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International Conference on water resources in Dhaka concluded on Jan 5

Written By Krishna on Sunday, January 06, 2013 | 1:53 AM

Critical Comments on Interlinking of rivers project
Presented by Gopal Krishna
at the International conference on Water Resources of South Asia: Conflict to Cooperation (WRSA-CC)
during January 4- 5, 2013 at Dhaka University
Interlinking of rivers is the world's biggest project which entails rewriting the geography of the sub-continent. India occupies 2.45 per cent of the earth's surface and 72 per cent of South Asia. If one analyses the topography of the country, one can see that there can be no acceptable way of making a water network in the country as it entails diverting the natural course of the rivers, which would lead to several Aral Sea type disasters (where two Siberian rivers were diverted).

The National Commission for Water Resource Development, set up by the ministry of water resources under the chairmanship of S.R. Hashim, had submitted a report, namely the Integrated Water Resource Development Plan. The report says: "The Himalayan river linking data is not freely available, but on the basis of public information, it appears that the Himalayan river-linking component is not feasible for the period of review up to 2050."
Ganga, deemed as a "surplus" river is a trans-boundary river from which water is planned to be removed to relieve flood by means of barrage-canal works for transfer to Subarnarekha-Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery flows during monsoon flood at the average rate of 50,000 cumecs, creating an annual disaster.
However, the if flood is to be relieved, water in substantial quantity needs to be removed by means of the link canals that will "be 50 to 100 m wide and more than 6 m deep", according to government's website explaining the modus operandi of "benefits." When a 10 m deep 100 m wide lined canal can at most carry about 1,500 cumecs of water, that would relieve flood only to the extent of 3 per cent and that too only downstream of the canal.

In the present scheme of things, if the Himalayan links are not being taken up as per the Government of India's statement to Bangladesh, there is no reason to take up the peninsular links because Brahmaputra or Ganga water will not reach Godavari and the system of water supply to Cauvery will fail. The scheme appears to be poorly conceived and designed, and is unworkable. Therefore, claim of flood and drought relief is misplaced.

The ministry of water resources has prepared a master plan suggesting that the water requirements can be met through artificial recharge of the ground water at a very minimum cost compared to ILR. It was in the backdrop of rejection by a high powered committee, which has deemed the project undesirable that the GoI used the President of India to re-propose this project on August 14, 2002.
Besides, this project involves major international rivers such as the Ganga and the Brahmaputra with their tributaries. Even the peninsular component is linked with them through the Subarnarekha-Mahanadi and Mahanadi-Godabari links. The transfer of water from the Ganga and the Brahmaputra and their tributaries and distributaries will affect all co-riparian countries.
Bangladesh as the downstream country will be particularly affected immediately, whose deltaic ecology and economy depend crucially on the water of the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, and other international rivers that flow through India. The annual monsoon inundation is a normal feature of the delta formation process in Bangladesh, and hence it cannot be used as a ground for large-scale water transfer from these common rivers.
The withdrawal of the Ganga water at Farakka has already caused serious damage to the ecology and economy of south-western districts of Bangladesh, including the Sundarbans, the unique mangrove forests along the Bay of Bengal. Further withdrawal of water of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, as envisioned, will threaten the country's economy and ecology, making it impossible for Bangladesh to concede to this project. Apart from presenting a considerable technical challenge, that of having to transfer the Brahmaputra and the Ganga waters, it will contravene basic principles of international law and their standard practices, and would adversely impact India's relationship with Bangladesh.

