The Deadly Dam; a Dhaka-Delhi Debate
The Proposed Dam
The Bangla proverb ‘panir moto shohoj’ (as simple as water) has, today, become a matter of jeer as water, itself, is neither easy to get nor easy to treat but a fact of both politics and struggle. The more days are gone, the water politics becoming more severe, difficult to be managed round the globe indiscriminately continent and subcontinent. The world is prevalent with disagreements over waters, especially over use and management of waters of international rivers. Rivers with transnational boundary i.e. Brahmaputra, Mekong, Barak etc are becoming subjects of controversy over the right to manage the waters. Some countries, enjoying the lacking of a central authority of implementing international law, exercise power through military or economic means to weaker countries to justify control of watercourses flow through multinational borders. Conflicts emerge when countries upstream of a water resource use the water available to them to wield more power depriving the downstream country or countries. The curve of Bangla-India relations always gets its ups and downs with the discourse of water sharing issues since the independence of Bangladesh.
In recent years the water issue got the highest peak of debate between Dhaka and Delhi when the latter started to handle Indian River linking project with a view to materializing based on one sided decision and interest which, in near future, will be a hemlock for Bangladesh. In such an ever continuing controversial condition there has been added salt into injury by The Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project, to be constructed 500 Meters downstream from the confluence of Barak and Tuivai Rivers in Manipur over Barak River with firm generation capacity of 401.25 MW. The North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) of India was earlier slated to undertake the project with the Manipur Govt at 5% equity till it was replaced recently by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).
Dam Protesting Indian People
The Tipaimukh dam issue currently continues to dominate the domain of political, media, intellectual and civil society’s discourse in Bangladesh with a unilateral demand for revocation of India’s decision for the project. Massive public protest in different forms i.e. rallies, protest meetings, strikes and so on against the dam continue to gain momentum in Bangladesh. The bitter experience of severe water shortage and multifaceted impacts after commissioning of Farakka Barrage over the Ganges River by India has brought the people’s concern to a concrete opposition against any type of barrier in river no matter it is titled as dam or barrage. Concerns raised include staggering environmental degradation, economic crisis and hydrological drought. The damming of Barak River, seriously limiting free flowing Surma and Kushyara rivers will disrupt agriculture, irrigation, drinking water supply, navigation etc and reduce recharge of ground water during lean season, affecting all dug wells and shallow tube wells. Bangladesh gets 7 to 8 percent of its total water from the Barak River. The Surma-Kushyara with its maze of numerous tributaries and distributaries support agriculture, irrigation navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in the entire Sylhet division and in peripheral areas of Dhaka division and industries like fertilizer, electricity, gas. The dam would also leave millions jobless with the drying up of the two rivers. Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies, fed by the Barak, in the Sylhet region for fishing, agriculture and allied activities.
What is India’s stand about Tipaimukh dam and what they argue to make it a legal project? What the people of India think about the project? Moreover international norms of behavior regarding an international watercourse are to be discussed here with a touch of impartial and neutral position. Firstly India has not released a wide discussion on the project in a detailed form. The authority titled North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited has published neither the detailed nor the full description of the project. It only identifies that the project will be one of the largest hydroelectric projects in Eastern India to date and will be located 500 meters downstream of the confluence of the Tuivai and Barak Rivers in the District of Churacchander in the State of Manipur, near the Manipur - Mizoram border. They also inform that the Project will have a 6 X 250 MW power house and will be completed in an estimated time of 12 years. After completion of this Project, the perennial flood problems in the Barak valley in the State of Assam will be stopped, who knows how much reliable, and fertile land in this plain shall become rice bound for entire North East.
Protest in Bangladesh
It is, however, a source of fear that the people of India both inhabit and non-inhabit in this region do not support the project as they argue that the implementation of such projects brings the forests in great pressure, compounding the impacts upon conservation of flora and fauna. Indian people express their experience regarding such indirect impacts which have been seen in such other projects taken in India in different places i.e. Manathody hydroelectric project in Wynad, Bodhghat project, Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat, Narmada Sagar project in M.P. and Tehri Dam project in U.P. The situation turns even into such an extreme level in case of The Silent Valley Project that it was eventually abandoned in the face of the threat it could cause to the biodiversity of virgin tropical rain forest.
