Skip to main content

Lecturrete topic 346 - Linking of Rivers 



The concept of interlinking rivers in India is a grand and ambitious vision aimed at addressing the country's water management challenges. With a diverse climate and varying rainfall patterns, India faces significant disparities in water availability across different regions. While some areas experience frequent floods, others suffer from chronic water shortages. The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project seeks to create a network of water channels to balance these disparities, aiming to ensure equitable water distribution, enhance irrigation, mitigate flood risks, and augment drinking water supply. This article explores the historical background, current status, potential benefits, challenges, environmental impacts, and future prospects of the ILR project in India.

Historical Background

Early Proposals

The idea of linking rivers in India is not new. It dates back to British colonial times when Sir Arthur Cotton proposed inter-basin water transfer projects in the 19th century. However, the first concrete proposal emerged in the 1970s, championed by Dr. K.L. Rao, a prominent engineer and former irrigation minister. He envisioned a "National Water Grid" that would link the Ganga and Cauvery rivers to address water scarcity in southern India.

Development of the National Perspective Plan

In 1980, the Ministry of Water Resources formulated the National Perspective Plan (NPP) for water resources development. The NPP proposed two key components: the Himalayan Rivers Development and the Peninsular Rivers Development. These components aimed to transfer surplus water from flood-prone regions to drought-prone areas, ensuring balanced water distribution across the country.

Current Status of the ILR Project

River Linking Proposals

The ILR project consists of 30 river-linking proposals, divided into 14 under the Himalayan component and 16 under the Peninsular component. Some notable proposals include:

  1. Ken-Betwa Link: Aimed at transferring water from the Ken River in Madhya Pradesh to the Betwa River in Uttar Pradesh.
  2. Godavari-Krishna Link: Designed to divert surplus water from the Godavari River to the Krishna River.
  3. Par-Tapi-Narmada Link: Intended to transfer water from the Par, Tapi, and Narmada rivers to provide irrigation and drinking water in drought-prone regions of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Implementation Progress

As of now, the implementation of the ILR project is in various stages of progress:

  • Ken-Betwa Link: This project has made significant progress, with agreements signed between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Environmental and forest clearances have been obtained, and the detailed project report (DPR) has been prepared.
  • Godavari-Krishna Link: This project has seen some on-ground developments, with the construction of the Polavaram Dam on the Godavari River, which is a crucial component of the link.
  • Other Links: Several other links are in different stages of feasibility studies, DPR preparation, and inter-state discussions.

Potential Benefits

Irrigation and Agriculture

One of the primary benefits of the ILR project is the potential to significantly boost irrigation and agriculture. India is predominantly an agrarian economy, with around 60% of the population dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, inconsistent rainfall and water scarcity hinder agricultural productivity. The ILR project aims to provide reliable water supply to drought-prone regions, enabling farmers to cultivate multiple crops annually and reducing dependency on monsoons.

  • Increased Agricultural Output: It is estimated that the ILR project could irrigate an additional 35 million hectares of land, potentially increasing agricultural output by 25% to 30%.

Flood Control

The ILR project also aims to mitigate flood risks in flood-prone regions by diverting excess water to areas with water scarcity. This not only protects lives and property but also reduces the economic burden of flood damage and rehabilitation.

  • Flood Reduction: Regions like Bihar and Assam, which face severe floods annually, could benefit significantly from reduced flood occurrences and intensity.

Drinking Water Supply

Ensuring adequate drinking water supply is another critical objective of the ILR project. Many regions in India suffer from acute drinking water shortages, leading to health crises and socio-economic challenges.

  • Enhanced Water Supply: The ILR project aims to provide safe drinking water to about 101 million people in water-scarce regions.

Challenges and Concerns

Environmental Impact

One of the most significant concerns associated with the ILR project is its environmental impact. Large-scale river interlinking can disrupt ecosystems, affect biodiversity, and alter natural water flow patterns.

  • Ecosystem Disruption: Diversion of water from natural courses can impact aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, affecting flora and fauna dependent on these water bodies.
  • Deforestation: Construction of canals and reservoirs often requires deforestation, leading to loss of wildlife habitats and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Social Impact

The ILR project involves large-scale land acquisition and displacement of communities, particularly indigenous and rural populations.

  • Displacement and Rehabilitation: An estimated 1.5 million people could be displaced due to the ILR project, raising concerns about their rehabilitation and social integration.
  • Cultural Impact: Displacement can disrupt traditional lifestyles and cultural practices of indigenous communities.

Economic Feasibility

The ILR project is a massive financial undertaking, with an estimated cost of over $168 billion. Ensuring the economic feasibility and securing funding for such a large-scale project poses significant challenges.

