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ON THE WATERFRONT

- River Linking Project could be an environmental nightmare

by

Avinash Kalla

RIVER-PICTURE.jpg (67451 bytes)
River-linking will be an ecological disaster, say environmentalists. "We require practical solutions and not spectacular ones" - says Dr. Vandana Shiva.

The River-linking project (RLP) proposes to link 14 Himalayan rivers in the north and 16 peninsular rivers in the  south. The benefits of such a scheme are obvious - it would add 35-37 million hectares of irrigated land, generate 34,000 million kilowatts of electricity and increase navigational efficiency apart from controlling floods and eliminating chances of drought. But India's best known environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva and her two colleagues Gunjan Mishra and Kuwar Jalif have done an impact assessment study of the project that unfolds the grave ecological nightmare that could result from this gargantuan exercise.

The unsustainable equation for the future is staring us starkly in the face - freshwater supply is dwindling at an alarming rate even as the demand for water grows manifold. "Of all the social and natural crises we face, water crisis lies at the heart of our survival," says Kochiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO.

In such a doomsday scenario will the much-hyped River-linking Project (RLP) work? The project proposes to link 14 Himalayan rivers in the north and 16 peninsular rivers in the  south. The benefits of such a scheme are obvious - it would add 35-37 million hectares of irrigated land, generate 34,000 million kilowatts of electricity and increase navigational efficiency apart from controlling floods and eliminating chances of drought.

Though votaries of the river linking project say channeling the surplus water to underfed areas will solve the perennial problem of floods and droughts and bring a boom in employment but thereís another side to the coin which spoils the rosy picture. A number of leading environmentalists are of the opinion that the project could be an ecological disaster. There would be a decrease in downstream flows resulting in reduction of fresh water inflows into the seas seriously jeopardizing aquatic life.

Indiaís best known environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva and her two colleagues Gunjan Mishra and Kuwar Jalif have done an impact assessment study of the project that unfolds the grave ecological nightmare that could result from this gargantuan exercise.

Dr. Shiva says that no serious study seems to have been done on the river linking project. " The project is based on the false assumptions that water from surplus rivers can be diverted to deficit rivers. The truth is there are no surplus or deficit rivers. There are only living and dead rivers. Rivers live where river basins have been ecologically managed."

Dr. Shivaís colleague Gunjan adds that all rivers change their course every 70 to 100 years. " This is a natural phenomenon that can't be altered. You may link them today but once the rivers start changing their course after a few decades then the entire project would be in vain."

But these arenít the only reasons why critics are debunking the governmentís massive project that is perceived to control floods, reduce incidences of drought, produce huge amounts of hydro-electricity and create long stretches for navigation.

They say the scheme has the potential to cause large and irreparable damage on a scale that is unimaginable. There would be loss of biodiversity, reduction in downstream flows, damage to fisheries and wild life, displacement of people, conflicts over water sharing and pressure created on land by cubic tonnes of water that might cause seismic tremors.

Studies by Dr. Shivaís institute Navdanya reveal that a dam constructed at the Sharda-Yamuna link in Haryana is going to create a load of 500 billion tonnes on the uphill side making the surface tremor-prone due to this load.

Aquatic Lifecycles

Elaborating on this Gunjan says, " Water-logging is inevitable with dam construction and river linking. This is the breeding ground for water-borne diseases. These constructions disturb the aquatic lifecycles and have adverse effect on fisheries. Large forestland is submerged and many people get displaced. These are the reasons why river linking can be such an epidemic."

Studies reveal that the flora and fauna too will be adversely affected by this project. For example, the Panna Tiger National Park in Madhya Pradesh that falls in the vicinity of the linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers is going to suffer major damages. Over 50 square kilometers of land, which is a habitat to many endangered species that fall under the wild life protection act 1972, will get submerged.

Add to this the construction of the dam, which will result in large deforestation in an area where the entry of noise-polluting diesel vehicles is banned. The construction that will take over ten years will virtually kill the ecology in the area.

Similarly in Uttar Pradesh the famed Jim Corbett National Park that falls under Shadra-Sahayak Canal Link will bear irreparable losses with the submergence of the  elephant reserve area.  

So, is the move to link the rivers feasible and desirable? Environmentalists say that connecting the peninsular rivers in the Himalayan region would not just alter the natural drainage but 40,000 km long inland waterways would cause massive human displacement.

In the light of such negative fall-outs, can we have a better water administration that overcomes the twin evils of floods and droughts? There is definitely a way out says Dr. Shiva. She points to the non-violent irrigation system that has so successfully been followed in southern rivers.

Non-Violent Irrigation

Dr. Shiva gives the example of non-violent irrigation system adopted in ancient times in Mysore. " Water storage and distribution were based on nature's logic and worked in harmony with nature's cycles.  Among these was the major tank system of Mysore.  These tanks constructed over centuries also endured over centuries.  Their management was based on local participation with women and men desilting the tank-beds and repairing the breaches that prevented water-logging.  Small tanks in the village were replenished by women who carried water from the river."

She is of the opinion that if we follow this traditional water management system of storing water in small tanks and ponds than we can tackle water shortage very effectively.

She cites the examples of Lalitpur in Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh  with largest dam density in Asia with eight big dams and innumerable smaller ones. The area is facing grave serious problems of depletion of ground water whereas some distance away in Tikamgarh there are 500-year-old ponds and small dams constructed by the Chola kings that have retained the ground water level to assist 35 percent more land irrigation.

" The example is right in front of our eyes," says Dr. Shiva. " We require practical solutions and not spectacular ones. Itís high time government starts rethinking before itís too late."

*****

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