Viewing bridge from river bed
Had India been the only upper-riparian country, Himalayas been the only mountain range surrounding it and rest of the countries of the world been its’ lower-riparians, India would have withdrawn all the waters of all the rivers to deprive all the nations of their due water shares of transboundary rivers. To do so, flouting the law of treaties on watercourses, they could have constructed barrages like Farakka, dam like Tipaimukh and Fulertal or initiate scheme of interlinking rivers (ILR) to divert surplus northeast water to the scarce southern basins. If none of the downstream countries had protested against such moves the biggest democracy might have brought a rare chance for over 620 crore people to see the beds of different international rivers they have never seen. Americans could have got a rare chance of jogging along a dried-up river bed of Amazon, Mississippi and Missouri, Egyptians, who never thought of doing without Nile water, might have got the leisure and scope of playing football on the mighty river’s bed if these nations had neighbour like India in their upstream.
All these thoughts crept up in the mind of Rashid, a Bangladeshi-born US national, while viewing Hardinge Bridge from the dried-up bed of the once mighty Padma which in the upstream is known as Ganges in India. Rashid has visited many bridges both home and abroad, from the bridge on the Hudson to the bridge on the river Kawai, which was blown during the World War II. Extensive visit of the world has brought him exceptional chances to see such mighty watercourses. He has seen from Amazon to Arial Khan, Thames in London to Turag in Dhaka. As a green activist he has cruised thousands of nautical miles along the both small and big rivers on the planet and has seen several hundred bridges. He has crossed bridges both long and short over various rivers either from ship and boat or from the top of the bridge but never from a riverbed. But Rashid thanks Allah that Bangladesh had a neighbour like India which erected barrage on the Padma at Farakka in Murshidabad to withdraw all the water in dry season, enabling him to see the a dried-up river bed of the Ganges. He again thanks Allah as India opens all the spillways to release water when the poor country is being severely damaged due to onrush of water through the same river from India.
Rashid says to himself that one doesn’t need to think of proposed Tipaimukh dam project to guess its effect on Surma, Kushiara and Meghna basins if you are a Bangladeshi. You needn’t go to Manipur state of India to assess the impact of the planned dam on transboundary river Barak if you have ever gone to the Padma River at 1.81km-long Hardinge bridge point in dry season. On his or her first visit to the maze of pillars a Bangladeshi teen will undoubtedly call their predecessors the greatest fools on earth as they have constructed the steel railway at Ishwardi in 1915 on a vast tract of land filled with sand. He will dare call his grandpas stupid if he can cross once mighty Padma by road on a vehicle that runs across the river bed. It is very usual that when you visit a bridge or cross a river on a bridge you can have a passing glimpse of the bridge arched over a river only by looking down at the water passing under the bridge. You must enjoy, seeing the water running through a big river as you are on a bridge. One might have seen pictures of drought-plagued vast tracts of land under the Hardinge flashed across the national dailies, footage of withered sheaf of paddy, thirsty animals, hungry people saying istesqa prayers aired by different television channels. Pregnant women have joined the istesqa prayer, which is said by the Muslims for rain in dry seasons. Tribal people have own form of prayers and rituals for rain. All these happened because of commissioning of Farakka Barrage — a life and death question for Bangladesh.
Rashid goes on thinking that if a country turns apartheid at one stage its people will revolt against the hegemony. Tipaimukh dam will turn harmful not only to Bangladesh but also to the people of Manipur though it is suggested by the protagonists of the project in India that the project is not to divert dry season flows from the GBM river systems but to store flood waters during the monsoon for transfer during the dry season, from which Bangladesh would in fact benefit in terms of flood moderation while there would be no adverse impact on the dry season river flows into Bangladesh. But, the people of Bangladesh have had a rather traumatic experience, given that the Farakka Barrage was constructed in the absence of proper consultation. Of course, the construction of the Farakka Barrage was started when India and Pakistan were not very friendly nations. But, when it was commissioned, Bangladesh had already emerged as an independent country and it has to be gratefully recognized that India played a very important role in the process of Bangladesh’s emergence by extending all possible help to and participating in its War of Liberation. And, yet, although Farakka Barrage was commissioned on agreement with Bangladesh for a 41-day trial-run in the dry season of 1975, its operation continued for two more dry seasons without further agreement. In November 1977, a five-year Ganges Water Sharing Agreement was signed, followed by two Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) for a total of five more years. Then there was no understanding or agreement until the Ganges Treaty was signed in December 1996.
