Interlinking of Rivers in India-Issues and Challenges

Introduction: Rivers throughout the world have been the cradles of various civilisations and the lifelines of masses as they play vital roles in people’s lives. They help in irrigation, potable water, transportation, electricity generation and in various other causes.

In the light of the current trend of depleting water resources across the world, which we may say is the major resource crunch of the 21st century, a detailed study of the concept of interlinking of rivers along with the various related issues is much needed today.

India has been contemplating to undertake the exercise of Interlinking of Rivers from quite long back and is still in the process of evaluating the ecological/economic/social/political costs of the project. The project is called by the name –Interlinking of Rivers(ILR)

The origin/Evolution of the Idea:

1.Sir Arthur Cotton proposed the idea of interlinking of rivers almost a century ago. His main intention was to create a well connected inland water navigational system.

2.In 1972,Dr.K.L.Rao, Minister of Power/Irrigation in the then Indira Gandhi cabinet proposed the idea of inter connecting the Indian rivers.

3.Accordingly the then ministry of Irrigation came up with a report titled “National Perspectives for Water Development” in 1980.

4.In 1982 the Government of India under the Ministry of Irrigation, formed the National Water Development Agency –NWDA now under the Ministry of water resources. This has been set up to work out the possibilities of developing links/storages/transfers of river water across India. In course of its work it has identified 30 river links in India that could be developed.

The Need:

1.Regional Disparities: India is a predominantly agricultural country which depends heavily on the uncertain monsoons for the same. The monsoons give heavy rains to the NorthEastern/North parts of the country and not much to the western and southern parts of the country. This leads to water surplus in one area and water scarcity in another. To deal with this scenario the idea of interlinking of rivers has been suggested as a potential tool.

2.Demand-Supply Gap: Most of Indian rains occur in the 4 months from June to September and that too not uniformly across the country. This variation plus the year long demand for irrigation/drinking water would create a huge demand-supply gap which would further be escalated by the ever rising Indian Population.

3. Low Ground Water Levels: India is a tropical country with high rates of Evapotranspiration. The water content in the ground levels has already reached an alarmingly low level and if the vegetation is to be sustained water must be uniformly distributed across the country to the extent possible.

4.Food Security: India is a country with ever increasing population. To meet the consequent increasing demand for food supply it becomes imperative to bring more land under irrigation. This is possible by interlinking of rivers is what the policy makers have been opining. It is estimated that the project would bring about 140 million hectares of additional land under irrigation.

5. Salt-Export : Rivers need to discharge their salts to the sea. If this process is hindered the solid become saline/alkaline and they have very poor water percolation traits. This would lead to water logging and farmers will have to settle for fewer crops i.e crop diversification cannot take place.

6. Navigation: The project would create pollution free networks of inland waterways which would reduce our oil import and also provide employment opportunities to the rural masses.

The Plan/Project:

The plan aims to transfer water from one system to another across 30 identified links.

The two major components of the Project are:

  1. The Himalayan Component
  2. The Peninsular Component


The Himalayan Component:

   The plan envisages to construct storage reservoirs on main Ganga, Brahmaputra and their main tributaries in India and Nepal along with canal systems interlinking the rivers to transfer the surpluses of the eastern tributaries of Ganga to the western tributaries and also linking the main Ganga and Brahmaputra.

This would provide irrigation to additional 22 million hectares of land and would also help in flood control in the Ganga-Brahmaputra Basin.

The Peninsular Component:

This component has 4 phases:

1.Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery Linkages

2.Interlinking of the west flowing rivers north of Mumbai to the ones to the south of Tapi. This would ensure sufficient water supply for the Mumbai Metropolis.

3.Interlinking of Ken and Chambal so as to provide water to the dry regions of  Madhya Pradesh.

4.Diversification of some water from the west flowing rivers so as to link them to other water bodies.


1.Excess water could be delivered to water scarce regions.

2. Pollution free Inland Water Navigation systems could be developed.

3.Broadens the rural income sources by providing scope for activities like fish farming etc.

4.Agricultural production could be increased by an additional 100% .

5.Can prevent droughts and losses due to crop failures.

6.Can unify the country by making panchayats part of the project.

7.Can provide huge employment opportunities to the rural masses.

8.Can provide better irrigation facilities leading to increased food production that would eventually lead to food security.


1.There exists a knowledge gap on the environmental/ecological/social impacts and risks associated with the project.

2.Can lead to high environmental losses due to deforestation and soil erosion.

3.Rehabilitation of the displaced people becomes a huge challenge.

4.Can lead to social unrest as people/states are not generally willing to export or share their resources with other states.

Major Issues-Challenges:

  1. The NWDA has proposed to construct about 600 canals and hundreds of reservoirs for the project which would face the heat of the environmentalists.
  2. The project involves high cost and needs sound long term planning. It may also need private sector assistance and global assistance for capital. This would eventually lead to destroying the social welfare measures.
  3. Rehabilitation would pose a huge challenge
  4. States are generally unwilling to share water. In India water is essentially a state-subject in the constitution.Thus domestic/regional politics would play a pivotal role on the discussions on ILR.
  5. Opposition from the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
  6. Possible Environmental impact: Submergence of land and forests, destruction of rivers and biodiversity, salinity ingress, destruction of ground water recharge etc. Unfortunately there is no proper assessment to assert this position.
  7. Some scientists argue that the project would lead to earthquakes due to the construction of large number of dams/reservoirs across the courses of the rivers.
  8. Linking the poisonous/polluted rivers with the non-poisonous ones would lead to devastation of life and resources.


Detailed hydrological/social/ecological/economical/geological/environmental impact assessment needs to be undertaken to make the plan a reality without reaping any negative results. The project is a huge exercise and the onus is on the governments to ensure that its implementation would bring only the intended results without harming the country’s ecological balance.


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