Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Emergency: India’s unilateral decision to deprive Bangladesh of water resources

Although the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has promised to provide Bangladesh with details of the agreement on the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur, the very signing of the deal has sparked a fresh controversy.

Following media reports and criticism, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday, disclosing that India had promised to give details of the deal signed recently by National Hydro Power Company, Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd. and the Manipur government to build the 1,500-MW project.

“The Indian External Affairs Ministry has referred to the assurances given by India at the highest level in this regard,” the statement said. “We will also remain in close contact with them.”

Since the deal was signed without any knowledge of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi experts, Opposition parties and the media have blamed the government for failing to take diplomatic steps to stop the dam construction, arguing that it is in breach of India’s commitment and it will harm the country’s interests.

They have also criticized the Sheikh Hasina government for its “imprudence” of relying on India’s “non-binding assurances” on the dam. And environmentalists have expressed grave concerns at the ecological, economic and, above all, human consequences the dam would have for Bangladesh.

Abdul Matin, head of the water resource engineering department of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, who visited the site as part of a team of experts, said: “The devastating effects … have long been discussed. Under the circumstances, this supposedly undisclosed agreement is a massive diplomatic failure.”

Seismically Hazardous Zone

Environmentalists and agriculture experts have warned that the twin dams, at Tipaimukh and Phulertal, across the cross-border Barak river would dry up rivers and water bodies downstream, rendering vast farmland arid, hitting agriculture and threatening food security in the north-eastern districts of Bangladesh.

M. Inamul Haque, chairman of the Institute of Water and Environment, said: “The progress of the dam construction, despite [India's] repeated assurances to Bangladesh of not doing anything without taking its concerns into account, was revoked in the two joint declarations… [made] when the Bangladesh Prime Minister visited India in 2010 and the Indian Prime Minister visited Bangladesh in September.”

The agreement is also seen as “a violation of the framework agreement” signed between the two countries in Dhaka. “

The agreement for the construction of the Tipaimukh dam has made it clear that India is deviating from the formal and informal commitments it has made to Bangladesh,” said Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director, Centre for Global Change.

A joint communiqué issued during Ms. Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in January 2010 said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave the assurance that India would not take steps in respect of the Tipaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh. He also reiterated the assurance in an identical statement during his return visit to Dhaka on September 6 this year.

About 7 to 8 per cent of total water of Bangladesh is obtained through the river Barak to Surma-Kushyara river basins. Agriculture, irrigation navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in numerous haors (wetlands) and low lying areas in entire Sylhet division, some areas of Comilla and Mymensingh districts, and some peripheral areas of Dhaka division depends on this water.

The river system also supports local industries like fertilizer, electricity, gas etc. Any interference in the normal flow of water in the Surma River in turn, feeds the River Meghna that flows through Bangladesh would be seriously affected. Along with the people of India, civil society groups, government and NGOs in Bangladesh have protested against the downstream impacts of Tipaimukh dam. The following adverse impacts on nature and livelihood in Bangladesh have been identified:

The Tipaimukh dam would lead to hydrological drought and environmental degradation.

According to the Institute of Water Modeling (IWM) – an autonomous research institute in Bangladesh, once the Tipaimukh dam is fully functional, average annual monsoon inflow from the Barak River to the Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna River system would be reduced around 10% for month June, 23% for month July, 16% for month August and 15% for month September. Water level would fall by more than 1 meter on average during the month July on the Kushiyara River and 0.75 meter on the Surma River. During relatively drier monsoon year, the dam would have more impact on the availability of monsoon water in the Barak-Surma-Kushiyara River than the average annual monsoon year.

Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies fed by the Barak for agricultural activities. The dam would cause the Surma and Kushiara to run dry from November to May. This shortage of water in these few months would decrease the boost of groundwater. Over the years this would lower the groundwater level, which in turn would affect all dug outs and shallow tube wells. Agriculture, which is dependent on both surface as well as groundwater, would also be affected. Arable land will decrease and production of crops will fall, leading to an increase in poverty.

A detailed study by the World Dam Commission published in 2000 states that the adverse impacts of any large dams are irreversible for the lower riparian region. A study on the trends of earthquakes reveals that they mostly take place in regions which have experienced earthquakes in the past. If the Tipaimukh Dam were to break, its ‘billions’ of impounded cubic meters of water will cause catastrophic floods because of its colossal structure. The faults and fractures around Tipaimukh dam axis belong to the category that may undergo strike-slip and extensional movements. If the dam axis is displaced by a few centimeters, serious damage may occur causing a dam disaster leading to huge loss of lives and property.

Violation of Laws and Agreement

International rivers are naturally well designated and they flow through many countries. There are international rules and conventions that guide modes of sharing waters of such rivers between countries in the riparian regions. The 1997 UN convention adopted two key issues, one, in gist stated by two words, ‘no harm’ and the other ‘equitable sharing’. To elaborate the implications of the two set of terms, one can safely state that the upper riparian country must not do harm to lower riparian country by withdrawing or diverting normal natural flow of water. If any such withdrawal and diversion is at all to be done, such mode must have prior sanction of the lower riparian country subject to the condition of mutually agreed equitable sharing. International Convention on Joint River Water also states that without the consent of the downstream river nation no single country alone can control the multi-nation rivers. But India does not care for these international laws despite being a signatory to this convention.

The unilateral construction of Tipaimukh dam by India on this international river Barak is a violation of UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International watercourses. At a Joint River Commission (JRC) meeting in September 2005, India formally assured Bangladesh that they would not divert any water for their irrigation project. If India constructs the dam without the consent of Bangladesh, it will also be violation of the article 9 of Bangladesh-India Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, 1996. The Tipaimukh Dam project was entirely developed and approved without informing the government of Bangladesh or involving its people in any meaningful exercise to assess the downstream impacts of the dam. Bangladesh was not invited to participate, fully and actively in the decision-making process as a key stakeholder. This is clearly a gross violation of co-riparian rights of Bangladesh.

The World Commission on Dams report has shown that Indian dams do more harm than help. Therefore, as per the report’s recommendation consider replacing dam-based hydroelectricity with a “run-of-the-river” type project.

As the proposed site is one of the highest potential earthquake areas in the world, so impacts of its tectonic setting need to be considered seriously.

Bangladeshi communities all over the world must draw international community’s (Asian Development Bank, World Bank, UN) attention to save our people and nature of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh government, political leaders, civil society bodies, environmentalists need to join under a common umbrella to stop India constructing the Tipaimukh dam.

In Summary: Construction of the Tipaimukh Dam must stop now until the experts from both countries are undertaking further studies and investigations.