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Floods and River Linking

  • Published
    20th Jul, 2019


Water is the most precious gift of nature of India. Its most beneficial use is a sine qua non i.e not only for the economic development but also for meeting the growing good requirements of the country.

India has vast surface water resources, but the same are very unevenly distributed over time and space. Some river basins have vast catchment areas and carry enormous quantities of water, while others have small catchment areas and carry small quantities of water. For example, Himalayan rivers like Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, etc, have very large catchment areas, while peninsular rivers are seasonal and are characterized by the non-perennial flow.

Over the past few years, flood-drought cycles are becoming both more common and pronounced in the country.  Assam’s Dhemaji district is the best example of this. Owing to the heavy rainfall, in 2018, even before the monsoons began, it had suffered from floods. After this, there was an extended spell of dry weather. Making the situation even worse, the district had to again face the wrath of floods as the Siang River got flooded from the excess water released from China.  Similarly, Chennai faced a devastating flood in 2015 and now, the city’s four main reservoirs are virtually dry.

Piped drinking water for all by 2024 is a flagship promise of the present government. Keeping these and many more challenges in mind, the idea of interlinking rivers through inter-basin linkages has been mooted. On this edition of “The Big Picture,” the analysis of the dual problems of floods & water shortage and the linking of rivers to deal with our water woes has been discussed.

River Inter-Linking Projects in India

Mr. Nitin Desai is correct in saying that the idea of River Inter Linking is not new. The initial plan to interlink India’s rivers came in 1858 from a British irrigation engineer, Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton. Since late last year, the scheme has been implemented by the Central government in several segments.  Central Water Commission (CWC) is the nodal body responsible for commissioning dams and major water-storage bodies and monitoring their health.

India’s ILR project is not simply a scheme to connect rivers by canals. It is a system of large dams and high-capacity canals to sequentially transfer very large volumes of water from one river basin to another.

  • Ganga – Cauvery Proposed Link Canal
    • This project was prepared by the United Nations at the request of the Government of India.
    • The project was aimed at reducing the impact of floods in the Ganga basin and supply water to central and eastern parts of the country which suffer from chronic problems of water shortage.
    • However, huge financial costs and environmental issues put great hindrances in the way of this project
  • Brahmaputra – Ganga Link Canal
    • The amount of water flowing in the Ganga is more than the requirement of the people living in this basin whereas lower Ganga basin faces scarcity of water.
    • It is estimated that, when completed, this project will be able to divert about 1150 cumsecs of water from the Brahmaputra at Dhubri to the Ganga at Farakka.
    • However, the experts have major concerns regarding the feasibility of this project due to huge expenditure, resource crunch and lack of proper understanding between the concerned neighbouring countries.
  • National Water Grid
    • This is the largest ever thought of project of linking all major rivers of India with the help of a network of canals.
    • The project envisages linking 26 major rivers of India by constructing 30 different link canals.
    • The interlinking of rivers has two components: the Himalayan component and a Peninsular one.
  • Ken – Betwa Link
    • The Ken-Betwa ILR project aims to transfer surplus water from the Ken River to the Betwa basin through the concrete canal to irrigate India’s worst drought-prone Bundelkhand region.
    • Tajamul Haque tells about the status of Ken-Betwa Link Project. The Ken-Betwa ILR project had received clearance of the Union Cabinet in July 2014 but the work could not begin as the mandatory clearance from the NBWL got stuck due to objections raised from wildlife conservationists and environmentalists.
  • Par-Tapi-Narmada Link
    • The project envisages a transfer of surplus water of rivers in Maharashtra and south Gujarat to feed the command area of the Miyagam branch of Narmada canal.
    • It is an attempt to save water at the Sardar Sarovar project.
  • Godavari (Polavaram)- Krishna(Vijaywada)
    • The proposal to link Godavari, which is prone to flooding, and Krishna, which doesn’t have enough water, has been around for several decades
    • The decades-old proposal finally took shape in the 2000s, and in 2016, the Andhra government linked the two rivers with the Pattiseema Lift Irrigation project, in Andhra’s West Godavari district.
    • The project, in fact, made it to the Limca Book of Records for being completed within a year, but has also been criticized by the CAG for ‘wasting funds.’


Edited excerpts from the debate raised in the form of questions

Question: On the one hand, we have certain parts of the country that are flooded, while others are facing a major water crisis. What are the major reasons behind the Dual Problem of Drought and Floods?

  • Non-Utilisation of Water: During the rainy season, most of the rivers are flooded and a large part of water flows down the slope to the sea. Thus, much of the precious water is wasted and is not available for use in the dry season when the acute scarcity of water is felt in almost all the parts of the country.
    • Run-Off - According to the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), the annual water resources of the country as measured in terms of run-off in the river systems is estimated as 1,953 BCM, which can be utilized.
  • The decline in Monsoon Rainfall: India Meteorological Department (IMD) has pointed out that rainfall during the northeast monsoon season of 2018, had been “substantially below normal” – only 56% of the long-term average, which is the sixth-lowest since 1901.

