Contentious river projects in the making

Diverting water from flood zones to drought areas sounds like a good idea. Visions and actual plans for large-scale water transfer schemes exist in various parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But implementing them proves extremely complex.

India and China are working on water transfer projects. They have the capital and credit they need to fund the new infrastructure, and they have sufficient territory to implement large-scale schemes almost entirely within their borders. 
Since the early 1970s, India has been discussing the creation of a network of canals to connect more than 30 major rivers. The idea is to allow surplus water from heavy rainfall to be used elsewhere to alleviate drought.

 But extreme weather events rarely occur simultaneously, so large reservoirs are needed to store the water until it is required.

Supporters of the “river-linking” plans argue that the reservoirs and dams could also be used to generate urgently needed electric power. Critics point out, however, that reservoir construction would necessitate the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. 

As experience has shown that they will be worse off as a result, there is strong local opposition to new dams, around 80 of which are planned by the Central Government.

 If the volume of water that reaches the lower course of a river is severely depleted, flora and fauna changes. If the sea-level rises while less water flows down into the estuaries, more salty seawater will invade fertile areas. Critics stress that “rivers are not pipelines”. Political rutRiver-linking plans are political dynamites.

The states in India that have plenty of water are not going to agree happily to pumping the precious liquid to other parts of the country. After all, they might need the water to starve off drought at home at some point, and certainly cannot expect other regions to return large volumes of water to them any time soon. 
India’s plans are also fraught with foreign-policy challenges. Some of the envisaged reservoirs extend into neighbouring countries, Nepal and Bhutan. Whether those nations will agree to giving up valleys is doubtful.

Bangladesh has already declared its opposition to getting less water in the future.

Despite the predictable negative impacts of the river-linking plans, India’s Central Government set up a National Water Development Authority in 1982. Its job is to draft detailed plans for a nationwide water transfer scheme.

In 2012, the Central Government announced the launch of a large-scale project that will create a 9.000-km network of canals connecting more than 30 rivers. The cost can only be roughly estimated at present. Critics believe it will be considerably more than India’s gross national product in one year. 

Gargantuan project in China

China has massive water-supply problems too. The idea of directing water from the wet south of the country to the drier, drought-prone north goes back decades. In 2002, work commenced on three systems of canals and conduits – each of them hundreds of km long.

 The scheme is designed to pump water from the Yangtze Basin to the Yellow River and Beijing in order to supply northern cities, agriculture and industry with 45 billion cubic m of water a year. This is the biggest water-transfer project in human history and will cost around $80 billion.

The eastern route has been completed. It starts on the lower Yangtze and uses long sections of the previously existing Grand Canal to Beijing. Using the Canal obviously lowered the project costs, but it also presents problems. Due to cargo shipping and effluent discharge, the Canal’s water is polluted.

 Unless it is treated first, it cannot be used as drinking water. As in India, however, mass resettlements will be required to make way for water reservoirs and canals. The Chinese government estimates that around 4,00,000 people will be affected.

These people have reason to fear that at least some of the promised compensations will by siphoned off through the murky channels of the government bureaucracy.

Chinese environmentalists doubt the wisdom of the huge investment. They see the need to protect water quality and to make more effective and efficient use of water resources. Furthermore, lengthy periods of drought in southwest China in recent years suggest that climate change might be reducing water resources. 

The experiences made in India and China show that large-scale water diversion projects not only require huge investments, but also give rise to lots of conflicts.

 Environmentalists in both the countries insist that there is considerable scope for making more efficient use of water at the local level. Moreover, they want scarce resources to be distributed in a way that poor sections of the population can benefit from. 

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