Friday, August 21, 2009

Tipaimukh dam: Trust, but verify

Abdullah A. Dewan

AFTER holding talks with Indian authorities about the pros and cons of the construction of Tipaimukh dam vis-à-vis Bangladesh, the Parliament's water resources committee chairman Abdur Razzak told New Age that his team members were convinced that India would do nothing harmful for Bangladesh. "We have to trust our neighbour, as the Indian prime minister and two other ministers have assured that they wouldn't take up any scheme that would harm Bangladesh," he stressed.

On receiving the team's report about the controversial 1,500 MW Tipaimukh dam (TD), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the formation of an expert committee to assess the environmental, ecological, and economic (EEE) impacts on Bangladesh.

The building of the dam is of serious concern because of its potentially detrimental effects on Bangladesh's rivers. The plan is to build TD on the trans-boundary Barak river which channels water to the Bangladesh rivers Surma and Kushiyara, both of which merge into the Meghna. Thus, any potentially destabilising water flow in Meghna should be unacceptable to Bangladesh.

Razzak's imprudent assertion that India would do nothing that is harmful for Bangladesh can be dismissed as a memory-lapse statement -- one that ignores the adverse consequences of the Farakka barrage (FB) that both India and Bangladesh have been coping with ever since its construction.

One of the devastating impacts of the FB is the vanishing of a large village, Akheriganj of Bhagabangola, rendering 23,394 people homeless and raising tensions between India and Bangladesh. Besides, the barrage has turned parts of northern Bangladesh into a desert, raising salinity, affecting navigation, and adversely impacting the environment, agriculture and fisheries.

The government of India is now thinking of repairing the damage with a massive $120 billion plan to link its rivers, which originate in the Himalayas, with 30 interlinked canal systems that would deliver water to so-called Peninsular India. (India: Farakka Barrage -- An Environmental Mistake by Muhammad Javed Iqbal.)

Razzaque is a politician, not a water expert -- even a "so-called" one. His assertion about the team being "convinced that India would do nothing harmful" may be deemed gratuitously friendly, diplomatically pandering, evidentially unsubstantiated, and openly vociferous. Despite environmentalists' concerns, Razzak dismissed BNP's remonstrations about the project as nothing but an attempt to keep themselves politically alive. All his post India trip statements seem to suggest: "In India, we trust."

"Trust, but verify" should have been the mission of the Razzak-led 10-member get-to-know delegation. The Russian proverb doveryai, no proveryai -- Trust, but verify -- had often been quoted by US President Ronald Reagan when discussing US and Soviel relationships with USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorvachev. If the Farraka barrage had taught us anything, the Razzak led delegation should have adhered to the Russian proverb before being convinced that dam would have no adverse effects on Bangladesh.

The lessons of FB make it imperative that the proposed expert committee must consist of professionals with expertise in all three areas of EEE to produce an independent and professionally sound assessment. The TD is not a diplomatic matter or a cross-border political issue -- it's a question of Bangladesh's national security.

The recent actions and concerns expressed by members of the US Congress, the UN Security Council, and retired US military officers have awakened many nations to the consequences of climate change, including the destabilising effects of storms, droughts, and floods (SDF). Experts think that the effects of climate change could easily overwhelm disaster-response capabilities in the US. Internationally, it may cause humanitarian disasters, contribute to political unrest, and undermine weak governments -- leading to failed states.

Last week, in a national public radio talk show on climate change, I heard a retired US military officer refer to Bangladesh several times while discussing what could potentially happen to natural disaster prone countries. He argued that the effects of SDF brought about by climate change could lead to starvation, political violence and terrorism. As a consequence, climate change has increasingly been called a "security" problem, and there is conjecture that climate change may enhance the risk of violent conflict.

A recent study, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, projected climate change as "a threat multiplier in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states -- the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism."

The disastrous effects of the Farraka barrage must remind the politicians of Bangladesh not to blithely jump to hasty conclusions about the potential negative impacts of the controversial Tipaimukh dam. The potential adverse effects are similar to those of climate change. Therefore, the government of India must abandon the project if the dam -- even if remotely -- poses a threat to the environment, ecology, and economy of Bangladesh. A rise in terrorism as a result of dam related adverse effects could easily spill over across the border into India -- which neither Bangladesh nor India would ever like to see happening.

(Dr. Abdullah A. Dewan, founder of, is Professor of Economics at Eastern Michigan University.)


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