Finally the covers have been taken off and the Apex Court has given a go ahead signal to the controversial Interlinking Proposal, ignoring all ecological implications. It has brought new challenges for the Environmentalist and Scientist to protect the natural ecosystem from the implications of such a gigantic project. Very little has been done so far to establish the feasibility of this project from environmental point of view.
The Environmental Dilemma
The gigantic project which aims to solve the water crisis in our country has opened a Pandora's Box. It has brought along with it a plethora of issues – the constitutional provisions, the existing legal provisions, water ownership, ecological concerns, Rehabilitation & Resettlement (R&R) problems, political support and willingness of participating States etc. However the basic and main issue lies in the ecological consequences of such a project.
Need is to understand that the environmental and socio-economic impacts caused by inter-basin transfer may be different from those caused by the in-basin developments. These differences could be both due to the large size of the project and also due to the different nature involving long distance water transfers through large and long canals. Longer links not only involves large-scale resettlement but also results in submergence of large forest areas. The natural drainage is disturbed and a divide is created between neighbouring communities. The nature of inter-basin transfers also lead to inadvertent introduction of flora and fauna alien to the recipient basin from the donor basin. This exotic species flora and fauna could outlive the native species and change the dynamics of the original ecosystem.
The interlinking of Himalayan Rivers with the peninsular rivers through some 40,000 km long inland waterways may see massive human displacement. The large network of dams and canals may also alter the natural drainage in a way that occasional flooding and water logging may inundate millions of hectares of agricultural land. More importantly, the interlinking of rivers may disrupt the entire hydrological cycle by preventing the rivers from performing their ecological functions before reaching the oceans. There is also the danger of about 8000 sq. km of forestland and inhabited areas being submerged. The environmental toll of this effect may be unimaginable.
Diversion of substantial quantities of water from the higher reaches of a river to lower reaches may result in reduced water availability. This effect may be marked in the delta region where maximum agricultural operations are carried out, thereby leading to reduced production and permanent degradation of fertile land by sea water ingress.
The diversion of floods from the major rivers would also increase the down stream river pollution. The pollutants present in River Ganga will be flushed into the ocean by the floods. Reducing the flow in the Ganga by diversion will increase the concentration of pollution in the river. River Yamuna is a live example from where Haryana and Delhi draw most of their water. However, the flow is so reduced and it barely flows after leaving Delhi and the water quality at Delhi is highly polluted and poisonous.
The interlinking of rivers may also lead to the International conflicts. A study conducted on the hydrology of the Brahmaputra basin declared that the interlinking project would dry up the river downstream from Jogighopa in Goalpara district. The study of the hydrological data of the basin articulates that about 95 per cent of the water has been slated to be diverted to link it with the rivers Ganga, Teesta and the Manas. This would in turn have a severe environmental impact on India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, which might turn into an international political conflict.
Scientists, environmentalist, social workers, NGO’s have come together on a common platform and are raising their concern about the environmental implications of this project.
An in- depth Environmental Impact Assessment is required which will include rationally conceived and people oriented compensatory and mitigatory plans. The nature of problems like water logging, salinization, and changed crop pattern must be studied.
Until and unless these issues become a part of the project planning process, we would never be aware of the magnitude of the problems till the time we actually face it.