The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Indian government’s plan to interlink major rivers has rung alarm bells in Bangladesh. A lower riparian state, Bangladesh is justifiably apprehensive of Indian plans to dam the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and their tributaries, and divert water through more than 600 kilometres of link canals and hundreds of water reservoirs. Bangladesh receives 85 per cent of its total water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganga during the dry season and it fears that India’s decision to divert the water of these rivers will retard their flow — something that will have an adverse ecological and economic impact on that country. The livelihood of some 100 million people downstream would be at stake. The issue will also be taken up at the ongoing Indo-Bangla joint rivers commission meet in New Delhi.

The project has drawn much criticism from West Bengal and Bihar as well because it is seen as favouring western and southern India at the expense of the east.

India’s national water policy has been blamed for the growing water scarcity and successive droughts on the one hand, and floods on the other. As more and more ground water is tapped, the water table across the country has fallen drastically.

Many bureaucrats and politicians in India believe that these problems can be solved by interlinking 54 rivers, including the Ganga, and diverting their flow to rivers in south India, which would then be provided with 173 billion cubic metres of water annually.

Cost-benefit analysis

This is not the first time that such a gigantic infrastructure concept has been mooted by engineers and economists. Its precursors were the Ganga-Cauvery link as part of the technically unfeasible “Garland Canal” proposed by K.L. Rao and Dinshaw Dastur in the Sixties.

The present interlinking of rivers plan too is beset by the hurdles presented by the massive financial and energy costs. The project is expected to cost Rs 560,000 crore, and take 43 years. (Optimists claim a 10-year period would be enough, without any feasibility study whatsoever.)

The project would also entail pumping, tunnelling, contour canals as well as dams of various kinds. Some 8,000 square km of land will have to be acquired. Then there are the social costs of resettling the displaced populations and also the ecological and environmental costs — the submergence of forests, loss of biodiversity, changes in river morphology and water quality, salinity and increased pollution.

The ongoing ruckus between Karnataka, an upper riparian state, and the lower riparian Tamil Nadu over the sharing of Cauvery waters is a pointer to the administrative problems that could arise when water is ferried across several states.

Alternative strategy

The basic aim of the project is to transfer flood waters to regions where it is deficient. But the period when it is surplus in the donor Ganga-Brahmaputra basins — July to October — is not the time when it is required most in the recipient area (January to May.) The solution thus is to build gargantuan holding reservoirs.

What will happen to the existing river projects which would need an estimated Rs 80,000 crore to complete' Will these resources be diverted to the river networking project while the incomplete schemes are abandoned'

Rainwater harvesting and micro-watershed management are far easier and more economic options. According to estimates, rainwater harvesting would cost, on an average, just 20 per cent of what it would cost to transfer the same water over large distances after storing it in large dams.

Decentralizing water collection and storage is a much better option than building massive dams and lengthy canal systems. It is simplistic to believe that the only solution to water shortage is to enhance water supply. The core problem is improper distribution and the differentials in consumption, which include leakages and consumer wastage.

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