The Parched Tiger: India’s Plan To Link Rivers To Ensure Water Supply

Courtesy of Future Directions International, a look at India’s plan to link rivers as part of a revived national inter-basin water transfer project:

India’s current water challenge is well documented. The country extracts 230 cubic kilometres of groundwater every year and faces critical water shortages and environmental degradation, caused by groundwater over-extraction and pollution. India has access to as little as 4 per cent of the world’s water resources. Consequently, managing and safeguarding these resources more effectively has become a key government priority. The current political priority given to securing water supplies, has led the government to revisit a number of projects shelved by previous administrations.  


The Modi government has revived plans for a national inter-basin water transfer project, with hopes that implementation will begin within the next six months. The first phase will involve the construction of a new storage dam on the Ken River and a 220km canal to divert water to Betwa River. The project is expected to result in the transfer of 591 million cubic metres of surplus water to the Betwa River.  

A detailed project report on linking the two rivers has been submitted to the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. It claims that an extra 600,000 hectares of land will be irrigated through the project, while another 60,000ha will benefit from water flows in the canal. The National Water Development Agency suggests that the project will also provide access to drinking water for 1.35 million people.

Approximately 11,700ha of land will potentially be submerged if the Ken-Betwa Link project goes ahead. This will lead to the partial flooding of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the displacement of 22 villages. The Ken River is one of the few perennial rivers in Madhya Pradesh; altering the river flow will have a significant impact on its ecosystem.

Whether or not the Ken River has sufficient surplus water for this project is questionable. Rapid urbanisation and industry development along the river have put considerable pressure on available resources. Over-allocated river basins throughout India leave little unpolluted water for diversion projects. This, however, seems unlikely to stop the development of basin transfers.

The national project intends to reduce India’s dependence on groundwater. At present, 85 per cent of drinking water and 60 per cent of India’s irrigation is sourced from groundwater. This has led to significant environmental degradation, as aquifers are overdrawn beyond replenishment and pollution has leached into supplies.

The inter-basin transfer project is expected to take 10 years to implement and, on completion, will involve 30 river links. The project will also include the creation of 3,000 storage structures, a canal system of close to 15,000km and the transfer of over 170 trillion litres of water per year. Approximately 34GW of hydroelectric generation is also expected through the transfers.

A key barrier to implementing this project will be gaining the support of the states. Water management in India is the jurisdiction of the states and rivalry over limited water resources is common. The federal government will need to convince all riparian states on the selected rivers that the transfer project will increase, not decrease, their water security.

Altering the natural flow of rivers may also have significant unintended consequences. Once created, the canals and diversions are not easily reversed; environmental impacts may lead to a breakdown of critical ecosystems and water quality. Many too, are unconvinced that the project will lead to any significant reduction in groundwater abstraction. It is likely that, despite the transfers, groundwater will remain the key water source for agriculture and industry.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2014 at 4:49 am and is filed under India.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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