Water water everywhere, how much do we have to drink?

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad

Nature has irrevocably destined the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Bhutan to be geographical neighbours and to share three mighty river systems, namely, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna (GBM). It stands to reason, therefore, that they work together within a mutually beneficial framework to develop and manage the waters of these river systems and equitably share the benefits in terms of direct uses of water (for example, in household, agricultural, industrial, fishery, and forestry uses) and the use of hydro-electricity generated as well as from improved flood and drought management. The GBM region is endowed with huge water resources on an annual basis as a result of heavy precipitation and the Himalayan snow melt, but largely concentrated during the five monsoon months, June to October. This region, therefore, suffers from floods during the monsoon, although some parts face drought even in this season. But, there is widespread scarcity of water in the region during the dry months from January to May, particularly in March and April.

In Bangladesh, over 80 per cent of the annual run-off is concentrated during the five monsoon months from June to October. One myth may be dispelled quickly, which is that some people talk about Bangladesh being endowed with so much water resources that by storing monsoon waters it can solve its problem of water shortages during the dry months. Topographically, Bangladesh is mostly flat and storing of monsoon waters of any significance is not possible, and the monsoon flows that belt down furiously cannot even be regulated, let alone storing water out of those flows even if the geographic scope existed. Hence, any talk about storing monsoon waters to solve Bangladesh's dry season water scarcities reflects sheer ignorance about the reality. Of the huge run-off over Bangladesh during the monsoon, 92 per cent or more enters the country from India, the immediate upper riparian, to go down to the Bay of Bengal. Between 20 and 30 per cent of the country is flooded every year and from time to time devastating floods occur inundating up to two-thirds or even more of the country. Devastating floods have been becoming increasingly frequent over the past 50 years. There was an interregnum of 19 years between the devastating floods occurring in 1955 and 1974, which declined to 14 years to the next devastating flood in 1988, to 10 years to the next one in 1998, and to six years to the more recent one in 2004. It is very likely that climate change caused by global warming will lead to intensified precipitation and consequent devastating floods in the region more frequently; and, with sea-level rise, also as a consequence of global warming, these floods would be of longer duration, as water flows to the sea will be impeded as a result. These floods usually cause large-scale losses and damages involving crops, property, livestock, industry, infrastructure, and other sectors as well as widespread human suffering due to breakdown of the livelihoods and health hazards arising from vector- and water-borne diseases. Human lives are also lost.

On the other hand, the shortage of water in the dry season has been causing serious damages to agriculture, fishery, livestock, industry as well as other sectors of the economy, particularly in the northwest and southwest of Bangladesh, significantly reducing the secto-ral productivities, economic benefits, and employment opportunities. Bangladesh, therefore, has to find ways of managing floods more effectively, on the one hand, and augment its lean season water availability, on the other, in order to pursue the goals of increasing economic growth, enhancing employment opportunities, and reducing poverty at accelerated rates. The commitment to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly the goal of reducing poverty ratio to half by 2015 relative to 2002 (as modified in the Bangladesh Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper from the MDG base-year of 1990) is a challenge that cannot be met with any reasonable success unless the above mentioned two serious water-related problems of floods and water shortages can be minimized.

In the context of finding the solution to both these water sectors problems, GBM regional cooperation has a key role to play. Indeed, it has been shown by various studies that GBM regional water-based cooperation is beneficial to all the co-riparians, as cooperation will enlarge the cake (in terms of augmentation of dry season water flows, mini-mization of flood risks and impacts, hydro-electricity gene-ration, irrigation opportunities, expanded economic activity, improved productivities, expanded employment and income earning opportunities, etc.) to be shared. There are very large win-win water-based cooperation prospects, which the regional countries can exploit for mutual benefit. Since the GBM region is home to the largest concentration of the world's poor (about 40 per cent or 480 million out of 1.2 billion poor people worldwide), there is a growing need for regional cooperation to expand the economic activity, broaden the opportunities of employment generation for the downtrodden and accelerate poverty reduction in all the co-riparians.