Sources said that Indian different laws e.g. The Promulgation of Wildlife (Protection) Act, Forest (Conservation) Act, and the Environment (Protection) Act as well as the National Forest Policy, Guidelines for Hydropower and Siting of Industry and Policy on Hydro Power Development laid a firm policy approach and statutory provision to strengthen the environmental conservation. Any developmental activity requires environmental clearance from the Central Government. These include river valley projects including hydroelectric projects and irrigation projects. Public hearing meetings in any such activity are mandatory. All of these laws and provisions have not maintained in an accurate and firm way in case of Tipaimukh dam. This is only one aspect of the opinion of Indian people. There is also another strong ally who opposes the project from their question of existence as they will be the real victim of the project because of being the dweller in of the region.
The affected peoples of Manipur and Mizoram have all rejected the construction of Tipaimukh dam project and that the project proponents pursued the project vigorously with little care for the rights of the affected peoples. Consequently, the exaggerated peoples are undisputed and consolidating their postures to guard their land and resources and to shield their sources of survival. While the affected peoples along the Mizoram side complains about lack of transparency, non provision of vital information for basis of decision making, the Zeliangrong peoples of Tamenglong district complains of failure of project proponents to take their consent with due necessary provision of all information on the project. Till date, the affected peoples in Mizoram, Manipur, Assam are still denied the Detailed Project Report. There is another factor of objection that the project has been sidelining the irreparable implications to the intrinsic survival dependence of affected peoples over their land and resources in Manipur and Mizoram. The irresponsible conduct and lack of accountability of project authorities in previous mega projects, as for instance, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation with the economic, social and environmental devastation caused by its Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project has also been cited as another reason.
A huge number of citizens, typically Zeliangrong and Hmar tribes, will be displaced enduringly and deprived of the livelihood. The dam will submerge areas of about 311 sq. km covering 90 villages with 1,310 families, including 27,242 hectares of forest and cultivable land and posing serious threat to the rich biodiversity, flora and fauna of the region. The forested hills most in Tamenglong and Churachandpur Districts are the habitat of rare and endangered species of reptiles and mammals, including pythons, gibbons, leopards and deer.
These are some of the realizations and assessments done by Indians keeping the Indian interest and profit in mind. Some other experiences regarding such hydro projects from different corners of the world do not give any positive answers from any point of view.
If we judge the effect of the Tipaimukh dam from our point of view and sketch the real scenario, there is waiting just a nightmare for us. Adverse effects of the Tipaimukh dam will be superbly distressing and damaging for Bangladesh. Environmental degradation, hydrological drought and economic crisis will cause irreversible scratch. Suddenly, the ever living Surma and Kushyara will turn dry and remain so for Nov-May which obviously and immediately will disrupt agriculture, irrigation, drinking water supply, navigation etc. A Six to seven month long dry conditions will either stop or, obviously, lessen recharge of ground water which over the years will lower the ground water level, affecting all dug wells, shallow tube wells, as it happened in south western region of Bangladesh as a result of drastic withdrawal of the Ganges water at Farakka. Agriculture that depends on surface as well as ground water will be affected gravely.
The two rivers with their numerous tributaries and distributaries support agriculture, irrigation navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in numerous haors and low lying areas in the entire Sylhet division and some peripheral areas of Dhaka division. The river system also supports internal navigation, wildlife in haors, industries like fertilizer, electricity, gas etc. The site selected for Tipaimukh project is one of the most active in the entire world, recording at least two major earthquakes of 8+ in the Reichter Scale during the past 50 years. The proposed Tipaimukh HEP is envisaged for construction in one of the most geologically unstable area as the proposed Tipaimukh dam axis falls on a ‘fault line’ potentially active and possible epicenter for major earthquakes. Several earthquakes over magnitude 5-7 on recorded within a radius of 6 km to 100 km of Tipaimukh in the past 150 years and the epicentre of the last earthquake in 1957, with a magnitude of 8 lies at approximately 80 km from the dam site in an east-northeast direction.
