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Interlinking Rivers: The Spectre Rises Again

By S.G.Vombatkere, PhD

20 March, 2012

The interlinking of rivers (ILR) project visualizes linking 37 major rivers of India by 100-m to 150-m wide canals to transfer large masses of water between river basins at an estimated (2002) cost of Rs.5.6 lakh crores ($112 billion). The project is in two parts, namely the Himalayan and the Peninsular sections (Figure 1 and Figure 2 at end of this paper) with a total canal length of 14,900 km occupying an estimated 8,000 sq km including for dams and reservoirs. The consequent forced displacement of people has not been considered, leave alone assessed. On the orders of the Supreme Court of India (SC) on October 31, 2002, the Union Government of the day created a Task Force (TF) to plan and implement the ILR project in a time frame of 10 years. The ILR TF with Mr.Suresh Prabhu as Chairman, created a web site http://riverlinks.nic.in/taskforce.asp carrying details of the proposed ILR Project.

The ILR project is capital intensive, involving creation of infrastructural capital assets of dams, canals and appurtenant structures for mass transfer of water over thousands of kilometres. Influential sections of society have welcomed it as a one-step, all-time solution to the problem of water availability, but it has also been questioned and opposed by another, increasingly vocal section.


Proponents of the ILR project maintain that (1) water is surplus in certain river basins and can be conveyed in massive quantities to water deficit regions to relieve scarcity, (2) mass transfer of water will simultaneously eliminate floods in ‘surplus’ areas and drought in water-scarce areas and assure food security by raising the irrigation potential to equal the current net sown area, and (3) 30,000 MW of additional electrical power will be generated.

Opponents of the ILR project argue that (1) water is not surplus when considered from a holistic point of view, (2) devastating floods and drought are to a large extent man-made, (3) large projects cause much more harm than good, generally benefiting the better-off at the cost of the poor, (4) the finance borrowed will place India in a debt trap from which it will not be possible to recover, resulting in loss of economic independence, and (5) it will cause more rather than less conflicts between and within States on the subject of sharing river water. They suggest an alternative, democratic solution to the problem of water availability by sustainable watershed and river basin management based on people’s water needs.

The “order” of the Supreme Court and the statements of ILR TF included the idea that a “network” of canals would distribute water across India, from the water surplus areas to the water deficit areas, thus relieving flood and drought at the same time. The proposal initiated by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), is silent on the fact that water cannot be fed into canals without construction of dams, barrages or weirs on rivers, causing upstream land submergence. The water canal network was likened to a network of railways, roads or the electricity grid that serves the country for transport and electric power. However, the fundamental flaw in this thinking is that while roads, railways and power grids convey traffic or power in both directions, a “network of canals” can only convey water uni-directionally, from a higher level to a lower level. According to the ILR TF, this dams-and-canals “network” is dependent upon chain-supply of water, that is, each river basin donating water in exchange for water received from a river basin to its north. This concept of donating water in exchange of water received, is the basic assumption for the ILR system to function.

The ILR system has three major flaws, and while it is true that every system has drawbacks, the ILR system is different on account of scale. One, the system envisages mass transfer of water during flood in the monsoon season of July-September, when the water in rivers carries a large load of sand and silt. Any mass transfer of water will inevitably involve transfer of substantial volumes of sediment along with the water. This will clog canals in a very short time, reducing the flow in the canal and making it inefficient, necessitating heavy recurring expenditure to dredge the canals. Two, rivers like Ganga and Brahmaputra shift their courses by upto one or two kilometers over a period of a few years and are apt to leave the canal head works dry or with reduced capacity for off-take of water. This necessitates expensive “river training” maintenance
works like groynes and spurs to be constructed almost every year so as to maintain supply at the canal headworks. The example of Farakka barrage across Ganga is a case in point, where large sums are being spent every year just to prevent Ganga from by-passing the barrage, making it useless. And three, water flowing in canals over very long distances involves heavy evaporation and seepage losses of water, resulting in increased cost of water delivered.

