Thursday, August 18, 2011

Guarantee Clauses Crucial In Deals On Water Sharing

ANY water-sharing agreement between Bangladesh and India should be based on the annual water flow between the starting and ending points of a river, not certain points like Farakka and Gazaldoba barrages after diversion of water in the upstream, says the Atiqur RK Eusufzai, chairman of the New York-based International Farakka Committee.

All water-sharing agreements need incorporation of guarantee clause for sustainable supply of water for Bangladesh during lean periods, he also said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.
Eusufzai, a non-resident Bangladeshi who prefers to be identified as a ‘water activist’, believes the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, should make an open announcement during visit to Dhaka next month that his country will not construct Tipaimukh dam and Phulertal barrage on the trans-boundary river Barak.
‘He cannot go against the nature,’ he said.

Thanks to sharp political divisions in Bangladesh, successive governments have failed to effectively deal with India in respect of the trans-boundary rivers and other critical issues, Eusufzai said.
The politicians ‘must act together and speak in one voice,’ he said. ‘Any division among them will invite devastation for the country and the people.’

‘National unity is the last word if we want to protect our interests,’ Eusufzai added.

Are activities of the International Farakka Committee limited to the Ganges water? Does it work on other rivers Bangladesh shares with India, Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Nepal?

We, some environmental activists, formed the International Farakka Committee in 1993 to protect rivers—including the Ganges, which is the Padma in Bangladesh, Meghna and Brahmaputra—flowing through Bangladesh and the region and subsequently protect the livelihood of the people living in the delta.
The word ‘Farakka’ in the name of the committee, which is purely a non-governmental environmental  organisation, is symbolic as many of us had joined the historic long march in 1976 under the leadership of Maulana (Abdul Hamid Khan) Bhashani in protest at operations of the Farakka barrage for unilateral withdrawal of Ganges water in the upstream by India.

Most of us believe it was a wrong decision on Bangladesh’s part to have agreed to India’s proposal for test run of the barrage in April 1975. We believe we ‘should not say yes’ without understanding the issues involved, whatever those may be.

I must add that the IFC is a non-profit and non-party organisation with members who believe in different political ideology. Persons who do not believe in any political ideology are also its members.
Its activities are not limited to issues related with the Ganges only. It also works on all trans-boundary rivers shared by Bangladesh and its neighbours.

What is the IFC’s stance on the Tipaimukh dam?
I WAS a member of the IFC delegation that visited Sylhet recently to understand the possible adverse impacts that construction of a mega dam on the river Barak at Tipaimukh and a multipurpose barrage at Phulertal by India would have on the region. Most regional experts and local people, who include farmers, fishermen and members of other profession, told us that they are anxious about the adverse impacts of the dam and the barrage.

India has started construction of the dam and the barrage at one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. People in the Indian states of Assam and Manipur are also staging protest against construction of the dam and the barrage. Everybody knows what devastation the recent earthquakes have wreaked on Japan.
India said the Tipaimukh dam and the Phulertal barrage would help reduce floods in Bangladesh. We do not expect ‘too much good’ from India. Flood is a natural phenomenon in Bangladesh, a delta created by rivers. Let us live with flood.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will be in Dhaka on an official visit early next month. What is your expectation from the visit especially with regards to the trans-boundary rivers?
India helped us during our liberation war in 1971. I think they should treat Bangladesh in the same spirit. Manmohan should make an open announcement in Dhaka that India would not construct the Tipaimukh dam and the Phulertal barrage.  He cannot go against the nature.

What would they say and do if we were in the upstream and India in the downstream? What are they doing with China? Is not India asking China to stop construction of dams and barrages on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which is Brahmaputra in India and Jamuna in Bangladesh?

One important thing is whether we will be able to raise our voice or not. We are a nation that became independent through a war. Are we suffering from inferiority complex?
I hope our prime minister will deal with the issues with all her wisdom, prudence and courage.

The two countries have been holding discussions for the last 15 years on sharing Teesta water. Bureaucrats of the two countries worked for a couple of years for two separate interim agreements for 15 years on sharing of Teesta and Feni water. Are you hopeful that the agreements would be signed during Manmohan’s visit?
People expect that the agreements will be signed without further delay.

