River Interlinking in India

Is it Feasible?

Interlinking of Rivers
Interlinking of Rivers

Current Water Crisis In India

Water is the basis of human life. Natural water resources, like rivers, lakes etc. have been the lifeline of human existence. This is the reason why almost all significant civilizations were found on river banks. India has a monsoonal climate and rainfall varies in India with spatial and temporal variations. This causes certain rivers to be perennial or seasonal and surplus or deficit in water. However, in present times due to variety of reasons like pollution, changing climate etc. the rainfall in India has become erratic. Further due to callus and indiscriminate use of water, it has become scarce and has become a commodity over which conflicts arise between people, groups and even states or countries. In India, water finds numerous uses like domestic purposes, agricultural purposes, industrial purposes, etc. Also, water becomes an important component for engineers, contractors, corporates, administrators, politicians due to involvement of large and expensive infrastructure projects like dams.

India’s rainfall pattern is unevenly distributed and is inconsistent. According to Water Resources Information system of India, ‘about 85% of India’s rain falls during summer monsoon season. Also, number of states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu etc. receive limited rainfall’. Added to this, the use of majority of water for agricultural purposes with unplanned growing of water intensive crops neglecting the availability of water in the region causes acute water scarcity. After independence, dams helped in bringing about green revolution and avoid famines. However, with increasing demand for water, it became evident that India’s water storage capacity was too less compared to other developed countries and due to this people were becoming more and more dependent on groundwater to an extent that per year about 1 million groundwater wells were being newly added. Due to this, during 1970’s, Dr. Kanuri Lakshmana Rao proposed to establish a “National Water Grid” which would be used to transport water from surplus areas to deficit areas. During 1980’s this water grid concept was modified, and this combined with 1850’s proposal of British Engineers to inter-link Indian rivers, gave birth to River Interlinking Project. This project had also been recommended in the 1980 report of National Perspective for Water Resource Development released by Ministry of Water Resources.

River Disputes Between States In India

In India, water is a subject of State List. Though Centre can bring inter-state river under its control for public interest, but it does not do so due to resistance from states. Issues arise when inter-state river water sharing because states involved are unable to arrive to a mutual agreement based on needs of each other. To regulate and settle such issues, the centre has enacted two laws- River Board Act,1956 and Inter-State Water Dispute Act,1956. Till date no board has been formed under the first Act and despite the enactment of the second Act, number of river water disputes still exists which have been counting since long back.

The primary focused disputes in recent times include the one about sharing of Cauvery river between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The genesis of this conflict occurred due to two agreements between Madras Presidency and Kingdom of Mysore in 1892 and 1924. The point of conflict is that Karnataka demands its due share of water from the river whereas Tamil Nadu is unwilling to give away any more water than existing as it has as it has already become heavily dependent on the existing usage pattern. Even after numerous discussions and appeals, the crisis continued for more than fifty years and by Supreme Court order of 2018 which allocated water to both states, it has been put to rest for the time being. As per the order, the newly formed Cauvery Water Management Authority would oversee water management in the area. However, the decades old turf war has created political bitterness between the neighboring states.

Similar issues over sharing of water exists between Punjab and Haryana. In 1982, Construction of a canal linking Sutlej with Yamuna was started in order to provide Haryana waters of Sutlej and Beas for its use. But protest from Punjab led to formation of a tribunal for solving the dispute. Subsequently after further appeal of Haryana in the Supreme Court due to Punjab’s objection to the verdict of the tribunal, the issue still exists with the Supreme Court direction to both states to maintain status quo in the issue.

Another dispute over sharing of the Mahanadi river waters exists between Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The Mahanadi has been a serious bone of contention between the two states. This issue has been snowballed into a political fight between the two state governments where Odisha alleges that Chhattisgarh has been building barrages and diverting water for industrial purposes hence decreasing Odisha’s share of water and Chhattisgarh denying any such attempts to reduce the flow of Mahanadi.

Besides these disputes other issues on water sharing exists like in case of Ken-Betwa link, the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are unable to agree on an amount of water to be transformed from Ken river. Furthermore, river interlinking in India would also affect its relationship with neighboring countries like Bangladesh in case of any plans involving Brahmaputra or its tributaries.

Advantages of River-Interlinking

National Water Development Agency (NWDA) overlooks the inter-linking of river (ILR) project which has two components that is, Himalayan and Peninsula. The NWDA has planned fourteen and sixteen links under Himalayan and Peninsular respectively. After its completion these projects will result in formation of more than 3000 storages, canals with about 15000 km stretch of canal network. This vast canal network would create an additional irrigation potential of about 35 million hectares with water transfer of around 170 trillion liters per year. It is also expected that agricultural production would increase to more than double and thereby substantially increasing farmer’s income.

