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Why linking rivers won’t work

India’s proposed Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project would entail the creation of 3,000 large dams and “environmental tinkering on an epic scale”. Proponents say ILR is the “only way forward” for a country facing a projected population of 1.6 billion in 2050. Detractors say “there’s simply no evidence to justify what the government wants to attempt”.

By Asit Jolly for India Today, published on April 14, 2016

From the Himalayas to the Western ghats, The Modi regime pushes ahead with a mammoth river-linking project with questionable benefits.

Narmada Sardar Sarovar dam site near Rajpipla in Gujarat.
Deep inside India’s most celebrated big cat haven-the Panna Tiger Reserve-a red line, freshly painted over the khaki outcrops of ancient Vindhyan sandstone, marks the alignment of the proposed 77-metre-high, 2.03 km-long Dhaudan dam on Madhya Pradesh’s Ken river. It will be the first of some 3,000 big dams and storage structures that Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s government wants to build as part of a grand plan to interlink and redesign the natural flow of 37 major rivers. The aim is to end water scarcity, while booting up for the country’s future water needs.

It’s an audacious, some say “hubristic”, venture. Touted as the world’s largest irrigation infrastructure project, the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) programme proposes 30 river links. ILR will see the excavation of 15,000 km of new canals to relocate 174 cubic km of water-enough to annually supply over 100 mega-metropolises the size of Delhi or Mumbai. The National Water Development Agency (NWDA), which has designed the projects-14 for Himalayan rivers and 16 in peninsular India-as part of the National Perspective Plan (NPP) for Water Resources Development since 1982 is already listing the “benefits”.

Ultimate idea
NWDA director-general S. Masood Hussain, 56, who has over three decades’ experience in designing mega dam projects, including the Indira (Narmada) Sagar, says the ILR will double India’s current 42,200 megawatt hydropower generation (from medium and major projects), adding 34 additional gigawatts to the capacity. Also designed to irrigate 35 million monsoon-dependent hectares, Masood says ILR is the only realistic means to raise the country’s irrigation potential from 140 million to 175 million hectares by 2050, when the population is projected to touch 1.6 billion.

Graphic by Saurabh Singh.

Graphic by Saurabh Singh.

But ‘unofficial’ estimates published by the Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) say the project will displace nearly 1.5 million people from their homes. This caused by the submergence of at least 27.66 lakh hectares of land needed for the storage structures and the network of planned canals. And it’s not just the human cost. The overall land area going under includes 104,000 hectares currently under natural forest cover, including reserves and sanctuaries.

It will also be an astronomically expensive adventure. Initially pegged at Rs 5.6 lakh crore at 2002-03 prices, Union water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation minister Uma Bharti tells india today that “ILR will now cost Rs 11 lakh crore”. This includes cost of land acquisition, compensation and construction. Hussain says final cost outlays for individual links will only be known after the “detailed project reports (DPRs) have been techno-economically approved” in each case.An old dream
Dreams of bending river courses aren’t anything new. In 1858, Arthur Thomas Cotton, a British military engineer, proposed navigable canal links between major rivers to serve the East India Company ports and deal with recurrent droughts in the southeastern provinces. In 1972, Kanuri Lakshmana Rao, India’s irrigation and power minister in three successive regimes, mooted an ambitious 2,640 km-long canal that would transfer monsoon floodwaters from the Ganga near Patna to the Cauvery in the south. Two years later, Dinshaw J. Dastur, a commercial pilot-turned-water management expert, advocated long-distance irrigation through a network of ‘garland canals’ in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats.

Grand notions of interconnecting rivers continued to exercise the country’s water bureaucracy, and a decade after Dastur’s proposal was discarded as economically unviable, the NWDA was established as an autonomous society under the water resources ministry to examine ILR proposals mooted in the 1980 NPP. The NWDA has completed reports for 14 peninsular and nine of 14 Himalayan river-linking projects. DPRs are currently in place for four ‘priority’ links in peninsular India. Successive governments, significantly, chose to ignore the NWDA proposals for years. This went on until October 2002 when a Supreme Court bench asked for action. Avidly pushed by then PM A.B. Vajpayee, a national task force was put together amid grand proclamations. Little, however, happened.

Dream coming true
After a full decade of considered disdain under UPA-I and UPA-II, during which then environment minister Jairam Ramesh described the proposal as “disastrous”, the ILR programme has got a strong second wind under NDA-II. “Atalji’s dream of linking rivers is our dream as well. This can strengthen the efforts of our hard-working farmers,” Modi tweeted after a poll rally in Bihar in April 2014, signalling his intent more than a month before moving from Gandhinagar to Delhi.

