The amount of water on earth has been the same across the eons, but the population of the earth has exploded leaving the earth’s water resources in a crisis.
Water is an essential commodity for human life as well as for the ecosystem to sustain. History bears evidence of the fact that most civilizations began near water bodies or rivers viz. Egyptian civilization developed along the river Nile, Indus Valley Civilization along the river Indus, Mesopotamian Civilization along Tigris/Euphrates river, and Ancient Chinese along the Yellow River. However, while the amount of available freshwater remains more or less constant, the demand for water has been increasing manifolds with the increasing population. This means that with each passing year the struggle for clean water for basic life activities intensifies.
Though 70% of the earth is covered with water, fresh water consists of only 2.5% of the total water. Even out of this, only 1% is easily available. In other words, only 0.007% of the total water resources of the earth are available to sustain the 8 billion people of earth.
The exploitation of water resources to meet the agricultural demand along with the exponential population growth, and equally supported by industrialization and urbanization put water resources under great threat both in terms of quality as well as quantity. Along with that, uneven distribution of freshwater spatially and temporally, which is further exacerbated by galloping climate change, extreme weather events, and seasonal and annual variations of precipitations, add to further stress on water resources. Hence, water may not be available in the required amount and quality in case of huge water demand in a particular region; while in other regions, it may be in abundance. Water transfers cater to this disparity.
Water transfer is a water management strategy aimed at reducing the mismatch between water supply and demand by transferring water to augment local supply in water-scarce areas or reduce damage caused by excess water.1
The objectives of water transfer may be:
to transfer water from a water surplus region to a water-scarce region
to restore degraded freshwater ecosystems
to uplift water use from low value to high value
to balance social and economic disparity in water-scarce regions
to promote a sense of solidarity between regions
These objectives can be achieved through water transfers from one river catchment to another (interlinking of rivers), or from any freshwater body (river, lake, groundwater source) to a place or region where there is water demand for various purposes, by the construction of various infrastructures. 2
Water transfers have been in existence since time immemorial. In 2400 BC, when the ancient Egyptians intended to satisfy their agricultural and shipping needs in today’s Southern Ethiopia, King Menel commanded to build the first water transfer project in the world by diverting the water from the river Nile to irrigate the land along the built channel, which brought about the development and prosperity of the Egyptian Civilization. However, modern water transfer became more evolved in the 19th century as many countries around the world started facing water crises in varying degrees. Water scarcity is a major reason for restrictions in the socio-economic development of regions. Many countries throughout the world, including India, have already employed large-scale water transfer projects to redistribute water resources for mitigating the water demand and supply imbalance.
However, as the direct and indirect, short-term and long-term, one time and multiple times, evoked and accumulated ecological, social, and environmental impacts arising from water transfer projects become more prominent throughout the world, emphasis should be given in studying the social, ecological, economic and geopolitical consequences of a water transfer project, especially for mega-projects, before any final decision is made about implementation of the projects instead of treating the rivers and water sources merely as channels or sources of water. Rivers or any water source are ecological treasure chests whose complicated interaction with the environment leaves much to be understood.
But, mega-projects are often initiated as an expression of national and political power and are expected to trigger economic and social development. Consequently, the social, economic, and environmental consequences of these projects do not receive adequate attention in the decision-making process in many cases. Moreover, the concept of “surplus” water (which, according to the decision-makers, is to be distributed to the water scarce regions), is one on which different states have different perceptions, and the quantification of “surplus” is even more contentious. There have been several inter-State, intra-State, and inter-basin water-sharing disputes, which often remain mostly unresolved despite judicial interventions.
Let us look into the impacts a mega-water transfer project can cause:
Water Donor Basin:
Controlled and proper utilization of excess water which may otherwise cause flood situations.
Water Recipient Basin
Water inflow increase may restore degrading wetlands and damaged ecosystems, and improve the biological diversity of the water-parched recipient basins.
As the amount of water areas and soil water increases in the water recipient basins, this, in turn, improves the water cycle of the region. As a result, the meteorological conditions of the recipient basins are improved.
