India's Audacious River-Linking Plan Moving, if Slowly

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By Madhur Singh

May 12 — The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh last year switched on a lift irrigation system and diverted water from the Godavari River through a canal to a drought-prone region of the state and onward to the delta of another river, the Krishna.

The Godavari is India's second-largest river; the Krishna its fourth largest. But the act of linking the two could be seen as merely the first small ripple in a torrent of activity—canals, reservoirs and dams carved out and constructed across the countryside—to reroute massive amounts of water from more than three dozen major rivers.

India's audacious and controversial Inter-Basin Water Transfer Program—under consideration for more than three decades, but whose viability remains an open question—envisages diverting 174 billion cubic meters of water annually to better manage seasonal floods and drought while significantly extending irrigation and hydropower capacities nationwide.

That volume, 174 billion cubic meters, equals nearly a third of all the water withdrawn from aquifers annually in the U.S., New Delhi-based correspondent Pallava Bagla noted in an article for Science magazine, describing the Inter-Basin Water Transfer Program as “one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever conceived.”

Its backers say if completed, the massive infrastructure plan could reshape hydrology across large parts of the subcontinent, bringing water to the drought stricken, diverting it from areas that otherwise would be flooded, irrigating vast expanses of now-parched farmland and boosting dam-created power to all. And more important, its backers include Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to office in 2014 promising growth and modernization.

“The interlinking of rivers is necessary, because in our country we do not have uniform variation of the rainfall and the water resources across the country,” A.B. Pandya, director-general of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), said in a video presentation. “In order to equitably distribute the water resources of the country, it is necessary that the water surplus areas' water is taken up and is distributed across the areas which are water-short. For this purpose, interlinking is the only solution.”

But some scientists and environmental groups call the plan, with a cost estimate of $168 billion and which would take decades to complete, an unrealistic dream at best—and a disaster-in-waiting at worst.

“There is simply no scientific evidence to justify what the government wants to attempt,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of New Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), an informal network of organizations and individuals working on water-related issues, told Bloomberg BNA. “The NWDA's classifications of ‘water surplus' and ‘water deficit' river basins is based on flimsy and dubious scientific data.”

First Steps

While it has been planned since the 1980s, what could be the first concrete development in the program took place Sept. 16, 2015.

Keen to harness some of the floodwaters of the Godavari that drain into the Bay of Bengal every year, Andhra Pradesh chose not to wait for the completion of a dam—whose construction formed part of the interlinking program, but had been an issue of contention among Andhra Pradesh and the neighboring states of Telangana and Odisha—and used an alternative intrastate route to link the two river basins.

But while Andhra Pradesh was able to circumvent interstate rivalry over water as a stop-gap arrangement until the contested dam could be constructed, the remaining 29 projects under the interlinking program would have to surmount such challenges.

And they face many more hurdles. These include cost, opposition from environmentalists and people likely to be displaced, acquiring land and finding new homes for those forced to move to make way for new waterways, and dealing with pushback from neighboring countries that share riparian rights with India.

The project “has caused alarm beyond India’s borders,” Ashok Swain, director of the Research School for International Water Cooperation, wrote in a blog post late last year.“Upstream, Nepal and Bhutan are worried they will come under pressure to build dams and provide for Indian water storage due to past experiences. There is strong popular opposition to this idea. Downstream, Bangladesh is concerned about water being diverted from the Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers to the Ganges.”

Tiger Reserve

Another project under the program, linking the basins of the Ken and Betwa rivers in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, is facing protests from environmental activists, who claim the link would harm a tiger reserve and the support of local residents was not properly received.

Minutes from a February meeting of the National Board for Wildlife show how divisive the issue remains.

Nevertheless, the government has put its weight behind implementing the decades-old idea and has said work on the Ken-Betwa basins link will begin by the end of this year.

Supporters of the Ken-Betwa basins link say it will help irrigate 600,000 hectares and provide drinking water to 1.34 million people in two states in a water-stressed area.

Environmentalists say it will submerge 10 villages and displace their residents, in addition to flooding 10 percent of a critical tiger habitat in a reserve.

The Rationale

The dream of transferring water in India from regions with a surplus to areas of drought is more than a century old.

Despite a veritable criss-cross of large and small rivers across the length and breadth of India, many areas have no access to surface water sources.

The seasonal monsoon rains are highly variable across geographies and time so that every year some parts of the country suffer floods while others witness dry spells or even drought. The concept of moving water from flooded areas to those that are parched makes some sense, at least in theory.

