India's Water Future

Are Interbasin Water Transfers a Solution?
Himalayan Mountains in India
India’s magificant Himalayan mountains
Water flows in abundance from the rooftop of the world
Photo: Michel Dalle

Editor’s Note: India and China have comparable rates of per capita water consumption; Indians consume 470 cubic meters of water per person per year, Chinese consume 407 cubic meters water per person per year. But at the same time, the Chinese convert water into wealth far more efficiently than the Indians. In China one dollar of GNP is produced per every 370 liters of water, in India 880 liters of water are required. In the USA, water guzzlers at 1,606 cubic meters per person per year, a dollar of GNP requires only four liters of water. In the more water-frugal European Community, where each person only consumes 605 cubic meters of water per person per year, a dollar of GNP requires a mere three liters of water.

Clearly the correlation between water and wealth is higher with respect to water efficiency than to water consumption. Dramatic gains in economic well-being can be had by more efficiently using available water, rather than by increasing available water. On the other hand, there are examples where massive transfers of water have bestowed immense benefit on a society. In California over fifty cubic kilometers of water per year are transported into the southern and western cities through a massive system of aquaducts.

Can massive canals be part of India’s strategy to more efficiently use water, by transporting cubic kilometers of water each year from wet regions to dry regions? The power necessary to move water over mountains is a daunting obstacle, but the electric power requirements aren’t necessarily as great as some have claimed. To lift a cubic kilometer of water 250 meters requires about 100 megawatt-years of electricity – the output of a one relatively small generating plant.

India is testing the concept of “interlinking” river basins with the construction of a westward flowing canal that will connect the Ken river to the Betwa river. Certainly whatever solutions involving canals are ultimately chosen in India, will come alongside resurrection of traditional water conservation means; constructing contour berms to percolate water to refill aquifers, rebuilding cisterns and tanks and otherwise harvesting runoff, and reforesting hillsides and restoring topsoil to increase absorption of rainfall. – Ed Ring

Abdul Kalam, President of India
Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
President of India

The transfer of large volumes of freshwater from surplus areas to deficit areas is currently endorsed by the scientist-President of India as well as local leaders in the less water endowed areas – as the panacea for addressing the twin problems of drought and floods in India.

This most ambitious, much talked about Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project, estimated to cost approximately $112 billion USD (in 2002 price level), has attracted more debate than consensus in India. The ILR proposal which is backed by the three branches of the Indian political system – legislature, executive and judiciary, has been dismissed by civil society organizations as well as the traditional water managers. The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on a river link between most populous neighboring provinces – Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – is evidence that the mammoth ILR project is being pursued but in a decentralised manner. Since its inception, the rationale of the ILR project has been under severe scrutiny not only in India but also in South Asia due to its magnitude. Does India need a project of such magnitude to address its water management challenges? Is there any alternative to this grandiose intention in India?

Grand water schemes are not new in the world. There are number of instances on this planet where human interventions using modern technology have redrawn otherwise natural river courses to address a water crisis. The gigantic South-to-North water diversion project underway in China, large scale water diversions away from the Aral Sea in former Soviet Union, the Irtysh-Karaganda canal project in Kazakhstan, Israel’s National Water Carrier, the South-Eastern Anatolia Project in Turkey (also known as GAP), Spain’s National Hydrological Plan (now suspended) are the few examples of bold forays of water resources engineering.

In similar fashion the Indian government has developed a proposal to tackle its peculiar climatic contradiction of drought and flood situations by proposing large scale interbasin water transfers and linking of rivers. The proposal has been presented as a major initiative, and as the definitive answer to India’s future problems and needs.

The Rationale of Interlinking Rivers

Map of Water Basins of India
In general, India has water abundance in the north and
east, and water scarcity in the west and south.

The availability of water resources in various river basins of the country is highly uneven. While 32% of the total water resources are still available in the Brahmaputra basin, and 28% of the total water resources in the Ganga basin, this availability is merely 0.2% in the Sabarmati basin. The water scarcity in river basins is growing fast with increase in population. Based on this criteria and availability of water in different river basins, some basins have already have scarce water resources and many more basins are likely to have water scarcity with the growing population by year 2025.