With an increase in water availability, the socio-economic conditions of the inhabitants may improve. For e.g., the Indira Gandhi (IG) Canal was constructed to rejuvenate the Thar region with water from Himalayan rivers flowing through Punjab, and it has had many positive socioeconomic impacts.
Relief from ground subsidence caused in a basin due to excessive withdrawal of groundwater.
Subsidence often causes damage to buildings and infrastructure, increased flood risk in low-lying areas, and lasting damage to groundwater aquifers and aquatic ecosystems.
California’s central valley subsided by 8.5 metres due to excessive groundwater pumping for agriculture since the 1920s. After water transfer, the land subsidence was effectively stopped, and soil and water were conserved.
Increased water supply may also help in the improvement of water quality
Water donor basins
A decrease in water volume in the donor basins may result in - an increase in salt concentrations leading to salinization of the soil; a reduction in groundwater levels leading to saltwater intrusion.
In the North to South water transfer project of the former Soviet Union, the water volume of Lake Ladoga decreased while transferring water from the Neva River. This caused an increase in the inorganic salt and mineralized debris which damaged the ecological system of the lake.
The building of dams or reservoirs, to store water for transfer, causes permanent changes in the land use patterns and in the habitats of people living near the dam site.
The Indian government has built many dams in the past decades which have displaced between 20 to 50 million people. Many of the displaced people were not consulted or properly compensated, and most of these were indigenous tribes whose livelihoods were mostly based on local produce which was destroyed.
The construction of dams causes inundation and Destruction of the local natural vegetation and biodiversity. The impoundment in the reservoir area leads to the loss of forests and may cause water logging problems in the surrounding areas.
Changes in the livelihoods of people living downstream due to changes in aquatic life downstream of the reservoir.
Water Recipient Basins
More water to an originally dry basin containing xeric biodiversity or the recipient basin containing water with different components than the donor basin may cause adverse ecological impacts on the recipient basin.
While the Indira Gandhi canal has had a positive socio-economic impact in the Thar region, it threatened the xeric biodiversity of the region leading to the extinction of some species native to that region. As many as 153 species of plants and 22 bird species have disappeared from the irrigated region of the Thar Desert. Many desert-adapted species, such as the great Indian bustard, Houbra, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, and white-bellied sand grouse, are under threat of extinction. Many mesic and water-loving bird species are invading the region from Haryana, Punjab, and Pakistan. All these water-loving and mesic species of birds are increasing at the cost of desert-dwelling species.
There may be an increase in uncontrolled water consumption in the recipient basin leading to higher water demand than estimated exacerbated further by evaporation losses, which can cause water stress in the donor basin.
Water Transfer Routes
Open canal water transfer on animal migration routes may cause animal deaths by drowning and lead to contamination of the water by increasing organic load.
A total of 7234 vertebrates were found dead in the 65 km open stretch of Eastern National Water Carrier (Namibia) between June 1985 to August 1986.
Original Water Recipient Basin
Let us take the case of the Aral Sea stands at the boundary between Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the south.
The Aral Sea, an internal saltwater lake, was once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. The Aral Sea receives its water from two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. In the 1960s, the gross area of the Aral Sea was 67,500 square kilometres with an average depth of 54 m. Numerous varieties of fishes thrived in the Aral sea providing food as well as livelihoods for the residents living by the lake.
In the 1930s the former Soviet Union planned to enhance its agricultural production in Central Asia using the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers as the main water source for irrigation.
In 1937, the Grand Figuera Canal was built from the Syr Darya, and in 1954, Karakum Water Transfer Project commenced by diverting the natural channels of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya to the east of Turkmenistan and middle Uzbekistan for irrigation. In the 1960s, the basins of Amu Darya, Syr Darya, and the newly dug canals became the new grain and cotton production base by occupying a total of 6.6 million hectares area for grain and cotton production.