Earlier the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources had invited comments on the project from the public for a debate in Parliament, but even before any such thing happened an agreement on Ken-Betwa was signed between the states and the Central government. The parliamentary way of dealing with the subject implies that the document proposing this project must be put in public domain before seeking any comment on the subject and also allows the citizens of co-riparian countries to express their concerns. Therefore, the courts and the Parliament ought to take cognizance of the adverse ecological consequences of such a massive scheme.
Missing Links
Networking rivers does not mean drawing some mega litres from one river and pouring it into another like one does with containers or even with canals. The ramifications are much wider because a river is not only the water that flows or the channel which holds the flow. A river is the dynamic face of the landscape. In the drama of history, the eco system is not the stage setting; it is the cast. A recent Supreme Court judgment has put the focus back on the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project. If implemented, it will be the world's biggest infrastructure project and will alter the national geography forever. But does it make ecological sense? Looking for the missing links in this chain of thought.
The Writ Petition (Civil) No. 512 of 2002 is a historic case. In its judgment on February 27, 2012, the Supreme Court directed the government to revive the long-dead, dangerous and disastrous idea of diverting rivers for interlinking them. While the judgment is based on a flawed assumption that there is consensus and unanimity among the states and perhaps the neighbouring countries for Interlinking of rivers (ILR), the project, if implemented, could spell an ecological collapse in the sub-continent.
In fact, as the judgment itself reveals, the central government's National Perspective Plan for optimum utilisation of water resources which envisaged inter-basin transfer of water from water-surplus to water-deficit areas was formulated in 1980, the pre-climate crisis period.
ILR is the world's biggest infrastructure project which entails rewriting the geography of the sub-continent with the claimed objective to transfer water from surplus to deficit river basins to solve the drought and flood problem for ever. The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has proposed 30 major river link canals involving 37 rivers throughout the country to transfer water from so called surplus basins to water deficit basins as part of the Peninsular and Himalayan components of the ILR project.
The contention in the judgment that “apart from diverting water from rivers which are surplus, to deficit areas, the river linking plan in its ultimate stage of development will also enable flood moderation” is flawed. There isn't any credible piece of paper that can support this claim.
A  Perspective
In his speech on May 11, 2005, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, the then President of India claimed that ILR will provide 300 billion cubic metres (BCM) of additional water but the NWDA provided a different figure of 174 BCM. It has been estimated that canals involved in it will cause the  submergence of 625,000 hectare while reservoirs will lead to submergence of 1,050,000 hectares leading to a displacement of about  3.l4 million people.
The president's speech observed that floods affect  8 major basins, 40 million hectare and 260 million people. However, the 'surplus' water being diverted through ILR ranges between 2 and 2.5 per cent of peak flood discharge of surplus rivers like Ganga, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi. This is corroborated by Central Water Commission, NWDA, authors of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan and even World Bank officials.
The president's speech observed that 86 million people, 14 states and 116 districts are affected by drought annually which will be helped by ILR. NWDA, however, admits that “Mitigating the droughts in the country is not going to be feasible by ILR because the proposals regarding transfer are mainly aimed at utilising the surplus, wherever required or possible.”  It also admitted that “The ILR system will not produce power except insignificant power at the canal heads, the ILR will consume power”.
Earlier the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources had invited public comments on the project for a debate in Parliament. But even before any such thing happened, an agreement on the Ken-Betwa link was signed between the states and the Central government, making a mockery of the  democratic process.
The National Commission for Water Resource Development, set up by the ministry of water resources has submitted the Integrated Water Resource Development Plan. The report said, "The Himalayan River linking data is not freely available, but on the basis of public information, it appears that the Himalayan river-linking component is not feasible for the period of review up to 2050."
In the present scheme of things, if the Himalayan links are not being taken up as per the Government of India's statement to Bangladesh, there is no reason to take up the peninsular links because Brahmaputra or Ganga water will not reach the southern river systems.
Bangladesh as the downstream country will be particularly affected immediately. The judgment acknowledges that the construction of storage reservoirs on the principal tributaries of rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra in India, Bhutan and Nepal makes this an international issue. Bangladesh is also an affected party as a downstream country but it does not find mention in the judgment. The judgment in this almost ten year old petitioner-less “Networking of Rivers" case in the Supreme Court of India deserves the attention of not only the residents of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh but also of China and the entire world.

