The ecological concerns around river-linking projects
This week, the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) to start work on the country’s first major project interlinking two rain-fed rivers, Ken and Betwa. The agreement was signed 18 years after the project was first conceived as a part of country’s programme to interlink rivers to provide water to areas facing scarcity. The project is expected to ensure drinking water to 6.2 million people and irrigate one million hectares of land in 13 districts across both states, the majority of which fall in the water-starved Bundelkhand region, which has seen back-to-back droughts in the last decade.
Experts have flagged two concerns. First, project proponents fail to take into account the fact that the water crisis is not just a natural one; it’s partly man-made. The region’s granite topography does not allow rainwater to seep in and recharge the groundwater table, but this problem has been aggravated by policies that support faulty cropping patterns, encourage groundwater exploitation, degrade the soil and hack away at forest cover. Second, the project may submerge 6,107 hectares of the old and biodiverse forests of the Panna Tiger Reserve and Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary. This can impact water availability, rainfall patterns and destroy local ecosystems. Instead, the government could have pushed for low-cost, local interventions such as renovating and building water harvesting systems, desilting reservoirs and lakes and working towards a change in cropping patterns.
The controversy over the river-linking project is not new; it’s a part of a larger development versus ecology debate that India faces with every big project. But in an era of climate crisis, which has a multi-sectoral impact, addressing ecological concerns is crucial and ensure long-term safety and benefits.