Memorandum on The Indian River Linking Project (IRLP)

Supported by Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia

Bangladesh Environment Network

বাংলাদেশ পরিবেশ নেটওয়ার্ক (বেন)

A global network to help Bangladesh protect her environment


  1. On February 27, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to start implementing the Indian River Linking Project (IRLP) within 30 days and complete it by 2016.[1]
  2. The order came as a rude shock after several years’ hiatus during which the IRLP had somewhat receded from the scene. True that IRLP was never completely abandoned by the Indian government, even after the strong protest it generated both inside and outside India in 2002 when proponents of IRLP pushed it through an earlier Supreme Court ruling. This time, however, the court has gone further, forming even a project implementation committee.
  3. According to various sources, IRLP envisages transfer of 334 billion cubic meters of water through the construction of 30 inter-river links, involving 36 big dams, 94 tunnels, and 10,876 kilometers of canals. The project has two parts, namely the Himalayan and the Peninsular (see IRLP map in Figure 1 below), and the estimated cost of the project varies from $150 to 250 billion.[2]
  4. The project is based on the notion that some river basins are “surplus” while others are “deficit,” so that transfer of water from the former to the latter will be beneficial. However, this is a classic example of erroneous and dangerous abstraction based on a very superficial understanding of the nature of the problem.
  5. A closer examination shows that different rivers with different volumes of annual and seasonal discharge and flowing through different terrains are part of the earth’s natural diversity, just as hills and valleys of different elevations. Each river develops a unique ecology (with corresponding flora and fauna) and economy (with corresponding cropping, settlement, and transportation pattern, etc.) and culture. Large-scale diversion of water from one basin to another ultimately harms both, as earlier examples show. For example, diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers led to the death of the Aral Sea and gave rise to new problems of waterlogging and salinity in Kazakhstan (see pictures in Figure 2a and 2b below).
  6. Researchers have expressed doubts about IRLP on grounds of lack of technical, financial, and economic feasibility and viability. They have pointed out further that transfer from another river cannot overcome the perceived scarcity of water if choices with regard to crops, irrigation method, settlement and consumption pattern, etc. are not appropriate.
  7. River intervention projects like IRLP embody the Commercial Approach, which deems river water flowing into the sea a waste.[3] Unfortunately, this approach leads to conflicts among co-riparian regions, states, and countries, because the volume of water is finite. It ultimately harms the river, sometimes causing its death, as has actually happened to several important rivers of the world. The approach is also harmful to the ecology of the river estuary and the marine environment.
  8. Projects like IRLP are, instead of being the product of objective and comprehensive analysis, often the result of a push from vested interests, as represented by the dam construction industry, engineering and consultancy firms, and other agencies and individuals who hope to get a share of the project budget.
  9. Though the Himalayan and Peninsular parts of IRLP are often presented as separate, they are actually connected by several links (see map in Figure 1), and the main purpose of the project is to transfer water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganges Rivers to the south and west of India.
  10. Since 1974, India has been already transferring the Ganges flow away from Bangladesh through its Farakka barrage, causing drastic reduction of the downstream flow and enormous harm to the lower riparian country, Bangladesh (see Figures 3, 4, and 5). India is diverting Teesta flow through her Gajoldoba barrage, the downstream part of the river drying up in Bangladesh (see Figure 6). These and other diversions have led to a drastic reduction in the sediment flow that is the key to Bangladesh’s survival against sea-level rise caused by climate change (see Figure 7). India is putting around Bangladesh a ring of dams, barrages, and other water diversionary and flow control structures, which will choke off all river flow to Bangladesh (see Figure 8).
  11. Due to the diversion already carried out, the Brahmaputra River now serves as the source of about 70 percent of the river water flow of Bangladesh during the dry season. Therefore, diversion of the Brahmaputra flow and added diversion of the Ganges flow and their tributaries through IRLP will lead to the certain death of Bangladesh’s remaining rivers.
  12. Both the Brahmaputra and the Ganges are international rivers. After flowing through India they enter Bangladesh before reaching the Bay of Bengal. Therefore, India does not have the right to transfer unilaterally water from them and their tributaries. IRLP clearly violates the 1997 UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.[4] It contravenes the convention’s Article 7 which forbids countries from taking steps that can cause significant harm to co-riparian countries. IRLP violates the Convention’s Articles 20 and 23 that call for the preservation of ecosystems of the river basin and of the marine environment, respectively. It violates Article 6 that asks countries to take into account co-riparian countries’ social and economic needs, existing and potential use, and size and interests of the population that depend on the river.
  13. There are reports that China is considering diversion of water from Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper reach of the Brahmaputra River lying in Tibet of China. It is highly contradictory on the part of India to oppose Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputra flow and ask Bangladesh to join her in this opposition, while itself engaging in the diversion of river water away from Bangladesh. The competing diver diversion plans and projects of China and India illustrate the conflicts that the Commercial Approach to rivers generates.
  14. India’s diversion of river water away from Bangladesh has harmed significantly Indo-Bangladesh relationship and has emerged as the most important obstacle to the promotion of cooperation between these two countries in other areas. For example, it has made it difficult for Bangladesh to grant India transit through her territory to India’s northeastern states. IRLP will further damage the Indo-Bangladesh relationship and will make cooperation almost impossible in the future.