Adverse effects of the Tipaimukh dam will be staggeringly devastating and damaging for Bangladesh. Environmental degradation, economic crisis and hydrological drought will cause irreversible damage. Suddenly, the free flowing Surma and Kushyara rivers will turn dry and remain so for a major portion of the year (Nov-May) disrupting agriculture, irrigation, drinking water supply, navigation etc. Six to seven months dry conditions will stop/lessen recharge of ground water which over the years will lower the ground water level, affecting all dug wells, shallow tube-wells, as it happened in south western region (Ganges-Kapotakkhya Project in Jessore and Kushtia region) of Bangladesh as a result of drastic withdrawal of the Ganges water at Farakka. Agriculture that depends on surface as well as ground water will be affected seriously.
Surma-Kushyara with its maze of numerous tributaries and distributaries support agriculture, irrigation navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in numerous haors and low lying areas in the entire Sylhet division and some peripheral areas of Dhaka division. The river system also supports internal navigation, wildlife in haors, industries like fertilizer, electricity, gas etc.
The rosy, prosperous and healthy scenario may soon turn into history causing despondency desperation and misery to the people inhabiting the zone which is known for abundance of water, lush green field of crops and fish sanctuary.
Massive environmental degradation will occur, drastically affecting weather and climate, turning a wet cooler habitat into a hot uncomfortable cauldron. The severity of micro-climate causing heat and dry conditions will gradually increase in intensity spreading over a large area over the years. It may be mentioned that rainfall that the area gets for 4 to 5 months and flood water that will be released from the dam for a short period will not be enough to replenish the ground water. Climate and environmental change will force the farmers to reluctantly resort to planting low-yielding drought-resistant crops (unknown to them).
In Bangladesh, over 80 per cent of the annual run-off is concentrated during the five monsoon months. Of the huge run-off over Bangladesh during the monsoon, 92 per cent or more enters the country from India, the immediate upper riparian, to go down to the Bay of Bengal. Between 20 and 30 per cent of the country is flooded every year and from time to time devastating floods occur inundating up to two-thirds or even more of the country. Devastating floods have been becoming increasingly frequent over the past 50 years. There was an interregnum of 19 years between the devastating floods occurring in 1955 and 1974, which declined to 14 years to the next devastating flood in 1988, to 10 years to the next one in 1998, and to six years to the more recent one in 2004.
Apart from flooding and flash flooding of the country, the agrarian economy of an agricultural country like Bangladesh will be destroyed, prompting the farmers of the Surma-Kushiara-Meghna basin to migrate either to Dhaka or to other place of the country. Farmers will be rendered jobless, workless, foodless as the basins will turn dry due to withdrawal of water. Green lushes will disappear. To the much annoyance of the people living happily in the capital city more and more rickshawpullers will throng Dhaka city in thousands. As you experience most of the rickshawpullers have hailed from the Padma basin of Rajshahi region. If you take a ride on a rickshaw and ask its puller where he has come from he will surely answer in the positive. In most cases you will find that most of them are either from Rangpur, Gaibandha, Kurigram or from Rajshahi, Sirajganj and Bogra. In some cases you will get some pullers from Mymensingh belt and Dhaka belt which will also bear the impact of the proposed Tipaimukh dam. So there will be no respite for the posh people living Banani, Gulshan or other posh areas. I am afraid there will be no end to the influx of the poor people to Dhaka city.
Miseries of millions on both sides
Although there were groups against the Farakka project in West Bengal and Bihar before the barrage was erected, as one was renowned irrigation engineer Kapil Bannerjee (See weekly Holiday, 29 May 09), there are groups, as well, against the other two proposed dams. The Tipaimukh dam to be built at 500 meters downstream of the confluence of the Barak and Tuivai rivers is planned for generation of 1,500MW of hydro-electricity and the Fulertal one for irrigation purpose there in the Eastern India. The likely affected ones included common poor people as also objections raised by area experts, environmentalists, etc. Because, the dam if erected and made operational is certain to affect lives and livings of many people engaged in agriculture in the project region, fisheries and fishing trade, river craft works and to adversely affect ecological balance that may even add to risks of bigger scale earth quakes in the region according to the noted earth science expert and famous geologist like Dr. Soibam Ibotombi, Professor of the Indian Manipur University.
Another monga-prone division
If the proposed Tipaimukh dam is implemented and commissioned by the upper-riparian country India without consultation with Bangladesh, the lower-riparian country will have another monga-prone division. More and more people of the Sylhet and Dhaka division will be unemployed, prompting government to take steps to address the famine like situation in those areas. The croplands there will be deserted, barren and uncultivable. They will be another concern for the government of Bangladesh and conscious sections of the society.
