Alternative World Water Forum

Srikanth Ramakrishnan’s piece, Bandhs Will Not Help Solve Mandovi River Dispute, Large-Scale Engineering Will, highlights a grave issue that is steadily coming to grip the Indian society and consciousness – freshwater conflicts.

The conflict over the Mahadayi river (known as Mandovi in Goa) between Karnataka and Goa is classic. The river, a small, seasonal river flowing through the drought-prone areas of north Karnataka and freshwater-parched north Goa, is caught in a tussle over whether the water should go for agriculture, or fisheries or domestic use.

Ramakrishnan’s assertion that the Karnataka bandh over sharing of the Mahadayi is more about politics than the river, holds strong ground. That two more bandhs are timed around the visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi to Karnataka in the run-up to the state elections further consolidates politicisation of the river sharing issue. However, his relatively straightforward solution of “bringing back the National Water Grid” does not consider the various economic, geographical, environmental and social aspects of the issue, and falls short of affectivity and holism.

A great idea on paper

The National Water Grid, also known as the National River-Link Project (NRLP) is not a new idea; it was first conceived by the British more than a century ago. In the early 2000s, the NRLP came back into focus. India back then was increasingly reeling under simultaneous floods and droughts, increasing water demand and scarcity due to a burgeoning population, and the onset of impacts of climate change. The NRLP, which proposed to link the perennial and flooding rivers of the Indo-Gangetic plains with the seasonal and parched rivers of western and peninsular India, instantly caught everyone’s fancy.

The idea continues to enjoy a strong support to this day. However, it does not seem to consider that India’s perennial rivers are located at the sea level, while its seasonal rivers are largely located at a higher altitude (at least 100 metres over sea level). About 3,700 MW would be required to lift water from the northern plains to the peninsula. Further, the cost of the NRLP has been estimated to be Rs 5,60,000 crore in 2001 (more than the GDP of the North East in 2014-15); 17 years down the line, one can only imagine the gigantic proportion to which it has multiplied. While the NRLP promises to generate almost 10 times the energy it would consume in lifting the transfer waters, growing cost of hydroelectric projects against the backdrop of rapidly decreasing cost of solar energy no longer make hydroelectricity a viable energy option in India.

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