Why do countries embark on mega water projects that interlink river basins? The answer is simple: address the dual problem of droughts and floods. Interlinking involves the process of diverting surplus river water through a network of canals to relatively drier areas either within a state or among two or more states.
Conceptualized in the 1980s, the interlinking of rivers program was designed with the following benefits: improving irrigation potential for famers in India, generation of hydropower from the dams constructed and additional benefits of flood control, water supply, fisheries, pollution control etc.
So, why is progress dead-slow on these projects? The environmental risks that impact the surrounding ecosystems, the economic risks due to huge cost overruns in such mega projects, the social risks associated with dislocation of people plus an important thought: the very idea of surplus water flowing into the sea is not a loss but an essential part of the hydrological cycle.
India’s major river-linking project ‘Ken-Betwa’ connecting Ken river in Madhya Pradesh with Betwa in Uttar Pradesh(see map above) is facing all sorts of challenges. The meandering Ken river flows through the Panna Tiger Reserve. The river is the lifeline of the reserve and sustains an elaborate ecosystem with the tiger as focus. In 2009 due to years of systemic poaching, the Panna reserve had almost no tigers left. But ten years later, the best conservation efforts have paid off and today Panna is a thriving habitat with a growing density of around 50 tigers , several elusive species such as leopards, jungle cats, sloth bears, hyenas and wolves, around 300 migratory bird species to name a few. The river-interlinking project proposes a 77-meter high (250 feet), 2-km long dam on the Ken River and this is expected to submerge 9,000 hectares of mostly forest land in the Panna Tiger Reserve, near the UNESCO world heritage site of Khajuraho Temple in Madhya Pradesh. There is a huge disagreement in getting ahead with this project with political as well as social overtones.
Interlinking of rivers projects have been rolled out in several parts of the world, but are most rivers in India fit to be linked? If we compare our rivers with North American or European rivers, the average precipitation of Indian rivers is only for around 60-70 days in a year and being a tropical country that is very thirsty, water is never enough. Several countries tackle drought management instead to secure their water resources. Let us look at China, Israel, and Australia as drought management in these countries are based on the principles of self-reliance, proactive risk management, and an understanding that drought is an inherent feature of their environment.
China has made significant improvement in water management practices in the past few decades. Both India and China share many similarities, for instance—large population size to feed, huge share of drought prone areas, small landholding size in agriculture, etc. But besides these resemblances, China’s agriculture system has done well for themselves leveraging the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model where the private sector can bring in latest technologies and construct, operate water facilities more efficiently that the public sector. The table below highlights key lessons that India can learn and adapt from.
Environmentalists and the scientific community recommend improving water efficiency, conservation and better drought management over large infrastructure/ interlinking projects that disrupt a river’s flow, damage ecosystems and flood vast areas.
Also, majority of India’s groundwater, around 90%, is consumed by water-guzzling wheat, rice, and sugarcane crops. By crop rotation towards pulses, oilseeds, diverse farming and regenerative agriculture methods, such decentralized solutions could help rather than building large-scale new dams and reservoirs.
Local solutions such as usage of bio-pesticides and microbial, organic fertilizers to reduce excess nitrogen and phosphorous that makes the soil toxic; employing drip-irrigation to reduce water usage ; using biochar as a soil amendment; and intermingling existing reservoir areas with check dams and filtration ponds with rainwater harvesting and recharging of groundwater aquifers are examples of small scale proposals that benefit local communities and when rolled-out to drought prone areas are shown to improve the water table.
India’s water problem is massive, and faces multiple deaths due to droughts, famines, and water shortages every single year. Are local solutions effective enough and can they tackle the global scale of this issue? Environmentalists are looking at the huge social, environmental, and economic impacts as a whole and are questioning the viability of the large-scale river interlinking projects.
Is there a right answer? a very tough call for countries, governments trying to mitigate water crisis because what seems like a workable plan today might be impractical tomorrow as the twin threats of climate change and biodiversity loss are most acutely expressed though WATER impacting the most vulnerable sections of our population. Looking at the potential risks that need to be mitigated, drastic infrastructure projects seem to best avoided due to the unprecedented scale of the nature crisis.