According to the government-run Water Resources Information System of India, the country receives average annual precipitation of about 4,000 cubic kilometers, of which 1,869 cubic kilometers becomes the annual potential flow in rivers. Only 1,123 cubic kilometers of this is utilizable from surface water and groundwater resources.

The country's water demand in 2000 was 634 cubic kilometers and is projected to rise to 1,093 cubic kilometers by 2025.

In India, per capita surface water availability is projected to fall to 1,401 cubic meters by 2025, and 1,191 cubic meters by 2050. A country is categorized as “water stressed” if its water availability is less than 1,700 cubic meters per person annually and “water scarce” if availability is less than 1,000 cubic meters per person.

Win-Win Situation?

Transferring “surplus” flood waters to drought-prone areas is held up as a win-win proposition, mitigating floods while making water available for agricultural, industrial and domestic use.

Creating more water storage capacity also is considered important for economic growth and in this India falls way short of not just world leaders such as the U.S., but also fellow emerging economies such as China.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, India had 224 cubic kilometers of dam capacity in 2005 compared to China's 562.4 cubic kilometers. The U.S., by comparison, had 725.2 cubic kilometers of dam capacity.

A 2008 study by the New Delhi-based think tank National Council for Applied Economic Research on the economic impact of the Inter-Basin Water Transfer Program projected that the additional irrigation, navigation and hydroelectricity capacities would create jobs and significantly spur economic activity.

The Program

As currently envisaged, the Inter-Basin Water Transfer Program would constitute 30 links—generally new canals and tunnels; 14 would be part of the northern Himalayan rivers component and 16 would be part of the southern peninsular rivers component.

The project would include creation of 3,000 new reservoirs or other storage areas and involve 37 rivers in total.

According to the NWDA, which was set up in 1982 to study and implement river basin interlinking, the program would divert 141 billion cubic meters of water in the peninsular component and 33 billion cubic meters in the Himalayan component via 15,000 kilometers of canals, creating additional irrigation facilities for 30 million hectares of land and adding 20,000 to 25,000 megawatts in net power generation capacity.

The quantity of water diverted would be four times more than China's South-North Water Transfer Project—which aims to transfer 44.8 billion cubic meters of water annually from the Yangtze River in southern China to the Yellow River Basin in northern China—itself one of the largest water transfer projects in the world.

Feasibility Studies

S. Masood Husain, director-general of NWDA, told Bloomberg BNA in an interview last year that feasibility studies of 16 peninsular and two Himalayan links have been prepared, while detailed project reports of four links—including two phases of the Ken-Betwa basins link—have been completed.

But the last time a government-appointed panel—the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development—studied the overall feasibility of the entire program was in 1999, and the NWDA's own estimates date back to 2006.

Water policy experts say the project would take 50 years or more to complete.

Compounding the challenges of high costs and distant timelines is politics.

Water is a furiously contested subject not only among states in India but also between India and the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Nepal and, to some extent, Bhutan.

Interstate Tensions

SANDRP's Thakkar told Bloomberg BNA that nearly all the links in the program are interstate.

In affidavits filed at the Supreme Court of India in response to a public interest litigation demanding implementation of the river basin interlinking program, the arid states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu supported the concept.

The state of Madhya Pradesh said the matter should be decided by the federal government.

The states of Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab, Assam and Sikkim gave in-principle but qualified support, saying matters such as environmental and financial implications, and the socioeconomic and international aspects of interbasin water transfer, have to be properly examined at the appropriate levels of government.

The remaining states did not file affidavits despite several deadline extensions.

NWDA's Husain said the reason only two feasibility studies have been done for the Himalayan component is that rivers are shared with Nepal and Bhutan, which lie upstream. He said India would seek the assent of its neighboring countries when planning and feasibility reports for the entire program are complete “so that we can approach them with a clear plan.”

Socioeconomic Costs

Husain said India has had a positive experience of inter-basin water transfer. He cited the examples of the Indira Gandhi Link Canal, which takes waters of the Ravi and Beas rivers from Punjab state through the giant Bhakra Dam to irrigate the desert state of Rajasthan; and the Sardar Sarovar Project, which carries Narmada waters across seven basins to the arid northern areas of Gujarat state.

Detractors, however, say many such projects are decidedly less successful when the cost of displacement of huge populations is factored in, as in the case of the Sardar Sarovar Project.

Tushaar Shah, an economist and public policy specialist and former director of the Institute of Rural Management who has written extensively on the river basin interlinking program, told Bloomberg BNA that large dams raise several questions, chief among them: What is the fair price of water?

Only profitable industries, such as mining, can afford the prices sometimes charged for water supplied through dams and canals, said Shah.

