The incidents of violence in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over sharing of Cauvery water have strained the relation between two southern states of India. Rainfall deficit, falling groundwater table, galloping demographic growth and the changes in land use have perpetuated the conflict.
Karnataka and Goa are already at loggerheads regarding diversion of the Mahadayi River. Protests had erupted in north Karnataka in September when an interim order by the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal rejected the state government’s plea to divert 7.56 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of Mahadayi’s water to the Malaprabha River in Karnataka. Goa opposes diversion of water because the river meets the drinking water needs of over 43 per cent of the state.
Ken-Betwa river linking
The seeds of a similar dispute are now being sown in Bundelkhand in the form of Ken-Betwa river linking project. Diversion of surplus water from Ken basin to water-deficit Betwa basin is now a dream project for Uma Bharti, Union Minister for Water Resources and an MP from Jhansi.
The scope of the project includes construction of two dams: Makodia dam across Betwa River and a 77-metre high Daudhan dam across river Ken in Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, the water from Daudhan dam will help in irrigating 635,000 hectare of land, meeting drinking water needs of 1.3 million people and generating 78 MW of hydropower. The quantity of water proposed to be diverted from Ken basin is 1020 million cubic metres.
While Bharti has built a strong case in favour of the project, which, she thinks, will be able to tackle drought in the region, environmentalists are crying foul. Locals fear that diversion of water from the Ken River would destroy their livelihood. Those who grow watermelon, muskmelon and cucumber on the banks of the Ken River, are concerned over the changing course of the river due to illegal sand mining. Building a 231-km-long canal, which will siphon off water to River Betwa, will be a double whammy for them.
Though the National Water Development Agency claims having made “detailed surveys and investigations of the headworks and the main canal” for establishing the feasibility of the project, consultation with locals doesn’t seem to have happened.
There’s a growing feeling that the government should invest in developing more localised water management solutions like retaining rainwater through ponds, check dams and farm embankments. Locals feel that capturing run-off through field embankments and small check dams are much more viable than linking rivers. According to them, building a long canal makes sense only when there’s enough water to transport. Anupam Mishra, the renowned water conservationist, was critical of the project. He had questioned the obsession with the scheme to interlink rivers and wanted better management of rainwater to be given a chance.
Sandeep Narulkar of Indore-based Centre for Environment Protection Research & Development believes that the project is going to help the drought-hit region. “In the last five years, Bundelkhand hardly received any rainfall. This year, we saw a heavy downpour. We can only hope that rain will be enough in the future to fill the canal. Having said that, water management must always be the focus.”
Although he is hopeful about the prospects of the river inter-linking project, he doubts whether the government agencies will be able to divert water at right time and in right amount. “Ultimately, we have to adopt Israel’s policy of ‘more crop per drop’ and ensure that every drop of water is optimised to its fullest potential. In our region, where hydrological drought is a commonplace, a different strategy is needed,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, doubt has surfaced over the assumption that surplus water is available in the Ken river basin since rainfall deficit during the last few monsoon seasons and accelerated withdrawal of groundwater in the have reduced the water discharge in the Ken. Moreover, it is not a perennial river. Hence, the threat of flooding, which the Madhya Pradesh government has been harping on, is only during the peak rainy seasons.
There have also been talks that the river-linking project has got the push just ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in order to woo the voters of Jhansi by promising drinking water.