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Bangladesh: Statement by Environmentalists on the Controversy Around India’s Tipaimukh Dam Project

by Bangladesh Environment Network, 13 July 2009

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Bangladesh Environment Network

12 July 2009

BEN Resolution on Tipaimukh Dam
- (draft)

Observations and Analysis

In view of the fact that

1. Tipaimukh Dam is not an isolated project; it is part of a comprehensive Indian plan of using rivers that flow from India into Bangladesh, and hence needs to be viewed in the broader context of sharing of international rivers by these two countries;

2. In general India has been using its upper riparian position and its economic and financial strength to take unilateral steps with regard to the flow of these international rivers;

3. Most of these unilateral steps have been of diversionary character, diverting the water flow to destinations inside India and thus reducing the flow of water into the rivers of Bangladesh. Glaring example of such diversionary interventions are the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges and the Gozaldoba Barrage on the Teesta. The Farakka diversion has drastically reduced the flow of Padma, drying up south-western Bangladesh. The Gozaldoba barrage on the other hand has drastically reduced the flow of Teesta in Bangladesh; India has undertaken numerous other diversionary and flow-controlling structures on most of the 54 common rivers flowing from India into Bangladesh.

4. These diversionary projects of India go against the international norms regarding sharing of international rivers. In particular, they violate Bangladesh’s right to prior and customary use of river water. The entire economy and life in Bangladesh have evolved on the basis of rivers. Any major change in the volume and direction of flow of these rivers seriously disrupt the economy and livelihood in Bangladesh; Furthermore, river intervention structures affect the flow of not only water but also of sediment, which are vital for the long-run sustainability of the deltaic Bangladesh, in particular in face of the threat of submergence by rising sea level caused by global warming;

5. There is a pent up emotion among Bangladesh people against India’s unilateral river intervention projects. They perceive Farakka as unjust. Similarly, they perceive Gozaldoba and other barrages as unfair toBangladesh and as proof of India’s hubris. These unilateral river intervention projects are a thorn in Bangladesh-India bilateral relationship, which should be not only good neighborly and mutually beneficial, but also warm and friendly given India’s crucial help in Bangladesh’s Liberation War;

6. After many years of hiatus, Bangladesh and India signed the Ganges Water Treaty in 1996 specifying the sharing of the Ganges water at Farakka. Though Article IX of this Treaty enjoins India not to undertake unilateral projects intervening rivers shared with Bangladesh, in practice India has not shown much respect to this provision of the Treaty. Instead, it has proceeded with many intervention projects, on a more or less unilateral basis.

7. The Tipaimukh project is one such example of unilateral intervention aimed at construction of a dam on the Barak river that flows into Bangladesh from India. India went all the way to floating international tender inviting bids for construction of the project without even sharing the DPR (Detailed Project Report) with Bangladesh. Only in May 2009, when the news of construction of Tipaimukh dam has generated considerable civic protest in Bangladesh, the Government of India (GoI) has apparently sent to the Bangladesh foreign ministry some information about the Tipaimukh project;

8. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) is yet to make public the information on Tipai that it has received from India;

9. The GoB has proved to be ineffective in dealing with India with regard to the Tipaimukh project, as is the case with sharing of rivers in general. The GoB did not take up the Tipaimukh issue with India in a serious and timely manner. In particular, the political parties who are in opposition now did not play their expected role when they were in power during 2001-2006, when India moved Tipaimukh project from conception to implementation stage;

10. The current GoB has decided to send a delegation of Bangladesh Parliament on a fact-finding mission to Tipaimukh project site, and the Prime Minister has stated that GoB would express its opinion on the Tipaimukh project after studying the report of that delegation.

11. Unfortunately various Bangladesh ministers are expressing opinions that contradict Bangladesh’s official position as expressed by the Prime Minister, and are thus creating confusion;

12. There is the possibility that the Tipaimukh dam with its reservoir can be helpful in stabilizing the Barak flow across seasons, as has been pointed out by some water experts and reflected in some of the ministers’ statements. However there are many reasons why the suggested across-season flow-stabilization many not hold true and may not be beneficial for Bangladesh.

