The Tipaimukh Dam Controversy
Nadim Jahangir examines the effects of the Tipaimukh Dam on Bangladesh
The government of India has initiated construction of the Tipaimukh Dam 500m downstream from the confluence of the Barak, the second largest drainage system to the northeast of India and a kilometre north of Jakiganj in Sylhet, Bangladesh, and the Tuivai river in the southwestern corner of Manipur, India.
The dam is proposed to be some 180m above sea level, with a maximum reservoir level of 178m and 136m as the minimum level. It is said to be the world's largest rock fall dam. The main purpose for constructing this dam is for hydro-electric power generation, having an installation capacity of 1,500MW.
It is also likely to work as a flood control dam for the Manipur and Mizoram states in India and for irrigation purposes along the 1km stretch of the Barak River up to the Bangladesh border and by the fringe of the reservoir boundary.
Indian authorities have targeted to complete the project by 2012. But construction of this dam is being strongly opposed not only by concerned Bangladeshis, but also by the people of India.
First initiatives for this construction started in 2003. Attempts were made by the Indian government to start construction of this dam earlier but the process had to be stalled amidst violent national and international protests in 2007.
There are numerous reasons for such opposition towards the construction of this dam. Bangladesh would have to face serious consequences if this dam is constructed. Even the people of Manipur and Nagaland would have to suffer.
Barak-Surma-Kushiara is an international river. Bangladesh, being a lower riparian country, has the right to an equitable share of the water from the river, and also a right to examine the details of the construction of this dam. No detailed plan of the dam has been provided to Bangladesh to appraise its full impact on Bangladesh. India, being an upper riparian country, has an obligation under international law to discuss the construction of such a massive infrastructure on the common river with lower riparian Bangladesh.
Prof. Mustafizur Rahman Tarafdar, a water resources expert, in an article titled "Tipaimukh Dam: An alarming venture," discussed the ill-effects of the Tipaimukh Dam. If this dam is eventually constructed as intended, Bangladesh would have to suffer the adverse effects.
This dam would lead to drought and environmental degradation. It would cause the Surma and Kushiara to run dry during November to May, which would eventually hamper agriculture, irrigation and navigation and lead to a shortage of supply of drinking water, etc. The shortage of water in these few months would decrease ground water which over the years would lower the ground water level, which in turn would affect all dug outs and shallow tubewells. 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 Barak would have an adverse effect on the Surma River in Bangladesh which, in turn, feeds the mighty Meghna River that flows through Bangladesh. This dam would hamper the cultivation of early variety of boro in the northeast. Arable land will decrease and production of crops will fall, leading to an increase in poverty. Roughly 7 to 8 percent of the total water of Bangladesh is obtained from the Barak River. Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies fed by the Barak 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 metres of water, it would cause catastrophic floods because of its colossal structure.
According to an article published by Dr. Soibam Ibotombi, teacher of earth sciences at Manipur University, the north-eastern part of India is one of the highest earthquake-prone areas in the world due to its tectonic setting, i.e. subduction, as well as collision plate convergence. Analysis has revealed that hundreds of earthquakes have taken place in this region in the last 100-200 years. Study on the trends of earthquakes reveals that earthquakes mostly take place in regions which have experienced earthquakes in the past. The Tipaimukh Dam site has been chosen at the highest risk seismically hazardous zone. Inhabitants of Manipur also believe that this dam would prove to be a grave threat to the flora and fauna and endangered species like pythons, gibbons, herbal and medicinal plants. They also fear that the dam would submerge as many as 90 villages within a 311 sq-km radius.
Renowned water expert Dr. Ainun Nishat recently mentioned that construction of the Tipaimukh Dam will not bring any benefits to Bangladesh. Similar concerns are also being raised by another water expert S. I. Khan. Both of them suggested that the government should have a serious discussion with the Indian government. Bangladesh must request India to refrain from the construction of this dam at the proposed site.
According to these two experts if the dam is constructed, 16 districts of greater Sylhet will be affected. The immense natural disaster that will take place would be irreplaceable. Even though the Indian government is saying once the dam is constructed, electricity will be generated and Bangladesh will benefit by importing the electricity. It does not make sense to make a certain part of Bangladesh a desert area solely for the purpose of importing electricity.
The ever-increasing demand for fresh water has propelled the construction of dams and barrages on international rivers, and it is reported that 60% of the world's largest rivers have been interrupted by the artificial structures. Many of them were built in agreement with riparian countries, and about 200 treaties are now in force for the management of common water resources.
According to a Unesco study, fresh water is getting scarce. The study reveals that the average supply of water is expected to fall by one-third within 20 years. Nearly 7 billion people could face water shortages by 2020, and global warming may cause severe water shortages in 50 countries. South Asia is one of the regions to be adversely affected, partly because of melting of the Himalayan glaciers due to global warming.