But, unfortunately, GBM regional cooperation has not even been taken up as a serious project. Bilateralism is favoured by India. Indeed, there is merit to bilateralism for solving bilateral problems, such as the sharing of the existing flows of the common rivers. But, there are regional issues such as augmentation of dry season flows of common rivers running across several regional countries, which must be addressed regionally. A cooperation regime has, therefore, to be established in the GBM region, which will allow any two neighbours to address bilateral issues between them and, also, several regional countries to come together when the concerned issues are regional. This proposition stands to logic and I do not think anybody will disagree with the logic of this approach. Unfortunately, this comprehensive approach is not acceptable to India, which continues to insist on bilateralism only.

A set of basic principles of cooperation on common rivers has been outlined in both the Mahakali (between India and Nepal) and Ganges (between Bangladesh and India) Treaties, signed in January and December 1996 respectively. It has been agreed and set out in the two Treaties that, in respect of any intervention on any common river, the principles of equity, fairness, and no harm to other co-riparians will be adhered to. Given this policy framework I do not see why the Water Resources Ministers of the GBM regional countries cannot meet and produce a mutually beneficial cooperation framework, involving both bilateral and regional water and related issues. Studies conducted during the 1990s by the Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad (BUP), Dhaka; the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi; and the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), Kathmandu, generated useful background material and analyses in respect of a number of mutually beneficial potential areas of bilateral (between Bangladesh and India; and between India and Nepal) and regional (involving all the three countries) cooperation. There are also other studies conducted by the same group since then as well as by other professional groups and, of course, there are materials available with the governments. Thus, a strong information and analyses base exists to build on. It is possible to move forward, given determined political will on the part of all co-riparians.

If necessary, the process may even begin with a meeting of the Heads of State or Government to agree to build mutually bene-ficial water-based cooperation in the region and then mandate the Water Resource Ministers of the countries to take up the matter with earnestness and start showing results as quickly as possible. One major stumbling block is the bureaucracy in all the countries. If a strong collective political will emerges in the region to cooperate on water and related issues for mutual benefit, bureaucracy should be given a clear direction to find solutions and not remain cocooned in the old mindsets of non-coope-ration. An ardent believer in regional cooperation, not only within water sector but wherever potentials exist in other sectors, which can be tremendously beneficial to all the regional countries, I hope that the political leaderships of the regional countries will come out of their narrow mindsets and resolve to move forward together, as this makes sense in terms of larger economic and social benefits for all as well as for peaceful, friendly co-existence.

Water water everywhere...

Let me now move on to few concrete issues. First, let us consider the Indian scheme of interlinking rivers (ILR). The idea of transferring waters from the surplus regions, particularly northeast India, to augment water availability in the water scarce western, central, and southern India has been in the works one way or another ever since the Ganga-Cauveri link was proposed in 1972 by K. L. Rao, an engineer, who was Irrigation Minister under Jawaharlal Nehru. His proposal was followed up a few years later by Captain (Pilot) Dinshaw Dastur, proposing two interconnected “garland canals” along the Himalayas and around the Deccan to harness all of India's waters and redistribute them, as appropriate. However, very little was known outside of Indian official circles about the progress or otherwise of the scheme of interlinking of rivers in India, certainly in Bangladesh, until October 2002 when the Indian Supreme Court, in response to a public interest litigation, issued an order that the Government of India undertake the project earnestly, prepare the detailed project report by 2006, and complete the project by 2016. Later on (7 December 2002), it was clarified by Justice (Retd.) B. N. Kirpal that the Indian Supreme Court's observation on the ILR had been only a suggestion. However, the Government of India immediately followed up on the Supreme Court's observation and announced that the ILR project would be implemented and appointed a Task Force (in December 2002) to conduct appropriate studies covering all relevant aspects. A significant number of pre-feasibility and some feasibility studies have been completed. Following the change of government in India in 2004, the Task Force was wound up and the responsibility of conducting further studies has been given to the Water Resources Ministry. It has since been mentioned by both the current Indian Prime Minister and the current Indian Water Resources Minister that any sub-link project that could have adverse implications for Bangladesh would not be undertaken and that, if necessary, consultation with Bangladesh would be arranged at appropriate times.