Relieving flood

Ganga in the Himalayan sub-system (Figure 1) has been identified as a “surplus basin”. Considering that in many parts of the Ganga basin (especially in Bihar, from where a canal is to divert water southwards to Subarnarekha) flood and drought occur simultaneously a mere couple of kilometers apart, the logic of assuming Ganga as a surplus basin is questionable. Even so, the ILR TF's claim of relieving flood by diverting water needs to be examined.

Ganga floods at an average 50,000 cubic metres per second (cumecs) during the 4 monsoon months, while for technical reasons a 100-m wide 10-m deep canal can divert at most 2,000 cumecs to provide 4% relief, that too only downstream of the off-take point. Likewise, Brahmaputra floods at over 60,000 cumecs, and a similar canal can provide at best 3% relief. However, for the balance 8 non-monsoon months every year, Ganga flows at an average 5,280 cumecs, and diversion of 2,000 cumecs will deny Bihar 38% of Ganga water when it is needed most, even if the demand of lower riparian Bangladesh can be neglected. Thus, clearly, the claim of relieving flood in Ganga or Brahmaputra by canals cannot make economic sense. The diversion of 38% of Ganga water in the dry season can only lead to the most serious socio-economic consequences. The alternative of using the canal for the 4 monsoon months (to divert a mere 4%) and keeping it idle for 8 months would, of course, be economic nonsense. It is thus clear that ILR cannot relieve flood in Ganga or Brahmaputra but government, intent on carrying out the project, is not responding to this argument.

The system fails

According to the “chain-supply concept”, if a (recipient) river basin does not receive water from another (donor) river basin for any reason whatever, it will not be in a position to feed water (as a donor) into the next link canal in the system. For water to reach Cauvery, all the links have to function as a system, conveying water from North to South, and also from West to East (the Bedti-Varada and Nethravathi-Hemavathi links). See Figure 2 below. But even neglecting the absence of water supplied from the unfeasible Himalayan sub-system, let us discuss the Peninsular sub-system. Chairman of the ILR TF Mr. Suresh Prabhu assured that links not found feasible will not be constructed. It is well known that engineers are not above manipulating FRs and B:C ratios to establish feasibility and obtain sanction for a project. But there are other causes for any particular link canal not functioning adequately or not at all, such as siltation of canals, canal breaching, political agitations not permitting release of water, etc.

According to ILR TF website http://riverlinks.nic.in/taskforce.asp, there are pumped lifts within three link canals requiring 4,000 MWe of dedicated electric power, planned as follows: Ganga-Subarnarekha 60-m, Subarnarekha-Mahanadi 48-m, and Godavari-Krishna 116-m. If any of the pumped lifts between Ganga and Krishna fail to function for any reason whatever (equipment failure, power failure, etc.), the recipient basin will not only not receive water, but there will be severe flooding at the pump input point besides disrupting systemic water flow.

In the Peninsular sub-system (Figure 2), supply to Cauvery is predicated on the reliable and continuous operation of the chain of links to its north, that is, Subarnarekha-Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Palar. Suppose, for example, that Krishna-Pennar links Nos. 5 and 6 fail to operate for some reason or are not found feasible and therefore not constructed. In such circumstances, Cauvery at the tail end cannot receive the quantity of water that it is supposed to receive, because farmers of the Pennar basin will certainly interfere with release of water southward since it will directly and immediately reduce water availability to them. Therefore the Peninsular sub-system of ILR cannot function without water donated by the Himalayan sub-system.