Flawed Assumption
The question is why did the Supreme Court interfere in the policy matters of the government against its own interpretation of its 'lakshman rekha' and presume consensus among states?
The hearings in the case started in September 2002. On October 31, 2002, the court noted, “the link projects will be completed by the year 2035 in respect of the Peninsular Link Project and by 2043 regarding the Himalayan  Link Project.”
The Terms of Reference (TOR) of the Task Force, constituted in 2002 to ensure networking of rivers said, “Devise suitable mechanism for bringing about a speedy consensus”. This presumed consensus is the ratio decidendi (the reasoning behind the decision) of the judgment on networking of rivers.Till February 2012, only ten States had responded to the court's notices. The States of Assam, Sikkim and Kerala had raised their protests on the grounds that they should have exclusive rights to use their water resources and that such transfer should not affect any rights of these States. Kerala and Punjab Assemblies have unanimously opposed the proposal of interlinking rivers. Maharashtra has also passed a similar resolution. The judgment noted that “The States of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have fully supported the concept.” The real reason for their support is that these states have already exhausted their local water resources.
Para 47 of the judgment reads: “it is clear that primarily there is unanimity between all concerned authorities including the Centre and a majority of the state governments, with the exception of one or two, that implementation of river linking will be very beneficial.” The judgment, however, records: ‘In the Par-Tapi-Narmada and Damanganga-Pinjal links, residents have shown concern about the extent of land to be submerged on the construction of the proposed dam.’
The judgment delivered by the bench of Chief Justice S H Kapadia, Justice A K Patnaik and Justice Swatanter Kumar seems to establish a disturbing precedent by assuming ‘consensus’ and ‘unanimity’ although 18 States chose not to respond to the Supreme Court notice despite the grant of repeated opportunities to do so.’
‘The Court can hardly take unto itself tasks of making of a policy decision or planning for the country or determining economic factors or other crucial aspects like need for acquisition and construction of river linking channels under that programme, ’ the judgment reads. But, despite realising its limitation, it goes on to issue 16 directions including warning for contempt in case of non-compliance and constitution of a 'Special Committee for Inter-linking of Rivers' with ‘œliberty to the learned Amicus Curiae to file contempt petition in this Court, in the event of default or non-compliance of the directions contained in this order.’
The legal minds involved have perhaps failed to understand that every river and water source is a living system (not mechanically piped water) with different alkalinity, acidic and saline levels that allow for unique and individual ecosystems.
Inter-basin transfer and interlinking of rivers will lead to an environmental catastrophe. The fact is that ILR is a river and land diversion project akin to rewriting of geography. This implies mindlessly linking toxic rivers with those which are cleaner and mixing glacier waters with grassland waters that will have a killing effect on the sub-continent's ecosystem.
The edifice of the entire ILR projects rests on Himalayan rivers and since the Government realises it and is cognizant of the impossibility of undertaking river diversion scheme in the Himalayan component wherein international rivers like Brahmaputra and Ganga are also involved, it has prioritised the peninsular rivers. It is not surprising these planners have ended up misleading the court in passing the latest order on networking of rivers in which more than 20 states have shown no interest at all and several have explicitly objected to it as is evident from the order itself.
One can say that it's not that the court overstepped its jurisdiction on February 27, 2012. Unrealistically, the Indian government had assured the court that it would achieve this instead of arguing that, since 1960s the idea to connect the country's rivers has been talked about at regular intervals. It has been rejected each time with incremental doubts about its feasibility and viability. The questions about the basis of claims about irrigation and electricity benefits too remain unanswered till date.
 Selective amnesia of NCAER Study
Para 31 of the judgment merits special attention as it takes cognizance of a study undertaken by the National Council for Applied Economic Research. Published in April 2008, the study assessed “the economic impact of the river interlinking programme and suggested an investment roll out plan, i.e., a practical implementation schedule, for the same. A copy of this report was submitted in 2011, before this Court.”
The Foreword to the NCAER study cites recommendations of the A Vaidyanathan Committee but in an exercise of selective amnesia it ignores the fact that Vaidyanathan, a water management expert, has opposed 'interlinking' on the grounds of its feasibility, desirability and viability. Vaidyanathan argues that the volume of flows during the flood season is misleading as a basis for judging surpluses. According to him, de-centralised local rain-water harvesting, by reviving and improving traditional techniques, can meet essential requirements more effectively and at a far lesser cost.
NCAER's exercise cites Vaidyanathan's 2001 paper titled 'Irrigation Subsidies' and the 1992 'Report of the Committee on Pricing of Irrigation Water' for Planning Commission under his Chairmanship. But his later views that debunk the myth of 'surplus' rivers is deliberately ignored. This is the quality of the NCAER study on the basis of which the Water Resources ministry claims that ILR is viable.
The judgment also did not take note that as per NCAER, the new aggregated cost is Rs 1,25,343 crore or 22.4 per cent lower than the earlier aggregate  estimate of Rs 5,60,000 crore at 2002-03 prices.
Calamitous Option
India occupies 2.45 per cent of the earth's surface and 72 per cent of South Asia. If one analyses the topography, it can be seen that there can be no acceptable way of making a water network in the country as it entails diverting the natural course of the rivers, which would lead to several Aral Sea type disasters (where two Siberian rivers were diverted).
While NWDA claims that Ganga, Kosi and Gandak have surplus water, Bihar Government has refuted the claim. Similar reservations have been voiced by other states. Jairam Ramesh, the current Rural Development Minister informed the Parliament in 2005, 'in my view, there would be no greater calamity than massive inter-linking of rivers.'
In the past, the court has rightly and consistently held that large infra-structure projects invariably raise technical and policy issues which the courts are not equipped to handle. In view of the reasons cited above and especially an evolving international law on transboundary rivers, here is a clear case for the apex court to review its order on networking of rivers.

