Although Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, a British irrigation engineer, proposed interconnecting India's rivers in 1858, the concept of interconnecting Indian rivers was revitalized just a few decades ago by M. Visveswarayya, K. L. Rao, and D. J. Dastur.
The Indian Supreme Court directed the government to finish the river interconnection project within the next 12–15 years in 2002. The Government of India created a Task Force in response to this order, and scientists, engineers, ecologists, biologists, and policymakers began deliberating on the project's technological, economic, and ecological viability.
Since 2015, the Indian government has undertaken various river interconnection projects, including the Godavari-Krishna river interconnection in Andhra Pradesh and the Ken-Betwa river interconnection in Madhya Pradesh. These projects are being developed with the goal of boosting yearly per capita water supply for the country's growing population.
The National River Interlinking Project
It will include 30 linkages that would connect 37 rivers throughout the country via a network of almost 3000 storage dams, forming a massive South Asian Water Grid. It is composed of two components:
Projects in the Himalayan region include the Himalayan Rivers Development Component, which has 14 recognised linkages. This component proposes to develop storage reservoirs along the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in India and Nepal, as well as their tributaries. The objective is to preserve monsoon flows for agriculture and hydroelectric production while also controlling floods. The linkage will transfer surplus flows of the Kosi, Gandak and Ghagra to the west. Additionally, a connection between the Ganga and Yamuna is planned to channel excess water to drought-prone districts of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat.
Peninsular component projects include the Peninsular Rivers Development Component and the Southern Water Grid, which has 16 linkages that intend to connect South India's rivers. It entails connecting the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers in order to provide water to the Krishna, Pennar, Cauvery, and Vaigai rivers. This connection will need the construction of numerous huge dams and significant canals. Additionally, the Ken river will be connected to the Betwa, Parbati, Kalisindh, and Chambal.
The Project's Proposed Advantages
The appeal of interconnecting rivers is based on the knowledge that a significant amount of water from country rivers flows into the ocean and that if this flow is prevented and water is transferred from water surplus rivers to water deficit rivers, there may be a sufficient supply of water for everyone in the country.
On a more fundamental level, the initiative is seen as encouraging national cohesion and a just and equal distribution of the country's water resources. The issue of whether river connecting will foster integration or exacerbate conflict is debatable. The expert opinion that river interconnection is critical to ensuring enough and safe water distribution to all people and locations.
The river linking project promises to create a total of 34,000 megawatts of electricity (34 GW). 4,000 MW will be derived from the peninsular component, whereas 30,000 MW will be derived from the Himalayan component.
The project promises to increase irrigation coverage by 35 million hectares (m ha) in the water-scarce western and peninsular areas, including 25 m ha through surface irrigation and 10 m ha via groundwater. This will generate more jobs, increase crop yields and farm incomes, and maximize benefits through backward (farm equipment and input supply) and forward linkages (agro-processing industries).
Criticizing the Government of India's interlinking of rivers (ILR) effort, a prominent geologist and environmental specialist cautioned that the initiative would likely disturb rainfall patterns, which would be a significant issue in light of climate change. There is insufficient water to connect rivers throughout India, according to an IIT research.
According to a research conducted by the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai and Chennai, the country's rainfall dropped between 1901 and 2004, limiting water storage even in river basins with extra water. Additionally, it found a considerable decrease in rainfall (more than 10% in each basin) in the country's key water surplus river basins of the Godavari, Mahanadi, Mahi, Brahmani, Meghna, and other minor rivers in the Western Ghats and east flowing river basins. Only the Brahmaputra river basin demonstrated that there is no rainfall deficit. Rivers linking project will have an ecological effect while building a network of dams, reservoirs and canals. It should be reanalyzed and reevaluated in light of changes in the river basins' climatic patterns. Thus, a decline in surplus river basins defies the popular wisdom that climate change causes wet regions to get wetter and dry ones to become drier under Indian settings.
Additionally, the project might spark several water conflicts at the state and international level. The nation is already suffering from several inter-state water disputes, such as the Ravi-Beas Water Dispute between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan, and the Cauvery Water Dispute between Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry, to mention a few. Additionally, India is at a crossroads with Pakistan over the Indus River's water sharing, with Bangladesh over the Teesta River's water sharing, with China over the Brahmaputra River's water sharing, and with Nepal over the Mahakali River's water sharing.
National water policy (NWP) saw water as a commodity to be conserved and used efficiently. The NWP was created to guide the planning and development of water resources, as well as their optimal use. Interbasin water transfers, it claimed, are not only for enhancing productivity but also for addressing fundamental human needs and promoting fairness and social justice .
Water transfers across basins should be considered only after the environmental, economic, and social implications of such transfers are assessed. Given the ecological and political consequences, it may exacerbate current problems rather than addressing them. It is imperative that government proceeds with caution.