Mostafa Kamal Majumder
Bangladesh owes its origin to rivers. The landscape has been formed by its rivers. These rivers sustain its flora and fauna, and the lives and livelihoods of the people. Largest delta in the world, Bangladesh sits on 5 to 15 km thick deltaic alluvial deposits brought down from the mountains by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna river systems over the millenia.The lush green Bangladesh delta has attracted people from as far away as Central Asia and the Middle East creating an overwhelmingly mixed racial composition of its population. As the numbers have grown, so too has the stress on the environment and physical resources. With 160 million people on 147,570 square kilometers of land, despite a serious commitment to family planning campaigns that has brought down the growth rate to 1.42 per cent – a figure that is comparatively low in the region – the population density of 1,100 persons per square kilometre is still the highest in the world. Consequently, in addition to about 10 million Bangladeshis seeking livelihoods outside the country, there is a clear trend of in-country migration from the less developed and economically deprived zones to cities and towns introducing a new set of problems. But diversion of waters of the Ganges and other rivers in the upper reaches threaten their morphological future and the future of millions that depend on these rivers in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh drains about 2 million square kilometres of catchments of three large rivers – the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. It is crisscrossed by innumerable other rivers, canals and creeks that occupy about 9 per cent of the land area. Water experts have identified 230 rivers, 54 of those coming from across the border, 53 from India and one from Myanmar. Although two great rivers of the subcontinent – the Ganges and the Brahmaputra – meet in Bangladesh before the combined flow empties into the sea, only about 8 per cent of their total catchment areas lie within the country.
River flows have huge seasonal variations. The combined flow of the Ganges and Brahmaputra typically increases from less than 10,000m3/s (cubic metres per second -cumec) early in the year to a peak of 80,000 to 140,000 cumec during late August or early September. Such large flows along with high internal rainfall (annual average 2,000 millimetres), low average elevation, and inadequate drainage result in widespread inundation each year. One third of the country is inundated regularly in annual normal flooding. Big floods like those of 1998 and 1988 can submerge two-thirds of the land under water for up to three weeks.
The Ganges serves one-third of the alluvial plain of the country and supports 30 per cent of the population. It also accounts for more than one-third of freshwater flow that sustains the ecosystem along the 700 kilometre coastline of the country. Lower down the coast, the Ganges delta is home to the Sundarban, the largest natural mangrove swamp forest in the world.
The Ganges has a total basin area of about 1,093,400 square kilometers, 861,400 (79 per cent) in India, 146,000 (13 per cent) in Nepal, 46,000 (4 per cent) in Bangladesh and 40,000 (4 per cent) in Tibet. (-Santa Bahadur Pun, Overview, Disputes over the Ganga 2004, PSA Kathmandu)
Under a joint declaration signed by the Prime Ministers of the two countries in March 1972, the Bangladesh-India Joint Rivers Commission was created to jointly make optimal use of rivers shared by the two countries, prepare and implement flood control plans etc.31 A second joint declaration by the two prime ministers was issued two years later, followed by the first interim agreement in 1975 for trial operation of the feeder canals of the Farakka barrage for a 41-day experimental period from 21 April to 31 May to flush the Bhagirathi and Hugli rivers. According to this agreement, India would draw 310-350 cubic metres of water per second at Farakka and release 1,245-1,400 m3/s of water downstream during the period when the Ganges River has the least amount of water in a year.32 When the interim agreement expired, India continued to draw water without any further agreement between the two counties until another agreement was conclude in 1977.
The treaty stipulated that diversion by India be undertaken in such manner as to ensure that the rate of flow released to Bangladesh was not less than 80 per cent of the apportioned share. This treaty was continued in a modified form, dropping the 80 percent guarantee clause, under the Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) of 1982 and 1985 which expired in 1988.
After the MOU of 1985 lapsed in 1988, there was no agreement on the Ganges River between two countries until the current treaty was concluded in 1996. The treaty not only indicates shares of the two countries but also includes rules of allocation for times when total flow is less than the sum of the two shares. But it has no reference to what is done on the river above the Farakka point.
Rules of Allocation on 1996 Treaty (m3/s)
Availability at Farakka India Bangladesh
1,982 or less 50% 50%
1,982 to 2,124 Balance of Flow 991
2,124 or more 1,133 Balance of Flow
Clearly, Bangladesh yielded even more in the new treaty. In some instances the share of water for Bangladesh falls below 800 m3/s.