Available Alternatives
In any case, the critical issue is how to solve India's water problem. As per Planning Commission's Tenth Plan document, there were 383 ongoing major and medium projects awaiting completion, 111 of which are pending for more than 26 years. All these can be completed within five to eight years, yielding an additional potential of about 14 million hectares at a cost of Rs 100,000 crore as estimated by the plan task force.
The second component listed in the Plan is development of minor irrigation, mostly in the eastern and northeastern regions. The total potential assessed is 24.5 million hectares with a total investment of Rs 54,000 crore, of which the government is expected to provide only Rs 13,500 crore, the balance coming from beneficiary farmers and institutional loans. The cost per hectare is only Rs 20,000 and gestation period almost nil, against a cost of Rs 100,000 and 12 years' gestation in case of major and medium projects.
The third equally beneficial scheme mentioned in the Plan is the groundwater recharge master plan prepared by the Central Ground Water Board needing Rs 24,500 crore to trap 36 billion cubic metres of water annually. These measures are quite clearly better than the project of networking of rivers. The judgment in this matter seems akin to what the New Scientist (a science journal) referred to as 'replumbing the planet'.
The river sculpts the terrain and the lives of people by its waters which are always in a dynamics state. Breaking this dynamics would indeed unleash forces of uncontrolled change and invite the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Note: The two day international conference on water resources at Dhaka University concluded on January 5, 2013. The speakers who spoke at the conference were Professor Nazrul Islam, Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman, Dr. S.M.Nazrul Islam, Dr. Hasan Mahmud, MP, Mr. ASM Shahjahan, Dr. Mohd. Abdul Matin. The details of the conference are as under:

At the International conference on Water Resources of South Asia: Conflict to Cooperation (WRSA-CC) besides inaugural and concluing sessions there were four plenary sessions and several concurrent experts sessions. Plenary General Session 1, dwelt on State of Trans-boundary Water Resources Management and Future Direction. Hasanul Haque Inu, MP & Minister, Ministry of Information, Peoples Republic of Bangladesh referred to September 2011 framework agreement between India and Bangladesh. The other speakers included Gopal S. Chinton, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, Kelly Alley, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, U.S.A and Doug Hill, University of Otago, New Zealand.

