The many dangers of interlinking rivers

The Supreme Court last fortnight ordered the government to interlink rivers of the north with those of the south.

Binoo K John March 19, 2012 15:22:30 IST
The many dangers of interlinking rivers

In a clear case of judicial overreach, the Supreme Court last fortnight ordered the government to interlink rivers of the north with those of the south. The SC ruling ordered the setting up of a committee and all the rest of it.

River linking has a long history in India and was first proposed by an irrigation engineer called KL Rao in 1972, Later, Captain Dinshaw Dastur suggested a garland of canals to interlink the rivers. Many governments had dumped the idea as impractical.

The many dangers of interlinking rivers

Rivers have naturally formed water flow systems and tampering with them will only kill rivers. Reuters

“The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing because it is so grand. But this is also the reason it is nothing more than a distraction that will take away precious time and money from the business at hand,” Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment said in a press release today.

River inter linking is based on the simple theory that the excess water in some rivers in spate during the monsoon can be diverted to other rivers. This way, everyone will have enough water. So from Patna the Ganges waters will be diverted to the Cauvery which is more than 2600 km away. The Mahanadi basin will be linked to the Godavari basin as part of this scheme.

Rivers, however, have naturally formed water flow systems and tampering with them will only kill rivers. Upstream dams, for example, have killed rivers, leaving them looking like drainage canals with neither flow of water, nor the availability of new water. Even when the river water distribution has been carefully planned, there have been problems. States are at war with each other over the distribution of water. The latest Mullaperiyar dam battle is a case in point pitting Kerala against Tamil Nadu which is also at war with Karnataka over the distribution of Cauvery waters.

The grandiose scheme is full of problems. How many states will agree to this Tuglaqian scheme? Where is the money? In any case what is the assurance that all the South Indian rivers will be continually fed by Himalayan rivers which themselves are running dry in many places? What about the many irrigation projects which are stalled or are not utilised well?

There is a massive water bureaucracy in India, topped by the National Water Development Agency set up in 1982. Off and on this agency and others float this idea based on the notion that once linked there will be equal water in all rivers. Nothing can be more ridiculous. The NDA government tried to set up a task force to complete 30 river links. Nothing happened because it is just not possible. And in any case where does one start and where does it end? Now again the Supreme Court has entered the scene, resurrecting an issue which should and would have died a natural death.

“The assumption that floodwaters can be channelised is equally erroneous. The fact is that when one river is in spate so is the next river and transferring water would require huge storage facilities. Construction of large reservoirs has massive environment impacts not considered in this project, “ Sunita Narain said.

Indian rivers also face another brewing problem, not from within but from our gigantic neighbour China which is planning to dam the Brahmaputra. According to Brahma Chellany of the Centre for Policy Research, the Metog dam is to be twice the size of the 18,300 MW Three Gorges dam and will be situated on the disputed border with India. These and other Chinese projects “threaten to replicate in international rivers the degradation haunting China’s internal rivers. By having its hand on Asia's water tap, China is therefore acquiring tremendous leverage over its neighbour’s behaviour" writes Chellany, who incidentally backs mega dams as a source of power and water.

The mighty Brahmaputra will soon lose its might and grandeur as it is dammed in Arunachal Pradesh by India and before that in China. In Asia, freshwater availability is less than half the global average.

It is in this scenario that a project dumped by many governments is sought to be resurrected by the Supreme Court.

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