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Basin-based approach needed to manage water and save rivers

Editorials 2022-04-24, 1:36pm


Teesta, a Himalayan glacier-sourced river which rises from the Eastern Himalayas, is dammed at the Teesta barrage at Siliguri, West Bengal. Credit. Manipadma Jena-IPS

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has underscored a basin-based approach to trans-boundary water management for sustainable development.  

In a video message to a two-day Fourth Asia-Pacific Water Summit held in the Japanese city of Kumamoto on Saturday with the theme "Water for Sustainable Development - Best Practices and the Next Generation", she said, "It is fundamental for sustainable development and for promoting a culture of peace. We need to ensure sound water management to 'build back better' from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic."

Sheikh Hasina referred to Bangladesh’s efforts to develop the water sector of Bangladesh to achieve the sustainable development goals, and said that the youths should be empowered with the best practices in the sector.

The Prime Minister’s words cannot be overemphasized in Bangladesh which lies at the mouths of great Himalayan Rivers – the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna - and their distributaries. A total of 57 trans-boundary rivers enter Bangladesh from upstream, 54 of those from upper riparian neighbor, India.

To put it clearly 90 percent of surface water that flows through Bangladesh comes from across the borders and only about 10 percent is generated inside through rainfall and seepage. But trans-boundary river management during the last 51 years for Bangladesh has meant efforts to distribute their water flows at the border. 

This has been the case with the Ganges and continues to be the basis of talks for management of the Teesta River. In case of both the rivers, water has been diverted from one basin to another rendering the lower parts of the Ganges and the Teesta basins in Bangladesh dry during the lean season and more flood-prone in the peak season.

The worst scenario of this unsustainable approach to water management has started to emerge in Bangladesh, and would soon be visible also at upper reaches of rivers because a river that dies at downstream is bound to die at upstream too. This is because rivers naturally flow through floodplains which in turn sustain the them during the lean season. If diverted to dry terrains the river water is sucked throughout the year and the river does not get any support to sustain during dry months. 

Dead rivers will give service neither to the upper catchment nor the lower catchment. To keep the natural systems alive all efforts should therefore be made to ensure their basin-based development. All rivers must flow from their points of their origin to the sea, or else they will turn dead. Utilisation of water for development purposes should be made by keeping their streams alive and with those their flora and fauna. 

We welcome the Prime Minister for her statement and hope that he would ask her advisers and cabinet colleagues to pursue basin-based river management approach in river sharing talks with our upper-riparian neighbours. There are votaries to this approach in other countries of the region too. What is needed is to reeducate the one-eyed water bureaucracy of the countries of the region to save the rivers and ourselves.

(Writer of this piece, Mostafa Kamal Majumder, in the editor of GreenWatch Dhaka)