The Centre’s confidence flowed from a second judgement in February 2012, wherein an SC bench including then chief justice S.H. Kapadia and National Green Tribunal (NGT) chairman Swatantra Kumar, said the programme was “in the national interest”. They ordered the creation of a “special committee for inter-linking of rivers”.

Acting with predictable alacrity, Modi’s administration constituted a special committee under the water resources ministry on September 23, 2014. An independent task force too was established in April 2015 under the ministry’s chief advisor, B.N. Navalawala, to identify means of fast-tracking projects and to bring on board many of the reluctant states. Now, 22 months after Modi took office, construction is ready to begin on the first project-a link canal that will annually transfer 1,074 million cubic metres (MCM) from the Ken river at Dhaudan (inside Panna Tiger Reserve) in Madhya Pradesh to the Betwa river, 221 km to the south in Uttar Pradesh.

The first among five “priority links”, there’s a palpable sense of urgency about Ken-Betwa. Bharti calls it a “model project” which plans to allocate a third of projected outlay-Rs 6,323 crore of Rs 15,000 crore-to environment management and rehabilitation. Hussain talks about the payoffs-“irrigation to 6.35 lakh hectares across Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh and Panna in MP, and Mahoba, Jhansi and Banda in UP; domestic drinking water for 13.42 lakh people in both states; and 78 MW of power from two hydropower stations”. It all sounds too good to be true.

Bad science, good science
“It is,” says Himanshu Thakkar, 53, SANDRP’s convenor, who has spent most of his life battling big dam lobbies. He calls the SC’s February 27, 2012 judgement “judicial overreach”. Focusing on the Ken-Betwa project, Thakkar questions the very wisdom of the ILR programme. “There’s simply no scientific evidence to justify what the government wants to attempt,” he says. He says the NWDA’s simplistic identification of ‘water surplus’ and ‘water deficit’ river basins is premised on “flimsy and dubious scientific data”.

Thakkar believes many of NWDA’s water balance studies (for 137 basins and sub-basins) have been “deliberately manipulated”, while most feasibility reports since 1982 “are outdated because water use patterns since then have far outstripped availability in almost all basins”. Thakkar also points to the fact that the NWDA has “deliberately overlooked examining the complete water resource management options before decreeing a particular river basin as ‘surplus’ or ‘deficit'”.

Water balance studies, their basis for showing the Ken is surplus and the Betwa dry, are prejudiced, he says. “Both rivers are in the same situation.” On the ground too there is scant evidence of any “surplus”. By October, the Gangau, an old weir 2.5 km downstream from where the 77-metre-high Dhaudan dam is to be built, is almost out of water. The predominantly Adivasi residents of Dhaudan, like nine other villages inside the Panna Reserve, are back to using contaminated old wells for their needs. The Ken, shrivelled in the wake of another failed monsoon (2015), is too distant. Things are worse downstream in Panna district.

“Betwa mein paani zyada hai (the Betwa has more water),” Mohan Lal Gautam, a guard at the famous temples of Khajuraho located nearby, is visibly surprised by the plan to transfer water from the Ken to the Betwa. Then resignation sets in: “Sahib, ye government ke kaam hai, kuchh bhi ho sakta hai (Sir, this is the government’s work, anything can happen).”

Outside the dense teak forests too, the farmlands are decidedly desiccated. Shyamendra Singh, 52, who runs the popular Ken River Lodge adjoining the tiger reserve, is still taking stock of the drought situation. He says scores of distressed small farmers and farm workers have migrated in search of work. The Ken catchment has witnessed many monsoons of alternating flood and drought. Water activists point to “concomitant floods and droughts in both Ken and Betwa basins”, to challenge the NWDA’s assertions of the Ken as a surplus river.

Hussain argues that the criticisms “are based on apprehensions, fears and preconceived notions without scientific basis”. Seated at an expansive writing table inside the NWDA’s well-appointed chambers in south Delhi, he makes a compelling case for big dams: “The development debate in India has been very unfair-activists oppose projects to serve vested interests and the press plays along,” he says, a trifle impatiently, asserting that “the reality is, India needs more big dams”.

