Rivers are the lifeline of civilizations. These ever flowing bodies of water make survival possible for biodiversity including that of humans. Connecting landscapes and running courses lasting years, rivers are also nature’s landau of ancient tales and cultures that flow harmoniously or viciously, providing anecdotes of our forefathers’ lives. The Indian peninsula has been favored with many perennial and seasonal rivers which adorn the vastness of its geography and as such provide livelihood to multiple societies both industrial as well as at grassroots. Humans manifest around these water bodies more than around oceans due to their providence ranging from food, fresh water, agriculture, housing to transport and recreation. The most prominent of all civilizations to establish was the Indus Valley, which also instituted around the fertile flood plains of River Indus. This resonates with the fact that river systems are nature’s ways of linking living.
The concept of interlinking of rivers is not new. Why? It’s because this concept has been borrowed from our environment. Natural linkages occur all around the globe and have, since the beginning of the earth. Interactions between abiotic and biotic organizations have to be duly maintained for survivorship of all. Thus making rivers, canals, streams, creeks or brooks hierarchal reservoirs of transference from the place of origin to the place of dearth. Natural interlinks between tributaries and mainstreams showcase intermixing of ecosystems, which if left alone, without human disturbance have the ability to survive and thrive properly, completing lifespans within their prescribed limit whereas unnecessary and obnoxious indulgence would lead to complete extinction of the same. The most important idea to be taken from this statement is that unsupervised interferences by humans might end a potentially important species, be it due to external pollution in a previously co-existing equilibrium or including tactics to metamorphose stable ecosystems into economically accommodating but ecologically depreciating ones. Therefore, before delving any further into the idea of interlinking of rivers in India or any other country for that matter, a proper strategy of environmental management of resources should be initiated.
Now let’s throw some light on the history of interlinking rivers in India. This scheme was first introduced during the British Colonial rule as a method to overcome the cost and time of transportation of goods, both raw materials and processed. Thus, the government began by connecting rivers that linked major industries to ports for the substantial profit. Though initially this plan was utilized for the monetary benefit only, talking about pre-independent India, but now it has an overwhelming significance in relation to eradicating poverty and food crisis. India is well known to be an agriculture-driven country because of its intensive dependence on wheat, rice, maize, jowar and bajra as staple foods. And also due to most of the country’s population being attached to farming in spite of several other available occupations such as industrial work, transportation services, small or large scale businesses etc. Although it would be wrong to presume that farmers have to scamper for land resources, which fortunately India is well endowed with, almost 60% of land being under agricultural use. These factors contribute to the majority of rural populace’s reliance on agriculture. But to carry out practices in the fields, for growth and development of various plant varieties, for better produce, a farmer requires water. Mediocrities are to be avoided here as excessive salinity or undernourished water leads to crop diseases and failures. The most common source is groundwater and surface water in the form of rivers, streams, and canals. Also for a good yield, rainfall is of utmost importance, which directs us to the idea of interlinking. And why is that? It’s because the amount of rainfall is not equally distributed all over the country with north and north-eastern states receiving the highest and western ones the lowest rainfall on an average. In the latter areas, a notion of growing crops during low precipitation periods is unimaginable. While on the other hand, fully grown plant varieties are destroyed by the incidence of floods. The net result: Overall decrease in yield, leading to food crisis. To overcome this obstacle, a network of canals and reservoirs is to be constructed to release flood-prone areas from their burden of excess water and arid regions are to be provided relief by making water available all-round the year. To avert the possibility of hunger and famines in the Indian subcontinent, the government is forced to take on this sensitive responsibility.
Speaking from an ecologist’s perspective, the effects of such an unnatural link might be far-reaching in terms of balance in river ecosystems as well as impacts on regional climate. Associate Professor and Ecologist, Dr. Prateek Srivastava, from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Amity University Noida, indicated that interlinking of rivers should be cautiously done as it may disturb the delicate ecological balance of river ecosystems. “Biodiversity of every river is unique and may be troubled due to interlinking. Irreparable damage to the native species along with altered rainfall patterns due to deforestation are some of the negative impacts of unplanned interlinks. Thorough weighing of advantages and disadvantages should be a prerequisite for the implementation of any river interlinking project”, emphasized Dr. Srivastava.
