Failed water strategy threatens national existence

Shahid Islam
 
IN many countries, an April showering often facilitates May flowering.  Not in Bangladesh. This year’s April shower has caused havoc across the country, compounded by Indian intentional or accidental release of more toxic waters that had overflowed many of Bangladesh’s backwater swamps and lowlands known as haors.  The devastation came on the heels of PM Sheikh Hasina’s utter helplessness in getting the Teesta water treaty signed during her latest visit to Delhi; record rainfall in April carrying into Bangladesh toxic waters from neighbouring India and threatening the very existence of Bangladesh’s aquatic and human lives.

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Shahid Islam
 
IN many countries, an April showering often facilitates May flowering.  Not in Bangladesh. This year’s April shower has caused havoc across the country, compounded by Indian intentional or accidental release of more toxic waters that had overflowed many of Bangladesh’s backwater swamps and lowlands known as haors.  The devastation came on the heels of PM Sheikh Hasina’s utter helplessness in getting the Teesta water treaty signed during her latest visit to Delhi; record rainfall in April carrying into Bangladesh toxic waters from neighbouring India and threatening the very existence of Bangladesh’s aquatic and human lives.
Good thing is: The PM had visited one of the flood affected haor areas in greater Sylhet and assured the farmers of relief and compensations. Yet, such palliatives are not enough to save the nation from a growing danger which only tougher water diplomacy, combined with the adoption of a long-term strategy, can effectively tackle.
A chemical aggression
As if India’s unscrupulous, controversial, illegal and costly river management projects that block water in the upstream of the 54 major rivers during dry season are not enough, for weeks, Sunamganj’s Tahirpur and other haor areas witnessed carcass of fish, frogs and ducks floating dead in bumpy waters. According to published reports, locals in Meghalaya’s west Khasi Hills reported ‘noticing change of colour in the Ranikor River water, about 3km from the Jadukata River of Bangladesh’s Sunamganj district.
Not everyone was silent on this sensitive matter. “Uranium-mixed water came down to Bangladesh from India, caused catastrophe in the haors area. India provided uranium-mixed water as a gift for the recent treaties signed between the two neighbouring countries,” claimed Ruhul Kabir Rizvi Ahmed, senior joint secretary general of BNP.  Rizvi’s accusation is linked to an outcry across the border by predominantly Khasi communities in Ranikor River basins from where the latest onrush of upstream hill waters, combined with excessive rainfall, caused flooding in the Sunamganj back swamp and many other northeastern haor zones linked to the Khasi Hills river system.
And, not only experts from the fisheries and livestock departments confirmed the Hakaluki and Tanguar haor waters having been contaminated by toxic substances, Khasi leader Marconi Thongni told the media: “We highly suspect that the sudden death of fish and now the abnormal change in the colour of the River is due to uranium drilling.” He also alleged that Indian excavators of the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) had left hundreds of pits open and abandoned them carelessly after carrying out uranium drilling at Porkut area in Meghalaya’s west Khasi Hills.
Root of the problem
India aside, Bangladesh’s sufferings stem also from its strategic incompetence to tackling the recurring problem.  Little wonder it now pays a heavy price; crops devastation foretelling of a famine if the monsoon flooding adds to the ongoing miseries. For Bangladesh and India share an integrated river system; making the former totally dependent on what is known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) system which originates from the two large Himalayan Rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, and joins Meghna inside Bangladesh via India.
Yet, water management remained consigned to a low burner for decades, although, during the heydays of Bangladesh-India relations after independence in 1971, a Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was established in 1972. Ironically, the very first water sharing agreement between the two neighbours was signed only in 1977, during the reign of President Zia, for a 5-year duration; with a guarantee clause ensuring the minimum receipt of the Ganges water by Bangladesh in dry seasons.  Upon its expiration in 1982, the treaty was never renewed. In 1996, a 30-year comprehensive treaty was signed, outlining how the water of the Ganges will be shared by the two neighbours between January 1 and May 31.
The 1996 treaty guaranteed India an assured flow of 990 cubic metres/second during any critical season while Bangladesh suffered from drought during those critical days of low water flows. And, since the Farakka Barrage’s commissioning in 1975, the mean dry season flow of the Ganges never exceeded the long-term average, receding to less than 50 percent of the average flow, year after year. By now, the reduction of dry season flow in the Ganges had led to various irreversible ecological problems in southwestern Bangladesh.
Violation of international laws
