Engineering projects don’t come any bigger than this. If India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, gets his way, work could soon begin on a project to link large rivers in the Himalayas and Deccan Peninsula via 30 mega-canals and 3000 dams.
When the work is finished the water network will be twice the length of the Nile, the world longest river, and it will be able to divert water from flood-prone areas to those vulnerable to drought.
But geologists and ecologists in India question the science behind the Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR) scheme. If it goes ahead it might lead to ecological disasters and coastal erosion that would threaten livelihoods and endanger wildlife.
And yet New Scientist has learned from the officials close to the project that work on the pilot link is likely to “start any time soon”, with final clearance from the ministry of environment and forests expected imminently.
Versions of the ILR scheme date back more than 60 years to the days of British rule in India. In its latest incarnation the plan is to link 14 rivers in north India and 16 in the western, central and southern parts of the country, creating a water network some 12,500 kilometres long. The idea is to reduce droughts and floods and create 35 million hectares of arable land in the process, as well as the means to generate 34,000 megawatts of hydropower.
This project is backed by Narendra Modi, who became the country’s prime minister in 2014. Since then India’s National Water Development Agency has completed detailed project reports for three key initial river links – the pilot link between Ken and Betwa rivers in northern and central India; Daman Ganga and Pinjal rivers in western India; and Par and Tapti rivers in western and central India. A feasibility report of a fourth link between three Himalayan rivers – Manas, Teesta and Ganges – is in the final stages of preparation.
But many researchers question the science behind the scheme. They say there isn’t a simple division between river basins that carry too little and too much water – and that climate change has triggered changes in rainfall patterns with unpredictable knock-on effects on water flow.
They argue that it would be unwise to set in stone a vast new canal network at a time of dramatic environmental change.A grand distraction?
Sunita Narain, director of Delhi-based NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment, has in the past described river linking as a “grand distraction” from other pressing problems, including environment degradation.
She thinks the ILR scheme will mean building vast reservoirs to control and store water. Those reservoirs will displace hundreds of thousands of people, she says – claiming the Indian government’s track record in resettling people displaced by such projects has been poor.
Ecologists are concerned too. A pilot project in the ILR scheme – the Ken-Betwa link – would be built at the cost of destroying an estimated 4100 hectares of forest. This might include 58 square kilometres of the Panna Tiger Reserve – 10 per cent of the reserve’s area. And yet it got the official approval in September.
The government, however, has stayed dedicated to the idea. Interlinking rivers is an attempt to boost water supply to the needy states, says Vijay Goel, junior minister for water resources.
But while the project looks grand on paper whether it turns out to be a success or a disaster remains to be seen.