Building on sand

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Erosion caused by the Brahmaputra in Morigaon district of Assam in 2008. The water flow in the Brahmaputra is so strong that only 3 to 4 per cent can be diverted, says an expert.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Experts say the river-linking proposal is based on a flawed understanding of the subject.

The Supreme Court's directive of February 27 to the Central government to constitute immediately a committee on the interlinking of rivers, based on a report of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the recommendations of a Standing Committee of Parliament, has evoked sharp reactions. A cross section of experts on water resources expressed their concerns to Frontline on what they thought was a rather unnecessary intervention by the apex court, relying on a report written by economists.

D. Raghunandan, president of the All India People's Science Network and executive member of the Delhi Science Forum, said the entire premise of river-linking rested on the understanding that some river basins had surplus water and others were deficient. That itself is an open question. The so-called surplus Ganga basin has had a drought period too. The idea of surplus presupposes that there is a demand and a supply. For instance, if Delhi uses more water, does the supply to it become justified just because of the high consumption of water? he argued, saying that river-linking was one of the many quixotic ideas based on some arithmetic formulation of diverting water from one part to the other.

Raghunandan said he had argued against it when it was introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2003 and a committee set up under Suresh Prabhu. Even at that point, the Supreme Court had suggested to the government, and not directed it, to take up the plan, he said. According to Raghunandan, the very notion that the problems of floods and droughts, that is surpluses and deficits, can or could be met by inter-basin transfer of waters has raised questions. He said the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan (NCIWRDP), set up in 1996 and described by the government as a blue-ribbon body, had stated in a 1999 report that further studies were needed on the Himalayan component and that in the peninsular component massive inter-basin transfers were not required.

Any shifting of water, he said, went against gravity and that required huge amounts of energy. The northern rivers will have to be lifted high above the Vindhyas in order to reach water to the southern States. No hydrological logic will say whether it is desirable or not and no one knows the consequences too. There is no authoritative body of hydrologists or geologists who have pronounced in favour of inter-basin transfer, he said, adding that there were hardly any successful global illustrations of such an experiment. He pointed out that there were cases of dykes built on large rivers such as the Mississippi and the Missouri, for flood control purposes, but even those were now being questioned.

S. Sreekesh, Associate Professor at the Centre for Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, has similar views. An expert on water resources and climate change, Sreekesh told Frontline that feasibility studies had been done only in the case of the Ken-Betwa link (between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) and not for all the rivers. The investment required, too, would be tremendous, more than the country's national budget, he said.

On the face of it, interlinking of rivers would bring in several benefits, including the possibility of irrigating some 35 million hectares, and surface recharge. But even the definition of surplus, Sreekesh said, was not correct. The Ganga ranked fourth or fifth in terms of per capita water availability. But there were no studies to show that there was surplus water in the Himalayan rivers. The Yamuna, he said, was little more than a drain. The water flow in the Brahmaputra is so strong that only 3 to 4 per cent can be diverted. Most rivers have only a seasonal concentration of water. The rest of the year, the non-monsoon period, they run dry, he said.

All rivers are flooded in the monsoon months, from June to September. If surplus water is to be transferred, it would be from one flooded river to another, he said.

Genesis of the idea

The concept of river-linking pre-dated Independence and was a grand notion mooted by the British. The genesis of the idea was in 1858 when a hydraulic engineer, Colonel Arthur Cotton, submitted a report on the Mahanadi river to the colonial government in Orissa (Odisha). His idea was to connect the Indian subcontinent through a grid of navigation and irrigation canals. But it did not take off because of the huge finances involved, and Cotton left India. Ever since, the idea to have a river-linking system has cropped up now and again.

In 1960, the issue was resurrected by the then Power and Irrigation Minister, K.L. Rao, whose proposal was to link the Ganga and the Cauvery with a 2,640-kilometre canal. But yet again, the huge investment, estimated at Rs.12,000 crore, became a hurdle. The present estimate is much more than that, almost equal to the annual Budget, said Sreekesh.

He said the quantum of power needed to lift the water from the Ganga to the Chota Nagpur plateau and beyond would be tremendous. For that, hydroelectric ports and thermal power plants would be needed all to irrigate the south, Sreekesh said.

