Photograph by Paul Salopek
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Traditional water reservoirs such as this one—generations old—are a local solution to water shortages, says sustainable farmer Prem Singh, in Banda, northern India.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

India is in a historic water crisis. Will diverting 30 rivers solve it?

The ambitious plan is running up against environmental concerns.

Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is on a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.

Prem Singh’s farm thrives along the dusty banks of the River Ken.

Strangled by years of drought, the river’s currents have ebbed. Local well levels have dropped by as much as 85 feet. Grain farmers are abandoning their fields and moving to cities. Some even have committed suicide. But Singh’s intermixed plot of mango trees, rows of garlic bulbs, and cow milking sheds loom in the heat waves like a lush oasis. He is debt-free—the dream of farmers anywhere on the globe—and turning a good profit.

“The Green Revolution took away our self-sufficiency,” said Singh, referring to industrial farming techniques that introduced mechanization, genetically modified crops, and chemical fertilizers to the region more than a quarter of a century ago. “I sold my tractor. I now use buffalo to plow. I harvest plenty of rain in a pond. I’m much better off than most of my neighbors.”

Yet Singh’s small-is-beautiful vision is colliding today with one of the biggest and most audacious water projects in the world: The Indian government plans to siphon off the Ken’s currents to refill a nearby river that it maintains is even drier, the Betwa. This landscape-scaled transfusion is part of an unprecedented river linking program that ultimately hopes to graft together 30 major Indian rivers through more than 9,000 miles of concrete canals.

The rationale?

India today faces a water emergency of historic proportions, with an estimated 600 million people—about half the population—grappling with either severe water shortages or polluted water supplies. Government engineers propose to ease the crisis by shunting “excess” water from one riverbed to another, a colossal refit of nature’s designs that also could help control monsoon flooding, boost irrigation, and generate hydropower for the country’s water-thirsty citizens.

“The Indian government plans to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030,” Nitin Gadkari, the minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, promised at a recent water conference.

The government’s own experts are less optimistic. A federally funded think tank warned last year that water demand in India actually will swell to double the country’s available supplies by that same year.

Humankind’s re-plumbing of the world’s riverways is nothing new, of course.

A recent World Wildlife Fund study found that only a third of the planet’s longest rivers still qualify as free-flowing. The Colorado River and its tributaries have been dammed so many hundreds of times that the American river often expires with a parched gasp at the Mexican border. And during the Soviet era, Russia planned to funnel the volume of the entire Siberian rivers to cotton fields thousands of miles away in Central Asia, using canals gouged by atom bomb blasts.

India’s version of river roulette is nearly as ambitious.

So far, Delhi has earmarked $2.25 billion for implementing its Interlinking of Rivers scheme. Diverting water from the Ken to quench the Betwa is the first test case to be budgeted. The two rivers, both tributaries of the Ganges, would be joined by 144 miles of canals. Two dams flooding 35 square miles of land are required for the engineering. Environmentalists vow to fight the project in court.

“Where is all of this excess water?” said Raghu Chundawat, a leading Indian conservationist. “The government won’t share its flow data. I don’t think even they know what the impacts will be.”

Chundawat noted that most of the land to be inundated by the Ken-Betwa linking project lies within Panna National Park, one of India’s reserves for endangered tigers.

Downstream on the Ken, farmer Singh preaches far smaller-scale solutions.

Scenes from the Ken River at the end of last year's monsoon season. The river's level rises and falls based on rainfall and dam releases.

Working with local agricultural activists and the government, he has promoted the digging of more than 8,000 rainwater ponds during the past decade. Many neighbors are adopting his sustainable practices of dividing farm acreage into four entwined uses: a third for fruit trees, a third for ground crops, a third for animals, and the rest for surface water storage. He processes his crops on site—pickled mangoes—adding value. He even has erected a tiny museum of human history called the Humane Agrarian Center. In it, happy farmers occupy the apex of evolution. Drawing on the tiny rain catchment of his farm, he suffers no water shortages.

“Farmers tell me that more than anything I say, it’s the climate that has made them converts,” Singh said, noting how the flow of the Ken River has grown more erratic as global warming disrupts India’s rain patterns.

“It’s a time for personal choices,” he said. “Not big river projects.”

And out beyond his cool orchards stretched the hot fields—flattened by tractors and 11,000 years of decisions made since the first seed was planted.

Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.