There are less disruptive and cheaper alternatives than connecting rivers to reduce the misery of floods and droughts.

On February 27 while giving the go-ahead to the controversial project of inter-linking of rivers, the Supreme Court specifically mentioned the benefits — flood control and drought moderation As plans for inter-basin transfers of water across vast distances, from surplus to deficit areas, appear to have got a lot of attraction for a country exposed all too often to droughts and floods, these need to be seriously evaluated and debated. As such while large-scale transfers of water can be expensive, we should also explore whether there are cheaper and better alternatives.

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The idea of inter-basin transfers is based on the assumption that certain surplus (flood-prone) and deficit (drought-prone) areas exist so that water is readily available without any objection to transfer from the former to the latter. But in practice, people in so-called surplus areas do not agree that they have spare water which can be transferred to other, faraway areas.

At a time when there are problems relating to the sharing of waters, transfer of water across distant areas can easily aggravate these tensions. This should be avoided.

Issue of climate change

Any neat division between “deficit” and “surplus” areas becomes more of a problem in these times of climate change when erratic weather patterns are more frequently seen. Some time ago we had a curious situation when arid, deficit parts of western India (including Rajasthan) had excess rain and experienced floods while flood-prone parts of eastern India (including Assam) had drought-like conditions. If billions had already been spent to create an infra-structure from transferring surplus water from east to west, just imagine what a difficult situation would have arisen at the time of such erratic weather.

So the basic conditions of problem-free transfer of water from the country's “surplus” to “deficit” areas simply do not exist. The tensions are likely to be much greater when inter-basin transfers also involve neighbouring countries, a reality that cannot be avoided in the existing geography of national-level links as many rivers pass through other countries. As soon as the grand looking river-linking plans are transferred from paper to reality, we enter the real world of shifting rivers bringing enormous siltloads, landslides, hills, plateaus, seismic belts, gorges, ravines, bends and curves which make the task of large-scale transfer of water difficult, enormously expensive, energy-intensive and hazardous. If rivers had been created by engineers and not by nature, they would have flowed along predictable straight paths to suit our needs. But rivers do not generally like to abide by the wishes and commands of engineers. Even when the might of modern technology forces them to do so, they sometimes seek revenge in very destructive ways — breaking free and causing floods.

Of course no one has had the time and inclination to explore how the bio-diversity flourishing in a particular river system will react when it is linked to another river. But the problems faced by the vast majority who are adversely affected by dams and displacements of this gigantic river-linking project have to be faced surely and squarely.

This brings us to the question of whether safer, less disruptive and cheaper alternatives are available for reducing the distress of floods and droughts. Evidence suggests that even villages which experience very low rainfall, as in the desert areas of Rajasthan, have evolved a range of local methods of water conservation and collection which, if followed up carefully, take them towards water self-sufficiency to a large extent. It is true that in modern times there is pressure leading to the breakdown or inadequacy of some of these self-reliant systems. Nevertheless it can be said that a combination of traditional water-collection/conservation practices and other drought-proofing methods — which also use modern technology — still provides the best available answer (also the cheapest one) to water scarcity in drought-prone areas.

In the case of flood-prone areas we should not ignore the resilience of local communities where people learnt from early childhood how to cope with rising rivers. Their ability has been adversely affected by increasing drainage obstruction created by thoughtless “development” works because of which floods sometimes become more fierce, creating prolonged water logging. So what people really need is a good drainage plan — so that flood water clears quickly — combined with a package of livelihood, health, education and other support suited to the needs of flood-prone areas and communities. This will work out much cheaper and more effective than all the dams, diversions and embankments put together. So the question of what people of drought-prone areas and flood-prone areas really need should be taken in consultation with them. Do they want huge water diversions and transfers with all their dams and displacements, or do they prefer more funds for trusted, small-scale local solutions?

(The writer is a freelance journalist writing on development issues.)

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