Proposal for interlinking of rivers is erroneous: Mihir Shah
July 4, 2019
Mihir Shah, erstwhile member of the Planning Commission and head of several committees on water reforms, says political compulsions may push the new government to do something substantial on water. Excerpts from an interview:
A committee helmed by you had made a slew of proposals to reform India’s water policy in 2016, including regulation on groundwater use. Is there any hope for their implementation?
After a recent interaction at the new Jal Shakti ministry, I feel renewed hope that the recommendations of my committee will indeed see the light of day. I think the crisis on the ground is providing a very useful wake-up call for the government. The creation of the Jal Shakti ministry is itself a positive first step forward in the direction of overcoming hydro-schizophrenia that has beset policymaking on water in India for so long.
Piped drinking water for all by 2024 is a flagship promise of the present government. What do you make of the scheme?
I think the scheme is a response to the need to the hour. But it can be a success only if certain preconditions are met. One, clear understanding of the aquifers to be used for water supply. Two, a user-friendly communication of this information to the primary stakeholders. Three, ensuring that drinking water and irrigation are planned for together—history teaches us that sources of drinking water have soon got exhausted whenever the same aquifer is used for irrigation. Four, the entire water supply system is operated and managed by local institutions specifically dedicated to this purpose. These should be led by local women, adequately empowered to do so. They should decide upon tariffs for this water in an open, transparent and collective manner. Only then can these systems become sustainable and overcome historically inherited gender, caste and class inequities.
Should India consider even a limited interlinking of rivers plan as part of this renewed push for water security?
Rivers are not human creations like roads and power lines to be twisted and turned at will. They are living eco-systems that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. The proposal for inter-linking of rivers (ILR) is based on a series of erroneous presumptions. In the sub-continent, given the dependence on the monsoon, the periods when rivers have “surplus” water are generally synchronous. And a recent study finds a significant decrease in monsoon rainfall over water “surplus” river basins in India, thus raising questions about the basic presumptions of the ILR project.
What is truly ironic is that, given the topography of India and the way the links are envisaged, they might totally bypass the core dryland areas of central and western India, which are located on elevations of 300 to 1000 metres above mean sea level.
We must also recognise that the ILR could profoundly impact the very integrity of India’s monsoon system. The continuous flow of fresh river water into the sea is what helps maintain a low salinity layer of water with low density in the upper layers of the Bay of Bengal. This is a reason for the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures (greater than 28 degrees C), which create low-pressure areas and intensify monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the sub-continent is controlled by this layer of low-salinity water. A disruption in this layer because of massive damming of rivers under the ILR and the resultant reduction in freshwater flows into the sea could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent, endangering the livelihoods of a vast population.