By reducing freshwater inflow, Farakka has contributed to increased river siltation and salinity intrusion from the Bay of Bengal. This has, in turn, affected agricultural production, the main employment generation, in the coastal areas, reduced navigational opportunities, affected bio-diversity in the Sundarban and increased social conflicts. Though groundwater is available in the northern belt of Ganges Dependent Areas, the southern half is constrained due to low potential recharge and salinity. The GDA population fell from 34.2 per cent of the country’s total in 1991 to 33.3 per cent in 2001 clearly indicating a migration from this impoverished area. The distributaries Gorai, Arial Khan and Palong have all been affected by Farakka. In fact the major distributor Gorai was completely cut off in the dry season of 1992 and partial flow was restored only in 1998 after substantial dredging. Bangladesh is seeking a review of the 1996 Treaty “for a guaranteed flow in the lean season”.
There aren’t many encouraging signs in the Ganga basin. Unless Ganga basin countries come up with some bold initiatives and policies, the Ganga at Farakka may dry up completely in the lean season. This scenario is not far-fetched: Other major rivers, including the Colorado in US/Mexico and the Yangtse in China already suffer the ignominy of not being able to reach the sea. The onus is on India, the South Asian regional power, and the country that needs the Ganga most, to ensure that the mighty river does not suffer a similar fate. (-Ibid)
The Teesta and its water has been at the centre of hot political debate in Bangladesh for about two months now, as many opposition political parties have organised demonstration, seminar, discussion meeting, human chain and long march demanding equitable share of the river. Teesta River this dry season maintained the lowest ever flow of 300 cusecs (cubic feet per second) or about 9 cumec as against its average lowest flow of 10,000 cusecs (about 280 cumec), threatening the environment, life and livelihood in its Bangladesh part.
There was a sudden influx of water in the Bangladesh part of the Teesta on 22 April coinciding with BNP’s long march. This was immediately followed by a race for claiming credit for the same. While Ramesh Chandra Sen, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on water resources made a loud claim that it reflected success of their diplomacy, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who led the long March, termed the release of 3006 cusecs (about 80 cumec) of water, up from the current dry season’s average that ranged from 300 to 500 cusecs, as initial success of their long march.
A highly placed source in the government later said that the statement of neither Ramesh Chandra Sen nor Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir was correct. Sudden heavy rainfall in the upper catchments of the Teesta in the Sikkim State of India could be a causative factor, because the excess runoff was difficult to handle for the water diversion channels created for now down the Gazaldoba barrage in West Bengal.
The Teesta originatein in the Himalayas and flows through the Indian States of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh goes into the Brahmaputra. As it flows through the length of Sikkim, the Teesta River is considered the lifeline of the Indian state. However already over 71 kms (44 miles) of the river – which flows through earthquake-prone, ecologically and geologically fragile terrain – is either in reservoirs or diverted through tunnels for hydropower generation. These dams pose a threat to river communities and the rich biodiversity of the region. The river enters Bangladesh near the Tin Bigha corridor of Lalmonirhat district and, according to one water expert, its total length is about 315 km (some say 400 km), out of which 129 km (some say 172 km) is in Bangladesh. Its summer flow, according to one estimate, is about 280,000 cusecs (8000 cumec) and minimum flow is about 10,000 cusecs (about 280 cumec). About 21 million Bangladeshi people live in the basin of river Teesta while only 8 million live in West Bengal and half a million live in Sikkim state. The population ratio is 70 for Bangladesh and 30 for India.
Sharing of water of the river’s water is necessary in the dry season. Bangladesh’s demand is to irrigate 632, 000 hectares of farm land – falling within the command area of the Teesta Barrage – with water from the Teesta during the dry season. Since Sikkim and West Bengal withdraw water from the river, the flow has drastically fallen to the detriment of the Bangladeshi Teesta dependent communities. Initially, Dhaka proposed equal sharing of Teesta water, keeping 20 percent for the river itself. This means Bangladesh and India would take 40 percent share each. It was reported in the media in June 2011 that the two sides agreed that India would get 42.5 percent and Bangladesh 37.5 percent. A Teesta river accord could not be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in early September 2011 due to last-minute opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
There is a lack of transparency about activities on the Sikkim and West Bengal part of the Teesta River. Had west Bengal diverted just 39 percent of the river’s water as West Bengal lawmaker Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury told the BBC in September 2011, 6,100 cusecs of water would have still flowed to Bangladesh if one accepts an estimate that lowest minimum flow of the river during the dry season is 10,000 cusecs (about 280 cumec) . According to available reports, at Gazaldoba barrage, 85 percent of water flow is diverted from Teesta River without Bangladesh’s consent. New Delhi could not afford to politically annoy Mamata Banerjee, because the survival of Manmohan Singh’s 20-party coalition government depended on the support of 19 MPs from her Trinimool Congress.
