The project to inter-link rivers in India is based on archaic conceptions of river systems and will not deliver the promised benefits
The Special Committee on Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) has recently submitted its reports to the Prime Minister. While the recommendations have not been made public yet, the demeanour of the present government towards the project is widely known. The Modi government, given its control of multiple states, intends to push forth with this project. It is, thus, opportune to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of ILR.
A Brief Summary of the Project
The ILR aims to connect around 30 major rivers and is estimated to cost USD $123 billion. The project is to be undertaken in two circuits: Himalayan and Peninsular. The idea behind ILR is to create dams and canals which in turn will create channels connecting rivers. These channels then will help transfer water from water surplus rivers to water deficit ones. The underlying science of arithmetic hydrology reasons that water is of value only to the extent of its utility. Therefore, the amount of water which cannot be utilized economically, including water that flows into the sea, is considered surplus. This is in contrast to holistic hydrology, which considers every drop of water to be fulfilling some ecological purpose along with the man-made ones. ILR seeks to harness the surplus which is not serving any economic utility presently.
Supporters believe there will be following benefits from ILR:
- Floods can be avoided by balancing water levels.
- Dams and canals will bring an additional 35 million hectares of land under irrigation. This will benefit agriculture and rural earnings.
- Power to the tune of 34,000 MW (10% of current installed capacity) will be generated.
- A fillip to tourism across the country.
- The canals will aid transportation by helping the government in its inland waterways project, a mode of transport which is hitherto underdeveloped.
Framework for a Cost-Benefit Analysis
The costs of ILR go beyond the budgetary expenditure involved in developing the project. There are heavy unaccounted for costs which must be kept in mind before the project is proceeded with. However, before any analysis of the costs and benefits of the project can be undertaken it is imperative to develop a sensible framework to do so. As can be guessed, any attempt at monetary quantification of the costs and benefits will be open to political and economic debates. Hence, I intend to follow what is called a precautionary framework. It consists of ranked criterions which help compare the threats and benefits of a project. They are as follows, in order of priority:
- Public Health: According to this, whenever there is a threat to human health and life they are prioritized over all other threats.
- Immediacy: It requires that threats which are immediate ought to be prioritized over other threats.
- Uncertainty: Dangers which are more certain to occur should be prioritized over others.
- Irreversibility: Uncertain steps which are easier to reverse should be preferred over irreversible ones.
Effect of ILR on Public Health
As mentioned, ILR is touted to reduce floods, and hence, protect millions of lives. Undoubtedly, floods have killed and affected millions of people. Recent Uttarakhand floods, J&K floods, etc. are a testament to the same. But will ILR really reduce floods?
The Myth of Flood Control
It is imperative to grasp that rivers are complex ecosystems, as against mere carriers of water. Each river has its own identity, flow, habitat and complexities. Even floods are part of a river system, as against being mere disasters. It has been proven that infrastructure projects like dams can merely protect us against small-scale disruptions, not against terrible floods. Further, it is also accepted that megaprojects which try to completely distort the nature end up disturbing it. Oversized dams have been found to be collecting silts and forming a rocky surface in and around the dam. This reduces the sedimentation in other parts of the river. The resultant imbalance leads to increased flooding. This disturbance also leads to destruction of the river biosphere and marine life, one of the key controllers of water flow.
ILR consists of similar mega dams and channels, extended to every single river system of the country. Hence, while it is very unlikely that this project will lead to an extensive control over floods, the likelihood of it extenuating them is very high. What we instead need is a sustainable and holistic approach to control flooding, which is a natural phenomenon. Thus, it is improbable that any lives will be saved by the way of controlling floods.
Will irrigation benefit human health?
It is also mentioned that the project will irrigate landmasses across India. True, there will be more land under irrigation. While more water for some will mean increased income for some, it is at the cost of others. The first ones to suffer are the ones who lose their lands and livelihood. Thousands die and millions are displaced in single infrastructure projects. ILR consists of more than dozens of such constructions. This is followed by the damage to public health due to inequity. Such projects while benefitting those residing in a certain area of the river (the upper riparian), take away from others (the lower riparian). Furthermore, dams and reservoirs serve as carriers of communicable diseases. This is a result of the still or slowed down flow of the river water. Finally, the construction of such large projects too cost human lives heavily. Widespread construction will result in toxic air, water, land and noise pollution. Large tracts of forests will be submerged, decreasing the already decaying forest cover. The approved Ken-Betwa link is set to submerge 6000 hectares of forest land, of which 4141 hectares lie in the Panna Tiger Reserve. In the now constructed Polavaram project nearly 3500 ha of forest, including the Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary, was submerged. The health costs of such environmental destruction will be unimaginable.
Consequently, ILR will have a net negative effect on Public Health.
Are the threats that ILR seeks to resolve of utmost immediacy?
As listed above ILR aims to benefit disaster control, farm productivity, tourism, transport and electricity generation. While one may agree that all these sectors need urgent policy decisions, ILR is hardly the most efficient way to resolve the crisis these sectors are facing. As proven above, ILR doesn’t aid disaster control. Farms will be better aided by funding restructuring of agro-markets, investing in technology, on infrastructure, etc. Tourism too can be benefitted through more suitable means (cleanliness and urban planning are merely the starting points). Similarly, other avenues of transport and suitable individual waterways deserve more funds at the moment. Finally, electricity generation through solar and wind means should be at the forefront of our energy policy.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the ILR doesn’t address the stated threats in the best possible manner and they can be urgently addressed through better means.
How certain are the dangers of non-implementation of ILR as against its implementation?
The possible dangers because of non-implementation of the ILR are that of flooding, drought and lost economic advantages. But its implementation will pose a huge threat to the environment in its totality and by extension, the human life. However, controlling natural disaster is ultimately linked to environmental balance and a sustainable partnership with nature. It is also accepted that economy and environment go hand in hand. Today, the one certain threat is that of the risks being posed to the environment as a whole.
ILR clearly (as analyzed under the head of public health) doesn’t help the environment.
It can be seen that ILR negatively affects public health, doesn’t address the issues of urgency it is supposed to address, the possible dangers of its non-implementation are non-existent and it, with all its follies, will also be irreversible. Hence, it is better that our policymakers ignore ILR and invest the $123 billion on effective and sensible policies.