Out of 12 major and 48 medium river basins in India, the government predicts that by 2025 the deficit river basins will be Ganga, Subernarekha, Krishna, Mahi, Tapi, Cauvery, Pennar and Sabarmati. The surplus basins would be Brhamaputra, Barak, Narmada, Brahmani-Baitarani, Mahanadi, Godavari and Indus. Considering the precautionary approach to face the challenge of water scarcity in several river basins in 2025, the government has taken the interlinking of rivers as its definitive answer.

India receives an annual precipitation of 4,000 billion cubic meter (BCM, equivalent to 4,000 cubic kilometers) of which 75% occurs just in the four months of the monsoon period. From the annual precipitation, 1,869 BCM of water appears as runoff in various river basins. The utilizable water resource has been assessed as 1,132 BCM. Rainfall in India is erratic and uneven that ranges from 11,000 millimeter annually in some parts of North Eastern India to 100 millimeter in Western India. To address this climatic disparity and find ways for augmentation of utilizable water, interlinking of rivers has been put forward by Indian government. The ILR proposal also promises to enhance the production of food grains up to 380 million tonnes to help meet ever increasing population demand by 2025. The ILR is projected to provide 35 million hectares of additional potential arable land and 34,000 megawatt of electricity.

The idea of linking rivers for various purposes in the sub-continent is not new. Sir Arthur Cotton conceived a plan to link rivers in Southern India for inland navigation in the nineteenth century. While the project was partially implemented, the river-linking canals could not survive in the face of rapid development of railways. The idea of a Ganga-Cauvery Link was proposed by Dr. K.L. Rao, former Union Minister for Irrigation, in 1972. The link involved a lift of water 450 meters from the flood flows of the Ganga, withdrawing 60,000 cusecs (60,000 cubic feet per second) of water for 150 days in a year including a 2,640 kilometer long link canal. The plan was discarded as it involved an high cost ($2.7 billion) and required a large energy consumption to operate its pumps. Subsequently, Capt. Dinshaw J. Dastur, an aviator, advanced a proposal for the “Garland Canal” system that consisted of two canals: (1) the Himalayan Canal and (2) the Central and Southern Garland Canal. The government agency indicated that the project was impracticable, technically unsound, and economically prohibitive.

Two Components: Himalayan Rivers and Penninsular Rivers

In view of the K L Rao’s proposal, the Indian Ministry of Water Resources in 1980 framed a National Perspective Plan (NPP) for Water Development and the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was established in 1982, to carry out studies in the context of the National Perspective. The NPP has two components: a) Himalayan Rivers and b) Peninsular Rivers. NPP has proposed 30 river links involving 37 rivers. As the proposal includes the Himalayan Rivers, which are transboundary in nature, the other South Asian riparian countries have conveyed apprehensions to India.

Map of Proposed Himalayan Interlinking Rivers
Proposed canals interlinking Himalayan Rivers include a lengthy
canal (6) bringing water to the arid northwest and all the way to the
west coast, as well as many canals moving water from east to west and
then to canals connecting all the way to the southern peninsula.
(Scale: 1 pixel = 6 kilometers)

The Himalayan Rivers development component ensures construction of storage reservoirs on the principal tributaries of Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in India, Nepal and Bhutan along with interlinking of river systems to transfer surplus flows of the eastern tributaries of the river Ganga to the west, apart from linking of the main Brahmaputra and its tributaries with Ganga and Ganga with the river Mahanadi.

The Himalayan Rivers component carries 14 links, of which 12 interdependent links and 2 independent links. The links in Himalayan segment consists of some within the Ganga system (Kosi-Ghagra (Karnali), Gandak-Ganga, Ghagra-Yamuna, Sarda-Yamuna, some links between neighbouring rivers in the Brahmaputra system (Manas-Sankosh-Teesta); a couple of links between those two systems (Teesta-Ganga or an alternative Brahmaputra-Ganga link); one long link from Sarda to Sabarmati through the Yamuna and Rajasthan; one from the Ganga to Subernarekha via Damodar and then on to the Mahanadi.

