ILR AND THE HIDDEN PRICE

The world in name of globalization and development is fast destroying the very environment it inhabits. With uncontrolled emissions, melting glaciers, frequent floods and hurricanes- climate change and societal damage are a very real threat. And yet the governments world over, despite signing landmark treaties, are either backtracking or giving catastrophic environmental clearances, such as Brazil allowing for mining in the world’s largest carbon Sink- the Amazon, thereby stimulating irreversible damage to local culture and endangered species. However, joining the league are other countries like the USA and now our very own India (with the ILR scheme).

India’s ILR project is an ambitious government undertaking. It is uniquely remarkable given that it has the potential to enable greater equity in water distribution across the country, albeit with hidden costs- the big elephant in the room…

Nearly a century ago, archeologists had discovered the remains of the Harappan civilization which was established around 5,200 years ago. Prominent cities like Mohenjodaro were situated on the bank of river Indus and rain fed Saraswati. However, around 1,900 BC the civilization began to decline, with river Indus moving approximately 40 miles away from its main course, and Saraswati drying up progressively. The monsoons, it seems, shifted eastwards with natural catastrophes becoming the norm of the day. The people were now forced to gradually migrate to east; with 1600 BCE experiencing a complete shift.

If we compare India then and India now, there is not much difference, except for one fact- 1900 BC saw a natural decline and 2100 AD will be anthropogenic…

Understandably, water management, which the ILR aims to target, is the need of the hour. Given that its scarcity has inadvertently caused farmers distress, with some resorting to suicide, while for others lack of fresh clean water means plethora of, sometimes incurable, deadly diseases multiplied by their inability to get world class health treatments. Adding to this are the erratic monsoons; while the deadly floods have costed the country of its human resources. Indeed the scheme, first envisioned during the colonial India 1858 and since then mooted several times, in the larger set of things is attractive. And yet the picture is not as rosy as it seems- with hazardous environmental and social consequences lurking in the shadows, which can’t be overlooked.

India has enlisted foreign help in the sector, the most recent being the MoU signed between Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for bilateral cooperation in the field of water resources management. Though the agreement entails enhancement of institutional and technical capacity of center and State Government agencies dealing with water resources especially in the field of river basin management; it has also registered pollution abatement of rivers including Ganga, flood management, water quality and efficient use of water among other aims.

Not very long ago in 2013, India was shaken by the Himalayan Tsunami. A multi-day cloudburst in the Indian state of Uttarakhand nestled in lower Himalayas resulting in devastating floods, landslides and massive human loss- becoming one of the worst natural disasters of the country.  Large amounts of unprecedented rainfall and the debris chocking up the rivers are considered to have caused the major overflow. Back then, a study by Utah State University concluded that the natural disaster was indeed man-made. Since 1980s the region had been experiencing heavy rainfall, which is often “associated with a tendency in the upper troposphere towards amplified short waves, and  the phasing of such amplified short waves is tied to increased loading of green-house gases and aerosols.” Given that the region saw unscientific developments of roads, hotel-resorts and most importantly more than 70 hydroelectric projects- that is, the blue-print of the disaster already executed. The environmental experts stated that any activity undertaken towards building these 70 projects- such as tunneling and blasts underwrote the ecological imbalance in the state. Furthermore, with other streamside developments and river flow being restricted, landslides and excessive flooding was in the making. A misnomer of sorts for the other Himalayan states, these flash floods were a natural tragedy compounded by anthropogenic activities.

4 years later, the government plans to start an $87 billion scheme to connect nearly 60 rivers in the country in gamble to end the deadly droughts and floods… but the question arises doesn’t linking rivers and changing their natural course on the land is invitation to yet another disaster?

Designed to be the world’s largest irrigation infrastructure project, the ILR program comprises building close to 15,000 km of new canals and 3,000 big and small dams and storage arrangements. Largely, the scheme has two parts:

  • The Himalayan rivers section which has 14 links, expected to transport 33 trillion liters of water per year
  • While the Peninsular component which has 16 links, inclusive of Godavari-Krishna link, shall transport 141 trillion liters per year

(It should be noted here that most of the Peninsular rivers are rain-fed while the Himalayan rivers originate from glaciers. Both in their own ways are subject to climate change.)

A suave engineering product, wherein the water from “surplus” river basins shall be transferred to “deficit” ones, ILR is not simply about diverting rivers. Given the multitude of the geographical terrain and topography the country is blessed with, complex engineering, decades of hard work and possibility of cost overruns are expected.

Anthropogenic interference, in the form of engineering new channels and routes for the rivers, however also portends the enormous ecological, human and overall environmental damage in waiting. Just like the 70+ hydro projects inadvertently became the cause of 2013 floods, will ILR with its proposed 30 canals and 3000 dams too have a similar fate?

