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Imagine you had an infection on your finger-tip, and your doctor decided to amputate your arm without exploring the possibility of curing the infection first. India’s National River Linking Project (NRLP) is just as ludicrous. The NRLP was conceived to primarily address the problems of water scarcity and periodic floods in different parts of the country. This ambitious project envisages the linking of 37 rivers via about 3000 dams and thousands of kilometres of canals, to transfer water from ‘surplus’ basins to ‘deficit’ basins. While bridging the gap between water supply and demand remains one of the most pressing challenges in the world today, solutions to address this problem need to be well thought out. The NRLP has staunch supporters and detractors, and the pros and cons of the project has been widely discussed. However, considering water-supply and flood-control to be the primary objectives of the NRLP, I deliberate on these two issues below.

Irrigation and drinking water supply to drier regions in Southern and Western India have been a challenge. Numerous drinking water-supply schemes, irrigation schemes, and other water management projects have been commissioned across the country. However, the efficiency of these projects are suspect, for reasons ranging from corruption, incomplete works, infrastructure disrepair, shoddy construction, and poor planning. For example, a study by the Ministry of Urban Development & Poverty estimates that 30-50% of water supplied to cities are lost through leakages in the distribution system. As per CAG (Comptroller Auditor General of India) audit reports and other studies, the distribution loss of water supply is about 40-50% in Delhi, 50% in Karnataka, 40% in Shimla, and 35% in Goa. These losses are significantly higher than the accepted norm of 10-15%. The situation is even worse for irrigation projects. As per the CAG, India’s Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program realised less than 50% of its envisaged potential. A 2011 study by the Ministry of Water Resources found the average water use efficiency of major irrigation projects to be just over 35%. While the irrigation scam from Maharashtra is well known, similar situations exist across many states such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and many more. In Karnataka, a CAG audit found numerous irrigation projects functioning at only 30% potential due to the non-creation of irrigation channels and excessive seepage. In parts of Gujrat, the utilised culturable command area was found to be only about 7% of what was envisaged. These statistics are not the exception, but the norm.

Since vast parts of the country are also prone to recurrent floods, forecasting systems and various mitigation measures have been prioritised for flood management. Floodplain zoning, suggested by the Central Water Commission, has been enacted by only three States. A recent CAG audit revealed that flood forecasting systems, identification of flood-prone zones, and preparation of Disaster Management Plans of large dams are fraught with inefficiencies. Against the target of 219 telemetry stations, 310 base stations and 100 flood forecasting stations, only 56 telemetry stations had been installed as of 2016. Of these, 60% were non-functional, and this hampered real-time data collection, flood forecasting and communication to affected communities. Identification of flood-prone areas remained unfulfilled in 17 States surveyed. It was found that only 7% of large dams had prepared Disaster Management Plans, and only 5% had operating procedures in place. Structural initiatives for flood control (like embankments) were also fraught with financial mismanagement, improper execution and lack of implementation. Although the CAG, Central Water Commission, and the draft National Water Framework Bill, 2016 recommend floodplain zoning, rehabilitation of natural drainage systems, modernization of flood forecasting, and better disaster preparedness, the implementation of these initiatives are woefully lacking.

These numbers illustrate the complete apathy of authorities in attempting to address water-supply and flood-control issues. Not surprisingly, new projects, worth millions, are being rapidly commissioned without ensuring the efficacy of existing projects. This raises two points. First, if the existing condition of national and state level projects are wrought with corruption, inefficiency and conflict, can we expect a project as ambitious and contentious as the NRLP to work? Second, and more importantly, do we really need a project as extensive as the NRLP? Significant environmental, social and financial costs have already been spent on existing projects and initiatives. A logical endeavour would be to conduct a country-wide assessment to determine how much of the problem can be resolved by simply realizing the potential of existing projects. Beyond this, decentralised strategies like improving water-use efficiency, water recycling, and incentivising water-positive technologies can help bridge the supply-demand gap. These approaches have been endorsed by economic analysts, hydrologists, and environmentalists, both nationally and internationally. While the NRLP assures additional benefits like hydropower generation, it will most certainly result in extensive water conflicts, displacement of people, destruction of rivers and forests, and the biodiversity they support. The lack of an overall options assessment regarding the need of the NRLP, given its massive environmental and financial costs, is beyond appalling. This project, if implemented, will forever alter our rivers and landscapes – it will be akin to chopping off an arm instead of treating an infection.”

Suman Jumani is a conservation ecologist with interests in interdisciplinary ecology, aquatic systems and biodiversity. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Florida, working on freshwater systems in India.

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