First, Bangladesh does not yet have the necessary facts to assess the changes in Barak flow that the Tipaimukh dam will bring about;

Second, dams can also be a source of destabilization of river flow, not only in the extreme situation of dam break, but in the often recurring situation when the excess water needs to be released in order to protect the dam from overflow. Such unplanned releases lead to unseasonal floods or floods of unusual depth and extent. For example, the unusual 2008 floods in Bihar were caused by unexpected release of water by the dams that India has constructed on the Ganges tributaries near the border with Nepal;

Third, for Bangladesh to benefit from stabilization of the Barak flow, it has to have a say or some control over the release of water at the Tipaimukh dam. This would suggest that Tipaimukh dam should be put under joint control of India and Bangladesh. As of now, Tipaimukh dam will be entirely under the Indian control, and the water release decisions will be made by India alone, putting Bangladesh at the mercy of the Indians operating the Tipaimukh dam. Such a helpless situation is not in Bangladesh’s interests;

Fourth, river flow contains not only water, but also sediments, which are very important for the deltaic Bangladesh. One important impact of the Tipaimukh dam will be reduced sediment volume of the Barak flow reaching Bangladesh, with detrimental effects on Bangladesh;

Fifth, Bangladesh has to assess the costs and benefits for her economy of the seasonal changes in the Barak flow that the Tipaimukh dam will bring about. For example, current Boro is the main crop for many in the Surma-Kushiara basin, cultivated in the haors andother low lying areas that become dry due to low winter flows of the rivers. If now the winter flows increase due to the Tipaimukh dam, cultivation of Boro may become impossible in many areas, disrupting the economy and livelihood. Without detailed studies to determine whether these losses will be offset by gains in other respects, it is difficult to say whether the net benefit of the across-season stabilization of the Barak flow will be positive for Bangladesh;

Sixth, apart from economy there is the issue of ecology to consider. The flora and fauna of the Surma-Kushiara-Meghna basin have developed on the basis of a certain river flow seasonal pattern, which is going to be affected markedly by the Tipaimukh dam. Detailed studies are necessary to gauge the environmental and ecological impact of the Tipaimukh dam;

13. The Tipaimukh dam project cannot be separated from the other project in the offing, in particular the Fulertal barrage project, meant to divert Barak water for irrigation to the Kachar district of Assam. As of now, with a price tag of $1.8 billion, the Tipaimukh project uneconomical, because per unit cost of electricity, even assuming the advertised production of 1500 MW, will be too high. The cost irrationality of the Tipaimukh dam can be justified only if it is viewed jointly with water diversionary projects at Fulertal or some other point on Barak allowing benefits from irrigation to be counted against the Tipaimukh costs. However, combined with such diversionary projects, the Tipaimukh dam is completely unacceptable to Bangladesh. In such combination, the Tipaimukh-Fulertal duo will be a repetition of Farakka for Bangladesh, now only on the eastern side her.

14. The worldwide experience shows that large scale interventions in the volume and direction of river flows do not prove to be that beneficial in the long run. The hydro power generated often proves to be meager and costly. The irrigation carried out on the basis of diverted water often proves wasteful and leads to salinity and deterioration of the soil quality. Meanwhile, the reservoir submerges huge amount of land, destroying the ecology and displacing thousands of (often most vulnerable, indigenous) people, destroying their culture, causing permanent problems of alienation and insurgency. The reservoir also becomes a source of methane, undercutting the emission reducing potentiality of hydro-power generated. The reservoir and the upstream flow often becomes a cesspool of pollution. The diversionary projects end up harming not only the basin from which water is withdrawn but also the basin or area to which water is directed and transported (at a great
cost). The experiences of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers are prominent examples of such negative consequences. Dams also destroy the natural rhythm of the river flow, obstruct the free movement fish stock, and obstruct the sediment flow. Finally while many of the damages prove to the permanent, the dams themselves expire their lifetime, becoming obsolete due to sedimentation and filling up of the reservoir, etc. In view of the negative consequences BEN is generally skeptical about dams, barrages and other large-scale river intervention projects. BEN is therefore skeptical that the Tipaimukh dam will be beneficial in the long run in net terms even for India.

