The Cost of Interlinking India’s Rivers

Recent Features

Features | Environment | South Asia

The Cost of Interlinking India’s Rivers

The environmental, social, and diplomatic costs of the world’s largest irrigation infrastructure project.

The Cost of Interlinking India’s Rivers

Children play in the damaged Munak canal, that supplies three-fifths of the water to Delhi, in Sonipat in the northern state of Haryana, India (February 24, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

India’s ambitious plan to interlink rivers to achieve greater equity in the distribution of water in the country reached an important milestone on July 6, when water from the Godavari, its second-longest river, rushed to meet the fourth-longest, the Krishna. The two became the first of 30 rivers to be linked under the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) program.

Touted as the world’s largest irrigation infrastructure project, the ILR program involves construction of around 15,000 km of new canals and 3,000 big and small dams and storage structures. Broadly, it has two parts: the Himalayan rivers component with 14 links and the peninsular component with 16 links, which will transport 33 and 141 trillion liters of water, respectively, per year. The Godavari-Krishna link is part of the latter.

The idea of interlinking rivers isn’t new. Even in ancient times, rulers and engineers the world over sought to divert rivers to parched lands. In 1858, when India was under colonial rule, British engineer Sir Arthur Cotton proposed interlinking India’s major rivers for inland navigation but his plan remained on the drawing board.

Variations of this project have been put up in more recent decades. But successive governments did not pursue these plans due to financial and environmental concerns. It was only with the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power in 2014 – it is a strong proponent of interlinking rivers – that the ILR program took off.

India has multiple water-related woes. Besides its enormous dependence on the erratic monsoons, its basin-wise availability of water varies greatly due to uneven rainfall and population density. According to a Ministry of Water Resources report, in 2010 the average per capita availability of water in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system was 20,136 cubic meters per year compared to 263 cubic meters in the Sabarmati basin.

While a third of the country grapples with drought, an eighth struggles with floods.

Interlinking rivers is seen as the way to deal with these problems. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, the ILR program will not only extend irrigation to an additional 35 million hectares of land and boost hydropower capacity by around 34,000 megawatts of electricity power but also will improve management of floods and droughts.

The ILR program involves transfer of water from “surplus” river basins to “deficit” ones. On the face of it, it appears to be just about diverting water. However, it isn’t that simple. Water will have to be channeled across different terrains, topographies, and elevations. It involves very complex engineering.

And it comes with a hefty price tag. It is estimated to cost $168 billion. This being a project that will take decades to complete, serious cost overruns can be expected.

Engineering a diversion of water carries enormous human, ecological, and environmental costs too. Millions of people are likely to be displaced by the ILR’s canals and dams.

Environmentalists are drawing attention to the irreversible damage that reduced downstream flows would have on a river’s ecology and biodiversity. A change in the ecology of the River Ken on account of the Ken-Betwa link project in central India is expected to doom the already critically endangered gharial. Also, this project would submerge around 10 percent of the Panna Tiger reserve, reversing the huge gains of India’s tiger conservation project.

Experts have also challenged some of the assumptions on which the ILR is based. Questioning the concept of “surplus water,” for instance, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Shama Perveen maintain that there is no “‘surplus’ water, because every drop performs some ecological service all the time.” Others have pointed out that a river assessed to have “excess” water today may not have that “surplus” tomorrow.  This is important particularly in the context of climate change impacting glacier masses and water volumes in the Himalayan rivers, argues Ashvani Gosain, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, pointing out that if these perennial rivers “don’t retain the character of donor basins,” the ILR plan would collapse.

There is concern too that the ILR program would add to India’s already long list of festering water-related conflicts. The ILR has many opponents; key “donor” states like Bihar, Odisha, Kerala, and the Northeastern states are not on board with the plan. Odisha, for instance, dismisses claims that its Mahanadi river has “surplus” water as over the half the state’s 30 districts are drought prone. Without Odisha’s participation and the Mahanadi’s “excess” water, the peninsular component of the ILR would be weakened. The Mahanadi-Godavari link is critical to eight other downstream river links.

Even if states get on board the project now, conflicts could emerge in future between donors and recipients should the former run out of “surplus” water. Such conflicts could manifest in violence targeting each other’s populations and ILR infrastructure, as is often visible in the ongoing dispute over sharing of the River Cauvery.

While the ILR program is about linking rivers in India, its neighbors are watching how it unfolds with apprehension.

The ILR program’s Himalayan component envisages construction of reservoirs on the principal tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in India and Nepal, and involves transfer of water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west, apart from linking the Brahmaputra to the Ganga and the Ganga to the Mahanadi.

As the Ganga and Brahmaputra are transboundary rivers, India’s proposed engineering of their waters would impact Nepal and Bhutan, where these rivers originate, and Bangladesh, the lower riparian country.

Nepal and Bhutan fear that, as in the case of other river projects in the past, India will pressure them to cooperate with the ILR through building dams and other storage infrastructure. There is “strong popular opposition to this idea” in these countries, Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden, has pointed out.

Such opposition could weaken already fragile ties between India and Nepal.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, is deeply apprehensive over the diversion of water from the Ganga’s tributaries upstream, and the Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers to the Ganga, as this would reduce water flows into its territory, increasing salinity of the water, rendering the soil unfit for cultivation, and resulting in the desertification of large parts of the country.

Early this year when India and Nepal began work on the first transcountry river linking project to divert water from the Sharda River in Nepal to the Sabarmati in western India, it evoked “serious concern” in Bangladesh. Angry opinion pieces in the Bangladeshi media accused India of violating its commitments under the 1996 India-Bangladesh Treaty on sharing the Ganga’s waters and of acting unilaterally with little consideration for Bangladesh’s concerns.

The Himalayan component and the ILR program hinge on the diversion of the Brahmaputra River’s waters to the Ganga at the Farakka barrage, which would benefit Bangladesh too. This diversion is possible either through Bangladesh or via India’s Siliguri Corridor. But with Bangladesh unwilling to allow the link canal to run through its territory and the alignment via Siliguri “economically unviable” as it “involves large-scale lifting of water,” interlinking the Brahmaputra with the Ganga is not possible.

Critics of the ILR say that instead of pressing ahead with a financially unviable and environmentally unsustainable program, the government must act upon a “number of cheaper, socially and environmentally-benign options” that are already available such as “increasing irrigation and project-specific efficiency, rational cropping patterns, putting to use our existing mega infrastructure which is under-performing, using water equitably, harvesting rainwater, and managing demand better, among others.”

This would require the government to first wake up to the fact that its dream of tackling India’s water woes though the ILR plan could turn into a nightmare. Importantly, would India’s powerful big dam/water infrastructure lobby be interested in less expensive options?

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.