Massive environmental dilapidation will come about, drastically affecting weather and climate, turning a wet cooler territory into a hot uncomfortable cauldron. The severity of micro-climate causing heat and dry conditions will, slowly but surely, increase in intensity spreading over a large area over the years. It may be mentioned that rainfall that the area gets for 4 to 5 months and flood water that will be released from the dam for a short period will not be enough to refill the ground water.
Scarcity of water will cause siltation on river beds. Any high rainfall will occur in the catchment area of the dam, enormous quantity of sediment-laden flood water will be released which will cause severity of flood in the Surma and the Kushyara channels which would be already raised for low flow. This will further raise the water level causing floods in adjoining additional areas. Navigation in river channels in the Meghna, a combination of above two rivers, will face depleted water flow and consequent sedimentation and severity of flooding in the wet season. Surface irrigation will be in jeopardy. The Meghna up to Chandpur will suffer from the adverse effects. The Meghna-Padma will have low flow which will accentuate saline backwater intrusion in the Padma channel which is already affected by the low flow for the withdrawal of water of the Ganges at Farakka.
The above scenario knocks on every one’s concern for formulizing a policy to protect establishment of Tipaimukh dam on the demand of our survival. In such a situation Bangladesh has to take two types of initiatives i.e. particular and over all. In particular basis the Tipaimukh will only be focused and in this phase we can work on two phases first governmental and second non governmental public based initiative. In government level negotiation with India focusing on international river law, environmental law and so on. The Indian authorities need to be reminded the UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses might not as yet have come into force but there are still principles of equity that apply. There is recognition and general acceptance that water management and sharing has to be done in a reasonable manner that would help riparian countries to attain optimal sustainable utilization without causing significant harm to other co-riparian nations. In this regard we can inscribe the quotation from Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997 adopted, but not yet in force, by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 2 1 May 1997. The convention says in its article five to ensure Equitable and reasonable utilization and participation. The article five says
1. Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, an international watercourse shall be used and developed by watercourse States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits there from, taking into account the interests of the watercourse States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of the watercourse.
2. Watercourse States shall participate in the use, development and protection of an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. Such participation includes both the right to utilize the watercourse and the duty to cooperate in the protection and development thereof, as provided in the present Convention.
Lastly, there are the provisions contained in Article 6 of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996, which stipulate that both countries will have to agree with regard to management of all the common rivers.
On government level initiative some other factors and laws will be given priority such as international environmental and ecological perspectives and so on. The Tipaimukh also demands about protecting rights of tribal people. Institutions and organizations work on this sectors should be informed the situation with statistics, data, information prepared by specialists and intellectual of the relevant sectors.
On public level we can work both beyond and within border. The diasporas live in different countries in the world should be attached in this protest. They can arrange rallies, processions, public hearing, public meeting and public awareness programs round the globe which will increase a public awareness and sympathy towards Bangladeshis. In this connection it is accountable that a good figure of people from Sylhet division, the worst victim of the dam, lives in the UK and the USA. They also have to be accumulated to these protecting activities. On public level we can also make a bridge between people live inside India who are also affected by the dam and can take combined initiatives to rethink India about the dam.
What is required today is transparency and political will. One hopes that the visit of our Parliamentary delegation will be followed not only by intensive discussion on the basis of shared data between relevant experts from both countries but also meetings between the two political leaderships. An acceptable equation has to be reached between sovereign rights and national interests. There has to be a careful scrutiny and a bi-partisan approach in this context within Bangladesh. Emotion must not be allowed to affect pragmatism.
For a long term and common solution for all problems, evolved from common rivers and watercourses, we have to make a regional forum comprising South Asia and South East Asian countries just like African Convention on the Conservation of Natural Resources. We also have to a make a look to other regions of the world where international rivers are shared with nondisputed and equity based. Examining all those initiatives taken in different parts of the world we have to draft and formulate a region based every one winning model of river and watercourse management system.
Before going to take all these efforts, first of all, we have to make it sure that all the problems regarding Tipaimukh and other rivers between Bangladesh and India should be handled with unity, patriotism and rationally not focused on irrational perception. Only then we can assure our existence. Who knows when we will understand this easy truth!