions of dollars to “restore” them by removing dams and embankments. In the U.S. alone, more than 100 dams were removed between 1999 and 2002. In 2001, over 115 miles of River Baraboo were “restored” in Wisconsin. Attempts are now on to revive the Colorado in southwestern U.S. as its waters dry up before reaching the ocean and a $8 billion plan has been passed in California to revive some of its rivers. Popular protests have stalled the second phase of water transfer from Spain’s Ebro river to the country’s south.

Even as a drought-proofing measure, the river interlinking plan leaves many questions unanswered. India already has the world’s largest irrigation infrastructure comprising about 20 per cent of the global irrigated area. Much of it is in disrepair for lack of funds. The Planning Commission estimates that a mere 10 per cent hike in irrigation efficiency would provide water for an additional 14 million hectares. Studies have also shown that traditional water conservation and irrigation methods, which have been deliberately neglected, can still be revived at minimal expenses with demonstrated high efficiency rates. Why are these methods not taken up by citing lack of resources by the same Government which is willing to finance this gargantuan river linking project?

Its estimated cost, Rs. 5,60,000 crores at 2002 prices, equals 25 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product, or two and a half times our annual tax collection and double our present foreign exchange reserves. Where is the investible capital of this magnitude available in the domestic economy? According to the Government’s Economic Survey for 2001-2002, the country’s Gross Domestic Savings were lower than the estimated cost of this project which is also higher than India’s total outstanding external debt by close to $12 billion!

The only option would be funds from international sources. Apart from the fact that this would place a debt of about $112 on every Indian (where average annual incomes range between $400 and $800), it also raises questions about how this loan is to be returned, the guarantees and counter-guarantees that would need to be given to secure it. Moreover, annual interest on this amount would range between Rs. 20,000 crores and Rs.30,000 crores.

User charges for irrigation water or power provided by this scheme may make these uneconomical for both the agricultural and industrial sectors. They would put inflationary pressure on the prices of our agricultural produce even as we try to make these competitive in the international market. A big question mark is also put over the political viability of collecting these user charges. External borrowing of this scale would also make future Indian Governments so much more vulnerable to foreign financial pressures.

The real threat is that after starting the project with much fanfare and investing thousands of crores into it, a future Government would have to simply abandon it as its financial implications unravel, leaving billions of cubic metres of earth dug up and the face of the country scarred for centuries. The alternative would be to hand over the project, and along with that the entire water resources of the country, to water MNCs to build and run!

It is merely a matter of time before the Government throws up its hands and asks for private participation. An army of apologists would argue that private participation is necessary to “save” the billions already sunk in the project. This is the thin edge of the wedge for the wholesale privatisation of water in the country. At the World Water Forum meeting in 2001, water MNCs successfully lobbied to get the U.N. to define water as a “human need” as distinct from “human right”. By the WTO’s definitions, which are increasingly running the market, human needs can be supplied by private entrepreneurs for a profit, unlike a human right which accrues equally to everyone.

The World Bank estimated in 1998 that global trade in water would generate $800 billion a year in the first decade of this century. So, it is not difficult to identify where the eventual funds for the scheme would come from and who would control it. Water, like air and unlike other natural resources, is very difficult to own and control privately. It is a quintessential “common” resource and most attempts at making it a generalised commodity to be bought and sold in the market have been unsuccessful. That may have been because these attempts were piecemeal, one river, one town, one province at a time. India’s national river linking plan attempts to bring all the water resources of an entire subcontinent under one organised command.

By stoking the Promethean ambitions of engineers and planners, by tickling the greed of the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus and by seducing the larger public with dreams of water security, this scheme may well create conditions where large-scale privatisation of water becomes the only option. That we are moving towards this future blindly is the real danger.



The smaller, the better


MICHAEL EVENARI, an Israeli scientist, was intrigued when he saw ancient towns in the middle of the Negev desert which gets only about 100 mm of rain every year. Not only did they have their own drinking water systems, but surplus for agriculture too!

His research on this led to a pathbreaking finding, that small catchments manage to hold more water than larger ones. He showed that 3,000 micro-catchments of 0.1 hectares each give five times more water than one catchment of 300 hectares!

Similar studies by the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research Institute at its campuses in Agra, Bellary, Kota and Shillong have shown that 10 tiny dams with a catchment of one hectare each would collect more water than one larger dam with a catchment of 10 hectares. The late Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment calculated that on average each Indian village can harvest about 3.75 billion litres of water every year! This can not only cater to all the drinking water needs of the human and cattle population, but also provide for some irrigation.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People questions the wisdom of letting rain water flow hundreds of kilometres into a big river and then spending crores of rupees to divert it back again to irrigate lands where it originally fell as rain.

Being “monsoon country”, Indian villages get most of their rain as a heavy downpower for just a 100 hours out of the total 8,760 hours in a year. This water must be stored properly and used sensibly during the 8,660 hours without rain.

India has a rich tradition of water harvesting at the local level. Whether they are the `zings’ of Ladakh, the `ahars’ of Bihar, the `johads’ of Rajasthan, the `baolis’ of North and Central India, the `eris’ of Tamil Nadu or the `kuntas’ of Andhra Pradesh, people in each region have evolved their own techniques keeping in mind the local geo-climatic zone.

With the emergence of modern irrigation and the spread of commercial agriculture, state institutions and rich farmers try to snatch two, even three, harvests of cash crops from the soil. This is when systems of community-based water conservation and use get neglected. The rich landowners would rather get irrigation water or, even better, pump groundwater with electricity, all of which are subsidised in the name of the poor.

Even in the context of a growing commercialisation of agriculture and increasing integration with the market, it is possible to both encourage water conservation as well as promote efficiency of water use. But the trends point to an entirely different direction. While irrigation canals accounted for 41.3 per cent of the irrigated area in 1970, this had fallen to 31.3 per cent by 1998. During the same period, the net area irrigated by tubewells rose from 14.3 per cent to 33.8 per cent, while the net area irrigated by tanks declined from 13.2 per cent to 5.7 per cent.





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