Flawed vision

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Digging the Godavari riverbed for water in the Bhadrachalam Agency area of Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh.-G.N. RAO

Studies show that while it may sound really good on paper, interlinking of rivers is technically implausible.

Ever since the Supreme Court asked the National Democratic Alliance government in 2000 to speed up the river-linking project, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, a leading environmental organisation, has been examining the economic and ecological feasibility of the project. This is a delicious idea where the water from flooded river basins can be diverted to dry river basins through canals and storages. While it may sound really good on paper, it is technically implausible, said Nitya Jacob, who heads the Water Department at the CSE. Until now, India's water programmes have only talked about diverting excess water into river basins. Excessive rainfall or industrial effluents flow into river basins, and then into the sea. This is the first project that is talking about diverting excess water outside the river basin.

Jacob says the problems are aplenty in doing so. One, there can be simultaneous flooding and drying up of river basins that are proposed to be linked. Two, the amount of land required to construct diverting canals will be huge. Considering the problems of acquisition, how does the government propose to acquire that land? Many irrigation projects have been stalled in India because of the detrimental effects on the environment that construction of large reservoirs and dams beget, he says.

Diverting water would require not only canals but also dams and reservoirs to prevent waterlogging. But more than all these, no one has actually done a river basin assessment, Jacob says. The only measurement the government has is based on the rainfall that India receives, and it was done in the 1950s. In 1999, there was a report by the National Committee on Water Resources, which makes a country-wide assessment of the quantum of river water. But there have been no studies on the rivers from which water is proposed to be diverted. The rainfall pattern has changed drastically over the years, he told Frontline.

The project began to take shape in 1982, when the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was set up as an autonomous body and was given the task of carrying out water balance and feasibility studies. But to date, there have been no such studies. It divided the river-linking project into two parts: the first, to link 16 peninsular rivers and the second, to link 14 Himalayan rivers. Detailed project reports (DPRs), which would give the final cost and feasibility estimates to the government, are not yet complete. Only one DPR, that of linking the Yamuna's tributaries in the Bundelkhand region, the Ken and the Betwa (between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), is ready.

The Ken-Betwa project

The DPR for the Ken-Betwa river link was prepared following a tripartite memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in 2005 by the Union Minister for Water Resources and the Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. However, the environmental clearance to transfer excess water from the Ken to the Betwa through a 231-km canal has been denied by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Approximately, 8,650 hectares of forestland in Madhya Pradesh is likely to be submerged by the project; part of the forestland is in the Panna National Park. Yet the Supreme Court, in its judgment, mandated that this be taken up on a priority basis, says Bharat Lal Seth of the CSE.

A decade ago the cost of the river-linking project was estimated at Rs.5,60,000 crore but the actual cost will be known only when DPRs of all the 30 projects are drawn up, he says. This can put a huge financial burden on the Centre when most of its irrigation projects are far from complete. The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) has quoted a figure of Rs.4,44,331.2 crore at 2003-04 rates for the project.

The most flawed assumption on which river-linking projects are undertaken is that there is a huge surplus of water in river basins. The use of river water by industry, as opposed to agriculture, has increased drastically in recent times. The draft National Water Policy, 2012, proposed by the Union Ministry of Water Resources gives industry a telling priority over agriculture. The 2002 policy had accorded a higher status to irrigation than hydro-power and industries but the 2012 draft policy does away with explicit priorities and says that water will be treated as an economic good, providing flexibility for allocation for industrial use even at the cost of agriculture. In one of his articles on the draft water policy, Seth quoted G. Mohan Kumar, Additional Secretary in the Water Resources Ministry, as saying, We have done away with priorities since it was creating confusion. Agriculture may become irrelevant where industrialisation is taking place on a large scale.

Seth further writes: The 2002 policy deviated from the first National Water Policy in 1987 and encouraged private-sector participation in planning, development and management. Due to the possibility of the private sector owning water assets, this has been dropped from the draft. Instead, impetus has been given to the public-private partnership model.

Agriculture vs Industry

According to a recent study by the CSE, published in its magazine Down to Earth, the basins of the Mahanadi, the Godavari and the Krishna, which have been proposed for linking, are over-extended in usage, and as a result tensions between industries (new users of surface water) and farmers (old rural users of water) are brewing in most of these parts, almost leading to water wars. For instance, the Krishna provides drinking water and irrigation to more than 75 million people, but the mean annual flow of the river to the sea has reduced from 57 km3 in 1901-1960 to less than a third in 1975-2003. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, tensions are high, the study shows. With 52,735 sq km of the river remaining dry most of the year in Karnataka, 50,242 sq km in Maharashtra and 45,493 sq km in Andhra Pradesh, the three States have experienced droughts over the years, mostly because of the extended usage of water by the growing number of industries. In such a situation, a grand project like the linking of these rivers seems irrelevant.

In the 1960s, large irrigation projects were initiated. The result was lesser flows in the lower reaches. The mean annual run-off to the ocean from 1901 to 1960 was 57 km3, states a study conducted by the International Water Management Institute, a non-profit organisation based in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh. The quantum of water reduced to 17 km3 in 1975-2003. The study also notes that the total reservoir storage by 2005 was 54.5 km3, close to the river's annual discharge. Reduced water may not create conflict when water is surplus. But during drought years, it can result in a crisis. The hydrological station at Vijayawada recorded an average flow of 6,500 cumec [cubic metres per second] in August between 1901 and 1960. This reduced to about 100 cumec between 2000 and 2004, considered to be a drought period. Increased allocation of projects away from the river basin can be largely blamed for the lesser flow, Down to Earth notes.

In this state of affairs, further diversion of river water outside the basin, as proposed in the river-linking project, can lead to more problems. The example of the Mahanadi illustrates the point. It is considered to be a surplus river by the Odisha government, but the CSE study points out that over-allocation of river water to industries has left little for irrigation. In the past decade, Odisha has signed at least 100 MoUs for projects worth Rs.441,471 crore. From 2002, the State government went on an MoU signing spree. It has bagged 12.6 per cent of the country's total investment in 2010, says the study.

It further reveals that the Mahanadi accounts for 62 per cent of Odisha's total industrial allocation. About a decade ago, it was only 13 per cent. And at least one industry is proposed every 10 km of the river's 461-km stretch. The study points out that in Odisha, the Mahanadi sustains around 18 million people, more than half of whom are farmers, but power plants and other industries are drawing most of its water now. Even the water in the barrages built for famine relief on the river is being diverted to industries.

The assumption that rivers have surplus water and that the flooding of these will ensure successful diversion of excess water to dry rivers is fundamental to the idea of river-linking. The case studies of the Mahanadi and the Krishna leave no doubt about its non-feasibility. The CSE says the challenge is to complete the existing irrigation projects rather than have grand ideas like river-linking and make optimum use of local water resources, which are constantly under threat from polluting industries.

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