Indian farmers cannot afford to pay high prices for water and no state government is charging them a market-determined price for water.

Water Pricing

But Shah said while India may or may not implement river interlinking as proposed, it cannot avoid making massive water infrastructure investments on a scale similar to or even exceeding those projected for interlinking.

Even the National Council for Applied Economic Research study on the cost-benefit analysis of the program warns that Indian irrigation suffers from the problem of low cost recovery.

“The issue of water pricing and cost recovery is complex and politically sensitive,” it said, observing that political parties sometimes come to power by offering free water and electricity to farmers, putting pressure on the already fragile fiscal condition of the state and central governments.

“Cost recovery from irrigation projects must improve and it should at least cover O&M [operation and maintenance] cost,” it said, adding that, “The quality of irrigation services is deteriorating and one of the major factors for this is low gross receipt from irrigation system due to low water rates.”

Shah also highlights the issue of displacement, referring to the recent experience with the Sardar Sarovar Project, where farmers have refused to sell or vacate the last bit of land that will enable delivery of water to fields, even at market prices. “The question that comes up is, who are we building [dams] for?” Shah said.

Democracy, Dissent

India's noisy democracy makes it difficult to implement large projects of this sort, unlike China, which can more easily disregard political differences, environmental permits and displacement of people to implement its south-to-north water transfer program, according to Shah.

SANDRP's Thakkar, who opposed the Ken-Betwa link, said large dams and canal infrastructure have become less attractive in many parts of the world due to ecological costs, human displacement and maintenance issues.

He also said the falling share of agriculture in India's economy takes away one of the main justifications for the mammoth program.

The federal Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has appointed a committee to study the environmental flow, or e-flow, of rivers. Permissions for building dams are on hold pending the submission of the committee's report.

What Is ‘Surplus' Water?

Some scientists and water rights activists question the very notion that there could be “surplus” water in river basins, arguing that all the water in a basin performs some ecological service, and even floods serve the purpose of leaving fertile silt behind.

Thakkar called the concept of “water-surplus” basins incorrect as even the regions that receive the highest rainfall in the country—indeed, the area with the highest rainfall in the world lies in India—suffer scarcity at non-monsoon times.

But supporters of the program say not all the water in a river basin is utilizable within the basin. They argue that growing human and ecosystem needs demand that the water be used where and when it can.

But a renewed focus on India's massive plan comes as some organizations point to benefits of decentralized, small-scale surface water and aquifer recharging initiatives, saying they cost far less in monetary and social terms.

Easier Options?

Shah recently authored a study on a turnaround in the irrigation system of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, brought about through “basic housekeeping”—which included desilting and cleaning canals and summoning small investments to restart 4,000 minor irrigation programs.

Shah said this could be the way forward for other states.

Meanwhile, the government of the newly formed state of Telangana has declared a mission to restore more than 46,000 ancient irrigation tanks that were built in cascades to store rainwater and supply it for irrigation.

Both Shah and Thakkar point out that it is not surface water from rivers but groundwater found by digging wells that is the country's lifeline. The World Bank estimates that more than 60 percent of irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies come from groundwater in India.

Monsoon Rains

The monsoon rains, though highly variable in terms of quantity and geographic distribution, are regular and reliable enough to be used to help concerted efforts at aquifer recharge and management, they said.

And while river basins such as those of the long and wide Brahmaputra cannot be flood-proofed, surging waters do not have to wreak havoc if good basin management practices are adopted, Thakkar said.

Other observers say that even desalination of readily available seawater would prove cheaper than the gigantic river basin interlinking program.

Improving Lives

Half a dozen large inter-basin water transfer programs and 4,000 dams already are functioning in India, and there is no doubt about their success in improving people's lives and livelihoods, Husain said.

Regarding environmental activists' complaint against the Ken-Betwa project, he said a committee of parliamentarians visited the villages and areas concerned and found the local residents “very supportive” of the project.

“These people are presently distressed. They are poor and drought-affected, and are eagerly awaiting completion of the link,” Husain said, adding that he is confident that all permissions will come through.

But Sunita Narain, director-general of New Delhi-based research and advocacy group Centre for Science & Environment, called the idea of river interlinking a “distraction” from the very real and pressing need for better managing India's water resources.

“The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing as it is so grand. But this is also why it is nothing more than a distraction that will take away from the business at hand—to provide clean drinking water to all,” she wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madhur Singh in Chandigarh, India, at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

For More Information

India's National Water Development Agency site is at http://src.bna.com/d8x.

Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on India's dam capacity are available at http://src.bna.com/d8y.