Rivers are gifts of nature and their flow knows no territorial boundaries. Human beings and rivers have symbiotic relations. Water is life and water sustains nature with all its bounties.
India proposes to build a dam (39-metre long and 162.5 metre high) on the Barak River at Tipaimukh near Manipur-Mizoram border, off Bangladesh Zakiganj border in Sylhet, for generating 1,500MW hydropower.
The trans-boundary Barak River enters Bangladesh near Amalshid of Sylhet, where it is bifurcated -- with one branch becoming the Surma River and the other the Kushiara River. Both the rivers unite in Habiganj district and flow down as the Kalni River. The Kalni River meets with Ghorautra River near Bajitpur of Kishoreganj district to become the Meghna River.
The Barak River and Meghna River belong to a common basin. Therefore, any interference in natural flow of in any segment of the river will have an impact on the other segments of the river.
During the visit of Bangladesh prime minister in January 2010, India's prime minister gave assurance that "India will not take steps on the Tipaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh." This was reiterated when the Indian prime minister visited Dhaka last September.
On October 22, the Indian Union government concluded an agreement (promoter's agreement as India calls it) with the purpose of setting up a joint venture company between the government of Manipur, NHPC Ltd and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.
The signing of the agreement has not only surprised the people of Bangladesh but also caused deep resentment because, given the prevailing trustful atmosphere, India did not inform the Bangladesh government of its recent steps, let alone share relevant information on the project.
On November 22, the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement urging India to "share all relevant details of the proposed project in full transparency and also about any further step that it may take in connection with the project….. Bangladesh, as a co-riparian, would like to underscore the need for prior consultations before there is any intervention on common rives like the Barak."
On November 23, the Bangladesh prime minister reportedly said in the Parliament: "It cannot be that one country will unilaterally conduct a survey on Tipaimukh dam." The prime minister hit the nail on the head on the subject and said she would send a special envoy to New Delhi.
The Indian prime minister's assurance, that India "will not take steps on the Tipaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh," means that only a joint study of experts from both countries can come to that conclusion. They will examine, among others, the impact of geographic, geological, hydrographic, hydrological, climatic, ecological and other factors on both countries.
A study in 2005 by the Bangladesh Institute of Water Modeling suggests that during a drier monsoon season, when Bangladesh will need water for cultivation and fisheries, the dam will hold 27% more water in June, 16% in July, 14% in August and 4% in September, than an average monsoon year.
Another hydrological impact study in Bangladesh suggests that if India builds Tipaimukh dam on the Barak River, 26% of haors (wetlands) in Sylhet and around 11% in Moulvibazar will run dry.
One noted Bangladesh water expert says that it has been a common characteristic of dams that they increase water inflow in summer, which may cause flash floods in the Sylhet region during the harvesting time of boro (April-May). Furthermore, the geological structure of the region is like a bowl, where water gets stuck for a longer period than it does on the plains. If the water inflow becomes irregular, it will hinder agriculture.
The proposed dam will be adjacent to the well-recognised Taithu fault. Many experts say a major earthquake may cause the failure of the dam. Generally, a dam-break wave travels at a minimum velocity of 10km per hour and is expected to reach Bangladesh in a short time, which would be catastrophic.
On Tipaimukh dam, it is reported that Dr. Soibam Ibotombi of the Department of Earth Sciences, Manipur University, (India), in an article, said that the "Tipaimukh dam is a geo-tectonic blunder of international dimensions."
Another academic Dr. R. K. Ranjan Singh, former Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at Manipur University, now chairman of the Citizen Concern for Dams and Development, reportedly warned of potential earthquake dangers to the dam and told the media: "The area of the dam zone is rated five and therefore if the water in the upper catchments is dammed, it may actually increase the chances of triggering a seismic event."
Besides the above, it is strongly argued that India will be in breach of its obligations if it proceeds unilaterally with the project because of the following reasons:
* It goes against the preamble (Paragraph 6), Article 2 (common basin management of common rivers) and Article 6 (collaboration on preservation of common eco-systems), of the recent Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development between India and Bangladesh signed last September during the Indian prime minister's visit to Dhaka;
* It is contrary to the spirit of the preambular paragraph of the 1996 the Indo-Bangladesh Ganges Water Treaty, (in particular, Paragraph 4), wherein it stipulates that water resources of the two countries should be utilised for the "mutual benefit of the peoples of the two countries;"
* The dam goes against the 1989 ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (Article 6 of the Convention). It came into force in 1991 and is binding on all ILO member-countries, including India;
* It is contrary to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention recognises that the conservation of biological diversity is "a common concern of humankind;"
* India will violate customary and conventional international laws if it does not hold consultations with Bangladesh before any project is undertaken on the Barak River.
Finally, if India goes ahead unilaterally, it will be generating only 1,500MW from the Tipaimukh dam at the cost of friendship of Bangladesh people when, according to Indian water expert B.G. Verghese, India can generate 54,000 MW from the Tsangpo/ Brahmaputra which falls 2,450 metres (8,000 feet) over a few kilometres in China just before it reaches the Indian border and Assam.
Given the state of knowledge and technology of various sources of energy, India's proposed construction of Tipaimukh dam for hydropower is baffling, and it is highly desirable that India take a pioneering role in pursuing the "ecological approach" in harvesting trans-boundary Rivers that flow into Bangladesh.