15. It is therefore not surprising that many in India are opposed to the Tipaimukh dam. Protests from local, indigenous people and the state governments of Manipur and Mizoram did hold up the project for a long time. It is true that by providing various monetary benefits and by offering free electricity, etc., the North East Electricity Production Company (NEEPCO), the current Tipaimukh implementing agency, has been able to pacify the state governments. However, many in India, particularly the indigenous people of the area, continue to oppose Tipaimukh dam project precisely because of the many reasons cited above;

16. Worldwide there is now disenchantment with the Commercial Approach to river that suggested that any flow of river water to the sea is a waste, so that all of it should be used up. The approach led to degradation of rivers and increased conflict and animosity among countries of the river basin. In view of the experience there is now a move towards the Ecological Approach that recommends preservation of the natural volume and direction of river flow and helps to foster friendly neighborly relationship among the countries of the river basin. Instead of being a source of discord, as is the case under the Commercial Approach, rivers under the Ecological Apporach become a bond of friendship and good neighborliness.

17. World wide there is also move away from the unilateral approach toward multilateral, basin wide approach that includes all countries of a river basin in decision making regarding the use of the river.

Recommendations and Demands

In view of the above, BEN

1. Demands that India halts proceeding with the Tipaimukh project any further and engages in serious, sincere discussion with Bangladesh about the fate of this and all other projects of intervention in the shared international rivers;

2. Demands that India agrees to abandon its current unilateral approach and adopts a multilateral, basin-wide integrated water resources management approach to rivers of the region;

3. Demands that India agrees to adopt the multilateral approach with regard to the Tipaimukh dam project;

4. Demands that India should under no circumstances undertake water diversionary project (such as at Fulertal or at other points) on the Barak river;

5. Demands that India should under no circumstance undertake water diversionary projects on rivers shared by Bangladesh either directly or through tributaries and distributaries;

6. Urges Bangladesh, India, and all countries of the sub-continent to abandon the current Commercial Approach to rivers and to adopt the Ecological Approach;

7. Demands that GoB immediately makes public the information that it has received on the Tipaimukh dam project from India so all interested parties and scholars can conduct necessary analysis on the basis of the information;

8. Urges that GoB sponsors independent research by Bangladeshi experts on the possible impact of the Tipaimukh dam on Bangladesh economy and ecology;

9. Urges all political parties of Bangladesh to adopt a non-partisan approach to the Tipaimukh issue (and issues of water sharing with India in general) and cooperate to develop a united national position with regard to Tipaimukh and to dealing with India on this issue;

10. Urges all parties to lend cooperation to the government, to the extent that it sincerely tries to find a solution with India regarding Tipaimukh, defending Bangladesh’s national interests and legitimate rights;

11. Urges all political parties represented in the Parliament to join the proposed all-party delegation of Bangladesh Parliament to visit Tipaimukh dam site to find out the facts and prepare a report on the basis of the findings;

12. Urges all citizens of Bangladesh to build a strong civic movement to save the rivers of the country;

13. Urges formation of a region-wide (including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, China, and Bhutan) civic movement for protection of rivers and for promotion of the Ecological Approach to rivers in place of the Commercial Approach to rivers.

14. Urges all concerned in Bangladesh, including political parties, civil society organizations, NGOs, think tanks, media, mass organizations, local peoples’ organizations, non-resident Bangladeshis, etc. to come together, leaving aside narrow partisan and sectarian interests, and develop and rally behind a united national position regarding Tipaimukh dam and other river sharing issues. Bangladesh needs national unity in order to defend its rivers.