India’s unilateral decision to construct Tipaimukh Dam on an international river caused uproar of criticism both in Bangladesh and India. There have been a lot of discussion and debate about the potential impacts of the proposed dam on the economy and environment of Bangladesh in general, and on the haor region in particular. This debate has intensified following publication of an article by Adviser Gawher Rizvi in two dailies in early December of 2011 in which he called for a science-based analysis of the proposed project and its potential impact on Bangladesh. A series of articles/talk shows were published/held in various news media in Bangladesh following the plea by the adviser. Various political parties and civil society organizations have been very critical of the Indian decision to build this massive structure on the Barak River.
Apparently, taking heed into such a wide-spread opposition and apprehension against the dam, both the governments of Bangladesh and India have announced to carry out a joint assessment of potential impacts of the dam on the environment and ecosystems in months to come. An expert committee has been formed in Bangladesh with 10 members representing various government-run organizations.
Recently, during a visit by the Indian minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced that the joint experts group will meet on August 27 in New Delhi to discuss the concern. The composition of the Indian expert team has not been made public yet. Although higher authority in the Indian government has maintained that they will not do anything that will harm the interest of Bangladesh. In this backdrop, it is expected that in dealing with the Indian counterparts the members of the Bangladesh expert committee will keep the following points in mind and should demand documentation from Indian authority to substantiate the promises made by them at various occasions.
The Tipaimukh Dam is designed to retain 15 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water at peak level, which is about 31% of the total flow of water that enters Bangladesh through Barak into Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna rivers. Therefore, it cannot be acceptable by Bangladesh that India will have unilateral control over 31% of the water in a shared river unless there is treaty with guarantee clauses that ensure integrated water resources management plan that will protect the interest of all stakeholders in basin. Indian government has already issued the environmental clearance certificate on October 24, 2008, and they are moving forward with the project despite serious concerns raised by Bangladesh and Indian environmental groups, as well as the indigenous people in Monipur and Mizoram. In their environmental analysis, India never carried out any study inside Bangladesh, especially in the haor region to study the ecosystems that exist and depend on natural flow in Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna rivers and their numerous tributaries. It is expected that the joint expert committee will share historic data on river-flow at various locations along the basin and will study the ecosystems in the haor region during varied hydrologic and climatic conditions.
India claims that the Tipaimukh Dam is a run-of-the-river project and no water will be diverted for irrigation, and therefore, no harm will be done to Bangladesh. This argument should be challenged on the following grounds: (a) India will have to fill up the reservoir that holds 15 BCM of water, out of which about 8 BCM will be dead storage. If this 8 BCM water is released over 365 days in a year then it amounts to about 9,000 cusec, which is a huge amount for the Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna rivers in dry season. As result of the dam, the flow characteristics will be different as compared to the flow that existed prior to the dam. What will be the basis of daily discharges from the dam? Will the discharge decision be made jointly? If not, can the haor people live with this uncertainty to grow their crops? (b) The life, livelihood, and ecosystems in haor region have established an equilibrium with the natural flow of the rivers, and the farmers prepare their field in harmony with this natural flow regime. How will the boro cultivation and other ways of haor life will be affected?
Will India be prepared to discard the planning of the dam should the findings by the joint expert committee do not favour construction of the dam?
India has offered Bangladesh to invest in the hydro-electric project. This proposal should be vetted on the following counts: (a) Three Indian entity have already signed a joint venture project with a deadline of 87 months for completion of the project. What will happen to this agreement and the environmental clearance that are already in place? (b) There is no treaty between India and Bangladesh about joint management of water resources in Barak-Surma-Kushiyara basin. If Bangladesh invests money in the project, will India decide unilaterally how much water they will release and when they will release it, or will there be fresh agreement about the ownership of the project? (c) Since the Barak-Surma-Kushiyara is an international river system, Bangladesh should not pay for electricity, India should provide a fair share to Bangladesh for free as they agreed to do so for free for Manipur State as a stakeholder. Similarly, will India provide an equitable share of electricity to Bangladesh for free?
Adviser Gawher Rizvi argued that since the Tipaimukh Dam is 140 miles away from the Bangladesh border its impact will be minimal on Bangladesh. The truth couldn’t be far from this. Barak-Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna is a continuous river system that empties in the Bay of Bengal. Therefore, any interference with the water-flow will be felt all the way to the Bay of Bengal. For example, the Farakka Barrage is over 100 miles from the shoreline in Bangladesh, but its negative impacts on the salinity intrusion and the water level in the Gorai and other rivers in SW Bangladesh are documented facts. A similar situation is likely to occur in the greater Mymensingh and Sylhet districts should the water is diverted from Barak River through any barrage (such as the proposed Phulertal Barrage in Assam). Salinity will likely encroach up the Meghna-Kalini-Kushiyara-Surma-Gorautra rivers farther inland, impacting the agriculture and fisheries in parts of Habiganj, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Sunamganj, Sylhet districts. What kind of computer simulation model will they run to make sure that salinity intrusion will not intensify in Bangladesh following the dam?
As a part of FAP-6 study, it was concluded that if the Tipaimukh Dam is completed then the flow in Bangladesh will increase in summer months and will decrease in rainy season. This finding is questionable on the following accounts: (a) Since India has not completed the dam they don’t have any water-release schedule yet. The conclusions in FAP-6 are based on many assumptions, which may or may not be true. In fact, one of the researchers involved in FAP-6, Ainun Nishat, admitted that their study was done based on many unknowns and assumptions; (b) As mentioned before, any departure from the natural flow will mean adjustments for farmers and fishermen in terms of the timing for preparation of agricultural fields, planting of seeds, and harvesting the crops. Most importantly, without a joint ownership of the project, the people of Bangladesh will have to rely on the mercy and decision of the Indian authority for their fair share of water.
In essence, only the natural flow in the Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna river system can assure the well-being of the life and livelihood of the people and the environment. Anything less than the natural flow will mean a compromise for the environment and ecosystems in the haor region of Bangladesh.
Md. Khalequzzaman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Geology, Lock Haven University, USA.