However, these enormous increases in economic benefits at that time could not counterbalance the rapidly degrading natural environment of the Aral Sea. Since the water from water sources (the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya) for the Aral Sea was diverted for irrigation, the volume of water reaching the Aral Sea decreased considerably from 56 billion cubic metres in the 1960s to almost zero by the end of 1980s. With almost nil inflow of water and a high evaporation rate in the dry climate zone, the water of the Aral Sea has been constantly decreasing and rapidly shrinking in surface area. As a result of this, the salt concentration increased three times that of seawater causing degeneration of the biotic population, and mortality in fish and other aquatic organisms. Moreover, the large-scale irrigation and domestic wastewater loaded with chemical fertilizers and pesticides flowed back to the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya and ultimately to the Aral Sea polluting it even further. As the Aral Sea dried up, the salt and minerals at the lake bottom were exposed. These poisonous salts and minerals get blown up from the dried lake bed forming the ‘Salt sand storm’ thus aggravating the desertization and salinization of Central Asia and threatening the health of the local residents. Local residents have been found to develop leukemia, nephropathy, and trachitis.
Given the size of the Aral Sea, it used to regulate the local climate through the hydrology cycle. However, as the Aral sea is drying up, precipitation has been decreasing every year leading to continuous drought conditions, extremes of temperatures, and shortening of the growing seasons.
Thus it can be understood the scale of ecological disaster an unplanned, un-assessed, un-monitored water transfer project can do.
The Indian Union Budget 2022-23 allocated a huge amount towards various river interlinking projects with a primary focus on the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project (which aims to transfer surplus water from Ken to Betwa (both tributaries of the Yamuna River) to irrigate the parched regions of Bundelkhand) despite expert warnings, not having statutory clearances and being under sub judice.
The project is expected to ensure drinking water to 6.2 million people and irrigate one million hectares of land in 13 districts across both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the majority of which fall in the water-starved Bundelkhand region which has faced severe droughts in the past years. The project comprises of a 231 km long canal between the Ken and Betwa rivers, as well as two Dams and reservoirs.
However, experts and even the locals have several concerns related to the project. The project fails to consider the fact that the water scarcity in the region is partly man-made and not totally natural. While the region’s granite topography makes it difficult for groundwater recharge during rainfall, this problem has been aggravated further by policies that support unchecked groundwater exploitation, faulty cropping patterns, deforestation, and degradation of the soil. The project would require the felling of more than 1.8 million trees and may also submerge 6107 hectares of old and biodiverse forests of the Panna Tiger Reserve and Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary. It would also submerge more than 5000 homes and roughly 6000 hectares of non-forest land. The locals also fear the amount of damage the dam would do to the Ken river which is said to be the cleanest river south of the Himalayas. Another contention of the experts, as well as locals, is that the Ken river has a surplus only in years having heavy monsoons. Moreover, with the climate crisis and unpredictable weather all over the world how can one be assured of heavy monsoons in Ken river?
Moreover, the linking project is overtly expensive, irreversible, and will take very long to complete not to mention the environmental impacts it will generate during the implementation process.
As is seen in the aforementioned cases, water transfer mega-projects transform nature since they cover a wider region with a huge investment and arduous projects. In addition to this, they also bring long-term social, political, and ecological issues to the regions they serve. Also, since they require a huge time period to complete, the main purpose for which they are implemented is not solved immediately and with time various other issues may arise which may not have been considered in the initial assessment.
To ensure the long-term safety and benefits of such a project, addressing ecological concerns, which have a multi-sectoral impact is crucial in this era of climate crisis. Hence, a water transfer project should only be finalized and implemented after carrying out a comprehensive feasibility study and evaluation of rationality and legitimation regarding the scale, benefits, ecological environment, society, and other aspects, as well as careful planning and design in order to realize maximum comprehensive benefits. Otherwise, alternative measures such as watershed management, rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, bringing changes in faulty cropping patterns, putting a check on exploitation of water resources, desilting existing ponds and reservoirs, etc., should be taken.
Oleksandra Shumilova, Klement Tockner, Michele Thieme, Anna Koska, Christiane Zarfl. (2018) Global Water Transfer Megaprojects: A Potential Solution for the Water-Food-Energy Nexus? Front. Environ. Sci. [https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2018.00150/full#:~:text=Water%20transfer%20projects%20include%20any,van%20der%20Zaag%2C%202008).]