The proposed ILR consists of, broadly, two components: (i) the Himalayan Rivers Component and (ii) Peninsular Rivers Component. The Himalayan component envisages a number of links and the general idea is to transfer waters from 'surplus' eastern rivers to central, western, and southern regions. The Peninsular component also involves a number of links and the idea is to transfer the surpluses estimated to exist mainly in the Mahanadi and the Godavari to the deficit southern basins, Cauvery and Vaigai. Other links in this component include those that would transfer estimated surpluses from such rivers as Ken Parbati, Tapi, Damanganga, etc. to various deficit southern basins. It is known that one way or another the project will move ahead, as it is considered to be a highly potential proposal. I am told that it has been mentioned by Indian leaders/officials that India might concentrate on the Peninsular component of the project, leaving aside the Himalayan component. In so far as the Peninsular component is concerned, there may not be enough surpluses available from the identified rivers for transfer to the southern basins for the component to be operated usefully and profitably. This is, perhaps, why a link between the Himalayan and the Peninsular components appears to have been envisaged, which is Ganga-Damodar-Subarnarekha-Mahanadi. Therefore, even if only the Peninsular component is implemented, this inter-component link may have to be constructed, which could have adverse implications for Bangladesh. This observation may or may not be valid, but it certainly calls for the facts to be jointly determined by Bangladesh and India so that, if this view is not correct, it can be put to rest.

Following the Indian Supreme Court's suggestion in late 2002 and the Indian Government's announcement soon thereafter that the ILR would go ahead, Bangladeshis and the Govern-ment of Bangladesh became very concerned about its possible severe consequences for Bangladesh through further reduction of the dry season river flows to Bangladesh, and they started to voice their protests through seminars, writings, and participation in international conferences. It is often complained by some of my Indian friends and, perhaps, also by Indian government officials that the voices raised in Bangladesh have been unreasonable and without any basis as the ILR is still only a concept. But, the ILR has to be much more than just a concept for it to have instigated the setting up of a high level civil society group in India with the purpose of understanding and disseminating more fully the project's magnitude and complexity, technical aspects, financial and economic implications, social and equity implications and likely ecological consequences. This group is headed by a former Indian Minister, Y. K. Alagh and includes in its membership well-known water professionals, former secretaries to the Government of India, and civil society leaders, among whom is a former UN Under Secretary-General, Nitin Desai. The members of the group have been drawn from among those who support the project and those who oppose it.

It is also suggested by the protagonists of the project in India that the project is not to divert dry season flows from the GBM river systems but to store flood waters during the monsoon for transfer during the dry season, from which Bangladesh would in fact benefit in terms of flood moderation while there would be no adverse impact on the dry season river flows into Bangladesh. But, the people of Bangladesh have had a rather unpalatable experience, given that the Farakka Barrage was constructed in the absence of proper consultation. Of course, the construction of the Farakka Barrage was started when India and Pakistan were not very friendly nations. But, when it was commissioned, Bangladesh had already emerged as an independent country and it has to be gratefully recognized that India played a very important role in the process of Bangladesh's emergence by extending all possible help to and participating in its War of Liberation. And, yet, although Farakka Barrage was commissioned on agreement with Bangladesh for a 41-day trial-run in the dry season of 1975, its operation continued for two more dry seasons without further agreement. In November 1977, a five-year Ganges Water Sharing Agreement was signed, followed by two Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) for a total of five more years. Then there was no understanding or agreement until the Ganges Treaty was signed in December 1996.

...nor any drop to drink

The diversion during the dry season of the Ganges waters at Farakka in India, by reducing the flows into Bangladesh, has been a major reason behind the steep reduction of fresh water flows to southwest Bangladesh, which constitutes one-third of the country and contains about one-third of the total national population. This region of the country has as a result encountered severe adverse environmental and socio-economic consequences. The emotion that Bangladeshis have shown in response to the proposed ILR, particularly to its Himalayan component, can be justified, given the Farakka experience. Not only that, Bangladesh and India should be very friendly countries but that they have agreed to observe the principles of equity, fairness, and no harm to either country in respect of any intervention on a common river. Hence, even if there was nothing concrete to discuss when the Task Force on ILR was appointed, in the interest of good neighbourly relations, Bangladesh should have been officially informed about the project or “the concept” being studied and assured that consultations would be conducted as the results of the relevant studies would be available. That would certainly have dispelled any doubts in the minds of Bangladeshis, as they would as a result have been ensured that no harm would come to Bangladesh through the ILR, given that Bangladesh would have the opportunity of discussing the pros and cons in so far as its interests are concerned. All is not lost, however, and the announcement of the current Indian Prime Minister and the current Indian Water Resources Minister are very positive but what is necessary is adequate, timely follow-through in terms of providing information to and consultation with Bangladesh on a regular basis in order that neither country's interests are harmed in any way.