Demands and recommendations

  1. In view of the above, Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), the global network of non-resident Bangladeshis, joined by other Bangladeshi organizations and citizens, and their international friends,
    1. Demands that India stops proceeding further with the river linking project, in so far as it affects international rivers, such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges and their tributaries. Though we are opposed to the river linking in general, we leave it up to Indian citizens themselves whether they would like linking of rivers that are entirely domestic to India.
    2. Demands that India decommissions Farakka barrage, Gajoldoba barrage, and all other dams and barrages that it has constructed on international rivers and rivers that affect the flows of these international rivers.
    3. Demands that India abandons all under-construction and planned diversionary and unilateral flow control structures on rivers that enter from India to Bangladesh
    4. Recommends that India abandons the current Commercial Approach to rivers and instead adopts the Ecological Approach that discourages intervention in the direction and volume of natural river flow so that rivers can be bonds of friendship among co-riparian neighbors instead of being a source of contention and conflict. The only adoption of the Ecological approach can give India the moral right to oppose China’s plan of diversion of the Brahmanputra flow and to urge Bangladesh to join her in this opposition.
Figure 2a: Gradual shrinkage and death of the Aral Sea caused by the diversion of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers
Figure 2b: Vessels lying on the dried-up bed of the Aral sea
Figure 2b: Vessels lying on the dried-up bed of the Aral sea
Figure 3: Drastic fall in Ganges flow and dried up Padma (Ganges) bed at Harding Bridge in Bangladesh due to India’s Farakka Barrage
Figure 3: Drastic fall in Ganges flow and dried up Padma (Ganges) bed at Harding Bridge in Bangladesh due to India’s Farakka Barrage
Figure 4: Drastic fall in Ganges flow to Bangladesh across all seasons due to India’s Farraka Barrage
Figure 5: Dried up Garai River of Bangladesh due to diversion of Ganges flow by India’s Farraka Barrage
Figure 7: Drastic reduction in sediment flow to Bangladesh due to river intervention structures built by India on shared rivers
Figure 8: India’s ring of dams and barrages around Bangladesh

[1] The Daily Star, February 28, 2012

[2] See M. Firoze Ahmed, Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, and Md. Khalequzzaman (editors), Regional Cooperation on Transboundary Rivers: Impact of the Indian River Linking Project, Dhaka: BAPA, BEN, BEA, IEB, BUET, and DU, 2004, for detailed information on IRLP. 

[3] See Nazrul Islam, “IRLP, or the Ecological Approach to Rivers?” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 17 (April 29), 2006, pp. 1693-1702, for discussion of IRLP and its relation with the Commercial Approach to rivers.

[4] See

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