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    Volume 10 |Issue 44 | November 25, 2011 |


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Let there be water, and then there was none

India's unilateral decision to build Tipaimukh Dam is going to bring humanitarian and environmental catastrophe


To think that our neighbours are friendly, is absolutely right but to think they are our friends, is assuming too much. When it comes to trans-border assets one needs to be sure of their position and quite politely stick to securing their best interests. Even though it has assured us to do otherwise, newspaper reports suggest that India is set to start building the Tipaimukh dam without informing its Bangladesh counterpart anything about it.

On October 22, an investment agreement was signed among NHPC Ltd (formerly National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and India's premier hydropower company), the Manipur state government and another state enterprise SJVN (formerly Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd) to form a joint venture company to build the 1,500-MW Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River.

The dam is going to spell humanitarian and environmental catastrophe to Bangladesh. An impact assessment on the Surma-Kushiyara river systems, conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Water Modelling in 2005, says: "Some of the effects will be noticed even after a few hundred years.” The study, titled "Hydrological Impact Study of Tipaimukh Dam Project”, summarised the overall nature of the impact in six categories, including hydrological impact, impact on flooding patterns and on river-floodplain-wetland ecosystem, impact on morphology, impact on water quality, dam-break and overall in general.

If India builds the dam on the Barak at Tipaimukh in Monipur, around 26 percent of haors in Sylhet and around 11 percent in Moulvibazar will become dry. The Barak enters Bangladesh territory and splits into two tributaries, the Surma and the Kushiyara. During a drier monsoon season when Bangladesh will be needing water for fish and cultivation, the dam authorities will hold 27 percent more water in June, 16 percent in July, 14 percent in August and 4 percent in September than an average monsoon year.

The study predicts that the 390-metre-long and 162.5-metre-high dam will change the hydrological pattern of the Barak, the second largest drainage system in northeast India, and reduce the navigability of the Surma and Kushiyara downstream. The dam will add to the overall deposition on the riverbeds of the Surma and Kushiyara and both the rivers will lose navigability and erosion will continue over a hundred kilometres downstream.

The study further says that the pre-monsoon water inflow in April and May will increase up to 25 and 15 percent due to release of water from the dam just ahead of the monsoon. It will also cause moderate to severe floods in some parts of the Sylhet region in April and May and inundate boro fields at harvest time. The impact on the river-floodplain-wetland will destroy the natural integrity of the ecosystem and the consequences of this will induce the loss of habitat for many species and even cause extinction in the north-eastern region of Bangladesh. Dam break is another big issue for the downstream region, the study expressing concern quoted Joseph Ellam, Pennsylvania state director of dam safety, “With the exception of nuclear power plants, no man-made structure has a greater potential for killing a large number of people than a dam.”

The dam will certainly lead to the loss of riverine habitats and species. The free-flowing Surma and Kushiyara will run dry and remain so for a major portion of the year (Nov-May), badly affecting agriculture, irrigation, navigation and drinking water supply, the impact assessment says. A very substantial part of the sediment may be trapped upstream of the dam. Release of comparatively sediment-free flood flow may initiate riverbed and bank scouring as river will try to establish a new regime of reduced sediment discharge.

However, the latest developments on the Indian side – signing of an agreement to set up a joint venture company to implement the Tipaimukh project without any joint study is more then alarming. The government of India has never officially informed the Bangladesh about the content of the study until now.

Given that we have faced incongruities with our neighbours about our trans-boundary assets before, in the light of Farraka Barriage, it is only serving one's best interest to be wise and careful. And before we are blamed of misguiding the nation and cooking up unnecessary anti-Indian feeling, one should think that it also is callous to not want to know about what is being done to one's assets and asking for a back-up against any contingency. After all when it comes to trans-shipment or transit we should not just reject it on the ground that it's an Indian proposition or that it will benefit India but rather judge it on how it will benefit Bangladesh.

Dr MA Matin, professor at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, says, "There should not be any barrage or such structures on any trans-border assets between countries, this will always be harmful to at least one of the sharing countries, it causes disruption in the navigational routes of the rivers concerned."

The entire policy calls for a detailed survey and comparative analysis and it needs to be done by both the parties together. Environmentalists and experts have stressed on the adverse effects of such a dam, however these protests are given a deaf ear while we are promised that India will not take up any projects that will harm Bangladesh, an approach which cannot be healthy in the relationship of both the nations.

India should sit with Bangladesh to settle the Tipaimukh issue and other border-related problems and Bangladesh should also show her interest to come to a definitive decision about the project. The project package should have a component of mitigation of the adverse impacts on Bangladesh. Through a joint study by India and Bangladesh, Tipaimukh Dam project can bring benefit for both India and Bangladesh in more ways than one.



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