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Monday, December 26, 2011
OP-ED

Tipai dam and science

Ancient priests used water for healing. The Greek Island of Crete, which is the site of Greek God of healing, and other such temples in the world, had always been situated near freshwater sources. However, the mega dams/barrages built in the 20th century (such as 1970s Farakka barrage, 1990s Gazaldoba barrage and more recently the Three Gorges dam, as well as the hotly-debated and proposed Tipaimukh dam) are threatening the freshwater need of millions of people and wildlife. The situation is already too painful and dire for millions of people inhabiting the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government and the Yangtze River's Water Commission underestimated the detrimental impact on ecosystem by the Three Gorges dam project, holding up large quantity of water for generation of hydroelectricity. Infrastructure building without science-based, long-term environmental impact assessment is foolhardy. Short-term profits and rationalisation versus reasoning sideline investments in science education, and detailed science-based environmental impact assessment.

The Daily Star (DS) article written by Mr. Gowher Rizvi (Dec 13) entitled: "Tipaimukh: A plea for rational and scientific discussion" was recently brought to my attention through discussions in the BEN forum.

Clearly, Dr. Haris being a scientist, was puzzled by the title of Gowher Rizvi's DS article and its quite frequent mention of a scientific discussion. Dr. Haris cautioned that the region (Tipaimukh site) is the sixth most active volcanic region in the world.

In my opinion, Tipaimukh dam is a direct threat to both Indian and Bangladeshi populations and ecosystem of the entire Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. Why?

The Tipaimukh dam proposal is based on less than scientific ad hoc assumptions by the Indian authorities and outdated studies by Bangladesh, FAP-6. In addition, it ignores the latest and novel technologies available for water and energy efficiency. For example, the precise drip irrigation technology can eliminate huge water/energy waste as a result of conventional flood/spray irrigation, as currently being practiced by Indian farmers, due to the lack of government incentives and low or no interest loans.

In the DS article, Mr. Rizvi admits that “much of the environmental impact -- flooding, submerging of land, displacement of people, disruption of livelihood and destruction of wild animal habitats” -- would presumably occur. Add to that the impact on fishing/rice farming, and the undesirable consequences on the health of the people who rely on fish as their sole source of animal protein. Other countries in the region are seriously considering such issues. For example, Laos and other countries of Asia's Mekong Basin have decided to suspend the construction of a dam across the lower main stream of the Mekong River and asked experts from a non-riparian country (Japan) to assess the impact of the project.

Another point of scientific discussion is that conventional intellectuality may not suffice to resolve the Tipaimukh or the Teesta water-sharing dispute. Teesta River basin is home to 21 million people in North Bengal who rely heavily on water-intensive rice cultivation; Bangladeshi farmers are suffering due to drastically reduced flow (drought season) as a direct outcome of the Gazaldoba barrage. Science is forward looking in the 21st century. Imitation is considered crucial in empathy, which is the intellectual capacity to perceive the rational thinking and also emotional feeling of others.

Perhaps, the other DS articles (on Dec 20 by M. Inamul Haque) on Tipaimukh are better reflection of the reality. Also note the write-up by Khalequzzaman (DS, July 12, 2009): “Tipaimukh dam: Blessing or peril for Bangladesh?”

Dams are responsible for salinity and ecosystem fragmentation. This writer recommends that UN put a moratorium on all large dam constructions until 2041. The Punam Pundey (IDSA forum, December 20) article, suggesting that the deltaic Bangladesh should not be denied more water per capita than India (in the Ganges basin) to keep salinity under control, is a commendable ideaworthy of a genuine scientific discourse.

Please note, the example of mindfulness and ~ 80,000 ecologically scaled hydropower dams operating in rural China is illuminating. Here are other innovative alternatives for renewable energy: high efficiency solar cells, biogas technology. Water vapour is considered a greenhouse gas. Mega dams/barrages can alter the river dynamics and natural balance of evapo-transpiration and cloud cover by wasting huge amount of water through evaporation loss.

Another example of negative impact and mitigation efforts to undo human interference with river flow: In the US, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) recently decided to un-divert water to the Owens River, because of USEPA's consent order to control dust or PM10. The dust/air pollution was a direct consequence of a 1926 water diversionary project by Los Angeles impacting the air resources of California. Dust or harmful PM10 can travel across state lines. The GBUAPCD is also using drip irrigation to control dust and bring back life to the Owen River's ecosystem. Extreme climate/weather has made dust control a top priority.

As a BEN volunteer, I thought that I should join the discussion, with deep empathy for those in Indiawho might go through much suffering due to the foolhardy Tipaimukh dam project as proposed. In fact, my perception of the DS article by Mr. Rizvi is different than that of BEN. It seemed that Mr. Rizvi wished to initiate a debate/scientific discussion on Tipaimukh. Scientists must be open-minded for purposeful discussion and willing to accept change.

Feedback from concerned citizens to provide constructive criticism may eliminate scientists' unintended errors. New research and studies done by a Harvard scientist suggest that neurosurgery in the corpus callosum (neurons connecting the two distinct hemispheres of human brain) may interfere with tasks related to complex groupings or categorisation. Even, in a normal person, the right brain may not be able to perceive reality (visual information), if the left brain is working too hard. A central theme of science is to characterise fact versus error.

The Farakka barrage is more than100 miles from the Bangladesh shoreline, but its negative impact on salinity intrusion, and the drying up of the Gorai and other rivers in southwestern Bangladesh are documented facts. Similarly, the Barak-Surma-Kushiyara constitute a continuous riverine system (home to 40 million in Sylhet region), which is emptied in the Bay of Bengal through the Meghna River. Any upstream human interference with the natural river flow or sediment transport will be felt all the way to the Bay of Bengal. Tipaimukh is, therefore, a threat to people's livelihood in Sylhet region, fisheries, farmers' ability to schedule irrigation/rice cultivation seasons and so forth.

Flood protection dams (especially when improperly maintained and operated) and embankments can pose prolonged flood risks, exemplified by the post-Farakka floods in West Bengal and Bihar. In other countries, including the US, the idea of dam building is becoming less popular. For example, in the US, the East Bay Municipal Utility District have recently (December 2011) decided not to go ahead with raising a dam on the Mokelumne River to secure water during droughts.

People, governments, non-profits, educational institutions and policy-makers may redirect technological innovations to improve society and environment. Science literacy can also help with critical thinking, debates/persuasion and meaningful discussion, or interdisciplinary dialogue (such as between natural sciences and social science including economics/political science). Bolstering pre-K-12 science education with inspirational stories about the history and philosophy of science, along with adult education, in the 21st century, can protect people, lakes/rivers and ecosystem.

True science education can avert the undesirable consequences of extreme weather/climate -- coupled with outmoded practice of building of mega dams that are widely known to cause low flow problems, sediment build-up, harm to fisheries and water quality degradation. Science should be the mirror of reality.

Sharing and caring of natural resources for the benefit of all (regardless of political border) would be highly praiseworthy. The paucity of eco-friendly government decisions arises from inadequate science literacy, as opposed to a political impassé.

The writer is a member of the Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN).

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