There are some statistics to support this view. A 2015 Food & Agriculture Organisation’s water development and management unit report ranks India below Mexico, China and South Africa in per capita water storage (from large and small dams). With an annual storage capacity of 250 BCM (billion cubic metres), the average Indian has access to just 225 cubic metres of water (from storage reservoirs) annually. This is “minuscule” compared to, say, Russia’s 6,130 cubic metres or even China’s 1,111 cubic metres. Per capita water availability (1,545 cubic metres from all sources) is precariously close to ‘stress’ levels. Over 220 million Indians make do with under 1,000 cubic metres, the minimum level.

Those pushing the ILR programme insist it’s the “only way forward”. They point to India’s projected 2050 population of 1.6 billion. “We need to boost foodgrains production from the 265 million tonnes now to 450 million tonnes, which is impossible without unconventional mechanisms like ILR,” Hussain says.

Dangerous delusion
But could the Modi government be chasing a dangerous dream? Consider this: M&M (major and medium) irrigation projects or big dams account for 16 million hectares which is a fourth of the total irrigated area (66-68 million hectares) in the country. “The maximum coverage ever achieved (17.7 million hectares) from M&M projects was in 1991-92,” Thakkar says, pointing to the largely ignored fact that over 60 per cent of India’s current irrigation needs are met from groundwater and small irrigation projects. And this is going up with every passing year.

Not just that. The November 2000 report by the World Commission on Dams concluded that a mere 10-12 per cent of India’s foodgrains production comes from big dams. But it is groundwater that has been India’s real lifeline,Thakkar says. It is estimated to be 70 per cent more productive than canal irrigation, it needs to be sustained by protecting traditional recharge systems. If implemented, the ILR programme, he says, would seriously jeopardise the very resource that sustains India’s food security.

Former water resources secretary and a determined ILR opponent, the late Ramaswamy Iyer had dismissed it as “technological hubris”, famously saying that a river wasn’t “a bundle of pipes which can be cut, turned and welded at will”. Equally vehement, Thakkar says the gargantuan scale would play havoc with groundwater recharge “because river courses-the most important recharge areas-completely lose their capacity to replenish aquifers because of being denied flows downstream of the dams”.

The ILR’s detractors say the programme entails environmental tinkering on an epic scale-destruction of natural rivers, aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, salinity ingress and a significant increase in methane emissions from storage reservoirs. Activists say “the cumulative devastation from 30 ILR projects will be irreversible”.

And that’s not the half of it. Mihir Shah, 59, Planning Commission member from 2009-14, points to the evidence that “the (ILR) scheme will deeply compromise the very integrity of the monsoon cycle”. Inflows from rivers help maintain high sea-surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal, critical for creating low-pressure areas and intensification of the monsoon. Shah says reducing the flow of river waters into the sea could bear “serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent”.

Interestingly, there are dissenters to ILR even within the BJP. Women & child development minister Maneka Gandhi, a former environment minister herself, openly criticised river-linking projects on TV while speaking on India’s role in climate change and global warming on December 4 last year. In May 2014 too, days before she found a place in Modi’s cabinet, she had declared linking two rivers was “extremely dangerous”.

Meanwhile, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis, whose consent is critical for the ILR projects on Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada-two other projects Delhi hopes to fast-track-also seems sceptical. During an assembly debate last July, the CM stated that despite having 40 per cent of India’s big dams, 82 per cent of the state remains rain-fed. Fadnavis called for a return to watershed management and conservation instead of pushing big dams for irrigation.

Many states have opposed the ILR programme questioning the NWDA’s water balance assessments. Odisha turned down a proposal on the ambitious Mahanadi-Godavari link project days after a central team briefed CM Naveen Patnaik in June 2015. Responding to concerns over extensive submergence from the big dam at Manibhadra, the Navalawala task force is drafting alternative strategies. The Mahanadi-Godavari link is critical to the construction of eight other downstream river links.

Refusing to cut any slack, Bharti is promising (if she doesn’t “face any hurdles”) to complete the first three priority river links in the next seven years. But the start date for the Ken-Betwa (Phase One) has already been missed twice, last in March 2016. Hussain told india today on April 12 that a fresh date for implementation could only be set after clearances from the National Wildlife Board and the water resources ministry’s Environment Appraisal committee. At the end of the day, Ken-Betwa will also need to be cleared by the Supreme Court since it involves interventions in a protected wildlife reserve.

In March 2012, Centre for Science & Environment director-general Sunita Narain said, “The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing as it is so grand. But this is also why it is nothing more than a distraction that will take away from the business at hand-to provide clean drinking water to all.” So is that what it is, just a grand distraction?

Read the original version of this article at the publisher’s website here

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