Homes and gardens

Technology, State and the river


We need to build responsibility, capability and accountability in our water management institutions to revive our rivers. By S. Vishwanath

A major effort led by a spiritual leader is on to focus attention on and revive our rivers. A simple, some would say simplistic, course of action of planting trees on the river banks has been suggested as one way to begin the process of bringing life back to the rivers. A huge debate has arisen on the issue. Simultaneously the government has brought back on the radar the interlinking of rivers project as a way to manage floods and droughts among other things. It is time to step back and ask why our rivers are in the state they are in and what is needed for them to flow again.

What is a river? For a long time, it was seen through a civil engineer lens as a drainage channel, being the lowest part of a land or watershed, taking away the surplus rainwater away from it. Some rivers were fed by glacier melt and were hence perennial. Now a complex, more ecological, definition is commonly accepted as a river, constituting not merely the waters in it but also the biological diversity it fosters, the physical and chemical conditions that it impacts and even as a carrier of silt so necessary for the delta and the littoral areas of the sea.

For a long time, the idea of the State and especially the colonial State held that the central construct of it was to manage land and collect revenues from its use. The river was seen as a mere provider of water and the duty of water was for it to be used for irrigation.

The great dam and canal projects such as the Upper Yamuna canal and the Ganga canal were to take waters to the not so fertile and fertile areas of North India and allow for irrigation to flourish. Crop productivity would increase and so would revenues for the State. The first engineering college was set up in India at Roorkee to train engineers to build irrigation structures such as dams and canals. The great water diversion project is a legacy of the mid-1850s and afterwards. The death of rivers had begun.

Post the 1930s came the influence of the Tennessee Valley Authority on India. The Damodar Valley Corporation was set up and a rush of dams began, to generate power, to moderate floods, to provide water for irrigation and to thermal power plants. While there was less than 370 dams during Independence, we now have more than 4,000 dams on our rivers. These dams have converted flowing rivers into still reservoirs all along the river course. Now the river hardly reaches the sea.

Borewell usage

Technology kicked in on other fronts too. The coming of the hard rock drilling rigs unleashed a borewell and groundwater usage revolution. More than 33 million borewells pumping out 250 cubic kilometres of water annually, mostly for high yielding variety of crops such as wheat and rice and sugarcane, meant that groundwater tables started falling. Aquifers which once provided water to rivers especially during the dry months now started demanding water from the rivers to feed their thirst. Base flows in summer, which groundwater provided to rivers, stopped.

Population grew, the land under agriculture grew, cities grew and so did industries. The cities and industries sent polluted water to the rivers. Not only was it a quantity issue with waters not available in the rivers but now a quality issue arose. Wherever cities were, rivers became channels filthy sewage drains.


Redistribution of water in the river basins, mainly being spread on land for growing crops, meant hardly any waters for the rivers. In the meantime, what was left of the river bed was mined for sand, forests in the catchments were cut for logs and sometimes for growing coffee, tea and rubber and other times for development activities such as roads and mines. Springs dried up and tourists thronged the hill stations to kill the mountain streams at source with their garbage and sewage.

What we must realise is that the death of rivers is linked to a complex consumption model of development. This is not irreversible but will take capital and patience.

Forest catchments will need to be restored, agriculture will need to become water efficient, groundwater tables will need to be restored back to original levels through supply augmentation but also demand management, wastewater from industries and towns will need to be treated, sand mining will need to stop and the river treated as an ecological system to be restored in its entirety and not merely a source of water to be consumed for human needs.

We will need the right governance and institution models not only at the top at a river basin scale but to regulate as well as to implement almost at a farm, industry and building level on the ground.

A city like Amsterdam and Stockholm took hundreds of years to clean the filth in the canals and lakes.

The Thames was restored after centuries of neglect. We do not have the luxury of that time but we certainly need to build the responsibility, capability and accountability in our water management institutions to revive our rivers. That indeed would be river and water wisdom.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 1:54:04 AM |

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