What should be there in the text of the agreements?
At least 30 per cent of the water should be kept reserved for the rivers concerned. Bangladesh should be given at least 60 per cent of the rest.

An important point is to determine at which point the river water will be divided. According to the 1996 Ganges agreement, the two countries divide and share water at the Farakka point. But everyone knows that India withdraws and diverts Ganges water at many points in the upstream.

The two governments are planning to divide and share Teesta water at the Gazaldoba barrage. Once again, it is an open secret that India withdraws and diverts water at several points in the upstream of Teesta. It is not acceptable.

Bangladesh must get its due share of average annual water flow between the starting and ending points of each river.

Should there be a guarantee clause in the agreements on Teesta and Feni rivers?
Certainly. All agreements require incorporation of guarantee clause for sustainable supply of water to Bangladesh in the lean periods.

Right job not done in right time …
The Indian authorities are constantly trying to get 100 per cent out of every deal with Bangladesh. A matter of regret is that successive governments have failed to do not do the right job at the right time, to withstand Indian pressure. We are paying now for their failure.

The Awami League government failed to incorporate a guarantee clause in the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty signed with India in 1996. During the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s 2001-2006 government, Chinese prime Wen Jiabao expressed solidarity with Bangladesh’s rights as a lower riparian country on the upstream of the trans-boundary rivers. The government utterly failed to make use of the Chinese support.

Pursue basin-wise approach…
India generally prefers to deal issues bilaterally. No problem with that if they agree to give us our due share.
India and Pakistan are doing fairly well in sharing the Sindh water despite several wars fought between the two countries. Several European countries formed a commission to share and manage navigation on the Rhine River. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam formed the Mekong River Commission on joint management of their shared water resources and development of the economic potential of the river.
I think Bangladesh should also pursue formation of separate commissions for joint management of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna and, if necessary, other major rivers with India, Bhutan, Nepal, China and Myanmar.

Blame game…
Most of us generally blame India for its attitude in dealing with its neighbours. But for how long will we continue to blame others ‘for the failure of our whole statecraft’?

In fact, we have miserably failed to deal with issues related to common rivers. I do not want to blame any individual or party for the failure when we are talking about our own home.  I am blaming myself. 

The Ganges barrage…
Fifteen years before the independence of Bangladesh (in 1971), the renowned water expert BM Abbas raised his voice for the construction of the Ganges barrage to protect the river Padma and livelihood of the people. But none of the successive governments paid heed to his suggestion.  There was lack of clear understanding. Now we are paying for their failure.

Role of ministers, bureaucrats, experts …
It was not possible for one person like the president or the prime minister of the country to look after details. I think the ministers, bureaucrats and experts have miserably failed to provide adequate support to the higher authorities to make a perfect decision for Bangladesh.     

Experts need to serve ‘one’ prescription…
It is globally accepted that experts may have different opinions on any issue. Unfortunately, most of our experts are sharply politically divided. I think experts should give us one unbiased prescription to resolve the crisis. Please, give us one prescription.

Bottom-line for politicians 
In fact, the country and its people are victims of ‘politics of division’ as there is a dearth of ‘politics and politicians’ in political parties. The parties-without-politicians are running the country
The ruling and opposition political parties are sharply divided on most issues including rivers. But the people do not expect the politicians to remain divided for decades. There is one bottom-line for them—they must act together and speak in one voice. Any division among them will invite devastation for the country. National unity is the last word if we want to protect our interests.

The IFC has recently formed a peoples’ commission with members from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan USA, Canada France, China and Bhutan. Why? 

We felt serious shortage of initiative, information and findings on different issues including rivers. The government organisations could not provide us adequate information and data. So we formed a commission to collectively work and undertake programmes to protect the Himalayan rivers and uphold interests of the people in the river basins.  We are also planning to establish a research institution to work on the Himalayan rivers.

However, we strongly believe the governments should take a proactive role to protect the rivers and the people.