ILR would also create 34 Giga Watt of hydroelectric power. The canals would also be used for navigation purposes. By providing r increased fishing opportunities, ILR would broaden India’s rural prospects. The construction of infrastructure for ILR will create numerous jobs and will help in poverty alleviation. Besides these advantages it will also play a crucial role in ensuring equitable water distribution thereby providing relief from droughts and it will also help in flood mitigation. Transportation of 33000 gigalitres of water per year i the Himalayan section and 141000 gigalitres of water per year in the Peninsular section will to a great extent end crisis in deficit areas and thereby increasing water for drinking, domestic purposes, industrial use, etc. Lastly, river interlinking will ensure that states receive water based on their needs and this will help to solve the existing crisis between different states.

Perils of ILR Projects

River interlinking has a number of advantages, but it is certainly not free from drawbacks. The huge scale ILR projects will displace millions of people and will cause submergence of numerous villages bringing about changes in agricultural pattern and effecting livelihoods. The rehabilitation of people is one of the major concerns due to low efficiency of the government in competing it which is evident from the fact that displaced people of Bhakra and Pong dam projects have still not been completely settled. The massive infrastructure construction needs for ILR would demand a humongous amount of investment which would adversely affect the already dented economy. The construction of infrastructure will increase water supply which will lead to an increase in consumption thereby causing imbalance in supply- demand cycle. It may also cause “reservoir effect” where infrastructure construction will divert people from adopting other incentives for improving water security. Another major issue is that ILR is based on the concept of surplus and deficit but recent climate changes combined with increasing pollution may cause the presently surplus rivers to become deficit in future therefore comprising the basis of ILR. For example- The perennial Himalayan rivers depends for water on melting of glacier and certain studies indicate drying up of existing river watersheds due to effect of climatic changes on glacier melting.

Apart from there, ILR would have serious ecological impact. Firstly, the ecology of every river is unique and mixing of waters of two rivers will affect biodiversity. The changes in the river ecosystem will severely damage the lifecycles of flora and fauna and aquatic creatures that are linked to the river. For example, The Ken-Betwa link is supposed to pass through Panna Tiger Reserve causing split in Tiger population and other animals. The normal flow of rivers into sea and oceans is vital for water cycle and changes in the flow will have adverse effect on it. Further the construction of dams and barrages will prohibit normal flow and deposit of sediments and minerals which will hamper the lower areas of rivers, deltas as well as the oceans. Also, the consideration of viewing rivers as unidimensional water pipeline is a flawed one as rivers area complete ecosystem sustaining variety of flora and fauna. Floodwater diversion will curb free recharge of groundwater and will adversely affect estuaries whose maintenance is based on normal discharge of floodwater. Water discharge in almost all rivers will be reduced considerably if ILR were to be completely implemented. This would severely affect the linked ecological hotspots like Western Ghats, The Sundarbans, etc. which sustain a unique ecosystem. Certain studies also have predicted that alteration in Himalayan rivers will increase incidences of seismic activity.

ILR is not feasible for providing water to water-deficit areas located in plateau region at much higher altitudes than the proposed height of ILR Canals. This will call for electrical pumping of water to elevated areas which in turn will cause huge loss of power. Also, the existing inter-state river disputes will spread further over inter-linking and not only this, India will strain its relationship with neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Nepal as it changes in Indian river’s flow will affect these nations. Lastly the idea that ILR will help in flood mitigation is also not established fact for the contrary it has been found in numerous occasions that big dams like Ranganadi dam, Damodar dams, Hirakud dam have been responsible for causing avoidable floods in Assam , West Bengal and Odisha.

Alternative To ILR 

Considering the various disadvantages of ILR, it is advisable to keep it as a last option only after exhausting all other approaches like increasing efficiency of agriculture, growing of crops in tune with climatic conditions of the regions instead of growing for commercialization, increasing stress for rainwater harvesting and proper management of groundwater aquifer and its sustainable use. For utilization of existing resources, it is quite essential that both central and state government work together to enforce river basin rejuvenation and adopt proper, well planned, region specific, long term approaches instead of going for hasty large scale projects like ILR. It is also essential to review and modify the current agricultural and industrial water use policy in order to reduce existing water stress.


India is under immense water stress due to reasons like over-exploitation of water, callus approach towards water management and also due to climate changes. ILR would be beneficial to mitigate the water-crisis but its long-term effects will be devastating. India must opt for alternatives like traditional water management systems and others as discussed above and turn to ILR projects a only as a last option because its drawbacks clearly outweigh its advantages and it will not prove to be a sustainable approach long run.



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1 Comment

  1. respectd sir/madam,
    please share the latest updates on Interlinking of rivers
    hope you will share
    Tjanking you in advance.

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