Information Please Nazrul Islam lays out what we need to know and do about the Tipaimukh Dam
Tipaimukh Dam is not an isolated project; it is part of a comprehensive Indian plan of using rivers that flow from India into Bangladesh, and, hence, needs to be viewed in the general context of sharing of international rivers by these two countries.
In general, India has been using its upper riparian position and its economic and financial strength to take unilateral steps with regard to the flow of these international rivers. Most of these unilateral steps have been of diversionary character, diverting the water flow to destinations inside India and thus reducing the flow of water into the rivers of Bangladesh.
Glaring examples of such diversionary interventions are the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges and the Gozaldoba Barrage on the Teesta. India has undertaken numerous other diversionary and flow-controlling structures on most of the 54 rivers shared by Bangladesh and India.
These diversionary projects of India go against the international norms regarding sharing of international rivers. In particular, they violate Bangladesh's right to prior and customary use of river water. The entire economy and life in Bangladesh have evolved on the basis of rivers. Any major change in the flow of these rivers is, therefore, seriously disruptive for Bangladesh. Furthermore, river intervention structures affect the flow of sediments, which are vital for deltaic Bangladesh, which is facing submergence by rising sea level caused by global warming.
There is pent up emotion among Bangladeshi's against India's unilateral river intervention projects. They perceive projects such as Farakka, Gozaldoba, etc. as unfair and as proof of India's hubris. These unilateral projects are also a thorn in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations, which should be warm and friendly given India's crucial help in Bangladesh's Liberation War;
After a long hiatus, Bangladesh and India signed the Ganges Water Treaty in 1996, specifying the sharing of the Ganges water at Farakka. Article IX of this treaty enjoins India not to undertake unilateral projects intervening rivers shared with Bangladesh. In practice, India has not respected this provision of the treaty and moved ahead with many unilateral projects.
Tipaimukh is one such unilateral project aimed at construction of a dam on the Barak River. India went all the way to floating international tender inviting bids for construction of the project without even sharing the DPR (Detailed Project Report) with Bangladesh. Only recently, when the news of construction of Tipaimukh generated considerable civic protest in Bangladesh, has the government of India (GoI) reportedly sent some information to the Bangladesh foreign ministry, which the government of Bangladesh (GoB) is yet to make public.
The GoB has not proved effective in dealing with India with regard to Tipaimukh, or in the case of sharing of rivers in general. It did not take up the Tipaimukh issue with India in a serious and timely manner. In particular, the current opposition political parties did not play their expected role while in power during 2001-2006, when India moved Tipaimukh from conception to the implementation stage.
The current GoB has decided to send a delegation of the Bangladesh parliament on a fact-finding mission, and the prime minister has stated that GoB will decide on Tipaimukh after studying the report of that delegation.
Unfortunately, various Bangladesh ministers are expressing opinions that are peremptory and contradict Bangladesh's official position as expressed by the prime minister, and are thus creating confusion.
It is possible that Tipaimukh will help to stabilise the Barak flow across seasons, as pointed out by some water experts and reflected in some of the ministers' statements. However, there are many reasons why the suggested across-season flow-stabilisation may not hold true and be beneficial for Bangladesh.
First, Bangladesh does not yet have the necessary facts to assess the changes in Barak flow to be caused by Tipaimukh.
Second, dams can also be a source of destabilisation, not only in the extreme situation of dam-break, but also in the often recurring situation when the excess water needs to be released to protect the dam from overflow. Such unplanned releases lead to unexpected floods. For example, the unusual 2008 floods in Bihar were caused by unexpected release of water by the dams that India has constructed on the Ganges tributaries near Nepal.
Third, for Bangladesh to benefit from stabilisation of the Barak flow, it has to have a say in the release of water at Tipaimukh. This would suggest that Tipaimukh should be under joint control of India and Bangladesh. As of now, Tipaimukh will be entirely under Indian control, and the water release decisions will be made by India alone, putting Bangladesh at the mercy of the Indian officials operating Tipaimukh. Such a helpless situation is not in Bangladesh's interests.
Fourth, river flow contains not only water but also sediments, which are very important for deltaic Bangladesh. One damaging impact of Tipaimukh will be reduced sediment volume in the Barak flow.
Fifth, Bangladesh has to assess the costs and benefits for her economy of the seasonal changes in the Barak flow caused by Tipaimukh. For example, boro, which is cultivated in the haor areas that become dry in winter, is the main crop for many in the Surma-Kushiara basin. If Tipaimukh increases winter flow, cultivation of boro in these areas may not be possible. Without detailed studies it is difficult to say whether the net economic impact of the cross-season stabilisation of the Barak flow will be positive for Bangladesh.
