India's river linking project

The past century has witnessed some exceptionally large inter-basin water transfer (IBWT) schemes and plans - more is in planning, preparation or construction phase. As of available data regarding this in 2009, in all there exist around 155 IBWT schemes spanning 26 countries and with a total capacity to transfer around 490 x 10^9 m3/yr of water. In addition, there exist plans for around 60 proposed schemes with a total capacity to transfer 1150 x 10^9 m3/yr - almost three times the existing capacity. Eighty-two of the existing schemes - with a total capacity of 178 x 10^9 m3/yr - are situated in North and South America; with Canada having the highest capacity of existing IBWT schemes at 138 x 10^9 m3/yr. Asia has 22 existing schemes with a total capacity of 181 x 10^9 m3/yr (more to come). The majority of the rest lie in Europe (30 schemes; 120 x 10^9 m3/yr) with a lot fewer instances in Africa and Oceania (ICID, 2006 - from Verma et al., 2009).

The Government of India, on directions from the Supreme Court in 2002 and advice from the National Water Development Agency, plans to go a step further and has proposed an estimated US$ 120 billion National River Linking Project (NRLP - a map and a newspaper article can be found here: which envisages linking 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers Doing this will form a gigantic south Asian water grid which will annually handle 178 109 m3/yr of inter-basin water transfer; build 12,500 km of canals; generate 34 Giga-watts of hydro-power; add 35 million ha to India's irrigated areas and generate inland navigation benefits.
Considering that large parts of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin face recurring floods and a number of Western and Peninsular states face severe droughts, the National Water Development Agency contends that ‘‘one of the most effective ways to increase the irrigation potential for increasing the food grain production, mitigate floods and droughts and reduce regional imbalance in the availability of water is the inter-basin water transfer (IBWT) from the surplus rivers to deficit areas" (NWDA, 2006).

One of the alternatives to NRLP that has been discussed is virtual water trade within the country. Proponents of this alternative have argued that instead of physically transferring large quantities of water from the flood-prone east to the water scarce west and south, it would be desirable to transfer virtual water in the form of food grains. The work by Verma an others (2009) explores the factors that influence inter-state virtual water trade in India; provides a preliminary assessment of the potential of virtual water trade to act as an alternative to the proposed IBWT; and assesses policy options for promoting and enhancing water saving trade within the country (Verma et al., 2009).
The analysis and conclusions regarding this alternative can be accessed here:

NWDA, 2006. Inter Basin Water Transfer: The Need. National Water Development Agency. Available online.

Verma, S., Kampman, D.A., Van der Zaag, P. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2009) Going against the flow: A critical analysis of inter-state virtual water trade in the context of India's National River Linking Programme, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 34: 261-269.