I would like to mention two other projects now being actively pursued by India. One is the Tepaimukh High Dam on the Barak in Manipur. In fact, this project was proposed by Bangladesh in 1972 to be initiated, constructed, and operated jointly by India and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there has been no progress on a joint approach to this project. India is now ready to go ahead with the project but Bangladesh has not been consulted in respect of its design and other relevant aspects. What would be its impact on Bangladesh is not therefore known to Bangladesh authorities and civil society. In the absence of a joint approach to this project on a common river, Bangladesh should be informed about the details and consulted in respect of its possible impact on Bangladesh. It is claimed that Bangladesh would also benefit from the project in terms of flood moderation, improved navigation, and, perhaps, a share of the electricity generated. These were the considerations when Bangladesh proposed this project. Now Bangladesh does not know whether or not, in its present design and location, the project would benefit or harm Bangladesh. Harm could be in terms of water-logging or flooding as a result of augmented lean season flows. Why can't an arrangement be made for the Indian and Bangladeshi experts and decision-makers to sit together and review the project design and determine the facts, which makes perfect sense?

The Ganges Treaty, except for the initial teething problems and occasional blemishes since then, has so far worked well in terms of availability of the stipulated flows of water to Bangladesh. But, the dry season flow availability at Farakka is inadequate for the needs of both the countries; and the needs are growing further as a result of expanding economic activity and increasing population. It has been recognized in the Treaty that the two countries would work together to augment the dry season Ganges flows. In this regard, in 1984 Bangladesh proposed the construction of seven high dams in Nepal. Of course, in addition to the augmentation of the dry season Ganges flows, these dams would generate other benefits, including electricity generation, flood moderation, and irrigation, which could be shard by all the countries. This proposal did not go anywhere, just as the Indian proposal of transferring water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganges did not go anywhere.

However, recently India and Nepal have moved ahead together to prepare the detailed project report (DPR) for the Sapta Kosi High Dam. Already a project office has been set up in Kathmandu and Indian and Nepali experts have started their work. The project is one of the seven dams proposed by Bangladesh in 1984. It is expected to generate 3000-3500 MW of electricity and substantial augmentation (about 1900 cumec during January to May as shown by one study) of the dry season Ganges flows. And, of course, there would be flood moderation and other benefits. But, Bangladesh has not been taken on board, although the Sapta Kosi is a tributary of the Ganges and, hence, a transboundary river, of which Bangladesh is a co-riparian along with India and Nepal. According to the agreed principles of equity, fairness, and no harm to other co-riparians, Bangladesh should be a party to this project so that its concerns and interests find full expression in the project development and design and, in due time, it has access to its legitimate share of the benefits. Obviously, Bangladesh should bear the appropriate share of the costs.

Furthermore, there are negotiations taking place between India and Nepal for Mahakali (Pancheshwar) High Dam in Nepal. Also, Karnali High Dam in Nepal is being mentioned for consideration. Both these projects are also among the seven high dams earlier proposed by Bangladesh; and, indeed, given its co-riparian status, Bangladesh's concerns and interests should appropriately feature in the development and design of these projects also. It is, therefore, important for Bangladesh to seek its inclusion as an active partner in the Sapta Kosi High Dam project right away. It should also seek its participation in Mahakali and Karnali projects as well as any other similar projects that may be taken up. Obviously, inclusion of Bangladesh in these projects would make the projects regional, which in fact is the geographical reality. In upholding the earlier mentioned agreed principles and in the interest of promoting regional cooperation for mutual benefit, it is important that the Indian position of only bilateralism is changed to regionalism when the issues/projects are regional.

In concluding, let me suggest that the leadership of the GBM regional countries need to develop positive mindsets in favour of cooperation and adherence to the agreed principles to move ahead with cooperation building in water and other sectors, bilateral and regional, as dictated by the specificity of the issues to be addressed, for mutual benefit. Studies have shown that cooperation in potential areas generate much larger benefits for each country than when national approaches are adopted in such cases. The options before the region are: continued self-abnegation through non-cooperation or a shift to a cooperative regime for mutual benefit, progress, and peace. The choice is obvious. But, will sense and logic prevail all round to overcome the persisting negative mindsets and generate the political will in favour of cooperation in the region?

The author is Chairman, Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad.

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