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Will inter-state water sharing become a reality?

With the state reeling under severe drought conditions, inter-linking of rivers, (ILR) with its attendant problems is a debatable question. The answer could lie in Ganga-Kumari waterway project.

Will inter-state water sharing become a reality?
Hogenakkal during the years of bountiful monsoon


If the sight of the largely bountiful Hogenakkal running bone dry this year surprises you, then it is time you braced up for more distressing scenes.

People of Tamil Nadu should find better ways to ‘bring’ water from their legally entitled sources in and around the state. 

Regardless of how much the farmers protest in New Delhi and politicians shout from here, water from River Ganges can come to them only in sachets, by post, and that too for a price. 

For, the elusive national inter-linking of rivers (ILR) project has hit a dead end, yet again. Even proponents of the project have started making a strong push for alternative projects after finding the ILR not very feasible to implement. 

Equally pertinent were the concerns raised by environmentalists who define the project as a vulgar ‘abuse’ of men, money and ecology, so much so that they find it politically, ecologically, economically and hydrologically improbable.

Very little argument can be put forth when ILR doubters wonder, “If one (read as Tamil Nadu) cannot bring water from River Cauvery, how could it be brought through eight different states, from places several thousand miles away?” 

Experts recall the Andhra Pradesh Assembly resolution opposing ILR. Resistance from Karnataka and other upper riparian states on Ganga-Cauvery ILR route from north of Tamil Nadu, are also well documented. 

G Sundararajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental group, which got an interim injunction against the controversial Indian Neutrino Observatory recently, highlighted key contentious points. “Even if the elusive consensus were to be reached, what would the Tamil Nadu government do when the states construct check dams and retain the water? If its parched in  areas that receive southwest monsoon in Tamil Nadu, so will it be in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, both of whom rely on the same monsoon. What would people here do when Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh construct check dams from the north?” he wondered. (As on date, 28 inter-state water disputes are pending in the country).

From an economic standpoint, apart from spending Rs 20 trillion ( 207bn pounds) on the project, a rough estimate puts the annual maintenance cost at 10%. Additional costs include a central river protec

tion force or an exclusive enforcement team to oversee the nationwide network post ILR execution, which would only strain the government coffers further.  

Benefits of desilting: It may not be unwise to invest a tenth of that sum or the entire sum in desilting existing water bodies and increasing the storage capacity. 

Also, the cost of displacement (between 0.8 to 1million would be displaced) or rather resettlement, and creation of livelihood opportunities for the displaced would more than strain the state exchequer. 

Ecologically speaking, the volume of minerals rivers carry, especially Ganga and Yamuna, which have 

been declared as living entities having the same right as human beings by a High Court, to the sea, would be stopped. “ Nearly 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by oceans, while rain forests and domestic trees only account for 28% and 2%, respectively. Will the oxygen production cycle not be disturbed, if large volumes of fresh water drained into the sea is prevented?” asked Sundararajan. 

The overall cost outlay is huge. For instance, the ILR project comprises interlinking of Ken and Betwa rivers in Central India. “Both rivers flood and run dry in the same season. If the two rivers flood, how would they divert water from one to the other? How will they hold? 

Will the flood plains not change? If they do, will it not affect the geology of the region?” argued a serving geologist of the state Public Works Department, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If  Godavari is so bountiful enough to feed Tamil Nadu, why did farmers of Vidarbha, which is a part of the Godavari river basin, commit suicide?” the geologist wondered and cited the union government’s admission that no river runs surplus in the country. 

However, not all are apprehensive of the project. A C Kamaraj, Chairman, National Waterway Development Technology (NAWAD), and who was a member of the Centre’s expert committee on ILR admitted that ILR has many problems. “The project is not feasible in its existing form. Hence, we are proposing Ganga-Kumari waterway project, which would attract private funding.” 

As a navigation channel, it would fetch revenue from toll and help generate power, so private players would invest in the project, Kamaraj confidently said, defining the waterways project as a serpentine reservoir, which would only store 25% of surplus water and the rest would drain into the ocean as usual.  

River Godavari alone discharges 3000tmcft into the sea. Karnataka discharges 2,000tmcft into the ocean, he claimed, projecting an estimated 15,000tmcft (the national requirement in 2050) as the volume of water conserved by the navigation channel, which would be a national water grid, just like the power grid.

Tricky route

Proponents of National  waterways project claim that  navigation would only require 10% of fuel compared to road transport. Environmentalist question the navigability of ILR channels when diverting water for irrigation. 

National Waterways Development Technology (NAWAD), a think tank that proposes waterways project as replacement for ILR, claims 60,000MW could be produced from navigation project (hydro generation), against ILR’s 34,000MW. 

ILR opponents argue that water would be artificially pumped across river basins as river  gradient does not facilitate gravitational flow, resulting in high energy bill. NAWAD proposes contour canals which allow reverse water flow. 

Rs 213 crore has been spent by the state government on two of the four stage Thamiraparani -Nambiyar River inter-linking. 

Rs 300 crore allotted in 2017-18 for phases III and IV.

Expert Speak

ILR is not like conveying water using pipes. When all Himalayan rivers flood at the same time, how would they convey water from one river to another? Even in the Telugu- Ganga scheme, five villages got flooded, following a breach in the canal while conveying 400 cusecs of water. Let them first demonstrate the feasibility by interlinking Ken-Betwa before connecting major rivers. Cauvery could be linked to Gundaar, but Mahanidi-Cauvery linking is not feasible. A river course is charted over thousands of years. A new, artificial course cannot be charted out of the blue. Minor rivers like Tambirabarani and Nambiyar can be interlinked first, before considering inter- linking rivers on a massive scale. Water management has not been done since the days of monarchs. Conduits and the channels filling them have been encroached upon. 300 tmcft of water can be saved by retrieving lost water bodies. If a river discharges 100 tmfct, at least 25 tmcft should be allowed to drain into the sea. First manage water, then consider ILR. - K Ayyanathan, Geologist and political commentator.

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