Bottom line

The ILR project is a system with multi-dimensional uncertainties and whole volumes of imponderables, that affect not only millions of people alive today but also millions more as yet unborn, who will be willy-nilly affected by the ILR Project, whether they believe that it is a good project or not, whether they oppose it and it gets going despite opposition, or even if they know nothing at all about it. They (especially future generations) are not a party to the ILR project, never having been consulted and becoming “beneficiaries” or “victims” of the project willy-nilly and not by choice. It does not need amplification that if the ILR system should fail, the number of beneficiaries will shrink to negligible numbers (though they also stand to lose in the long run as the economy collapses under the weight of debt) and the number of victims will expand out of all proportion. The ILR project cannot be insured and the victims of failure cannot be identified, and therefore can never be compensated in case of system failure. Though the risk of failure of the ILR project is essentially unassessable, it is clearly immense.

India has about 4,500 large dams and it is pertinent to mention here that to date, no transparent review of the completed dam projects, each one a system in itself, has been done to verify if it has met the technical and economic performance criteria that were stipulated at the time the projects were designed and sanctioned. This opaque technical-cum-administrative track record, combined with the unwholesome track record of rehabilitation of about 50 million displaced families since 1947 naturally causes any informed and socially sensitive citizen to question the basis and demand a risk assessment of the ILR Project. The risk of failure of the ILR system is of such magnitude and type that no nation, leave alone a poor, developing one like India, can afford to take. The social risk already taken by displacing about 50 million people (since 1950) is manifesting itself in the display of heightened social tensions in both rural and urban contexts in the past several years.

The present position

On February 27, 2012, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to implement the ambitious interlinking of rivers project in a time-bound manner and appointed a high-powered committee for its planning and implementation. In this connection, Mr.Ramaswamy Iyer's comment (“With all due respect, My Lords”; The Hindu; March 2, 2012) is reproduced below:

“The Supreme Court is convinced that the project is good and urgently needed; and that a very important national initiative is getting bogged down because of various reasons and needs to be galvanised. It has come to that conclusion because of a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research. There are two problems here.

First, assuming that there is a serious water scarcity problem, it is not the business of the Supreme Court to deal with it; there is an Executive Government to deal with such matters. True, the citizen's right to water is a fundamental right, and therefore the Supreme Court is concerned with it; but while it may direct the government to ensure that the right is not denied, it is not for it to lay down the manner in which or the source from which that right should be ensured. Moreover, the connection between the right to water and the ILR Project is very tenuous; it is the large demand for irrigation water that generally drives major projects and long-distance water transfers. It is true, again, that there are intractable inter-State river-water disputes, and these are of concern to the Supreme Court; but the Supreme Court can at best direct the Executive Government to find early answers to river water disputes, and not recommend a particular answer such as the ILR project, which may in fact generate new conflicts.

Secondly, and finally, we come to the heart of the matter, namely the view that the country faces a looming water crisis; that the answer lies in augmenting supplies; that given the magnitude and distribution of India's future water requirements, the ILR project is the best possible answer; and that it is in the national interest to implement it quickly. It is that conviction that provides, in the Supreme Court's view, the justification for its intervention. If that view of India's water crisis and its solution is challenged, the whole basis for the Supreme Court's order collapses.

This article will not enter into a discussion of this vital question, but will merely point out that there is a diversity of views on it, which the Supreme Court has failed to consider. The NCAER may have taken one view of the matter, but there are other views. The cogent case against the project has been succinctly stated in the editorial in “The Hindu” on 1 March 2012. That knocks the bottom out of the Supreme Court's order. “.

Some might say that God's divine court is the only Court of last resort above the Supreme Court. Hence it is apposite to end with another pearl of wisdom from Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer (“River engineering and the courts”; The Hindu; March 12, 2012): “What the Supreme Court decides is final not because it is infallible; it is infallible because it is constitutionally final and structurally supreme. If ignorance is made final, governance becomes chaos”. So now, My Lords, the ball is firmly in your court!



S.G.Vombatkere retired as major general after 35 years in the Indian military. He is engaged in voluntary social work, and is member of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). As Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, he coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for under-graduate students from USA and Canada. He holds a master of engineering degree in structural engineering from the University of Poona and a PhD in civil structural dynamics from I.I.T, Madras. E-mail:sg9kere@live.com


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