Interlinking of rivers: Significance & Challenges

Note4Students/Syllabus Mapping: GS3

Water management and conservation has become imperative due to the intense water scarcity, frequent agrarian crisis, farmer distress, recurring floods and droughts, fast ground water depletion and unprecedented weather vagaries due to climate change. ILR as an instrument under National Water Policy to resolve the water crisis in the country has taken centre stage in the minds of policymakers. Its re-emergence in the public debate makes it a hot topic from the above context and important for CSE Mains 2017



Inter Linking of Rivers refers to inter-basin water transfers between 2 or more rivers through human interventions on natural systems.

India’s National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has suggested the interlinking of rivers of the country. The interlinking of rivers has two components: the Himalayan and the Peninsular. All interlinking schemes are aimed at transferring of water from one river system to another or by lifting across natural basins. The project will build 30 links and close to 3000 storages to connect 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers to form a gigantic South Asian water grid.

Current Context:

Ken-Betwa link project has been declared as National Project by the Government of India. Damanganga – Pinjal Link Project, Par – Tapi – Narmada Link Project and Mahanadi – Godavari Link Projects have been given a go ahead.

 Need for Inter River Linking:

Large variation in rainfall and subsequent availability of water resources in space and time.

Because of this variability of available water, floods and drought coexist in our country in same time and space. ( Kerala, T.N and South Karnataka is facing drought while Rajasthan, Gujarat , Assam reeling under floods)


What could be the possible positive implications of ILR Plan?

  1. It will most likely lead to Improved and expanded irrigation i.e. the project claims to provide additional irrigation to 35 million hectares in the water-scarce western and peninsular regions.
  2. The river interlinking project claims to generate total power of 34,000 MW (34 GW).
  3. It will lead to Ground water Recharging.
  4. The inter-link would create a path for aquatic ecosystems to migrate from one river to another, which in turn may support the livelihoods of people who rely on fishery as their income.
  5. It will contribute to flood and drought hazard mitigation for India
  6. Any multipurpose storage reservoirs in upstream countries, such as Nepal and Bhutan, would facilitate energy generation and other benefits.
  7. It also appears to promote national integration and a fair sharing of the country’s natural water wealth.
  8. It will unify the country by involving every Panchayat as a share holder and implementing agency.
  9. Provide for enhancing the security of the country by an additional waterline of defense.
  10. Provide employment avenues for more than 10 lakh people for the next decade.
  11. It will most likely eradicate the flooding problems which recur in the northeast and the north every year.
  12. Solve the water crisis situation by providing alternative, perennial water resources.
  13. The large canals linking the rivers are also expected to facilitate inland navigation too.
  14. It aims at increasing food production from about 200mn tones a year to 500mn tones.
  15. It will most likely boost the annual average income of farmers, from the present $40 per acre of land to over $500.

What could be the possible adverse effects of Inter-River Linking Plan?

River Linking Project involves multifaceted issues and challenges related to environmental, economic, ecological, legal, political and social costs. It has potential for disastrous and irreversible adverse after-effects which has been comprehensively discussed below:

Ecological Costs:

  1. Water scientists and Environmentalists have remarked that the water flowing into the sea is not waste. It is a crucial link in the water cycle. With the link broken, the ecological balance of land and oceans, freshwater and sea water, also gets disrupted
  2. It is feared that diversion of water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, which provide 85% of the country’s fresh water flow in the dry season, would result into an ecological disaster.

Economic Costs:

  1. As this project is of massive estimated cost, a long term planning and a sound financial simulation are required to meet the standard for such proposals.
  2. The huge expenditure of the project and the maintenance costs associated with the dams, canals, tunnels, and captive electric power generation will involve huge financial burdens.
  3. This may generate fiscal problems that are difficult to handle.
  4. This certainly requires financial assistance from the private sector as well as global capital agencies.
  5. Mobilization of global capital may ultimately entail the risk of destroying social welfare measures.

Environmental costs

  1. It will result in massive diversion of forest areas and submergence of land leading to deforestation and soil- erosion. (For example The Ken-Betwa link project puts in danger over 4,100 hectares of forest land or 8% of the Panna National Park).
  2. There will be destruction of rivers, aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, fisheries and groundwater recharge.
  3. Possible downstream impacts, salinity ingress, pollution concentration, and increased methane emission from reservoirs are other adverse repercussions.
  4. Scientists are also of the view that river diversion may bring significant changes in the physical and chemical compositions of the sediment load, river morphology and the shape of the delta formed at the river basin.
  5. It could most likely create trigger points of natural disasters like landslides, earthquakes etc. as seen in case of Koyna dam and Tehri dam.

Legal costs:

  1. Domestic and regional geo-politics play a pivotal role on the discussions on ILR. As of now, there is no mechanism as of now to deal with matters concerning inter-basin transfers. There are also important institutional and legal issues to be sorted out.
  2. Each of the 30 schemes of the ILR is supposed to get through several statutory, legal and procedural steps.

Social Costs:

  1. Reconstruction and rehabilitation due to displacement is not an easy task as seen before.
  2. The construction of reservoirs and river linking canals in the peninsular component alone expect to displace more than 5, 83,000 people and submerge large areas of forest, agriculture and non-agriculture land.
  3. It is likely to create social unrest/psychological damage and cultural alienation due to forced resettlement of local indigenous tribal community.

Political Implications:

  1. Water being a state subject, the ILR plan further complicates existing water sharing and management problems between the riparian states.
  2. Some of the ILR schemes have international implications, which may create strained relationship with neighboring countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh.


Way forward:

NRLP has its fair share of positives and negatives. Though there are enough apprehensions over the project but they are not backed by any comprehensive scientific evidence to it. Inter basin water transfer is not a new concept.

Large direct benefits of irrigation, water supply and hydropower and indirect benefits navigation, tourism, employment generation etc can be accrued in ILR program.

Formation of River Basin Authority for coordinated action and subsequent building up of consensus among concerned States is prima facie needed. Legal provisions for implementation of ILR related to rehabilitation and appropriate afforestration through CAMPA is to be concurrently addressed.

It is essential that needed environmental safeguards such as comprehensive EIA and SIA are properly implemented in a coordinated manner by various agencies. Therefore, strengthening and expansion of cooperative efforts among the co-basin states and countries will foster co-riparian relationships.

India’s river linking project shows and promises a great concern for water conservation and optimum use of available water resources. Undoubtedly, it is the need of the hour to have a water mission like as IRL, which will enable availability of water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year post a comprehensive scientific assessment.

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