Question: How is the government dealing with this issue?

  • National Perspective Plan (NPP) was launched by the government for Water Resources Development in August 1980 envisaging inter-basin water transfer in the country.
  • National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was set up in 1982 to study the feasibility of the links under Peninsular Component of National Perspective Plan.
  • Jal Shakti Ministry has been created, which is a positive first step forward in the direction of overcoming hydro-schizophrenia that has beset policymaking on the water in India for so long.
  • The Hon’ble Supreme Court in 2012 has directed that an appropriate body should be created to plan, construct and implement the inter linking of rivers program for the benefit of the nation as a whole.
  • Subsequently, the Supreme Court has suggested for expeditious completion of the project and suggested the year 2016 for completion of the project.
  • India and Israel are working on a five-year plan for cooperation in agriculture and water. Under the plan, Centres of Excellence (COEs) will be set up across the country to train farmers about Israeli farm and water technologies.
  • The government is in process of establishing a Single Tribunal for all Inter-State River Water Disputes.

Question: How can ILR addresses some of the major water problems of India?

  • Improved Per-Capita Availability: NITI Aayog's 'Strategy for New India @75' document highlights the per capita water availability in the country has decreased from 1816 cubic metre in 2001 to 1544 cubic metre in 2011. ILR will ensure equitable distribution of water among the basins and prevent wastage of water.
  • Solution to the dual problem of Droughts and Floods: Surplus water from the eastern rivers will be transferred to water deficit areas. As a result, flood problem in Bihar and Assam will be solved to a great extent and the same time, the water deficit areas of central, southern and western parts of the country will get water.
  • Electricity Generation: Professor Aman Aggarwal suggests that it is estimated that around 34 million kW hydroelectricity will be generated and this electricity will be used for irrigation and other purposes.
  • Irrigation: Indian agriculture is still dependent on the monsoon. In order to attain sustainable growth from agriculture, the irrigation intensity has to improve. ILR is expected to provide additional irrigation in about 30 million hectares.
  • Food Security: Although India ranks at second place in terms of production of wheat and rice, its rank in terms of productivity it much lower. Improved irrigation will significantly improve productivity and hence substantial gains in grains production could be achieved.
  • Inland Navigation: The ILR project will provide ample opportunities for inland navigation and thus reduce pressure on rail and road transport.
  • Employment: It is estimated that ILR will provide employment to millions of people in the short term.
  • Economic Benefit: Better inland navigation will significantly reduce India’s Oil Import Bill because inland navigation has much better fuel efficiency. It will also avoid the infrastructural and livelihood losses which occur in the flood-affected areas. Recent examples being Assam and Kerala. Moreover, sectors supplying crucial inputs to the construction sector, such as cement and iron and steel will also grow.

Question: What are the environment and other issues which should be considered while talking about ILR Projects?

  • Changing Course of River: Rivers may change their courses every (approximately) 100 years, so the interlinking may not be useful after 100 years.
  • The loss to Ecology: The transfer of such enormous amounts of water will inundate forests and land for reservoirs, and the weight of billions of liters of water may even have seismic implications in the Himalayan region. Moreover, arresting the natural flow of river water on this gigantic scale could spell “the death knell” of mangroves in the Delta region of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
  • Huge Cost: As per the data from National Accounts Statistics, the river interlinking will involve a huge cost of $121 billion which amounts to a quarter of the country’s current GDP. Apart from this, the cost of resettlement and rehabilitation further adds to the cost. A developing country like India can hardly afford such a huge investment in just one project.
  • Climate Change: In interlinking systems, it is assumed that the donor basin has surplus water that can be made available to the recipient basin. If in future, the donor rivers don’t retain the same character of being donor basins, then the whole concept goes for a toss. This will happen if the glaciers don’t sustain their glacier mass due to climate change.
  • Increased Salinity: The continuous flow of fresh river water into the sea is what helps maintain a low salinity layer of water with low density in the upper layers of the Bay of Bengal. Inter Linking the rivers will reduce this natural flow of water to the seas and hence salinity will increase, thereby adversely affecting the marine ecosystem.
  • Impact on Monsoon: Continuous flow of freshwater into the sea is a reason for the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures, which create low-pressure areas and intensify monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the sub-continent is controlled by this layer of low-salinity water. A disruption in this layer because of massive damming of rivers under the ILR and the resultant reduction in freshwater flows into the sea could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent, endangering the livelihoods of a vast population.
  • Invalid Presumption: The proposal for inter-linking of rivers (ILR) is based on a series of erroneous presumption (that rivers in India have excess water around monsoon). A recent study finds a significant decrease in monsoon rainfall over water “surplus" river basins in India, thus raising questions about the basic presumptions of the ILR project.
  • Displacement: No worthful provisions have been made to resettle the displaced people. An estimated over 30 million people have been displaced by development projects since independence.
  • Reduced Sediment Supply: Along the east coast of India, all major peninsular rivers have extensive deltas. Damming the rivers for linking will cut down sediment supply and cause coastal and delta erosion, destroying the fragile coastal ecosystems.