Plenary General Session 2 dwelt on The Barak-Meghna River basin, Tipaimukh dam and Haors of Bangladesh. The speakers included Abdullah Abu Sayeed, Vice President, BAPA, Md. Matiur Rahman, MP, Sunamganj-4, Shakhawat Hasan Jiban, Organizing Secretary, BNP Sylhet Division 
Hasnat Quaiyum, Haor People, M Inamul Haque, Former Director General, WARPO, R. K Ranjan Singh, Professor, Manipur University, India
Bedananda Bhattacharjee, Convener, Tipaimukh Badh Protirodh Andolon

Plenary General Session 3 dwelt on The Future of Teesta and Brahmaputra Rivers in the Context of Indian River Linking Project. The Speakers included Gopal Krishna, Coordinator, Water Watch Campaign of Toxics Watch Alliance, India, Kesav Krishna (bhai), River Activist, Assam, India besides Khandaker Bazlul Hoque, Vice President, BAPA,  Tauhidul Anwar Khan, Former Member, Joint River Commission and Joya Mitra, Journalist, Assansol, Pashchimbonga,  India

Plenary general session 4 dwelt on The Farakka Barrage and the crisis of the Ganges River basin. The speakers included Sayed Abul Maksud, Columnist and EC Member, BAPA, Fazle Hossain Badshah, MP, Rajshahi-2,
Zakir Hossain, Dean, Lock Haven University, USA, Chandrashekar Bhattacharjee, Journalist, Kolkata, Pacshchimbonga, India, Md. Khalequzzaman, Professor, Lock Haven University, USA and Member, BEN
Asif Nazrul, Professor, Dhaka University, S M Mijanur Rahman, Member Secretary, Boral Banchao Andolon and Md. Afzal Hossain, Member, Save Cholon Beel Movement 

In the Strategy session a drafting committee for conference resolution was constituted.
In the concluding session the speakers included Shajahan Khan, MP, Hon'ble Minister, Ministry of Shipping, Dr. Nazrul Islam, Global Coordinator, BEN, Dr. Khondaker Azharul Haq, Vice President, BWP, Shajahan Khan, MP, Prof. Nazrul Islam and Kamrul Ahsan Khan
Coordinator, BEN-Australia

Besides these speakers there were eminent speakers in the expert session as well

'Takka 1 billion fines realised from polluters'

Dhaka, Jan 4 (bdnews24.com)––The government realised over Tk 1 billion in fines from business undertakings in the last four years for pollution and violation of the environment protection law.

Environment and Forests Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud disclosed the information while speaking at the inaugural function of a two-day international conference at Nawab Ali Chowdhury Senate Bhaban of Dhaka University on Friday.

Two citizen forums working for protection of environment -- Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) and Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) -- jointly organised the conference styled 'Water Resources in South Asia: Conflict to Cooperation'.

The minister said the violators of environmental laws would not be 'spared'.

He said crisis of freshwater was a crucial issue globally, not only in the South Asian region and added that the fast growth in population increased the demand and use of water, lowering its availability.

Referring to trans-border water problems prevailing in South Asian countries, Mahmud said a difference of opinion was created over sharing of waters of 54 common rivers entering Bangladesh, but the government took initiatives to resolve the issues.

He claimed that Bangladesh reached a level to secure its due rights on the trans-boundary water resources with government initiatives.

After the inaugural function was over, Information Minister Hasanul Haque Inu spoke at another session titled 'Present situation of inter-country water management and its future perspectives'.

He said: "The main obstruction to resolution of the trans-boundary water problems of South Asia is our efforts for bilateral resolution instead of taking multilateral initiatives. But unilateral efforts are needed for the resolution."

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) Vice Chancellor Prof Dr SM Nazrul Islam, BEN Member Dr M Khalequzzaman and BAPA Member Secretary Abdul Matin, among others, spoke at the inaugural session, chaired by BAPA President ASM Shahjahan.

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