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A case for inter-basin transfer of water

The proposals for inter-basin transfer of water represent a great challenge and opportunity. They are part of a better tomorrow to free the millions from the miseries resulting from both the harmful abundance and acute scarcity of water.

OF LATE, not a day passes without reports appearing in the media of floods wreaking havoc and droughts causing distress to people in various parts of the country. The occurrence of floods and droughts had been a regular feature in the past. Billions were being spent every year to render assistance to those affected, though very little was, in effect, done to alleviate the rapidly developing critical situations.

Indian land mass receives, on an average, 4,000 billion cubic metres (BCM) of precipitation every year, 75 per cent of which is spread over three monsoon months while concentrated rainfall occurs only in a period of about 100 hours duration. After providing for the losses due to immediate evaporation and ground absorption, the estimated available water resource is about 1,900 BCM. Two-thirds of this is constributed by the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) system covering one third of the country's geographical area. Consequently, the remaining two-thirds of the country has to be satisfied with the balance resource, and face the deficiencies while the GBM basin experiences floods. Thus the main characteristic of India's water resources is its uneven distribution in space and time leading to endemic and sporadic problems of water shortages and excesses.

Frequent occurrence of floods and droughts is a reflection of our failure to develop and manage the country's water resources. Needless to say that water, a key element in our eco-system, is not getting enough attention except when droughts stalk the countryside and floods devastate large tracts of land and habitats. Even then, we remain satisfied by providing some relief to the affected people instead of learning from these failures and taking recourse to obvious and available solutions.

Many basins in the country are surplus in water resource even in the ultimate stage of development while others face serious shortages. Creation of storages and inter-basin transfer of water from surplus to deficit regions could therefore be an option for achieving more equitable distribution of our water wealth and its optimal utilisation. Hence if the resource abundant rivers like the Brahmaputra, Ganga, etc., could be linked with other rivers and a National Water Grid created, the miseries of recurring droughts and floods could be contained to a great extent.

Past experience

Projects for inter-basin transfer of water are in existence and are also being planned in countries such as the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Spain, China, et c. For India, long distance water transfer is not a new concept. The Western Yamuna Canal and Agra Canal have been carrying waters from the Himalayas to the distant plains of Punjab, U.P. and Rajasthan for the last few centuries. The Kurnool-Cuddapah Canal and the Periyar-Vaigai Canal executed in the 19th Century, the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project in the last century — all stand testimony to the sense of cooperation and good will exhibited by the people of yore to alleviate the sufferings of the water starved fellow human beings.

Suggestions for a National Water Grid were initially advocated by the late K. L. Rao, former Union Minister for Irrigation and Power, and an expert in the sector. The proposals envisaged mainly a 2,640 km. long Ganga-Cauvery link to carry, partly by gravity and partly by a maximum lift of 550m, 1,680 cumecs of Ganga flood waters near Patna for 150 days annually; and also a Brahmaputra-Ganga link to transfer 1,800-3,000 cumecs with a lift of 12-15 m. However, detailed examination of the proposal in Central Water Commission indicated the costs to be prohibitive and power needs for pumping excessively high (5-7 million KW). Hence the proposal was not further pursued.

Present proposals

The continued onslaught of floods and droughts in the intervening years in various parts of the country and the consequent loss of life and property necessitated the Government of India to review the situation and to come out with a National Perspective Plan for interlinking the rivers. The plan comprises two components:

(i) The Himalayan river component envisaging storages and interlinking canal systems to transfer surplus flows of the Kosi, Gandak and Ghagra to the west; Brahmaputra-Ganga link to augment the dry weather flows of the Ganga; Ganga-Yamuna link to serve the drought areas of Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat as also south Uttar Pradesh and south Bihar.

(ii) The Peninsular river component envisaging to divert the Mahanadi surplus to the Godavari and the surplus therefrom to the Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery, with terminal dams on the Mahanadi and the Godavari to enable irrigation in the drought areas of the South.

