River-linking a great idea, but must be done without impacting people, nature

Sharad K Jain, Director of National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee
Sharad K Jain, Director of National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee.

India is a country of continental proportions – it experiences floods in some areas and drought in some others, often at the same time. The idea of inter-linking of rivers came up as a solution to the issues of surplus water in some areas and shortages in some others. British engineer Arthur Cotton proposed interlinking of Indian rivers in the 19th century. The idea was dusted in 1970s by former irrigation minister KL Rao who proposed to divert excess water in Ganga-Brahmaputra basins to water deficient south India. Though the idea got shelved, there were several attempts to revive it from time to time. The Rs 18,000 crore Ken-Betwa project is likely to be the country’s first river-linking project on which construction may begin in near future. It is touted as a model for future projects. Sharad K Jain, Director of National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee conducted the feasibility study for this pioneering project. In an exclusive interaction with Policy Circle, he explains the rationale and challenges for river-linking projects in India. Edited excerpts:

Why is interlinking of rivers crucial for India?

India has a widely varying climate, topography, and geology. Due to this, the water availability is different in different parts of the country. We have very large water demand for irrigation; water demands for environment, municipal and industrial uses, hydropower, etc. are also high. In addition, we have a large mismatch between demand and availability of water, in space and time.

Consider that you require water at X place, but it is available at Y place and these two may be far apart. One way to solve this mismatch is by transferring the demand from the place X to place Y. But that is obviously not possible. So, the other option is to make the water available where it is required. This is the major purpose of interlinking of rivers. The word interlinking, in my opinion, is not appropriate. The right word should be long-distance water transfer which means transfer of large volumes of water over long distances. Note that before water is transferred, typically it is stored in reservoirs to overcome the temporal mismatch between demand and availability. By storing water, the river interlinking projects will also help in controlling two water related disasters – floods and droughts.

What are the takeaways from Ken-Betwa study that can be replicated in similar projects?

Ken-Betwa is a well-conceived project which will help in meeting water shortages in Bundelkhand region which is a drought-prone area. Project will also generate hydropower. But the project has faced hurdles because of several reasons. Although there is an agreement between UP and MP concerning investigations for this project, subsequently when the DPR was ready, there was a disagreement about the sharing of water between the two states. The second hurdle with Ken-Betwa project is that some part of the Panna Tiger Reserve was likely to be impacted by it. Studies have been conducted to develop a mitigation plan to overcome the likely adverse impacts. In fact, in the long run, Panna Tiger Reserve may benefit by this project. In India, we are very careful in protecting the vital ecosystems including the forest reserves, tiger reserves, bird sanctuaries, monuments, etc.

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The third factor with water development projects, not only in India but also in some other countries, is that people living in submergence areas have to be relocated and this is commonly resisted. Rehabilitation and resettlement is a problem that involves humans and should be handled delicately and with care. For all major projects that may impact the environment, the procedure is that public hearing will be held in all the districts that are impacted by projects and concerned raised by people will be duly addressed. In addition, all the water sharing agreements, tribunal decisions, etc. should be carefully followed.

As the nodal institute, what is the role of NIH in this flagship project?

NIH has carried out hydrological studies for DPR of Ken-Betwa interlinking project. Besides this project, NIH has also studied the Mahanadi-Godavari link canal that will take the Mahanadi water to peninsular areas. This is the mother link for the peninsular component of the interlinking scheme. We also completed a study for the Kosi-Mechi link in Bihar.

What are the major challenges for river interlinking?

River linking for long distance water transfer has many challenges. First, numerous hydro-infrastructure will have to be created. Typically, infrastructure projects have large gestation time and require large funds. Further, long canals that transport water will be crossing many natural drainages and low-lying areas. Land will have to be acquired and cross-drainage works will have to be constructed. In India, we have expertise and experience of successfully constructing such projects. So, the country has the ability to meet this challenge. Since interlinking schemes typically involve more than one state, a challenge would be to garner political consensus. Next is the opposition from the environment lobby. Most water storage projects involve submergence of populated areas as well as forests. This aspect has to be carefully addressed.

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In some interlinking projects, water will have to be pumped up to cross hills or when water is to be transferred from lower elevation to higher elevation. If water to be pumped contains large amount of sediments, it will be another challenge.

Do you think changing climatic patterns will impact the efficiency of interlinking projects?

Climate is changing and there are reasons to believe that it will change in future also. An interlinking project is hydrologically feasible if the water demands in a deficit area can’t be met from its own resources even after exploring various options (improving water use efficiency, recycling, etc.) and some surplus water is available in the donor basin.

Due to climate change, several things may happen. The surplus basin may have more surplus and the deficit basin may have more deficit (and higher demands). In that case the justification for river interlinking become stronger. On the other hand, if water availability in the surplus basin reduces and increases in the deficit basin, then the justification for water transfer becomes weaker. Other combinations are also possible. Besides, the interlinking projects will also help controlling floods and droughts and may generate energy. Because of climate change, we have more intense floods and longer and more intense droughts. In that case, interlinking will be helpful.

While interlinking the rivers, how can the individual eco systems be protected?

There are safeguards to make sure that any infrastructure project does not adversely impact the environment. The guidelines that are applicable to any hydro-project will be followed for interlinking projects also. In many cases, interlinking may eventually help in environmental rejuvenation. There are places where environment is suffering because of lack of water. If water is moved to those places, the environment will rejuvenate and it will be beneficial.

What are the other major projects being carried out by NIH?

Let me tell you about two major projects. The first is the National Hydrology Project (NHP) which has been has taken up by our ministry along with the World Bank. This project covers almost all states of the country and NIH has some key roles. NIH is the training coordinator for the entire NHP; we are also conducting training courses on our own and in partnership. Some training courses are being organized by involving academic organizations also. We are also running training courses by involving foreign experts. NIH is also the coordinator for Purpose Driven Studies (PDS) under NHP. These studies are being taken up with the help of state government organizations and these focus on problems faced by states. Through PDSs, we should be able to provide a solution to the problem to the State Government. NIH is also involved in the development of a Decision Support System. We also have created a Centre for Excellence for Hydrological Modeling. Under this center, we are trying to develop an Indian hydrological model and are trying to apply hydrological models comprehensively with a view that the models should help in decision making.

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The other major project is a group of studies for the National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE), a DST funded project, in which NIH is doing comprehensive hydrological studies covering various facets for the Ganga river basin up to Rishikesh.

How receptive is the government to scientific research?

Water management is now a priority in India and with time, the criticality of the problem is likely to increase. According to our constitution, water is a state subject. The PDSs under the NHP are being taken up with the involvement of the concerned State Governments which shows their receptiveness to research. In fact, a key idea behind NHP is that we should take the States along with us in water resources planning and management. In almost all the training courses that we are organizing, people from State Governments are participating and they are gradually becoming our partners in finding solutions. I am very pleased to see that some States are doing wonderfully well in developing capabilities and using the modern tools to solve practical problems. I am hopeful that with time, we will have better and sustainable solutions to our water problems.

Is there some mechanism for water cooperation among South Asian countries?

At the moment, we don’t have strong collaborations with many other countries. Ideally, we should have stronger collaborations. In fact, India has the potential to become leader in water management in South Asia and support African nations in finding sustainable solutions.

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