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[Burning Issue] Interlinking of Rivers in India

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Context

  • The funding and implementation of the Ken-Betwa river inter-linking project, a part of national river linking project (NRLP), has been approved by the Union Cabinet at a cost of ₹44,605 crore.
  • The Ken-Betwa project has the status of a national project, as the Centre will contribute 90% of the cost. It is also the first major centrally-driven river interlinking project in the country.
  • The project will pave the way for more interlinking of river projects in India.
  • With the process of creating the National Interlinking of Rivers Authority (NIRA) set in motion by the Centre, the topic of river interlinking merits a detailed discussion.

Interlinking of Rivers

  • Management of water resources: The Indian Rivers Inter-link aims to effectively manage water resources in India by linking Indian rivers by a network of reservoirs and canals 
  • Flood control: It main purpose is to enhance irrigation and groundwater recharge, reduce persistent floods in some parts, and water shortages in other parts of India.
  • India accounts for 18% of the world’s population and about 4% of the world’s water resources. One of the solutions to solve the country’s water woes is to link rivers and lakes.
  • Idea behind the interlinking of rivers: Many parts of the country face problems of drought while many others face the problem of flooding every year. 
  • Hence, the National River Linking Project (NRLP) is claimed to be the answer to India’s water problem through conservation, storage, and deliver to areas and over times when water becomes scarce.
  • Beyond water security, the project is also seen to offer potential benefits to transport infrastructure through navigation, as well as to broadening income sources in rural areas through fish farming.

Brief history

  • The idea of interlinking of rivers in the Indian subcontinent is atleast 150 years old.
  • During the British Raj in India, Sir Arthur Cotton, a British general and irrigation engineer, first suggested linking the Ganga and the Cauvery for navigational purposes.
  • K.L. Rao’s Proposal (1972), which had 2640 km long Ganga – Cauvery link as its main component involved large scale pumping over a head of 550 m.
  • The Central Water Commission, which examined the proposal, found it to be grossly under estimated and economically prohibitive.

Capt. Dastur Proposal (1977)

It envisaged the construction of two canals:

  1. 4200 km Himalayan Canal at the foot of Himalayan slopes running from the Ravi in the West to the Brahmaputra and beyond in the east
  2. 9300 km Garland Canal covering the central and southern parts

Beginning of implementation

  • The Indian Rivers Inter-link aims to link India’s rivers by a network of reservoirs and canals and so reduce persistent floods in some parts and water shortages in other parts of India.
  • The idea to link rivers got a shot in the arm with the establishment of the National Water Development Agency in 1982 by then PM Indira Gandhi.
  • The Inter-link project was split into three parts:
    1. Northern Himalayan rivers inter-link component
    2. Southern Peninsular component
    3. Intrastate rivers linking component

Objectives of inter-linking

  • Connect the Himalayan and peninsular rivers via a network of canals so that
  • Excess water from one channel can be diverted to another which has an inadequate flow
  • Flood moderation in the Ganga-Brahmaputra system
  • Hydropower generation through excess water

About Ken-Betwa River Interlinking Project

  • The Ken-Betwa Link Project is the first project under the National Perspective Plan for the interlinking of rivers.
  • Under this project, water from the Ken River will be transferred to the Betwa River. Both these rivers are tributaries of the river Yamuna.
  • The project is being managed by India’s National Water Development Agency (NWDA), under the Ministry of Jal Shakti.
  • Implementation of the project
    1. Phase-I: Daudhan dam complex and its appurtenances like Low Level Tunnel, High Level Tunnel, Ken-Betwa link canal and Power houses
    2. Phase-II: Lower Orr dam, Bina complex project and Kotha Barrage

Utility of the Project

  • Irrigation: The project is slated to irrigate 10.62 lakh hectares annually, provide drinking water supply to 62 lakh people and generate 103 MW of hydropower and 27 MW of solar power.
  • Water supply: The project will be of immense benefit to the water-starved Bundelkhand region, spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
  • Agricultural boost: The project is expected to boost socio-economic prosperity in the backward Bundelkhand region on account of increased agricultural activities and employment generation.
  • Addressing Rural Distress: It would also help in arresting distress migration from this region.