The main impact has been the gradual dropping of hydraulic head in the Ganges river system, and the increase in salinity in southwestern Bangladeshi Rivers. The increased salinity has had devastating impact on groundwater aquifers, causing agricultural production and freshwater fish yield to suffer badly. Besides, the increase of salinity in the Ganges tributaries has led to severe ecological impacts on the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, which is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Farakka Barrage on the Ganges lies about 20 km upstream from Bangladesh border, from where India diverts water into the Hooghly River to increase navigability of Kolkata port. It began with the test run, a mutually agreed sharing arrangement made in 1975 for diverting 11,000 to 16,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) of water between April 21 and May 31, 1975 by India, leaving about 44,000 cusecs for Bangladesh. As India continued unilateral withdrawal at a higher level in 1976 without any agreement, Bangladesh took the issue to the UN General Assembly, compelling Delhi to sign an agreement with Dhaka in 1977 for five years, with a guarantee clause ensuring minimum flow of waters to Bangladesh. In 1982, the regime of HM Ershad had no choice but to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with India on Ganges water sharing, which Delhi mostly ignored later.
The international laws have undergone massive transformation since. The Berlin Rules on Water Resources was adopted by the International Law Association (ILA) on April 21, 2004 to fine-tune the laws customarily being applied in modern times to freshwater resources, nationally and transnationally. The document superseded the ILA’s earlier adopted “Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers”, which was limited in its scope to international drainage basins and the aquifers connected to them.
New UN rules & Mamata’s refusal
The further strengthening of the core principles of ‘equitable utilization’ of shared watercourses and the commitment not to cause ‘substantial injury’ to co-riparian states are the boons for countries like Bangladesh. The laws are pretty uniform now as they correspond with the core principles of the ‘UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses,’ adopted by the General Assembly in 1997, after more than 25 years of negotiations.
And yet, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, refuses to assent to the Teesta river water sharing agreement that lay in suspension since its endorsement by the Indian central government in 2011.  Mamata argues that the proposed scheme would harm agriculture in the north of West Bengal; oblivious that the Teesta water flows constitute the main lifeline for the agro-based people of greater Rangpur area of Bangladesh too.
Besides, of late, another dispute had brewed up over the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project on India’s Barak River wherein a dam is being constructed to control floods in Assam’s Barak valley; to generate electricity for states in the Indian northeast abutting Bangladesh, at the cost of reduced water inside Bangladesh’s Sylhet region in particular.
The JRC has been dead for too long, as are the activities of the SAARC where leaders could exchange pleasantries to pave ways for cordial discussion and dispute resolutions. All avenues are now closed for Bangladesh to pursue a bilateral approach with India despite India’s unilateral moves on water management posing an existential threat to Bangladesh’s survival as a people and a civilization.
Threat on survival
Viewed critically, Mamata Benarjee is lining up with Delhi with alternative proposals that are not realistic. Delhi’s proposal to divert the water of Brahmaputra to the Ganges, and the Indian pipeline construction of a gravity link canal to divert 43 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganges, aims at controlling by India of all water inflows inside Bangladesh to further reduce the amount of water downstream, and to infuse saltwater intrusion and other environmental hazards to Bangladesh’s fragile eco-system.
As well, Delhi remains poised not to heed to Bangladeshis needs, which means only a sustainable and robust water management strategy can save Bangladesh from a disaster slowly eating away the very vitals of the nation. Devising and implementing such a strategy needs amending the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) Act 2000, which had vested the jurisdiction of administering the flow of all rivers, waterways and ground water bodies with the BWDB. The BWDB is also responsible for project formulation, implementation, operation, maintenance and evaluation, in congruence with the National Water Policy (NWP) and the National Water Plan (NWP). Reports claim over 50 per cent of the budgets allocated each year for these infrastructural efforts are eaten up by responsible officers, contractors and middlemen.
It’s time the bureaucratic bottleneck, coterie interest, graft and greed are set aside to focus on building highways along all major river banks, building reservoirs on major river curves, undertaking basin drainage whenever possible, and, constructing higher dams/switch gates at major entry sources to repulse sudden onrush of waters from the Indian side.  Building over bridges on major cities will not save Bangladesh.
The article first appeared in the Holiday Magazine May 5, 2017

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