Ecological indicators are to be referenced as well. Diatoms are an example. The absence of diatom species accommodating niches in and around any river basin might affect the level of pollutants and change the physicochemical nature of the river. Diatoms are extremely delicate but efficient bio-indicators of pollutants, biochemical elements, temperature, alkalinity and dynamics of a flowing water body. Any change in stipulated environment might lead to their extinction. Although new varieties may thrive in the pollutant rich environment depending on the presence of substances they are sensitive to, but the loss of any significant species, which are microscopic in dimension, might lead to a domino effect in and around the distressed area.
An example of ILR in India which has been approved in 2016 and is the first project of its kind in the country is the ‘Ken-Betwa ILR’. Although this link has many advantages and is a respite to the drought-prone area of Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh, the project requires submergence of about 8,650 hectares of forest area which also includes a part of Panna National Park. It will be the first river project to be located inside a Tiger Reserve. Almost 10% of the habitat will be lost in the process, making tigers even more susceptible to extinction. Though this project has been approved by the National Board for Wildlife with a few prerequisites, still the loss of forest cover and the environment in the vicinity is by and large atrocious. Not to forget that nearly 20,000 people will be displaced in the process losing their land and shelter. The reinvigoration of the forests lost and the people dislodged is an excruciatingly slow process, with hardly any chances of 100% success in our yet to develop country. Exiles are never easy, be those communal or ecological.
At some fronts, internationally many countries have successfully completed the ILR like the ‘Rhine-Main-Danube canal’ which connects the Rhine and Danube rivers providing a navigable route from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. This seems to be viable because of strategic planning and infrastructure in Europe and careful methodical steps to achieve minimum ecological loss at the maximum economic benefit. But it is important to point out that even though all had been executed to utmost proficiency, invasive species and unnatural migration between various fish, clams, and crabs such as Chinese Mitten Crab, which was responsible for burrowing embankments and clogging drainage systems in the Netherlands and United States, occurred leading to disturbance in river ecosystems. Thus confirming no man-made plan is without flaw.
The skill lies in thoroughly comprehending pros and cons of a project before initiation. Preliminary investigations regarding the hostility and accessibility of an interlinking river plan, blueprints of areas affected, survey regarding palpability of schemes involved, modeling techniques predicting course of rivers for at least a generation, panel discussions with stakeholders and financial consistency need to be properly handled by the authorities before introducing major irreversible changes to the environment. Novel approaches might come in handy whilst deciding the future of rivers in action.
It is through us that the environment has been greatly modified, apart from the natural cycles or disasters which are taken into account by biogeochemical cycles prevailing on our planet. Therefore, we are the torch bearers of safeguarding biodiversity. Drawbacks are to be accepted with the hope that someone somewhere will come up with a solution and that no matter how difficult; it is our responsibility to care of and protect all habitats. Some species might not seem mandatory to existence but when considered under the banner of inter-relationships between ecosystems, could drastically reduce or increase harmful reactions. Our survival is highly dependent on the survival of accompanying species. Natural systems orient their characteristics to favor more variable, resistant and capable environs, leading to decay of the old to make a route for the new. Sometimes the environment does that and at others, human interference is the instigator. Nevertheless, when cycles continue, they tend to change all other factors along the way too, stimulating an overall alteration which regulates the future course of action. Whether river interlinks proposed in the Indian subcontinent is essentially productive or do ecologists fear needlessly; the conundrum remains.
Adeela Hameed: Miss Adeela’s hometown is Srinagar, Kashmir and she is currently pursuing Masters in Environmental Science from Amity University Noida. She graduated with Physics Honors from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Her work experience includes being Head Editor at Scribblers; an Indian content development agency, columnist for several regional newspapers and an Environmental Journalist for Kashmir Leader. Reverent bookworm, avid adventurer!