The average flood discharge of Ganga is 50,000 cubic meter per second and for the Brahmaputra the average flood discharge is 60,000 cubic meter per second. Through these links the amount of water to be diverted are 1,500 cusec in Brahamaputra and 1,000 cusecs in Ganga. However, the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development Plan in its September 1999 report did not discuss the proposed Himalayan links in detail because the data are classified as confidential, but did observe that the costs involved and the environmental problems would be enormous. The Himalayan links are not to be touched now as there are international dimensions including Nepal and Bangladesh concerns.

Map of Proposed Peninsular Interlinking Rivers in India
Canals in southern India are being discussed as possibilities in the more
immediate future. A canal (10) from the Ken river to the Betwa is actually
nearing construction, and may be a test for the viability of interlinking.
(Scale: 1 pixel = 6 kilometers)

The Peninsular rivers development component is divided into four major parts: a) interlinking of Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Cauvery Rivers basins; b) interlinking of west flowing rivers, north of Bombay and south of Tapi; c) interlinking of Ken-Chambal and d) diversion of other west flowing rivers. There are 16 links are proposed by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), out of which 9 interdependent and 7 independent links are being proposed. Among the 16 links Ken-Betwa links has moved a step ahead.

In the proposal of NPP, the transfer of water has been proposed mostly by gravity; building of dams and storage, construction of canals and pumping of water where necessary (confined to around 120 meter). Pumping water over the Vindhya Mountains can transfer the Ganga-Brahmaputra water and its tributaries to regions in the south. The Ganga-Brahmaputra floodplains are about ten meters above mean sea level (MSL). The Vindhya Mountains are about 300 meters above MSL, separating the floodplains of the north from the Deccan Plateau, which is 250 meters above MSL.

The expected links where pumping would be necessary is Ganga-Subarnrekha (60 meters), Subarnarekha-Mahanadi (48 meters) and Godavari-Krishna (112 meters). The expected lift would be 1,200 cusecs water over 116 meter from Mahanadi to the Krishna basin. Some believe that the electric power required to pump water to such heights will be close to the current power generation of the entire nation, but as the table below indicates, this may not be at all the case. The Interlinking Rivers proposal carries the structure and design of the canals with 1:3,000 to 1:5,000 slope or 0.33 to 0.20 meter per kilometer. Expected maximum flow velocity of water transfer is 2 meters per second.

Table of Electricity Required to Pump Water from the Ganges to the Krishna Basin
As the table indicates, it would take 3.8 gigawatts of electricity (representing about 2.7% of
India’s estimated 2005 electrical generating capacity of about 140 gigawatts), running constantly,
to pump water 250 meters uphill at a volume of 38 cubic kilometers per year. Put another
way, a 250 meter lift will require about 100 megawatt-years for each cubic kilometer pumped.

The Initiative’s Recent Momentum

The ILR proposal has backed by the three organs of the Indian political system – executive, legislature and judiciary in a strange manner. For the last two decades, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA)” had been working on the subject but its proposals were non-starters for various reasons. Some believe that the “non-project” has suddenly become the most important undertaking of the Indian government. However, can argue that during 2001 and early 2002, the ground situation of severe drought and floods in several states had compelled the government to re-open the ILR project proposal. The events occurred in a cascading manner to put forward the ambitious project, hitherto a dormant idea. The President’s national address on August 14, 2002, the file of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to clean up Yamuna River in Delhi in late August, and a hearing on the Cauvery dispute by India’s Supreme Court on October 31, 2002 led the union government to issue a statement in Parliament in December for interlinking of rivers. The Prime Minister subsequently announced the setting up of a Task Force on ILR to consider the modalities of implementing the project.