  • Funding and Resource Allocation: Mobilizing resources and ensuring efficient allocation of funds for the project is crucial. Delays and cost overruns can further escalate the financial burden.

Political and Inter-State Issues

Water sharing is a contentious issue among Indian states, often leading to political disputes and conflicts.

  • Inter-State Water Disputes: Ensuring consensus and cooperation among states for water sharing agreements is vital for the success of the ILR project. Historical water disputes, such as those between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery River, highlight the complexity of inter-state water sharing.

Environmental and Ecological Concerns

Impact on Riverine Ecosystems

The interlinking of rivers can have profound impacts on riverine ecosystems. Natural river courses support a wide range of biodiversity, and altering these courses can disrupt habitats and migration patterns of aquatic species.

  • Biodiversity Loss: Species that depend on specific river conditions may struggle to survive if those conditions are altered. This can lead to a decline in fish populations, affecting local fisheries and the communities that depend on them.
  • Water Quality: Changes in water flow can impact sediment transport and nutrient distribution, potentially affecting water quality downstream.

Climate Change Considerations

Climate change poses additional challenges to the ILR project. Changing rainfall patterns, increasing frequency of extreme weather events, and rising temperatures can affect water availability and distribution.

  • Uncertainty in Water Availability: Predicting future water availability and ensuring sustainable water transfer becomes more complex in the context of climate change.
  • Adaptive Management: The ILR project needs to incorporate adaptive management strategies to respond to changing climatic conditions and ensure long-term sustainability.

Technological and Engineering Challenges

Technical Feasibility

The ILR project involves complex engineering challenges, including the construction of long canals, tunnels, and reservoirs across diverse terrains.

  • Engineering Complexity: Building infrastructure that spans different geographical and climatic zones requires advanced engineering solutions and significant technical expertise.
  • Maintenance and Operation: Ensuring the long-term maintenance and efficient operation of such an extensive network poses additional challenges.

Water Balance and Allocation

Ensuring equitable water allocation and maintaining a balance between water supply and demand across different regions is crucial.

  • Hydrological Studies: Comprehensive hydrological studies are necessary to understand water availability, flow patterns, and potential impacts on local water resources.
  • Dynamic Allocation: Implementing a dynamic water allocation system that responds to changing conditions and needs is essential for the project's success.

Socio-Economic Benefits and Risks

Economic Development

The ILR project has the potential to stimulate economic development by providing reliable water supply for agriculture, industry, and domestic use.

  • Employment Generation: The construction and maintenance of the ILR infrastructure can create employment opportunities, boosting local economies.
  • Industrial Growth: Reliable water supply can support industrial growth, particularly in water-scarce regions, contributing to overall economic development.

Social Equity

Ensuring that the benefits of the ILR project are equitably distributed is crucial for social equity.

  • Access to Water: Providing access to water for marginalized and underserved communities can improve their living standards and reduce socio-economic disparities.
  • Conflict Resolution: Addressing water-related conflicts and ensuring fair water sharing can promote social harmony and cooperation among states and communities.

Future Prospects and Policy Recommendations

Integrated Water Resource Management

Adopting an integrated water resource management (IWRM) approach that considers the entire water cycle, including surface and groundwater resources, is essential for sustainable water management.

  • Holistic Planning: Ensuring that water management strategies are integrated and consider environmental, social, and economic aspects is crucial for the success of the ILR project.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Involving all stakeholders, including local communities, state governments, and environmental organizations, in the planning and implementation process can enhance transparency and cooperation.

Technological Innovations

Leveraging technological innovations can improve the efficiency and sustainability of the ILR project.

  • Remote Sensing and GIS: Using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) for monitoring and managing water resources can enhance decision-making and resource allocation.
  • Advanced Irrigation Techniques: Implementing advanced irrigation techniques, such as drip and sprinkler irrigation, can optimize water use and reduce wastage.

Policy and Governance

Strengthening policy and governance frameworks is essential for effective water management and the successful implementation of the ILR project.

  • Legal Frameworks: Developing clear and robust legal frameworks for water sharing, land acquisition, and environmental protection can provide a strong foundation for the project.
  • Institutional Capacity: Enhancing the capacity of institutions responsible for water management, including training and resource allocation, can improve project implementation and management.


The Interlinking of Rivers project in India represents a bold and visionary approach to addressing the country's water management challenges. While the potential benefits in terms of irrigation, flood control, and drinking water supply are significant, the project also poses substantial environmental, social, economic, and political challenges. Ensuring the success of the ILR project requires a balanced and integrated approach that considers all aspects of water management, leverages technological innovations, and fosters cooperation among all stakeholders. By addressing these challenges and implementing effective policies and strategies, India can harness the full potential of its water resources, ensuring sustainable and equitable development for future generations.