Question: What are the challenges faced by this project and the feasibility of its implementation?

  • Lifting Water: It is not just transfer of water from one canal to another through canals but there is also need to lift water from low lying areas, which is a huge challenge because it requires large quantum of electricity.
  • Clearances: The implementation of ILR projects involves various steps such as preparation of Pre-Feasibility Report, Feasibility Report; negotiation and consensus among concerned States; preparation of DPRs; clearance from appraisal agencies including clearance by Ministry of Environment & Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) and Ministry of Tribal Affairs; techno-economic clearance by Advisory Committee on Irrigation, Flood Control & Multipurpose Projects of MoWR, RD & GR; investment clearance and the actual construction time required for the completion of the project as per DPR. Due to such a lengthy process, the development of such projects is adversely affected.
  • Rehabilitation: The rehabilitation of project-affected people in water infrastructure projects will also pose a burning question before the concerned authorities. The construction of reservoirs and river linking canals in the peninsular component alone expect to displace more than 583,000 people and submerge large areas of forest, agriculture and non-agriculture land.
  • Inter-State Issues: Transfer of water is bound to be unacceptable as no state is likely to transfer water to another foregoing possible future use of such water. Moreover, several states including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and Sikkim have already opposed ILR projects. For example, the recent inter-state water dispute on Cauvery river was a manifestation of the level of inter-state cooperation when it comes to a precious resource like water.
  • International Issues: Construction of River Interlinking Projects along the transnational rivers requires the cooperation of neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, and China. But the persistent boundary disputes with these countries make it difficult to have a consensus of terms of the project.
  • Infrastructural and Technological Capacity: The project will entail the construction of several major dams and lengthy canals cutting across various river basins. This is not an easy task and will require engineering skills of high caliber.

Question: Do we have any success stories that tell us how we should move forward in this direction?

Globally, there are a number of examples of inter-basin transfers:

  • Pakistan
    • Pakistan built a network of river links as a part of Indus treaty works. It functions as replacement links to irrigate those areas, which after partition got deprived of irrigation when three eastern rivers of the Indus system were allocated to India.
    • Pakistan built ten links, six barrages and two dams during the post treaty period of 1960-1970.
    • If Pakistan can manage to complete the interlinking of its river in 10 years, it should not be difficult for India to complete the task of interlinking of rivers
  • United States: The US transferred 45 BCM this way and has plans to add 376 BCM;
  • China: China has a scheme under implementation, which will transfer about 48 BCM.

Question: What is the Best Way Forward?

  • Local Solutions: Mr. Nitin Desai talks about this idea. The first step to achieve such a significant goal should start from local solutions like rainwater harvesting, water recycling and technological solutions which can reduce the massive cost involved in ILR projects. Then gradually the scale of the project should be escalated to aquifers and river basins.
  • Adopting Technology: Cost of power generation by solar power projects would be below Rs. 1.0 per Kwh in few years. Availability of cheaper, clean and perennial/renewable power would favour more water-lifting/pumping and tunnels in the river link projects
  • Impact Assessment: A careful scientific assessment of the project and its impact on the environment, is necessary
  • Pilot Projects: Instead of directly constructing heavy projects which involves greater risk and investment, small scale ILR projects should be established so that their impact could be assessed without inviting grave threats to ecology and human life.
  • Assistance from Israel: Prof. Aman Aggarwal suggests that, for developing smart water management mechanisms in India, Israeli experiences can prove to be a good part in the process of water management in India.


Dr.A.P.J. Abdul Kalam stated in his 2002 pre-Independence Day speech that interlinking of rivers was inescapable in solving India's flood and drought problems. Indeed, the concept has the potential to solve many of the crucial problems like Floods, Droughts, and poverty faced by people of India. However, interlinking of rivers has shown mixed results across the globe. Human intervention in nature’s natural working system has always brought severe adverse consequences like Climate Change, loss of Bio-diversity, Muti-Drug Resistance in Pathogens, etc. So, India should look at water as a strategic resource for sustainable development and take gradual steps in the Interlinking of Rivers, while at the same time ensure sensible water planning, land use pattern and investment in smart water usage & storage.


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