It is a one-stop solution to prevent floods and droughts, reduce water scarcity, raise irrigation potential and increase foodgrain production
The decades-long pipe-dream of interlinking rivers is now being realised, with the Godavari formally connected to the Krishna in Andhra Pradesh. It is aimed broadly at harnessing part of Godavari floodwaters which otherwise flow into the Bay of Bengal. The Godavari-Krishna linkage is expected to create an irrigation potential of about 2.8 lakh hectares, besides supplying water for domestic and industrial uses in Krishna and West Godavari districts. It also promises to make the perpetual water-starved Rayalaseema region drought-proof. As the state has decided to connect the Krishna and Penna rivers as well, it is largely viewed that such linkages are setting the tone for interlinking major rivers of country. So, can these steps free the country from the endless cycle of flood and drought?
Interlinking of rivers involves diverting surplus water through a network of canals to relatively drier areas either within a state or two or more states. It is conceptually rooted in similar proposals made by Sir Arthur Cotton and KL Rao during the previous centuries. The proposal gathered steam when the ministry of water resources formulated a National Perspective Plan (NPP) for optimum utilisation of the country’s water resources. It received tremendous fillip under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who recommended for its speedy implementation. Under NPP, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) identified 14 river links in northern Himalayan river development component and 16 in southern peninsular river development component for inter-basin transfer of water.
Water is the engine of agricultural growth. For much of its water needs, the country heavily relies on the monsoon; one bad monsoon can ruin the entire year’s economy and agricultural output. The country receives most of its annual rainfall during the four monsoon months of June to September, while the quantum of rain varies widely across different regions. If interlinking of rivers is implemented, then such uneven water flow in different river basins will get balanced. However, can diversion of water from surplus to deficit areas ensure food security?
According to the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD, 1999), India will require about 450 million tonnes of foodgrains per annum to feed the population of over 1.5 billion in 2050. To meet this requirement, the country needs to expand its irrigation potential to 160 million hectares for all crops by 2050. Besides, floods are a recurring feature, particularly in the large parts of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, affecting Assam, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. On the other extreme, a number of western and peninsular states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu face recurring droughts.
The National River Linking Project (NRLP) proposes to transfer excess water from flood-ravaged states to water-scarce regions. By this, it claims to provide additional irrigation to about 35 million hectares in water-scarce western and peninsular regions, which produce the bulk of food. This will further create employment, boost crop output and farm income, and multiply benefits through backward and forward linkages. NRLP is also expected to generate additional hydropower of about 34 GW.
Environment versus development
Although interlinking of rivers is the one-stop solution to prevent floods and droughts, reduce water scarcity, raise irrigation potential and increase foodgrain production, some are of the opinion that it is just another grandiose scheme involving huge costs. Few environmentalists and hydrologists have expressed deep concern at the irreversible damage that interlinking of rivers can do to the country and water resources. Some say that the large network of dams and canals will alter natural drainage, leading to flooding and water logging, and that vast tracts will submerge leading to displacement of innumerable people. There are also concerns that surplus water should not be diverted from a river on such a large scale as excess water is necessary to keep river basins healthy—it percolates down the soil and recharges groundwater. Some have also raised the issue that interlinking a toxic river with a non-toxic one will have a devastating impact on rivers, humans and wildlife. However, environmentalists must understand that no developmental programme can bring 100% Pareto optimality in real-word situation.
A timely act
Interlinking of rivers is a win-win solution for addressing the twin problems of water scarcity and flooding. However, before implementing the proposal on a large scale, a sound scientific and technical assessment needs to be undertaken to make it techno-economically feasible. This is a Herculean task and would involve considerable amount of time. Meanwhile, policy-makers can propagate better water resource management and encourage whatever small initiatives the states undertake towards solving their water-related woes.
A Narayanamoorthy is professor & head, Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Tamil Nadu. P Alli is assistant professor, Social Sciences Division, Vellore Institute of Technology, Tamil Nadu