Apart from about 42 mini hydro-electric dams constructed on tributaries of the Teesta up in the mountains, five dams have reportedly been completed on the main river, and a sixth is in the process of construction in Sikkim. Water experts say, although theoretically hydro-electric dams do not divert water, at least ten percent of the water that is dammed is lost in each case because of backflow and evaporation at reservoirs.
“Most of the so-called run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects being developed in the Himalayan region (including Sikkim) involve large dams which divert the river waters through long tunnels, before the water is dropped back into the river at a downstream location after passing through powerhouse. Long stretches of the river are bypassed between the dam and the powerhouse, with up to 85-90 percent of the river flow in the winter (lean season) diverted through the tunnels. … The affected citizens of Teesta have aptly described this as “Our sacred Teesta is being converted into an underground river.” (- Damming Northeast India published in November 2010 by Kalpavriksh, Aranyak and ActionAid India.) While the mini-dams reduce the quantum of dry season flow to the main river, the dams on the river itself and the Gazaldoba barrage divert water nearly drying up about a half of its length inside Bangladesh.
River water is needed not merely to meeting irrigation demands. The common rivers render invaluable ecosystem services which are more important and cannot be overlooked. The rivers cannot offer water for irrigation, industry, drinking and cannot render their natural ecosystem services if they do not continue to flow from their origins to their mouths or ultimate downfalls into the sea. Dependent on river ecosystems are livelihoods of not only millions of people as mentioned above, but also billions of flora and fauna right from the hill slopes down to the floodplains. It’s therefore no wonder that the Teesta River has become a contested battleground between the government and the indigenous Lepcha and Bhutia communities in Sikkim. The government of India hopes to dam the last free-flowing 13 kms (8 miles) of the Teesta River for hydropower. According to one report, while the forces pushing for hydropower development in the region may be strong, they are rivaled by the spirit and perseverance of indigenous communities of Sikkim fighting dam development. These include the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) and Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC). Community efforts have resulted in the Government of Sikkim cancelling the construction of a total of 10 dams, with the last four cancelled in June 2012.
Here, as in the case of the Ganges, political authorities having jurisdiction up to their borders dictate the course of a natural system. Unlike the people in the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal who can influence their union government or make their voices heard, voices of sufferings caused to the people and the environment downstream in Bangladesh do not reach New Delhi and fail to create pressure on the other side of the political border. This is because the river is not treated holistically as an entity by itself which needs an integrated basin-wide management to survive and continue to render its services at both upstream and downstream.
The Barak – Meghna
A decision about a year ago of India’s Forest Advisory Committee to suggest rejection of the Tipaimukh Dam, about 100 kilometers upstream of the Sylhet border of Bangladesh on the Barak, tributary of Bangladesh’s third largest Meghna river, has not surprised environmentalists here. Because they have just taken into consideration the sustainability huge project and found that the positives heavily outweigh the negatives. But there is no cause for complacency for the people living in the catchment areas of the Meghna, Bangladesh’s third largest river, because the central government of India reportedly looks sure to override the FAC recommendation on the ground of the so-called huge electricity generation, they say, the project promises. It is to be noted that the Indian government embarked upon the project after obtaining clearance from their official environmental watchdog and the ministry of environment and forests. The concerned people of Bangladesh can only see a faint glimmer of hope in the recommendation of the FAC, but the hope has little chance of materialise, because in the policy and decision making level in Dhaka neither any individual nor any agency has taken a firm stand, based on knowledge of the project’s environmental consequences like the FAC of India has done. However FAC’s recommendation has given credence to the outcry of environmentalists and some opposition political leaders and parties in Bangladesh. In the backdrop of a ‘comprehensive’ bilateral give and take of the last five years between the two close neighbours, raising voice of opposition always risks being portrayed as obstructing good neighbourly relations if not directly termed as ‘anti-Indianism’.
