A New Beginning on Water in the 12th Plan

Mihir Shah

INDIA FACES a major crisis of water as we move into the 21s1 century. This crisis threatens the basic right to drinking water of our citizens; it also puts the livelihoods of millions at risk. The demands of a rapidly industrialising economy and urbanizing society come at a time when the potential for augmenting supply is limited, water tables are falling and water quality issues have increasingly come to the fore.

Limits to Large Dams

Recent scholarship points to definite limits to the role new large dam projects can play in providing economically viable additional water storage (Ackerman, 2011). The ambitious scheme for interlinking of rivers also presents major problems. The comprehensive proposal to link Himalayan with the Peninsular rivers for inter-basin transfer of water was estimated to cost around Rs. 5,60,000 crores in 2001. Land submergence and R&R packages would be additional to this cost. There are no firm estimates available for running costs of the scheme, such as the cost of power required to lift water. There is also the problem that because of our dependence on the monsoons, the periods when rivers have "surplus" water are generally synchronous across the subcontinent. A major problem in planning inter-basin transfers is how to take into account the reasonable needs of the basin states, which will grow over time. Further, given the topography of India and the way links are envisaged, they might totally bypass the core dryland areas of Central and Western India, which are located on elevations of 300+ metres above MSL. It is also feared that linking rivers could affect the natural supply of nutrients through curtailing flooding of the downstream areas. Along the east coast of India, all the major peninsular rivers have extensive deltas. Damming the rivers for linking will cut down the sediment supply and cause coastal and delta erosion, destroying the fragile coastal ecosystems.

It has also been pointed out that the scheme could affect the monsoon system significantly (Rajamani et al, 2006). The presence of a low salinity layer of water with low density is a reason for maintenance of high sea- surface temperatures (greater than 28 degrees C) in the Bay of Bengal, creating low pressure areas and intensification of monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the sub-continent is controlled by this layer of low saline water. A disruption in this layer could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent, endangering the livelihoods of a vast population.

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