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BREAKING new ground where governments have feared to tread, nongovernmental research groups from India, Bangladesh and Nepal have suggested that an "integrated approach" may be the only way to calm the turbulence over the sharing of river waters.
"We have tried to transcend national perspectives and have outlined the immense potential of the water resource," says Ramaswamy R Iyer of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR), which coordinated a study of the problem. The other organisations involved were the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad (BUP) and the Institute of Integrated Development Studies in Kathmandu.
The joint study, titled Converting Water Into Wealth: Regional Cooperation in Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers, points out that in the absence of shared programmes between India and Bangladesh, prohibitively expensive projects have been duplicated. It says that disjointed planning has led to severe underutilisation of river waters. B G Verghese, a research professor at CPR, points out that of the Brahmaputra's average annual runoff of 537 cubic kilometres, less than 5 per cent is actually used by both the countries.
The study reveals that the negation of the other country's needs has also led to severe environmental problems. The blockading of the Ganga waters by India at Farakka has led to extensive waterlogging in vast areas around the barrage. In Bangladesh, the barrage has led to the "virtual desertification of one third of the country ... and depletion of fish resources", according to Q K Ahmad of BUP.
Significantly, the study has revived a plan mooted by the Bangladesh government for a systematic and shared framework to use the waters of the Brahmaputra, Ganga, Teesta, Muhuri, Manu, Gumti and Khowai rivers. It notes that this would necessitate the creation of reservoirs in Nepal and Bhutan to hold waters to be utilised by India and Bangladesh during the lean season.
Meanwhile, Iyer is drawing up plans to popularise the findings of the study through seminars, pamphlets and public discussions. "The establishment of even an academic link between the countries which share the river waters may well turn out to be a valuable bridge over troubled waters," he says.