Constraints and Concerns

An opinion poll conducted by the news weekly India Today prior to the 14th General Elections 2004, showed that 78 per cent of voters spread over 185 Parliamentary constituencies supported the project. Does that mean there is a consensus on ILR? The very idea of inter-linking of rivers as a flood control measure is being discarded by hydrologists. Moreover, The ILR is no answer at all to the needs of areas unserved by rivers. For drought mitigation there are enough alternatives available such as traditional rainwater harvesting, moisture conservation, tank-rehabilitation etc. The water experts believe that the primary answer to drought has to be local; it is only thereafter, and in some very unpromising places where no other options are feasible, that the bringing in of some external water may need to be considered.

Indian Ministry of Water Resources Logo

Some argued that the interlinking project has the potential for generating conflicts within the state, among the state and among countries in the cooperative management of the project in international river basins. Major river basins in India are ridden with conflicts over sharing of water resources. Provinces are hesitant to divert surplus water even they show it as deficit. In NWDA’s own admission that the major constraints for implementation of the ILR will be international dimension in several links including construction of dams in upstream Nepal and Bhutan. At the other end, Bangladesh, the lower riparian country has officially conveyed its apprehension about the Indian ILR project.

The unilateral nature of the Himalayan component of the proposed ILR project is the most worrisome aspect for the downstream riparian Bangladesh and upper-stream riparian Nepal, who are afraid of the environmental damages resulting from large-scale inter-basin transfer of water in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna region. Other problems are submergence of large tracts of forests and large numbers of displacements. One conservative estimate says that the ILR will submerge 1,675,000 hectares of forests and agriculture land including 1,050,000 ha for reservoirs. The ILR includes 60 new reservoirs. While one government calculation predicts of 0.45 million people would be displaced, others estimate the figure would be 3.47 million.

Indian National Water Development Agency Logo

India’s most ambitious project is being carried out with utmost caution. The public mood is not evenly divided as the information on ILR is very limited and is not under the layman’s purview. The polarization between the pro-ILR and anti-ILR has been widening to further make it difficult for the government to complete it within a stipulated time frame given by the apex court of India. Given the peculiar and intricate federal structure of India with water coming under provincial government’s power, it is difficult to garner consensus on the viability of the project. Similarly, to get Union environmental clearance may pose a hurdle to the ILR. To redesign a natural river course is undoubtedly within the control of a scientific human. But its cascading impact is far reaching, in some aspects possibly uncontrollable.

The Ken-Betwa Link: The First Test Step of the ILR

A small step towards gigantic ILR project is the signing of Ken-Betwa link. Viewed from a political perspective, the Ken-Betwa link project offers a low-risk experiment for the controversial ILR proposal. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 231.45 kilometer long Ken-Betwa link canal was signed between the two adjacent provinces-Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh on August 25, 2005 in the presence of the Prime Minister of India. This project will divert 1,020 million cubic meters of surplus waters from the Ken river basin to the water deficit Betwa basin through construction of the Dandhan dam on the Ken River including five reservoirs under this proposal. However, the tripartite MoU will further address the concerns of UP in its detail project report (DPR). There is as yet no agreement on the actual sharing of water or costs, nor on the more serious issues of relocation and resettlement. But other issue needs attention is the fact that 8,650 hectares, including 6,400 hectares of forest area, will be submerged, and about 8,550 people in 10 villages will be displaced by the project. Uttar Pradesh has expressed its fears about the possible loss of water and power and sought compensation from Madhya Pradesh. This link wiil be a litmus test for the whole ILR project to go ahead.

About the Author: Avilash Roul has been writing, advocating, researching, creating knowledge on Environment and Development in various English Daily media since 2000. He worked with Down To Earth (fortnightly magazine published in New Delhi, India) for the last three years. He also contributed regularly in Sundays for a column in New India Express on environment and development. Right now Mr. Roul is working as an Assistant Coordinator for the Bank Information Center (, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that advocates for the protection of rights, participation, transparency, and public accountability in the governance and operations of the World Bank, regional development banks, and IMF.

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One Response to “India's Water Future”
  1. jessa says:

    Mountains are very beautiful


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