Sixth, there is also the issue of ecology to consider. The flora and fauna of the Surma-Kushiara-Meghna basin have developed on the basis of a certain seasonal pattern of the river flow. Detailed studies are necessary to gauge the environmental and ecological impact of Tipaimukh.
The Tipaimukh dam project cannot be separated from the other project recommended by Shukla Commission, namely the Fulertal barrage project, meant to divert Barak water for irrigation in Assam. With a price tag of $1.8 billion, the Tipaimukh dam is currently uneconomical, because per unit cost of electricity, even assuming the advertised production of 1500 MW, will be too high. Thus, the costs of the dam can be justified only if it is viewed jointly with Fulertal or other such diversionary projects. However, a combination of Tipaimukh and Fulertal is completely unacceptable to Bangladesh, because such a duo will be another Farakka on the eastern side of the country.
Worldwide experience shows that large-scale interventions in rivers do not prove to be that beneficial in the long run. The hydropower generated often proves to be meagre and costly. The irrigation carried out on the basis of diverted water often proves wasteful and leads to salinity and deterioration of the soil quality, so that diversionary projects end up harming not only the basin from which water is withdrawn but also the area to which water is transported (at a great cost). The reservoir submerges large areas of land, destroying the ecology and displacing thousands of (often most vulnerable) indigenous people, causing permanent problems of alienation and insurgency.
The reservoir also becomes a source of methane, undercutting the emission reducing potentiality of the hydropower generated. The reservoir and the upstream flow often become a cesspool of pollution. Dams obstruct sediment flow and the free movement fish stock. While many of the damages prove to the permanent, dams themselves become obsolete due to sedimentation, filling up of the reservoir, etc.
In view of these negative consequences many are now sceptical about dams, barrages and other large-scale river intervention projects. It is an open question whether Tipaimukh dam will be beneficial in the long run and in net terms even for India.
Many in India are opposed to the Tipaimukh dam. They include, indigenous people, state governments of Manipur and Mizoram, environmentalists, river activists, human right advocates, and even economists and social scientists. By providing various monetary benefits and offering free electricity, etc., the North East Electricity Production Company (NEEPCO), the current Tipaimukh implementing agency, has been able to pacify the state governments. However, in India, opposition to Tipaimukh continues.
River intervention structures have generally been the outcome of the commercial approach to rivers, that suggests that any flow of river water to the sea is a waste, so all of it should be used up. The approach led to degradation of rivers and increased conflict and animosity among countries of the river basin. In view of this experience, there is now a move towards the ecological approach that recommends preservation of the natural volume and direction of river flow. Instead of being a source of discord, as is the case under the commercial approach, rivers under the ecological approach become a bond of friendship and good neighborliness.
Worldwide, there is also a move away from the unilateral approach toward a multilateral, basin-wide approach that includes all the countries of a river basin in decision-making regarding the use of the river.
The tasks that follow from the above facts are:
India should stop proceeding any further with Tipaimukh, and engage in serious, sincere discussions with Bangladesh about the fate of this and all other projects of intervention in the shared international rivers.
India should abandon its current unilateral approach and adopts a multi-lateral, basin-wide integrated water resources management approach to the rivers of the region, and invite Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and China to join this effort.
India should not undertake water diversionary project (such as at Fulertal or at other points) on the Barak river under any circumstances.
India should refrain from water diversionary projects on other rivers shared with Bangladesh.
Bangladesh, India, and the other countries of the sub-continent should abandon the current commercial approach to rivers and to adopt the ecological approach.
GoB should immediately make public the information that it has received from GoI on Tipaimukh so that all interested parties and scholars can use this information for necessary analysis.
GoB should sponsor independent research by Bangladeshi experts on the possible impact of Tipaimukh on Bangladesh economy and ecology.
All Bangladesh political parties should adopt a non-partisan approach to the Tipaimukh issue, and issues of water sharing with India in general, and cooperate to develop a united national position on those.
All political parties should lend cooperation to GoB, to the extent that it sincerely tries to find a solution with India regarding Tipaimukh, defending Bangladeshs national interests and legitimate rights.
All political parties represented in the Parliament should join the proposed all-party delegation of Bangladesh Parliament to visit Tipaimukh to find out the facts and submit a report.
Citizens of Bangladesh should join en masse the developing civic movement to save the rivers of the country.
All concerned in Bangladesh, including political parties, civil society organisations, NGOs, think tanks, media, mass organisations, local people's organisations, non-resident Bangladeshis, etc., should come together, leaving aside narrow partisan and sectarian interests, and develop and rally behind a united national position regarding Tipaimukh and other river sharing issues, as Bangladesh needs national unity in order to defend its rivers.
Dr. Nazrul Islam is a former Professor of Economics, Dhaka University.