The Peninsular component envisages three more proposals of water transfer — (a) to divert a part of the waters of the west flowing rivers of Kerala to the arid east to meet the needs of the drought areas of Tamil Nadu; (b) to interlink the west flowing rivers north of Bombay and south of Tapi to provide irrigation to areas in Saurashtra, Kachchh and coastal Maharashtra and to augment the drinking water supplies to Mumbai; and (c) to interlink the southern tributaries of the Yamuna and provide irrigation facilities in parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The plan when fully implemented is estimated to bring an additional area of 35 mha under irrigation and generate additional power (installed capacity 34,000 MW) with an investment of Rs. 330,000 crores (1995-96 price level). About 30 years would be required to fully implement the scheme needing an annual budget of Rs. 11,000 crores.

Detailed field investigations carried out for various links indicated that these are technically feasible and economically sound. Still, not even a single link has been taken up for implementation so far by the authorities concerned probably due to stiff opposition from some of the States and criticism by sections of the public. The initial enthusiasm appears to be waning and needless to say that the delay is going to be suicidal for the plan. If the lack of required thrust now seen is any indication, these much studied proposals may likely end up in some dusty files stored in unmarked cupboards in the government offices. We should not allow this to happen.


The main objection from some of the water rich States is that they do not have any surplus water to transfer. Given the requisite finances they insist that it would be possible for them to utilise all their water resources. Hence they do not agree to the basic philosophy of inter-basin transfer as a method of correcting the natural imbalance of inequitable distribution of water. However through free and frank negotiations it would be possible to convince these States to share water for the purpose in the national interest by introducing a provision in the proposals for compensating the economic cost of water surplussed for inter-basin transfer. This provision would enable the donor (State/basin from where surplus water is to be transferred) to get compensated by the donee the cost of such water transferred, as may be determined on the basis of an agreed criterion, either in cash or in sharing the power generated, agricultural produce, etc.

There has also been criticism against the plan from some groups involved in the sector. According to them, if the proposals are meant only for meeting future irrigation needs, there are options to improve water availability. Better water management is economically more attractive than bringing water through a costly grid, they say; demand management by improving water use efficiency, evaporation control, recycling and reuse of water, etc., can also achieve the requisite objectives. Some of them even feel that investments in water transfers being economically less efficient compared to industrial and commercial investments for such ventures, deficiency in food can be met from imports at a cheaper cost. There are also groups advocating small water harvesting structures to reduce flood effects, improve soil moisture and recharging ground water as an alternative to long distance water transfers.

Unfortunately, the opponents to the plan appear to have conveniently forgotten the benefits reaped from the past water transfers, be it through the Western Yamuna Canal and the Agra Canal in the North or the K.C. Canal and the Periyar-Vaigai Canal in the South. They also appear to have overlooked the fact that a nation of the size of India cannot afford to be not self-sufficient in foodgrains production and that the world trade in foodgrains is not large enough to meet the needs of a large country. They also seem to have forgotten as to what happened in the country in the middle of the last century when foodgrains had to be imported under PL-480 funds. The concept of "Small is beautiful" is fine but not fully reliable for harnessing water resources when the monsoon plays hide and seek with the fortunes of farmers and drinking water becomes a rarity.

There are sceptics who doubt the feasibility of such mass transfer of waters in the present environment. It would remain only as a dream, they contend. Till recently, many could not believe that the Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) would be able to bloom the Rajasthan desert. What was once a vision is now a reality and the magic touch of water has rejuvenated many areas in the desert.

The proposals for inter-basin transfer of water represent a great challenge and opportunity. They are part of a better tomorrow to free the millions from the miseries resulting from both the harmful abundance and acute scarcity of water. The country cannot afford to go slow on these well-studied proposals considering water's role as an engine for development. Long distance transfer of water is not an end by itself but it is a means to end the human sufferings from frequent droughts and floods. Hence we should not allow these proposals to slip into the shadows of history to remain frozen in time while billions of cubic metres of fresh water go unutilised and discharged into the sea every year.


Former Chief Engineer, CWC

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