With respect to Ken-Betwa project as first leg of the ILR, Dr. Sudha Ramacharan writes about “the irreversible damage that reduced downstream flows would have on a river’s ecology and biodiversity. A change in the ecology of the River Ken on account of the Ken-Betwa link project in central India is expected to doom the already critically endangered gharial. Also, this project would submerge around 10 percent of the Panna Tiger reserve, reversing the huge gains of India’s tiger conservation project.”

For the uninitiated, the Ken- Betwa river link entails within it:

  • A 231-kilometre (144 miles) long canal between the two rivers in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, along with two dams and reservoirs
  • It necessitates felling of more than 1.8 million trees and usage of 6,017 hectares (23 sq miles) of forest land, including the Panna Tiger Reserve, with special mention of the endangered wildlife species
  • Also it is expected that nearly 6,000 hectares of non-forest land and approximately 5,000 homes will get submerged, as per the National Water Development Authority’ feasibility report.

This will conversely also have direct implications on climate change and India’s COP21 Commitment.

  • One can expect large scale deforestation to make way for dams and canals, thereby robbing us of the carbon sinks present in the country. This can result in increased greenhouse gases ratio in the atmosphere, leading to increase in temperature. Notably, India is a signatory to the Paris Treaty, having pledged to contribute towards controlling the temperature rise under 2 degrees. However, the policymaking community seems to forget that forests are sacrosanct to balance the GHG emissions.
  • Next, the idea behind the project is to transfer surplus water from the donor basin, read the Ganga, to storage basins of Krishna & Godavari for instance. But what if the monsoon fails or due to the existing climate change, there is a change in the perennial system? Automatically, the entire project will be rendered a failure.
  • Additionally, shifting a river course will induce change in the topography, vegetation and catalyzing the process of climate change. Thus, one should not rule out the possibility of a complete dry spell when changing the river course, as has happened in past across the world resulting in the end of the great civilizations.

What does it mean to change a river course?

Naturally, the rivers meander owing to low gradient and water discharge. On plains, the rivers tend to take the easier route which offer least resistance. However, depending upon the terrain the river speed differs on different banks. Hereafter, the meandering process starts where there is faster side of the river and has less sediment deposits. This allows for further erosion and hence formation of small curves. At the slower side of the river, more sediment from erosion of the outer curve is deposited. Over a period of time this meander gets more and more pronounced, while the slower side of the river further lags behind. Once the curves have sharpened, the river eventually re-establishes its path and thereby changing its course.

However, the river changing course has consequences such as:

  • Disappearance of villages and indigenous cultures as has happened in the North Eastern State of India- Arunanchal Pradesh. The change in river course is due to climate change. Geologist Patnaik who is studying the impact of climate change in the state has categorically stated that “Under normal climatic conditions, rainfall would have been well-distributed throughout the year. Now due to climate change, the pattern has changed. It has become erratic.” Link
  • On the flip side however, due to shift of Indus, and the subsequent disappearance of Saraswati, as often argued by archeologists, led to complete decline of the Indus- Saraswati Civilization. “The end was partly caused by changing river patterns. These changes included the drying up of the Hakra River and changes in the course of the Indus River. The river changes disrupted agricultural and economic systems, and many people left the cities of the Indus Valley region.” Link

“Evidence from many sources, including that of archaeological remains associated with old river courses, indicates that a major river, stemming mainly from the same sources as the present Sutlej, flowed through Northern Rajasthan, Bahawalpur and Sind– to the southeast of the present course of the Sutlej and the Indus — in the third to second millennium BC. This river, known as the Sarasvati in its upper course, at different times either joined the lower course of the Indus in Sind, or found its way independently into the Arabian Sea via Rann of Kutch.” (Allchin, B., Goudie, A., and Hegde, K., 1978, The prehistory and palaeogeography of the Great Indian Desert, London, Academic Press, p. 198).

  • Another very eye-catching example is of the changing course of the river Semliki marking the natural border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, thereby leading to confusion in an oil rich area. However the boundary dispute between the two nations is a subject matter of altogether a different debate, but nonetheless the changing course of river is instrumental yet again- this time a national border. Link
  • Loss of Biodiversity- Building dams and canals sometimes disconnect one area from the other. Thereby not allowing the natural migration of few species such as eels.

Thus, ILR which plans to connect rivers, by carving new paths via means of thousands of canals and dams is indeed a risky project.  It entails within it the social, economic and environmental costs, which the country may or may not be able to pocket given the vulnerable ecosystem, diplomatic international commitments, sensitive society, cultural xenophobia and a delicate economy in wake of demonetization and a new tax structure.

India is now marching forward on its road to development, and though the Inter-Linking of Rivers Program does fit into the larger picture of a Developed India, but one cannot ignore the hidden costs. In the other words, as Margaret Atwood writes in her 1971 classic “Power Politics”-

“You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye”

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