Friday, December 9, 2011

National Unity For A National Cause

The construction of the Tipaimukh dam is a national problem. All the political parties must keep aside their differences
and be united on this issue.

RECENTLY, there has been much discussion in the electronic and print media about the potential impacts of the Tipaimukh dam on Bangladesh. The Indian government has initiated construction of the Tipaimukh dam 500 metres downstream from the confluence of the Barak, the second largest drainage system in northeast India and a kilometre north of Jakiganj in Sylhet, Bangladesh, and the Tuivai river in the south-western corner of Manipur, India.

The dam is proposed to be some 180 metres above sea level, with a maximum reservoir level of 178 metres and 136 metres as the minimum level. It is said to be the world’s largest rock-filled dam. The main purpose for constructing this dam is to generate hydroelectric power, with an installation capacity of 1,500MW. It is also likely to work as a flood control dam for the Manipur and Mizoram states in India and for irrigation purposes along the one-kilometre stretch of the Barak up to the Bangladesh border and by the fringe of the reservoir boundary.

The Tipaimukh dam was first thought of in 1954 when the government of Assam requested its construction to the central water and power commission of India for ways to manage floods in the Barak basin. The first initiative for this construction started in 2003. Attempts were made by the Indian government to start construction of this dam, but the process had to be stalled amidst violent national and international protests in 2007. At last the Indian government signed a bilateral investment treaty on 22 October, 2011 to complete the project by 2018.

There are numerous reasons for such opposition towards the construction of this dam. Bangladesh would have to face serious consequences if this dam is constructed. Even the people of Manipur and Nagaland would have to suffer.

Barak-Surma-Kushiara is an international river. Bangladesh, being a lower riparian country, has the right to an equitable share of the water from the river, and also a right to examine the details of the construction of this dam. No detailed plan of the dam has been provided to Bangladesh to appraise its full impact on Bangladesh. Being an upper riparian country, India has an obligation under international law to discuss the construction of such a massive infrastructure on the common river with lower riparian Bangladesh.

This dam would lead to drought and environmental degradation. It would cause the Surma and Kushiara to run dry during November to May, which would eventually hamper agriculture, irrigation and navigation, and lead to a shortage of supply of drinking water, etc. The shortage of water in these few months would lead to decrease in ground water which over the years would lower the ground water level, which in turn would affect all dug outs and shallow tube wells. Agriculture, which is dependent on both surface as well as ground water, would also be affected.

Also, any interference in the normal flow of water in the Barak would have an adverse effect on the Surma River in Bangladesh which, in turn, feeds the mighty Meghna River that flows through Bangladesh. This dam would hamper the cultivation of early variety of boro in the northeast. Arable land will decrease and production of crops will fall, leading to an increase in poverty. Roughly seven to eight percent of the total water of Bangladesh is obtained from the Barak River. Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies fed by the Barak in the Sylhet region for fishing and agricultural activities.

According to experts, if the dam is constructed, 16 districts of greater Sylhet will be affected. The immense natural disaster that will take place would be irreplaceable. The Indian government is saying once the dam is constructed, electricity will be generated and Bangladesh will benefit by importing the electricity. It does not, however, make sense to make a certain part of Bangladesh a desert area solely for the purpose of importing electricity.

The ever-increasing demand for fresh water has propelled the construction of dams and barrages on international rivers, and it is reported that 60 per cent of the world’s largest rivers have been interrupted by the artificial structures. Many of them were built in agreement with riparian countries, and about 200 treaties are now in force for the management of common water resources. According to an article published by Dr Soibam Ibotombi, teacher of earth sciences at Manipur University, the north-eastern part of India is one of the highest earthquake-prone areas in the world due to its tectonic setting, i.e. subduction, as well as collision plate convergence. Analysis has revealed that hundreds of earthquakes have taken place in this region in the last 100-200 years. Studies on the trends of earthquakes reveal that earthquakes mostly take place in regions which have experienced earthquakes in the past. The Tipaimukh dam site has been chosen at the highest risk seismically hazardous zone. Inhabitants of Manipur also believe that this dam would prove to be a grave threat to the flora and fauna and will endanger species like pythons, gibbons, as well as herbal and medicinal plants. They also fear that the dam would submerge as many as 90 villages within a 311 sq-km radius.

According to a UNESCO study, fresh water is getting scarce. The study reveals that the average supply of water is expected to fall by one-third within 20 years. Nearly seven billion people could face water shortages by 2020, and global warming may cause severe water shortages in 50 countries. South Asia is one of the regions to be adversely affected, partly because of melting of the Himalayan glaciers due to global warming.

A river flows as an indivisible unit, without knowing any political boundaries. If it is interfered with at the upper stream, the lower riparian country will be affected. That is why international law recognises the right of each riparian country to benefit from all the advantages deriving from river waters for the welfare and economic prosperity of its people.

According to international law, it is illegal to construct any dam on an international river without consent from the other side. But India has violated it by starting the construction of the Tipaimukh dam on the Barak River.
Sadly, such assurances were given at the time of the construction of the Farakka Dam also, but till date, 

Bangladesh is suffering from its consequences. Surprisingly, even the Bangladesh water resources minister said that Dhaka would not object to a project to produce electricity but would protest if a dam was constructed.
Unilateral water diversion, or withdrawal of water from international or common rivers, has been the 
long-standing policy of India. India has seldom bothered to think about the impact of such policies on a lower riparian country, such as Bangladesh, in diverting water from common rivers.

Ever since India began constructing the Farakka Barrage on the India-Bangladesh border in 1972, 17 rivers in Bangladesh have already ‘died’ and another eight are on the verge of drying up due to reduced water flows.
A number of tributaries have either dried up or have become too shallow for vessels to use. The low river flow has increased salinity, which in turn has caused loss of vegetation. Industries in south-western Bangladesh face the problem of getting usable, saline-free water.

The cost of Bangladesh’s direct losses due to Farakka is estimated at half a billion dollars a year. According to studies conducted by Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), about 80 rivers in Bangladesh have dried up within three decades after the Farakka Dam was built.

India is withdrawing waters of almost all the common rivers by building dams upstream, which will eventually cause Bangladesh to turn into a desert. The Padma River is drying up in Rajshahi after construction of Farakka Barrage. Twenty tributaries of the river have turned into streamlets.

The Tipaimukh dam is not just a political issue, but also a scientific one. The livelihoods of millions of people who rely on the Meghna River system for freshwater, for their livelihoods, and for the overall food security of the region, are at stake. Bangladesh is already battling with water shortages due to global warming and consequent climate change. The Tipaimukh dam would add to the environmental cataclysm already predicted by environmentalists.

The role of the Bangladesh government in this matter is quite confusing. The Bangladesh government must take a stand to clarify its position on the Tipaimukh dam, on the basis of scientific evidence and expert opinion, and not on the basis of mere assurances of the Indian government. There is evidence of the reluctance of the Indian government to fulfil its commitments in the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, in which Bangladesh in recent years has been receiving significantly less water than promised. The Indian government has not responded even after repeated official protests by Bangladesh on the issue of water shortfalls. 

Therefore, it is imperative that the Bangladesh government re-examine the scientific evidence on the possible ill effects of the Tipaimukh dam before it signals its approval.

The construction of the Tipaimukh dam is a national problem. All the political parties must keep aside their differences and be united on this issue. We have seen the consequences of Farakka and we don’t want another Farakka for Bangladesh.

BY :  Md Faruq Hossain