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Wednesday, December 21, 2011
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Tipai Dam: Response to Dr. Rizvi

The proposed construction of Tipaimukh dam on the trans-boundary Barak River for generating hydro-power has raised deep concern among the people of Bangladesh, irrespective of political affiliations.

Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister, Dr. Gowher Rizvi presented his views on Tipaimukh Dam (Daily Star: December 13). I would agree with him that we have to "depoliticise the issue and put our national interest above factional and parochial interests."

If I understand correctly, the essence of Dr. Rizvi's position in the paper is that the dam, unlike a barrage, will not divert water and that since it is situated nearly 140 miles away from the Bangladesh border, it cannot have adverse impact downstream.

I would suggest that rational, objective and scientific examination needs to be carried out by water experts to determine whether the dam would not cause any harm to Bangladesh. Pending the outcome of a joint study by experts, Dr. Rizvi's statement appears to be too early to conclude on the impact of the dam on Bangladesh.

We appreciate Dr. Rizvi's claim that the Indian prime minister would welcome a Bangladesh delegation or study team to share all the information, including the environmental impact and project design.

In my view, sharing of information will be helpful but is not enough because Bangladesh experts must draw conclusions not only from the information and documents provided by India but also from an examination of the impact of the dam on Bangladesh from the geographic, geological, hydrographic, hydrological, climatic, ecological and other perspectives.

A study in 2005 by the Bangladesh Institute of Water Modelling shows that during a drier monsoon season, when Bangladesh needs water for cultivation and fisheries, the dam will hold 27% more water in June, 16% in July, 14% in August and 4% in September than an average monsoon year.

Another hydrological impact study in Bangladesh suggests that if India builds Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River, 26% of haors (wetlands) in Sylhet and around 11% in Moulvibazar will run dry.

One noted Bangladesh water expert says that it has been a common characteristic of dams that they increase water inflow in summer, which may cause flash floods in the Sylhet region during boro harvesting time (April-May). Furthermore, the geological structure of the region is like a bowl where water gets stuck for a longer period than it does on the plains. If the water inflow becomes irregular, it will hinder agriculture.

The construction of dams on rivers for hydropower is a much discredited idea in the 21st century and the benefits have been seriously questioned by experts. Construction of dams or artificial interference of rivers arise because of the erroneous attitude that any river water passing to the sea is a waste and needs to be commercially used. The fate of the Colorado River provides an example of this misconceived approach. This fabled river reportedly dries up in the South Californian desert.

The World Commission on Dams, in its report in 2000, having examined the technical, financial, economic, environmental and social performance of the dam projects, concluded that the overall benefits of dams have not justified their financial, social and other costs.

For example, Aswan Dam in Egypt has reportedly caused major agricultural and environmental problems. It increases the salinity of the Mediterranean Sea, which affects the Mediterranean's outflow current into the Atlantic Ocean. This current can be traced thousands of kilometers into the Atlantic.

There are many precedents that due to objection or opposition from a co-riparian country construction of dams has been cancelled or suspended pending a joint study of the project.

For example, on December 8 this year, Laos suspended a $3.5 billion dam project on the lower Mekong River while Japan leads a study into the environmental impact. The four countries -- Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia -- that share the lower stretches of the 4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong, failed to reach an agreement on construction of the 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam.

An earlier environmental impact assessment by the Lao government was criticised as inadequate by environmentalists and activists. Experts had warned that dozens of migratory fish species would become extinct if the dam was built. Fish stocks would dwindle, hitting the income of fishermen and the food supply of people residing along the Mekong River.

Environmentalists have warned that damming the main stream of the river would trap vital nutrients, increase algae growth and prevent dozens of species of migratory fish from swimming upstream to spawning grounds.

A dam could also prevent the movement of fertile silt needed to replenish agricultural land and, as a result, crops that are vital to domestic consumption and exports would be starved of nutrients.

Even inside a country, a dam is seen as harmful for ecological reasons. Last September Myanmar suspended a $3.6 billion China-aided dam project which was proposed to be built at the head of the Irrawaddy -- the confluence of the Mali and N'Mai rivers -- for hydropower in an area of rich diversity.

Finally, the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development between Bangladesh and India, signed by the two prime ministers in Dhaka on September 6, mentions enhancing of "cooperation in sharing of the waters of common rivers" in Clause 2.

Accordingly, India must come forward to engage in a constructive dialogue with Bangladesh in putting up any construction on the common Barak River. This would necessitate a joint study and India's commitment not to go ahead with the project until the experts' committee arrives at a definitive finding.

The quicker the study is completed and the outcome known, the better it will be for Indo-Bangladesh relations, which have unfolded a new horizon of opportunities following the visit of Bangladesh prime minister to India in 2010.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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