Home / Politics / Policy /  Narendra Modi pursues 1980s plan to solve India’s water shortage

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to make good on his promise to tackle India’s water woes. He isn’t the first Indian leader to make such a vow.

Indira Gandhi was among the previous prime ministers who have tried, even though she was skeptical of mega dam projects. She approved the $1.2 billion Tehri dam, India’s highest in the Himalayan foothills, while saying it “will benefit only the contractors." Construction began in 1978, and 100,000 people whose lands and homes were to be submerged by reservoir waters were relocated. The dam didn’t open until 2006.

Now, one of the Modi government’s bigger initiatives will be to start implementing a three-decade-old plan to connect 30 rivers, the priciest step yet to begin solving some of the water, sewage, health and pollution issues that bedevil India.

Asia’s third-biggest economy, home to 18% of the global population, within six months will begin to link the Ken and Betwa rivers in northern India that flow through Uttar Pradesh, its most populous state, the director-general of the National Water Development Agency, S. Masood Husain, said in an interview in New Delhi. It’s part of plans estimated a decade ago to cost $92 billion to connect the waterways.

The projects linking 14 rivers from the Himalayas and 16 across the India peninsula are to bring waters from one area with plentiful supplies to others with not enough, aiding farmers and help with supply shortfalls and contamination.

The first river link was approved in July by Modi’s cabinet, which is under a mandate from the new government to start cleaning the Ganges River, India’s holiest waterway.

Not everyone sees the water projects as beneficial.

Ignores ‘reality’

The river link “ignores the reality that the mainstay of India’s water needs is groundwater and is going to remain for many years to come," said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at Delhi-based South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “River-linking will not help sustain our groundwater lifeline; on the contrary, it will make the situation worse."

India extracts 230 cubic kilometers of groundwater every year, the world’s largest user of the resource, according to the World Bank. In comparison, the US, suffering droughts in California and Texas, uses 111.7 cubic kilometers of groundwater a year.

With access to just 4% of global water resources, India is trying to move forward as it runs the world’s biggest food subsidy programme and plans to increase irrigated land to grow more crops for its population by connecting the rivers.

The government’s river-revival plan in essence is looking to cut dependence on groundwater, source of 85% of the drinking water and 60% of irrigation in India, by relocating water.

Abundance, deficit

Channeling water from abundant basins to deficit ones with dams and canals is intended to add 35 million hectares (86 million acres) of irrigated farmland as well as 34,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power three cities the size of New York.

When the river-linking plans were first readied in 1980, “the main stumbling block" was building consensus, Husain said of the National Perspective Plan his agency prepared.

Now, the government wants to complete its river-linking projects in 10 years, water minister Uma Bharti said.

That’s an ambitious plan as not all states agree with sharing water and environmental fears exist. The plan to build the river links also goes “against the declared objective of river rejuvenation," according to Thakkar.

Water resources are governed by state governments under India’s constitution. As a federal union of 29 states, the nation has yet to implement even one of the proposed links and costs are likely to be much more than the estimated 5.6 trillion ($92 billion) calculated a decade ago, according to Husain.

Sardar Sarovar project

“It’s not the first time that India will attempt inter-basin transfers," Husain said. “Water from surplus basins have been transferred to deficit ones before." He cited the Sardar Sarovar project that transfers waters of the Narmada River in central India across four states.

Sardar Sarovar is a single dam, Thakkar said. “Each of the 30 schemes have multiple dams with interstate, and some with international, implications," he said.

Linking the Ken and Betwa rivers, which also flow through Madhya Pradesh, will bring drinking water to 1.35 million people and irrigate 600,000 hectares of land, according to Husain.

While his agency has submitted a detailed project report to two states, work cannot start until India’s environment ministry approves the plan, because 7% of the Panna tiger reserve would be submerged.

Water for diversion

“We don’t see how this project and the other river-linking projects will help us," said Ashish Sagar Dixit, who heads Prawas, a rural advocacy group in Banda on the banks of the Ken. “Both river basins have been facing droughts in the past four to five years."

The Ken has little water left for diversion, Dixit said in a phone interview on 9 September. Growing industries using the waters and urbanization put pressure on the rivers.

According to Unicef’s 2013 water and sanitation report, about 71% of India’s water resources are available to only 36% of the area, while the remaining 64% has the balance, or 29% available.

Meanwhile, cost estimates for the links have risen greatly, Husain said. Each will involve building large dams and canals. In many places the government will need to compensate for loss of land and livelihoods, he said.

In 2006, the government estimated the two-phase Ken-Betwa project to cost 76 billion rupees. That was revised to almost 9,400 crore in 2008.

Government funding

Modi’s government will fund 90% of the Ken-Betwa and subsequent projects, with states providing the rest. India may also consider private sector investments in certain projects, according to Husain.

The government-run Water Agency, which employs about 150 engineers, has also completed work on project reports for the Damanganga-Pinjal river link in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, Husain said.

Reports on connecting the Par, Tapi and Narmada rivers in the same states will be completed by March, he said.

It may take longer for Modi’s government to bring about the water changes it envisions.

“The Ken-Betwa link has none of the statutory clearances, and I do not think they will get it in six months," Thakkar said. Husain on the other hand expects the projects to move faster.

“Our water needs are becoming bigger," he said. “India can’t afford to lose more time." Bloomberg

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