The economic loss incurred due to construction of water withdrawal by India prompts Rashid to estimate the losses in terms of money for the proposed Tipaimukh dam. He goes on reckoning the loss due to Farakka. After getting nod of Bangladesh for the river Ganges’ water withdrawal by India in May 1974 at the Farakka Barrage point up 17 kilometers of the common border of the two countries, India has taken now to build two dams at Tipamukh and Fulertal in the east on the river Barak that forms upper riparian of the Kushiara, Surma and mighty Meghna rivers of Bangladesh. The evils of Farakka in the three and a half decades in the downstream incurred yearly losses in money term at 150,000 lakhs crores Taka and the incoming Eastern two are estimated to incur yearly loss for Bangladesh at Taka 225,000 lakhs crores. Farakka Barrage adversely affected the western and southwestern territory of one third Bangladesh and the eastern two dams to affect one fourth of Bangladesh in the eastern area.
The figure of Bangladesh losses for 33 years since May 1974, the time the Farakka went on in full commission to 2007 at nearly 49 lakhs crore Taka, that made yearly average of about one and a half lakh crore Taka. A research organization based in the USA and corroborated by a local organization in their calculation for likely losses of Bangladesh due to the India’s Tipaimukh Dam would still be higher at over two lakhs crore Taka than the yearly average due to the Farakka, thus exceeding yearly average of about one lakh crore Taka losses that Bangladesh has been incurring due to the death trap of the Farakka Barrage.
Scarcity of water will cause siltation on river beds. When high rainfall will occur in the catchment area of the dam, enormous quantity of sediment-laden flood water will be released which will cause severity of flood in the Surma and Kushiara channels which would be already raised for low flow. This will further raise the water level causing floods in adjoining additional areas.
Navigation in river channels in the Meghna (combined Surma and Kushiara) will face depleted water flow and consequent sedimentation and severity of flooding in the wet season. Surface irrigation will be in jeopardy. The Meghna up to Chandpur will suffer from the adverse effects. The Meghna-Padma will have low flow which will accentuate saline backwater intrusion in the Padma channel which is already affected by the low flow for the withdrawal of water of the Ganges at Farakka.
MDGs won’t be attained
On the other hand, the shortage of water in the dry season has been causing serious damages to agriculture, fishery, livestock, industry as well as other sectors of the economy, particularly in the northwest and southwest of Bangladesh, significantly reducing the sectoral productivities, economic benefits, and employment opportunities. Bangladesh, therefore, has to find ways of managing floods more effectively, on the one hand, and augment its lean season water availability, on the other, in order to pursue the goals of increasing economic growth, enhancing employment opportunities, and reducing poverty at accelerated rates. The commitment to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly the goal of reducing poverty ratio to half by 2015 relative to 2002 (as modified in the Bangladesh Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper from the MDG base-year of 1990) is a challenge that cannot be met with any reasonable success unless the above mentioned two serious water-related problems of floods and water shortages can be minimized.
Victim of socio-economic repercussions
Commissioning of the planned Tipaimukh dam by India will escalate socio-economic and political tension in India’s north-eastern states and also in Bangladesh, and imperil the ecology of the region, green campaigners said in a roundtable on climate change recently in Dhaka where Rashid was present.
After sounding this note of caution, a leading environmentalist demanded that New Delhi must make public all the documents on the Tipaimukh hydro-electric project and Dhaka should raise its voice against such an ecologically destructive project in the country’s interest.
‘We will definitely protest against it in collaboration with the rights groups in India. If the construction of this dam is allowed, it will instigate insurgents like ULFA as we have seen in the past,’ said Muzaffar Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, told a journalist on the sidelines of the roundtable at the office of the Communist Party of Bangladesh.
Referring to widespread resentment in Manipur and other states of north-eastern India caused by the planned mega-project, he warned that Bangladesh might be a victim of the socio-economic repercussions of the dam.
Before flying for his home in the United States he again and again looks back to tarmac, runway, airhostess and the people involved with operations of flights and thinks what will happen to his motherland, one third (southwestern region) of which is predicted by the climate experts to be submerged due to climate change in a span of fifty years. One third of which has already turned into a desert due to withdrawal of water of Ganges River and the Chittagong Hill Tracts which forms one-tenths of the total land is on the way to be separated from the mainland and finally the lush green Sylhet region is awaiting the fate of another desert for Tipaimukh and Fulertal dams. Another thought that gave him a lot of pain that someday Bangladeshis will be able to see all the beds of all of the 54 transboundary rivers if his poor motherland remains independent till that day. These thoughts make his full of tears when he boarded New York-bound flight of Bangladesh Biman. He fastened his seat belts, covered his face to hide tears.
Writer: Wahidul Islam