Karen Graham, Digital Journal May 18 2017
In another clash over India’s dwindling water resources, environmental activists have decried the Forest Advisory Committee’s plans to go ahead with the Ken-Betwa river-link project without any of the recommended changes.
India’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) met on Tuesday this week, and on Wednesday, decided not to accept any changes to the Ken-Betwa Project, the first stage in the Indian government’s controversial engineering plan, called the Inter Linking of Rivers Project, or ILR, according to Reuters.
When completed, the ILR project would create the world’s longest river, linking 30 rivers with the construction of 30 canals and 3,000 small and large reservoirs, according to Digital Journal. The Ken-Betwa link is the first part of the project and is actually made up of two phases.
When completed, the Ken-Betwa link will displace 10,163 people belonging to 2,529 families in 22 villages. It will also submerge 11,723 hectares (28,968 acres) of land and 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of forest land belonging to the Panna Tiger Reserve.
While the river-linking project is ambitious, promising to bring much-needed water to remote areas of the country, it is still questionable if the project will ever move forward to actual construction. A spokesperson for the environment ministry said he did not know when the Ken-Betwa project would even win final approval.
Handling the technical and environmental problems
But looking at the environmental and technical aspects of the project, there are many worrisome questions that have not been adequately resolved. Back in March, a committee was set up to look specifically into the technical aspects of the project. One of the controversies was the building of a dam that will probably never have an adequate supply of water for irrigation or power generation.
On March 30, FAC recommended that “if there is no other option and the present proposal is the best possible option available”, the height of the project dam “may be reduced by 10 meters if not at least 5 meters as a trade-off between conservation and development.”
Instead, the committee accepted the arguments put forth by the National Water Development Agency and the Central Water Commission, both under the Ministry of Water Resources, that “the present height of the dam has been arrived at after a very thorough field study, data collection and technical analysis by various experts and, therefore, any reduction in the height of the dam now would make the whole project technically unfeasible.”
In a comedy of errors, the FAC then formed another committee on April 25, made up of four each from Environment and Water Resources ministries — to “look into all unresolved issues,” according to the Indian Express.
Needless to say, but, the committee’s final report is in line with the views of the Minister for Water Resources, Uma Bharti, who has threatened to resign if the project isn’t immediately started. So there is nothing better than an unbiased committee, right? He particularly didn’t want the height of the dam lowered because that would mean the area of the Panna Tiger Reserve that gets submerged would be reduced.
And the Panna Tiger Reserve is a critical habitat for an endangered species that project planners really don’t give a hoot about keeping. Flooding the area will fragment the tiger’s habitat, making their lives unsustainable. Additionally, over 1.8 million trees are to be felled. But the committee’s final report says: “Linking the Ken river to the Betwa river basin will have “no major adverse impact” from an environmental or ecological perspective.
But the FAC and Indian government officials really don’t want to hear the warning by scientists and environmentalists who point out that determining a simple division between river basins that carry too little and too much water is not cut-and-dried, plus with climate change already triggering changes in rainfall and drought patterns, the outcome of the massive project may lead to an ecological disaster.