World Water Day: While PM Modi favours conservation, ministry announces river linking

The Modi government needs to understand that rainwater harvesting, ecosystem-based approach and local water systems are what really help water preservation, rather than big dams or linking of rivers

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI

Ashlin Mathew

On the occasion of World Water Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed India’s commitment towards water conservation. “When water is conserved, our cities, villages and hard-working farmers benefit tremendously,” he tweeted.

But, simultaneously the government has also announced that it is in talks with Nepal to bring surplus water from the Sharda river, also known as the Mahakali, near the India-Nepal border, to the Yamuna near Delhi. The project is a part of Modi’s ambitious plan to interlink 31 rivers and divert surplus water to arid areas. The proposed interlinking project is aimed at bringing surplus water via Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The project is designed to be a lifeline for the Yamuna to ensure uninterrupted flow of water in Delhi.

This inconsistent attitude of the government is what ails India’s water conservation efforts, says experts. “Governments need to recognise that groundwater is India's lifeline and whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, it is going to remain so, says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

“Sustainability of ground water should be focus of our water policies, programs and practices. Rainwater harvesting, ecosystem based approach and local water systems help, but not big dams or river linking,” Thakkar adds

Ironically, in a report released by the United Nations (UN) recently, it is stated that dams did more harm than good in India. “The World Commission on Dams country study on India concluded that a century or more of large-scale development had resulted in major social and ecological impacts, including substantial human displacement, soil erosion and widespread water-logging while, contrary to stated objectives, achieving only limited food security benefits,” says the report.

“Dams in India have definitely done more harm than good. The report quotes the India Country Study of the World Commission on Dams, which is an excellent report. Studies which I have done, and from what I have read, support the conclusion that the social, environmental and financial costs of such large dams have been much more than their benefits, and the benefits from these projects too have been overstated,” says Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.

“What the Government does on one day can at best be symbolic. There needs to be a long-term shift in its policies. But on World Water Day, the government can state that they would shift policies in the water sector towards more sustainable, equitable approaches, which essentially means small, decentralised projects and programmes,” adds Dharmadhikary.

“They should announce giving up on projects that destroy our rivers and water bodies such as large dams, hydropower projects in the Himalayas, the river-linking projects and the push for inland waterways which involve massive dredging and transform our rivers into mere channels,” he says.

Agreeing with Dharmadhikary is urban environmental planner Manu Bhatnagar, who heads the natural heritage division of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). “First the water budget needs to be planned on basis of basins,” he Bhatnagar says.

“Then optimise all internal water ways to basins, including recycled water; maximise efficiency of water use especially in agriculture, consider correct location of water guzzling projects, maximise rainfall through adequate forest cover. Only then should other options be considered,” adds Bhatnagar.

The UN report goes on to state that there is a perception that nature-based solutions long time to achieve their impact, implying that grey infrastructure is quicker. This is not necessarily the case. For example, fitting a local sustainable urban drainage facility or a green roof can be done within days, with immediate impacts. Applying these at scale may indeed take longer, but not necessarily longer than grey alternatives, the UN report points out.

“The UN report, while appreciating the community-driven and local efforts, should have also said that such options need to be exhausted before taking up any larger project. Also that larger projects are not only not delivering the promised benefits, the collateral damage of the costly larger projects is unnecessary, unjustified and mostly unacceptable when such projects are taken up without informed and bottom up democratic decision making,” adds Thakkar.

“Shifting cropland management to more sustainable low tillage can yield benefits in two to three years. Landscape-scale deployment of NBS, through ecosystem restoration for example, can take longer, but significant impacts can be achieved in about ten years. By comparison, large dams on average take 8.6 years to be physically constructed (not including the time required for design, planning and financing) and eight out of ten large dams suffer a schedule overrun,” states the UN report.

The director of the Central Water Commission, Narendra Kumar, refused to comment on the issue.

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