India plans to overhaul rivers for shipping

The Indian government’s ambitious plans to develop 101 rivers into an integrated Inland Water Transport (IWT) system have triggered fierce debate.

Transport and shipping minister, Nitin Gadkari, recently introduced a new National Waterways Bill 2015 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, in an attempt to gain legislative sanction for the initiative.

According to the government, India’s waterways are underdeveloped. Its share of overall cargo transport remains abysmally low: 0.4% compared to 42% in Netherlands, 8.7% in China and 8% in the US.

The country has over 14,500 kilometres of inland waterways — comprising rivers, lakes, canals, creeks and backwaters.

Promoting waterways will reduce pressure on other already congested and more expensive modes of transport, the government says. Developing an integrated network of rail, road and waterways could also significantly boost India’s economy.

The initiative will open up business opportunities and generate employment in the area of dredging, barge construction and operation and terminal construction.

Five stretches of river have already been declared as national waterways, including the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system (Allahabad-Haldia-1620 km); the Brahmaputra River (Dhubri-Sadiya-891 km).

President of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO), M. Rafeeque Ahmed, says rivers are a vital form of transport even in the most advanced economies and using inland waterways reduces pollution and is cheaper than other modes of transport. “This can in turn reduce the cost of products by 4-6% enabling Indian products to be competitive in the global market while bringing down domestic prices,” he says.

However, experts warn that river infrastructure will need a major overhaul. India’s rivers are currently too shallow for large scale cargo transport. Such navigation, they add, requires a water depth of at least three metres while most Indian rivers, including large stretches of the Ganga, designated National Waterway No. 1, are no more than two metres deep.

“In such a scenario, processes like dredging and construction of waterways can be ruinous for the health of rivers,” explained water conservationist Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

According to Thakkar, none of the existing five national waterways are working as planned, so the government should proceed with caution.

River-linking controversy

What also augurs ill for the IWT project is that it is intrinsically tied up with the government’s controversial river-linking project which will lay the groundwork for the former.

The river-linking plan involves a large-scale engineering intervention to shift water from the Brahmaputra and lower Ganga basins in eastern India to water scarce regions of western and central India through the construction of reservoirs, dams and over 14,000 kilometres of canals. The project aims to balance uneven water flow in different river basins. The project has invited the wrath of environmentalists who fear that linking rivers would lead to an irreversible ecological disaster.

The large scale movement of cargo, ships and barges can only happen once inter-river connectivity and routes are in place.

Conservationists point to the government’s nonchalant attitude towards river dynamics while planning such projects. “Every river has its own character which needs to be respected. To give just one example, mixing of water from one polluted river with another less polluted river can have serious consequences corrupting the entire system,” warned Rajendra Singh, known as India’s ‘waterman’ for his water conservation efforts.

Singh fears that extensive dredging of rivers to make them navigable will exacerbate existing pollution. “A fully integrated water transport with the inter-modal transport system requires addressing complex technical as well as infrastructural challenges in order to improve the inland waterway system and to integrate it with land based transportation. Are we prepared for this?”

Religious heads have already expressed their unease over the country’s holiest river Ganga being used as a waterway for goods and people. Their concerns centre around the need to build more barrages to maintain water levels, which they say adversely affects water quality and flow. Dams and barrages have already turned the Ganga into a stagnant pond, they say.

Rivers running dry?

India’s water situation is already precarious. With the twin pressures of a growing population and unregulated urbanisation wreaking havoc on river systems, groundwater levels are also plummeting at an alarming rate. Even bore wells in rural areas are drying up affecting the livelihoods of millions of farmers.

“The IWT vision is dependent on the availability of sufficient water in the canals perennially to maintain a waterway. In drier months, this can be a challenge as it can pressurise the water grid skewing river flow and indeed the entire river system,” explained Shashank Shekhar, assistant professor at Delhi University’s department of geology.

River flow, added Shekhar, is vital for maintaining the river regime. It sustains aquatic life and vegetation, recharges groundwater, controls salinity and facilitates navigation.

There are also concerns about the project’s wider ecological footprint. According to Shekhar, the transfer of enormous amounts of water will inundate forests and land for reservoirs and the weight of billions of litres of water has the potential to cause earthquakes in the Himalayan region.

In his opinion, it would be more prudent for the government to carry out the experiment on a smaller scale first to test its feasibility and viability. “This big bang development approach is fraught with risks,” said Shekhar.

There is also a high risk of water logging and soil turning saline in regions where the river water is diverted to according to the expert.

Linking water basins which lie at different elevations can lead to flooding. Besides, new constructions canalize the river altering its natural flow. River Gandak in Bihar is a perfect example of where canal-linked irrigation systems have lead to huge silt deposits which exacerbate floods during the monsoon.

Conflict brewing

The IWT project can also potentially create interstate rancour say campaigners. River linkages and water sharing arrangementswill have to be worked out between states.

There is already simmering tension between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan over sharing the water from the Ravi-Beas rivers; in the south, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry are locked in an acrimonious battle over the Cauvery’s waters.

Nor can the global ramifications of the plan be overlooked. India shares the water of the Indus River with Pakistan, the Teesta with Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra with China and the Mahakali River with Nepal.

These countries are likely to view India’s plans to transfer river waters with suspicion and as a potential violation of their own water rights. Over 20 million Bangladeshi farmers rely on water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganga for their daily sustenance. So the stakes are high.

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