In 1896, US Attorney General Judson Harmon propounded the "Harmon Doctrine" which stated that Mexico was not entitled to the water from an international river, the Rio Grande. The doctrine emphasised territorial sovereignty over an international river. It means that, within its territory, a state can do whatever it wishes with the water of an international river, and does not need to bother about the consequences of its withdrawal on a lower riparian nation. But the US discarded and discredited this theory in 1906 when it concluded a treaty with Mexico relating to sharing of water of the Rio Grande.
India also argued in favour of this doctrine in the mid 1970s with Bangladesh. India also made a treaty with Pakistan in 1960 called the Indus Water Treaty, which gives India exclusive use of all of the waters of the Eastern Rivers and their tributaries before the point where the rivers enter Pakistan.
A river flows as an indivisible unit, without knowing any political boundaries. If it is interfered with at the upper stream, the lower riparian country will be affected. That is why international law recognises the right of each riparian country to benefit from all the advantages deriving from river waters for the welfare and economic prosperity of its people.
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 the Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River.
News of this construction has been formally confirmed in a recent statement by the high commissioner of India to Bangladesh. He admitted that the Indian government has resumed the process of construction once again from the end of 2008. According to the high commissioner, the dam would produce hydro-electricity and would not "harm" Bangladesh in any way. It would only regulate the river's flow. As it is a project aimed at producing hydro-electricity, no water would be withheld from Bangladesh.
But 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, he is stating that the water will not be used for irrigation purposes. But once the water is obstructed, the water flow will automatically decrease.
Sadly, such assurances were given at the time of the construction of the Farakka Dam also, but till date, Bangladesh is suffering the consequences. Surprisingly, even the Bangladesh water resources minister said that Dhaka would not object to a project to produce electricity but would protest if a dam was constructed.
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 lower riparian country, such as Bangladesh, in diverting water from common rivers.
Ever since India began constructing the Farakka Barrage on the India-Bangladesh border in 1972, 17 rivers in Bangladesh have already "died" and another eight are on the verge of drying up due to reduced water flows. The navigable length of the rivers in south-eastern Bangladesh has also reduced due to low water volume. A number of tributaries have either dried up or have become too shallow for vessels to use. The low river flow has increased salinity, which in turn has caused loss of vegetation. Industries in south-western Bangladesh face the problem of getting usable, saline-free water.
The cost of Bangladesh's direct losses due to Farakka is estimated at half a billion dollars a year. According to studies conducted by Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), about 80 rivers in Bangladesh have dried up within three decades after the Farakka Dam was built.
India is withdrawing waters of almost all the common rivers by building dams upstream, which will eventually cause Bangladesh to turn into a desert. The Padma River is drying up in Rajshahi after construction of Farakka Barrage. Twenty tributaries of the river have turned into streamlets.
The Tipaimukh Dam is not just a political issue, but also a scientific one. The livelihoods of millions of people who rely on the Meghna River system for freshwater, for their livelihoods, and for the overall food security of the region, are at stake. Bangladesh is already battling with water shortages due to global warming and consequent climate change. The Tipaimukh Dam would add to the environmental cataclysm already predicted by environmentalists.
The role of the Bangladesh government in this matter is quite confusing. Despite the rising protests from all corners, the government seems to be downplaying the threats posed by the construction of this dam. Only recently the prime minister has said that the government intends to form a committee to evaluate all aspects regarding construction of the dam before making any decisions on this controversial project. It might be that the government is envisaging some benefits from the construction of this controversial dam, namely import of electricity. In April 2009, the Indian government invited a Bangladeshi delegation to see the construction of the planned Tipaimukh Dam.
The Bangladesh government must take a stand to clarify its position on the Tipaimukh Dam, on the basis of scientific evidence and expert opinion, and not on the basis of mere assurances of the Indian government. There is evidence of the reluctance of the Indian government to fulfill its commitments in the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, in which Bangladesh in recent years has been receiving significantly less water than promised. The Indian government has not responded even after repeated official protests by Bangladesh on the issue of water shortfalls. Therefore, it is imperative that the Bangladesh government re-examine the scientific evidence on the possible ill effects of the Tipaimukh Dam before it signals its approval.
The opposition party is criticising the government on the issue of the Taipaimukh Dam. It seems that the opposition party is trying to make a political issue out of it. In different media, BNP and its former water resource minister are accusing the government for not taking immediate action against this issue.
But the current government has been in power for a few months whereas the Taipaimukh Dam project is a decade long project by the Indian government. During the BNP regime (2001-2006) the then-water minister had a more than one meeting with his Indian counterpart regarding Taipaimukh Dam. But what was discussed during those meetings has never been reveled to the public.
The construction of the Taipaimukh Dam is a national problem. All the political parties must keep aside their differences and be united on this issue. We have seen the consequences of Farakka and we don't want another Farakka for Bangladesh.
After meeting with the Indian high commissioner, the prime minister announced that a team of the parliamentary committee will visit the Taipaimukh Dam area. As suggested by BNP, along with the parliamentary team, water experts must also visit the site. The committee needs to submit a report to the government. Based on the report, the government through a bilateral discussion should solve this issue. India is our friendly neighbour and we hope through cordial discussions they also will look for an amicable solution for both the countries.
Dr. Nadim Jahangir is an Associate Professor at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).