A few months from now, India will launch a grand plan to address its water woes. It will begin the inter-linking of its rivers, a large-scale engineering intervention to shift water from the flood prone Brahmaputra and lower Ganga basins in eastern India to the water-scarce western and southern India.

The first step towards operationalizing this project will be taken in December, when the Ken and the Betwa, both tributaries of the River Yamuna will be linked.  Surplus waters of the Ken will be diverted via a 22-km-long canal to the Betwa.

Indian dam

The National River Linking Project (NRLP) includes two components; the Himalayan Rivers Development component and the Peninsular component. It envisages connecting 37 rivers across the country through 30 link canals of a total length of 14,000 kilometers. It will involve construction of nearly 3,000 storage dams too. Besides reducing the deadly impact of floods and providing water to drought-prone areas, proponents of the project claim it will generate 34,000 megawatts of electricity and irrigate an additional 35 million hectares of land in water-scarce western and southern India.

On the face of it, it is hard to disagree with the logic behind the NRLP. The problem is that this solution is not as simple as it seems. It is not just about diverting water. Water will have to be channeled through different terrains, topographies and elevations; it thus involves complex engineering.

It will involve enormous costs. According to government estimates in 2003, the project would cost US$120 billion. This was widely regarded then as a gross underestimation. A decade thereon, the cost is likely to have increased manifold.

There are other costs too.  Experts warn that the project could trigger an ecological disaster. A river with a certain amount of water supports a certain flora and fauna, livelihood, etc. These will be affected by engineering a diversion of water.

Around 580,000 people face displacement. With loss of land comes loss of homes and livelihoods and the intensification of poverty.  Animals too will lose their habitat. The Ken-Betwa link, for instance, will involve diversion of around 6,000 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve, home to 24 tigers. Millions of dollars have been spent by India to save the tiger from extinction. Why is the government spending millions more to kill them now, Tiger conservationists are asking. Besides, the Ken river is home to the critically endangered gharial, whose numbers could dwindle further with the change in ecology.

Critics of the NRLP point out that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is pressing ahead with the costly NRLP although there are several cost-effective alternatives such as rain water harvesting, watershed management, groundwater recharge, etc that could enhance the irrigation potential of India’s rivers.

In fact, environmentalists are questioning one of the core assumptions of the NRLP: the concept of ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ rivers. What is the basis for defining a river as ‘surplus’ or ‘deficit,’ they ask.

Within India, states whose rivers are to be diverted to water-deficient states are resisting the federal government’s grand plans.  Why should they pay the price while other states benefit? Orissa is among the states that is asking such questions. As part of the Peninsular component, the waters of the Mahanadi, which flows through Chhattisgarh and Orissa, are to be diverted to the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. But Orissa itself has several drought-prone districts, point out its officials. Besides, by 2051, the state will be water deficient.

Water is a state subject in India. The federal government will have to get the states on board its grandiose plan to inter-link rivers. This will not be easy.

Importantly, inter-linking transboundary rivers will have implications for India’s neighbors and thus for India’s relations with them. Nepal and Bangladesh have expressed concern.

India already has problems with Bangladesh over sharing of the waters of the River Ganga. These will intensify should the NRLP be implemented as it involves diverting water of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, which will reduce the quantum of flow into Bangladesh.

Rather than solve India’s water problems, the NRLP could accentuate existing problems. Indeed, the project could trigger new conflicts and deepen existing ones.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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