Many hurdles

  • Submergence of critical wildlife habitat: The project will partly submerge the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and affect the habitat of vultures and jackals.
  • Clearance: After years of protests, it was finally cleared by the apex wildlife regulator, the National Board for Wildlife, in 2016.
  • Water sharing disputes: Then UP and MP could not agree on how water would be shared, particularly in the non-monsoonal months.

Having known about the recent advancements, let us learn about the concept of river interlinking in detail.

National River Linking Project (NRLP)

  • NWDA has studied and prepared reports on 14 inter-link projects for Himalayan component, 16 inter-link projects for Peninsular component, and 37 intrastate river linking projects.

Benefits of River Interlinking

There are many benefits that the proposed interlinking projects will bring about. They are discussed below:

  • Interlinking rivers is a way to transfer excess water from the regions which receive a lot of rainfall to the areas that are drought-prone. This way, it can control both floods and droughts.
  • This will also help solve the water crisis in many parts of the country. 
  • Hydropower generation: This project envisages the building of many dams and reservoirs. This can generate about 34000 MW of electricity if the whole project is executed.
  • Dry weather flow augmentation: When there is a dry season, surplus water stored in the reservoirs can be released. This will enable a minimum amount of water flow in the rivers.
    • This will greatly help in the control of pollution, in navigation, forests, fisheries, wildlife protection, etc.
  • Indian agriculture is primarily monsoon-dependent. The problems of unexpected behavior of monsoons can be solved through the project as it will provide irrigation facilities in water-deficient places.
  • Inland waterway transportation: The project will also help commercially because of the betterment of the inland waterways transport system.
  • Improve fish production: The rural areas will have an alternate source of income in the form of fish farming and other related activities.
  • The project will also augment the defense and security of the country through the additional waterline defense.

Challenges in River Interlinking

  • Project feasibility: The project is estimated to cost around Rs.5.6 lakh crores(estimated cost with the base year of 2000).
  • Requires great engineering capability and manpower: There is also the requirement of huge structures. All this requires a great engineering capacity. So, the cost and manpower requirement is immense.
  • Climate vulnerability: A report points out that Climate change will cause a meltdown of 1/3rd of the Hindu Kush Region’s glaciers by 2100. So, the Himalayan Rivers might not have ‘surplus water’ for a long time.
  • Environmental impact: The huge project will alter entire ecosystems. The wildlife, flora and fauna of the river systems will suffer because of such displacements and modifications.
  • Impact on society: Building dams and reservoirs will cause the displacement of a lot of people. This will cause a lot of agony for a lot of people. They will have to be rehabilitated and adequately compensated.
  • Controlling floods: Some people express doubts as to the capability of this project to control floods. There have been instances where big dams like Hirakud Dam, Damodar Dam, etc. have brought flooding to Odisha, West Bengal, etc.
  • Political Challenges: Water is a state subject in India. So the implementation of the NRLP primarily depends on Inter-State co-operation. Several states including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and Sikkim have already opposed the NRLP.
  • Inter-state disputes: Many states like Kerala, Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh, etc. have opposed the river interlinking project.
  • International disputes: In the Himalayan component of the project, the effect of building dams and interlinking rivers will have an effect on the neighboring countries. For example, Bangladesh has opposed the transfer of water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganga.
  • Other Challenges: The government is proposing a canal irrigation method for transmitting water from one area to the other. The maintenance of canals is also a great challenge it includes preventing sedimentation, clearing logging of waters etc.

Way Forward

  • Integrated water resource management is the key: India needs to conserve every drop of water, reduce wastage, equitable distribution of resources at the same time enhance groundwater. 
    • So the small scale simple things have to be tried instead of large scale projects.
  • Local solutions (like better irrigation practice) and watershed management, should be focused on.
  • National Waterways Project (NWP) should be considered: It “eliminates” friction between states over the sharing of river waters since it uses only the excess flood water that goes into the sea unexploited.
  • Interlinking of rivers should be pursued in a decentralized manner, and more sustainable ways like rainwater harvesting should be promoted to mitigate floods and droughts.

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