The Barak divides into the Surma and Kushiara on entering Bangladesh – the two join once again to form the Meghna. The controversial 1,500 MW, Rs 51.64 billion Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project received the final techno-economic clearance (TEC) from the Central Electricity Authority of India in July 2003. The Meghna and its tributaries/distributaries in Bangladesh serve as lifelines to haor (depression) areas of Sylhet and further downstream.
Officially no one in Bangladesh knows the details of the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project. A detailed environmental impact assessment of the project should have included its impact on the downstream section of the river in Bangladesh. “We simply do not know what will be the flow of the river after the dam project is implemented,” said one expert
Indigenous communities in Manipur who were not consulted before the project was approved for construction have also protested against the decision to build the dam. Tipaimukh is the confluence of the Barak and the Tuivari rivers, known as Ruonglevaisuo to the Hmar people. It is an ancient spiritual site revered by the Hmar, a respect shared by many other indigenous peoples in the region.
Intervention on the Barak will impact on the condition of the fertile haors of Sylhet that give farmers bumper paddy harvests. Farmers could lose their paddy crops if higher than normal quantity of water is released during the pre-monsoon season. Worse still, the flood situation could be exacerbated if the project is forced to release stored water in emergencies during the monsoon.
In Dhaka initial response from relevant high offices of the present administration to Tipaimukh was,”… it’s their affairs within their own territories, about which we have little to say.” But the awareness about the possible environmental consequences at the ground level has been high because adverse impacts of the barrage on the Ganges on the Southwest region of Bangladesh are now a days hardly unknown. There about thirty rivers have met with untimely death. Efforts to revive the Gorai, the main distributary of the Ganges to the region despite heavy investments in capital dredging have so far not given bright results.
The FAC recommendation came at a time when the two neighbours were carrying out joint feasibility studies on the Tipaimukh Dam project after it had already been taken to the implementation stage by the Indian side. This is not to say that the Indian government has been pursuing the project out of enmity. The main driving forces behind it are the bureaucracy and the construction lobby. The bureaucracies everywhere in the world are yet to be fully sensitised to the requirements of long-term sustainable development, because they still count the values of water only in terms of irrigation and hydroelectricity potentials, on how much extra rice it can produce; and completely neglect the long-term environmental, ecological and social impacts of dam projects. The construction lobby is interested in the quick returns from huge investments in cement concrete structures. There are examples of failures of huge movements like the Narmada to stop the single-eyed bureaucracy and profit mongering construction lobby in IndiaThe adverse impacts of river diversion are slow but extremely devastating on the people of Bangladesh. If cut off from the rivers the Bangladesh delta is bound to suffer a process of desertification. Such devastating adverse effects of segmented management of rivers have already started unfolding in the Ganges dependent areas in Bangladesh. Salinity ingress from the sea has reached as far as Daulatdia in Rajbari District, more than 300 kilometres deep inlands. The flora and fauna, fishery, navigation, agriculture and livelihoods of fishermen, boatmen, and farmers have been seriously affected, as in the Ganges dependent areas. A serious environmental disaster has unfolded in Bangladesh as farmers for the last several decades have relied heavily on ground water due to scarcity of surface water from the rivers for irrigation. Excessive abstraction of ground water has led to arsenic contamination of drinking water in about 75 percent of the country negating the success in reaching safe drinking water to more than 90 percent of the people during the past three decades. According to latest reports arsenic has started to show in some vegetables, rice and coconut milk in some areas. Drying up of rivers has affected agriculture, made fisher folks, boatmen jobless, decreased average income of people of river communities. Livelihood loss forces people to migrate, migration cannot be stopped by high barbed-wire fences and even by strong vigil of Border Security Forces. The effects of environmental distress on one side of the border are bound to fall on the other side that is dictating the flow of the natural rivers.
India launched the Rs 5,600 billion River Linking Project in 2002. In the proposed concept, the Himalayan Rivers component aims to transfer water from rivers like the Brahmaputra, Kosi, Gandak, Ghagra in the “wet, water-rich” East to the “dry, water-poor” West basins of Ganga and Yamuna. As a matter of fact, the basins of Yamuna, Ganga, Sarda and Ghagra are all already interlinked by canals. The Ghagra-Gandak and the Gandak-Kosi basins also have some of the major infrastructures already in place to interlink them at a future date. At the directive of the Indian Supreme Court work on five out of 30 components of the project are now on. By diverting the Teesta – Brahmaputra tributary – diversion a part of the Brahmaputra has already been completed.
