Never before have water-sharing issues caused so much controversy in South Asia as the proposed Tipaimukh dam project over the Barack river in India's northeast has. The river flows westward, merging into the Meghna river system in neighboring Bangladesh.
India's plan to build a multipurpose hydroelectric dam over the river has caused heated political debate and has become the cause du jour of civil society movements in Bangladesh who fear its environmental and economic repercussions.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, recently speaking to reporters from the sideline of a Dhaka conference, indicated that "if the Tipaimukh dam goes against the interests of Bangladesh, [we] will do whatever is necessary to protect national interests."
Moni has rebuked Indian envoy Pinak Ranjan Chakravarti for referring to Bangladesh environmentalists as "so-called experts" and accusing them of being politically motivated. Chakravarti's off-the-cuff remarks created an uproar in Bangladesh and triggered protests outside the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, where demonstrators burned his effigy.
The North Eastern Electric Power Corp (NEEPCO) is in charge of the $1.7 billion project, which aims to generate 1,500 megawatts of hydroelectric power. But experts disagree on the purpose of the dam and its eventual impact.
The perception prevails in Bangladesh that their larger neighbor is carrying out the project without any consultation with the lower riparian state and that ultimately the proposed dam will have a severe ecological impact that could lead to the desertification of eastern Bangladesh.
India argues that since the Tipaimukh dam would be used for hydroelectric power generation and not for irrigation, it would not cause any negative consequences downstream or any ecological harm to Bangladesh. Ainun Nishat, country director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Bangladesh (IUCN), was recently quoted on BDNews24.com as saying that "the construction of [the] Tipaimukh dam will reduce the natural monsoon flood patterns of the area on which cultivation depends."
"Even a hydroelectric project, which is not an irrigation project, can have pretty serious downstream impacts," asserted Himanshu Thakkar of the New Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRAP).
Speaking to ISN Security Watch, he warned that "the project will have far-reaching adverse impacts on the environment upstream and downstream of the dam, and also will have a global effect due to the likelihood of the emission of massive quantities (yet to be assessed) of methane gas, which is a 21-times-more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
"The fear of serious downstream impacts prevalent in Bangladesh is well founded, but the nature and quantum would depend on many factors, including the way the dam is operated," Thakkar added.
"I have not heard of any dam, be it for irrigational or power generation, without any upstream and downstream impact," said Manipur-based Ramananda Wangkheirakpam, the coordinator for North East People's Alliance in Bangladesh.
Wangkheirakpam is less cautious, telling ISN Security Watch that "the dam will inundate upstream in Manipur and create havoc across the border" and "India knows the impact." It is not the first time India and Bangladesh have clashed over dam issues. Ties have been strained over the sharing of Ganges water and the Farakka barrage in the past. Bangladesh faced a severe water scarcity due to the barrage, especially during winter season. However, in December 1996, a 30-year water-sharing agreement with conditions perceived as favoring India eased some of the brewing tensions.
Many in Bangladesh fear that the Tipaimukh dam will be another Farakka.
Scholar and activist Habib Siddiqui described the Tipaimukh project for the website The New Nation as likely another "death trap." Muhammad Hillaluddin, coordinator and activist at the Dhaka-based Angikar Bangladesh Foundation, holds similar sentiments. "The Farakka barrage was thrusted upon the newly born Bangladesh in the early years of the 1970s, but now the situation has changed," he told ISN Security Watch. "The resultant conflict will take severe form and be prolonged for many days to come."
"So far, India does not seem to be taking the Bangladesh government and people into confidence about the project and its impacts," Thakkar lamented.
But the dam is also opposed by some in India.
On 26 July, some 100 people gathered in the town of Lakhipur, in India's own Assam state, downstream from the Barak river, which environmentalists warn could end up under 10 meters of water should the proposed dam collapse. It is the first case in which downstream communities in India have protested the proposed dam.
Environmental activists and experts from northeastern India and Bangladesh fear massive inundation of villages and clogging and drying up of the river systems if the ambitious Tipaimukh dam project is put in place.
The Action Committee Against Tipaimukh Dam (ACTIP), an umbrella group spearheading anti-dam protests in Manipur in March 2007 submitted a memorandum to the Indian government in protest against the project. ACTIP observed in their memorandum that nearly 285-square kilometers of land will be submerged under water if the project is implemented.
According to Hillaluddin, "the Haor wetlands of northeast Bangladesh engulfing almost one-sixth of the country will face water logging, due to the water level difference in the rivers in late monsoon, which will affect cultivation and commercial fisheries."
Hillaluddin also fears that earthquakes could damage the massive structure of the along with its huge reservoir, resulting in "catastrophic consequences especially for the downstream districts of Bangladesh."
Beyond physical environmental fears, Ramananda Wangkheirakpam foresees an "environment-induced conflict" in the region.
"There will be massive migration from Bangladesh due to the Tipaimukh project once it is operationalized and might contribute to the conflict between locals and Bangladeshis," he cautioned.
The Tipaimukh issue figured in informal talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina on the sideline of the 15th Non-Aligned Movement summit, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in July.
A section of the present Sheikh Hasina-led administration believes that India's plan for hydropower generation could benefit the country.
But according to a high-ranking source close to the talks, there are "strong elements within the ruling Awami League (AL) that can pull down the Sheikh Hasina government if they sign any agreement with India" on the dam issue. Amid widespread opposition to the project at home, especially from the main opposition Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is blamed for 'playing politics' over the dam, and many environmental groups, Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina is quite optimistic for an amicable resolution of this contentious water sharing issue with India through talks soon.
But as Hillaluddin is less certain, saying the issue is extremely important and highly complicated, especially as experts across the board seem to strongly disagree as to the potential impact the dam will have on water resources, ecology and people.