In 1977, the Captain Dastur Committee came up with an even more comprehensive plan. It was to connect all the Himalayan rivers in the form of a garland. He proposed a 4,200-km Himalayan canal and a 9,300-km southern canal linking Delhi and Patna. The estimated cost was Rs.24,000 crore. The National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan rejected the proposal on both financial and technical grounds.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flanked by Chief Ministers Mulayam Singh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh and Babulal Gaur of Madhya Pradesh after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two States for preparing a detailed project report on the Ken-Betwa river link project, at the Parliament House in New Delhi in 2005.-V. SUDERSHAN

The latest plan, the brainchild of the National Water Development Agency, also recommends lifting the Ganga waters. It proposes 16 links on the east-flowing rivers, that is, the peninsular component, and 14 links in the Himalayan component. The proposal should have included socio-economic benefits as well as acceptance by the affected populations, Sreekesh said.

R.B. Singh, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Delhi, has a different view. His argument is that since a huge population needs to be fed, a large area needs to be brought under irrigation. He said rather than have river-linking schemes between States, the endeavour should be to try it within States themselves, linking surplus and deficit areas. The second step should be the cooperation of a similar nature between a State and a neighbouring one. But there is more scepticism than optimism regarding this mega river-linking scheme.

Rohan D'Souza, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy at JNU, said it was a deeply flawed belief that rivers had surplus waters and that floods and droughts could be banished by technical solutions.

Supply side hydrology, he argued, was the product of political thinking. There were discrepancies, he said, between the compilations of different departments on figures and percentages on waterlogging, net irrigated areas, power generation, and displacement. Water scarcity in India today was less a product of meteorological parsimony than an outcome of fatal and degrading land management practices and wastage of water resources, said D'Souza.

In a paper published on the topic, he has argued that instead of dams, diversions and groundwater mining approaches, what is needed is reviving natural drainage by removing massive obstructions and obstacles that strangle wetlands, lakes and streams; cleaning up rivers and recovering aquatic ecosystems; and achieving hydraulic integrity through efforts to ensure ecological connectivity of flood plains, channels, wetlands and estuaries.

There are others too who share these views. In an article titled Interlinking rivers: Is it the solution?, published in The Hindu (www.hinduonnet.com/2005/08/29), V. Rajamani, Professor of Geology at the School of Environmental Sciences, JNU, argues that river flooding is a constructive geological process and not a disaster as considered by urbanised civilisation. Flooding, he writes, became a hazard from the human perspective when flood plains were taken over for human habitation.

Interlinking of rivers requires the construction of a large number of huge dams, and, in addition to several ecological and social consequences this causes a near total removal of suspended sediment load from the stream flow. His conclusion: a thorough scientific study on all aspects discussed above, including the consequences of flood mitigation, lack of sediment, water and nutrient supply in the downstream and coastal regions, and, more importantly, in the Bay of Bengal is essential for evaluating the long-term consequences of interlinking of rivers in India. At present, most of these aspects are huge unknowns, he says in the article.

Interestingly, the arguments of the NCAER, mainly a body of economists, and not geologists or hydrologists or even ecologists, in outlining the river-linking plan have been questioned. An article by Pranab Mukhopadhyay of the Department of Economics, Goa University, and Gopal Kadekodi of the Centre for Multidisciplinary Development Research, Dharwad, in the November 2011 issue of Economic and Political Weekly critically examines the developmental role claimed for the mining industry for Goa in an NCAER report.

They argue that the report undervalues the environmental costs of mining and overvalues its benefits when examined in the light of received practices in environmental valuation. They seek a long-term perspective for the state for the proper valuation of natural resources such as forest, land, waterbodies, and marine and biodiversity resources. There are several others who believe that no authoritative study exists on the feasibility of interlinking rivers.

In another article published in the October 2011 issue of Seminar, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, professor and head of the Centre for Development and Environmental Policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, argues against the notion of environmental flows. He says there is no fixed amount called environmental flows but flows that are allocated on the basis of agreed levels of degradation of the natural ecosystems when compared with the pristine.

Environmental flows are required for the ecosystem, he argues. For instance, when a river flow outpours into the ocean, it is often described by arithmetical hydrologists as wastage of freshwater. But geologists and ecologists know that such flows are imperative to reduce salinity of oceans and to sustain estuaries and coastal habitats.

Clearly, the last word on river-linking is yet to be said. There are more unknowns than knowns. With so many arguments, each making out a case against river-linking in technical, financial and ecological terms, a review of the proposal needs to be considered.

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