The debate on interlinking rivers in India

India plans to develop its water resources by interlinking its Himalayan rivers with those in the peninsular region through 30 interlinking canal systems. Already, the project has raised controversy and debate. Interlinking rivers is now a matter of South Asian proportions. It had to be. After all, India's rivers pass through neighbouring countries as well

 
By Anand Kumar
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The debate on interlinking rivers in India

-- India plans to develop its water resources by interlinking its Himalayan rivers with those in the peninsular region through 30 interlinking canal systems. Already, the project has raised controversy and debate. Interlinking rivers is now a matter of South Asian proportions. It had to be. After all, India's rivers pass through neighbouring countries as well.

The Indian government has constituted a task force headed by former power minister Suresh Prabhu to implement the project, estimated to cost over Rs 5,00,000 crore. This task force would complete feasibility studies and prepare detailed project reports by 2005-end. Thereafter it would take 10 years to implement the project.

The government says the project is needed to meet increasing water requirement in the country. It would also correct the imbalance in water distribution in the country, enhance irrigation potential and foodgrain production. The project is expected to provide enough water to irrigate 1,35,000 square miles of farmland and produce 34,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity.

The project has been criticised on environmental grounds. It is feared that implementation might cause vast forest tracts to be submerged, disturbing wildlife, displacing communities and lifestyles and transforming water quality and microclimatic conditions, leading to consequences for public health.

As it is, floods, erosion and seismic events have already left their mark on the region. Rivers have changed their course. The Teesta used to flow into the Ganga, but due to an earthquake now joins the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. And now the project would also require India to enter into agreements with Nepal and Bangladesh, as these countries share the basins of the Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems. But both, especially Bangladesh, are apprehensive about interlinking rivers.

Bangladesh fears vast quantities of water would be diverted from the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers to India's southern states, directly threatening the livelihoods of people in the country as well as its environment. These rivers are crucial sources of freshwater for the country. It is considering appealing to the United Nations to redraft international law on water sharing. Though it has not been officially informed about the project, its water resources minister Hafizuddin Ahmed says that his country would lodge a protest with New Delhi against the proposed plan and request donors not to fund it.

However, these fears are misplaced. Only a limited amount of water would be diverted to the Indian heartland. Most of the water would still flow to northeast and eastern India and Bangladesh. The project would benefit the region: it is estimated that about 30 per cent of India's freshwater and 45 per cent of its hydro-potential is located in the northeast, mostly in the Brahmaputra valley. The river linking project can mitigate the impact of flood and prove beneficial for kharif cultivation in the area. A regular flow will help in power generation and communication. Regulated release of stored monsoon water over the year would actually augment lean season flows in the region, benefitting fisheries and navigation.

A number of disagreements already exist between Nepal and India regarding several existing water-sharing arrangements. But on the project, till now it has not vociferously objected. However, Nepal feels that it should have been included in the feasibility discussions.

Thus, despite huge water resources in the region, its mismanagement -- and the inability of countries in the region to reach mutually beneficial agreements -- could invite more conflicts in the days ahead. India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers, which can survive only through joint management. What is required is international initiative, regional cooperation and the implementation of sustainable development strategies in the days to come. If the river linking project in India is implemented properly -- keeping in view environmental and sociological concerns -- it can benefit the entire region. A decision on this project should be taken on merit and not on the basis of the adversarial politics which unfortunately plagues this region.

Anand Kumar is a research associate with New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management

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