Whether we realise it or not, the drinking water scarcity problem that we see in many parts of India today is a direct consequence of climate change. India is very vulnerable to climate change — melting Himalayan glaciers will produce floods in north India; erratic monsoons will create droughts in peninsular India.

Global action against climate change — not enough even if the Paris Agreement is followed in letter and spirit — is weakening further, with countries like the US and Brazil walking away from it. India will have to assume the worst of effects of global warming and fashion its programmes accordingly.

Climate action has globally been ‘mitigation-centric’ — most of the programmes (such as push for renewable energy and electric vehicles) are aimed at slowing down future global warming. ‘Mitigation’ is more important to developed countries, but for countries like India the focus should be on ‘adaptation’, or measures taken to cope with the inevitable effects of climate change that has already happened, such as nasty storms, floods and droughts.

‘Adaptation’ is like protecting yourself against a punch that will land. India has also been mitigation-centric; it is time to bring focus on ‘adaptation’. And for adaptation, the time has come for two major steps.

The first is to give a big push to a 150-year-old idea — inter-linking of rivers (ILRs).

With floods and droughts likely to occur in different parts of the countries, possibly alongside each other, there is no option but to make ILR happen, and fast. The NDA government has always been in favour of inter-linking of rivers and it is to be hoped that the government sees ILR in the light of climate action, rather than a developmental move.

It is a leviathan project that will take decades to complete — if begun today. There are two components of it: the Himalayan and the Peninsular, with 14 and 16 links respectively. The idea is to build a dam on one river so that the water level rises at the head of canal, allowing water to flow by gravity to the next river.

India today has 5,100 large dams, which have walls at least 15 metres tall; ILR will require 3,000 more. The project will also involve building 15,000 km of new canals. If brought to fruition, ILR will bring 35 million hectares — over twice the size of Andhra Pradesh — of additional land into cultivation, and 34,000 MW more of hydro electricity.

In 2014, the government began work on ILR with a great sense of purpose. Just two years earlier, in February 2012, the Supreme Court had disposed of a public interest litigation against ILR. The judges expressed “pious hopes for speedy implementation.” By 2015, it did appear that the first of the projects would get off the ground — the Ken-Betwa project.

While things have not moved fast enough, the government has continued to show seriousness about the programme. In April 2015, a Task Force for Inter-linking of Rivers was formed, which has met ten times so far. Feasibility reports have been completed for 13 of the 16 peninsular projects, three of which also have ‘detailed project reports’. Alongside, moves are afoot to set up a National Interlinking of Rivers Authority. Also, 47 intra-State river link projects are being examined. Till recently, ILR was an idea to support agriculture and hydro power generation, which would also, incidentally, help balance-out water between surplus and deficit regions.

But today, ILR is a climate-change imperative — something that you can’t do without. If environmentalists have technical objections, they should come up with technical solutions, but not stop the programme.

Second step

The other adaptive measure is genetically modified crops. GM technology is a major component of ‘climate-smart agriculture’. We would need drought-resistant crops, and crops that produce more on the same patch of land so that climate-impairing ‘land use’ is minimised. India has been saying ‘no’ to GM technology, more out of the fear of the unknown than any scientific reasoning. Seeing ghosts in every dark corner is not going to help. GM technology has been in use globally for over two decades and millions of people have been eating GM foods for years.

Globally, the area under GM crop has risen 136 times in 20 years, from 1.7 million hectares in 1997 to 230 million hectares in 2017. Countries like the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Bangladesh have greatly benefited by GM technology. Fortunately, Indian farmers have woken up to the benefits of GM and are on a ‘civil disobedience’, cultivating GM crops in defiance of the law. A right step. Law cannot take away benefits that technology bestows.