The way forward
But diversion of rivers from their natural paths through flood plains to drier terrains amounts to killing these water bodies. As eminent Indian water expert and former union water resources secretary Ramaswami Iyer has written, “Rivers do not die, but are killed.” In Ramaswami Iyer’s words, “River conservation is not just a question of rescuing a river from pollution and contamination, but much more. There were some references to rivers dying, but in fact they do not ‘die’ but are killed by human action and neglect. Instead of trying to rescue a heavily polluted river to revive a dead or dying river, we must see that these things do not happen and the rivers remain alive and healthy. This calls for a change in the way we think about rivers. Before we talk of ‘conserving’ a river, we must learn to respect it.” This explains why in western countries including the USA more than 1000 dams have been decommissioned during the past one decade to restore rivers and their ecosystems. While westerners are mending past mistakes, repetition of the same mistakes could spell greater disasters in the most densely populated countries like Bangladesh.
Thus demanding natural flows of common rivers cannot be dubbed as an anti-Indian activity as some people wrongly believe it to be so, with little understanding of the issue. Holders of this view should look at West Bengal which has succeeded to block Delhi’s move to sign the proposed 2011 Teesta water sharing agreement, and the Sikkim communities which have blocked the construction of at least 10 dams in their state because of their anticipated adverse impacts. They should also look at Tipaimukh where the construction of proposed world’s biggest dam remains stalled for over a year because the Forest Advisory Committee in New Delhi in its considered opinion has said that construction of the huge structure cannot be given a go ahead because of the colossal damage it would cause to forests in Monipur and Nagaland.
Fact remains that as the political authority in Delhi controlling 30 percent catchments of the Barak river unilaterally decided on construction of the said Tipaimukh dam with environmental clearance for that segment of the river despite there being strong protests from local communities in Monipur. There was no environmental impact study downstream in Bangladesh where 70 percent of the Barak river basin lies to ascertain its viability and justification.
Viewed from the point of view of the adverse impacts of structural interventions on rivers on the real stakeholders – the river-dependent communities – there is a strong case for taking up a people’s common movement to protect the rivers. A recent study supported by the Asia Foundation has pointed out that decisions on interventions on the common rivers in South Asia have been taken by state actors without consulting the river communities. ActionAid India supported several studies have revealed that the river communities at both upstream and downstream of rivers share their experiences in friendly environments and have shown more eagerness to collaborate with each other than the Indian state governments which are bent upon fighting each other. Again for sustainable harnessing of surface water resources, it is urgent to ensure that the rivers are not used up to meet the present needs, but are protected also to serve the future generations of people, the environment and their ecosystems. People to people contacts have in recent years broken some barriers to sharing information and data on common rivers between Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and has in turn influenced policy decisions to some extent. Such initiatives should be strengthened and carried forward so that the river-dependent communities in the countries of South Asia can create pressure on their respective governments to respect the rivers and ensure their continued flow, so that the governments of the region in turn are compelled to collaborate and cooperate with each other for sustainable management of all Himalayan rivers.
Sustainable development of the common rivers should mean integrated basin-wide management of their water resources – by ensuring that they continue to have natural flows up to the sea. These water bodies should be seen as commons for people all along their basins instead of dividing the natural systems at political boundaries that the former does not necessarily obey.
The Himalayan rivers need to declared common property resources of the region, also because common resources account for a lion’s share of the income of poor people. Installation of large structures destroy these resources and uproot the poor people depending on those compelling them to migrate to slums in cities and towns.
Finally, and most importantly, we should press for saving the rivers , instead of only emphasising on share of their water, which would flow from their origins to the sea to make water available and continue to render their destined ecosystem services.
(Paper being presented at a seminar organised by the South Asia Youth for Peace and Prosperity Society at National Press Club, Dhaka on 17 May 2014. Mostafa Kamal Majumder is editor of GreenWatch Dhaka online newspaper, and writer on water and environment issues.) Please mention the author and the publication if any information from this article is used anywhewhere.