Monday, August 31, 2009

Tipaimukh Dam: A Hazard for Bangladesh

Mamoona Ali Kazmi

The Indo-Bangladesh relations have never been cordial. Regrettably, India’s expansionist policy in the region and anti-Bangladesh propaganda continued unabated. In Bangladesh, India is viewed as a bully, throwing its weight around and threatening the sovereignty of its smaller neighbors.

There are several issues between the two countries, which are of grave concern for Bangladesh. These include water issue, land issue, fencing of border, Indian support to Chakma community, killing of innocent civilians by BSF, subversive activities by India’s intelligence wings, Bangladesh’s high profile criminals taking asylum in India, smuggling from India etc.

Most important issue that mars bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh is water. Most of the rivers, which Bangladesh shares with India are controlled and managed by India. It has evolved plans to divert waters, from the northeast of the country to its drought prone west and south, of some 54 rivers which flow from India to Bangladesh.

India’s construction of dams or barrages on the common rivers one after the other not only violates international law regarding common rivers but also threatens the norms of good neighbourliness and the livelihood of the people of Bangladesh. After building Farraka and Teesta barrages, India has started construction of the Tipaimukh dam on river Barack just a kilometer north of Jakiganj in Sylhet. The construction work of Tipaimukh dam was stalled in March 2007 in the face of protests within and outside India for not following the international conventions about the international rivers. Linked to this dam is the Fulertal barrage.

To be located 500 meters downstream from the flowing rivers of the Barack and Tuovai rivers, the Tipaimukh dam lies on the south western corner of the Manipur state of India. Its reservoir will have a water storage capacity of 15,900 million cubic meters with a maximum depth of 1,725.5 meters. The dam and barrage when completed in 2012 are supposed to provide 1500 megawatts of hydel power to the Indian state of Assam but in return its going to bring about a major disaster for Bangladesh, practically contributing to drying up of 350 km long Surma and 110 km long Kushiara rivers which water most of the northeastern region of Bangladesh.

The Tipaimukh barrage is going to seriously affect not only agriculture in large portions of Bangladesh, particularly in winter, but is also gong to bring about negative ecological, climatic and environmental changes in vast areas of Bangladesh. Education Minister of India Nurul Islam Nahid said, “If India withdraws water from the Barack River, the free flowing Surma and Kushiara rivers will dry up”.

Surma-Kushiara and its 60 tributaries support agriculture, irrigation, navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in numerous areas in the entire Sylhet division and some peripheral areas of Dhaka division. So around five crore people in Sylhet and Dhaka division will face problems as Surma and Kushiara will lose five feet water in the rainy season. Abdul Karim Kim, an organizer of the Sylhet Paribesh Andolon feels that besides other parts of Bangladesh, Sylhet will be gravely affected.

“The dam completion will disrupt agriculture, irrigation, navigation, drinking water supply and ground water levels. Sylhet will face the same consequences faced by the south western region of Bangladesh”.

A Water resources expert, Professor Mustafizur Rahman Tarafdar discussed the ill effects of the Tipaimukh dam. He said, “If this dam is eventually constructed as intended, Bangladesh would have to suffer the adverse effects. This dam would lead to hydrological drought and environmental degradation.

This dam would cause the Surma and Kushiara to run dry during November to May which would eventually hamper agriculture, irrigation, navigation, shortage of supply of drinking water, etc. This shortage of water in these months would decrease the boost of 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 Barack would have an adverse effect on the Surma in Bangladesh that, in turn, feeds the mighty Meghna that flows through Bangladesh. Arable land will decrease and production of crops will fall, leading to an increase in poverty. Roughly 7 to 8 percent of total water of Bangladesh is obtained from the Barack.

Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies fed by Barack in the Sylhet region for fishing and agricultural activities. A dam-break is a catastrophic failure of a dam which results in the sudden draining of the reservoir and a severe flood wave that causes destruction and in many cases death downstream. If the Tipaimukh dam were to break, impounding billions of cubic meters of water, it will cause catastrophic floods because of its colossal structure”.

India never bothered to discuss the matter of the Tipaimukh dam with Bangladesh. 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. Since the river Barack is an international river, Bangladesh as a lower riparian country should have an equitable share of water.

Moreover an access to the design details of the project, planning and design etc also is a right of the country. Mir Sajjad Hossain, member of Joint River Commission (JRC) said, “We do not know what is going on there. We came to know from our sources that India is panning a hydroelectric plant. India has not sent any official documents about the proposal”. This is clearly a gross violation of co-riparian rights of Bangladesh. India has violated provisions of the 1997 UN Watercourse Convention on the Article 5 (1) Equitable Utilization, (7) No Harm Principle, (9) Exchange of Information.

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 Tipaimukh Dam on the Barack. 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 low riparian country, such as Bangladesh, in diverting water from common rivers. The high commissioner of India Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty to Bangladesh admitted that the Indian government has resumed the process of construction once again from the end of 2008.

According to Chakravarty the dam would produce hydroelectricity and would not harm Bangladesh in any way. It would only regulate the rivers’ flow. As it is a project aimed at producing hydroelectricity, no water would be withheld from Bangladesh. But this is not as simple as said by Chakravarty as to produce electricity the water flow would have to be obstructed which means that there will be less flow of water to the riparian neighbouring country.

Furthermore, Chakravarty also stated that the water will not be used for irrigation purposes. Where as according to sources the original plan of India is to supply water to the areas of Rajasthan and other states from Barack River, around 900 km away from the Manipur state. How can the people of Bangladesh trust that India’s Tipaimukh dam will not do any harm to them when they have been suffering numerous environmental disasters for the last 35 years due to the barrages, in the upstreams of the Ganges and the Teesta, built by India?

India is withdrawing waters of almost all the common rivers by building dams on the upstream, which will eventually cause Bangladesh to turn into a desert. India’s lack of sensitivity to the neighbours does not speak of friendly act by a friendly country. By constructing Tipaimukh dam India is only looking its own interest. India wants to control the water flow to facilitate irrigation of the Cacher plain. India should not be insensitive to the environmental and the negative consequences of the Tipaimukh dam on the lower riparian Bangladesh.

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