A meeting of minds on rivers

The recently held Dhaka summit, sponsored by the Global Infrastructure Research Foundation, addressed the critical question of exploiting the potential of eastern Himalayan rivers and took positive steps towards identifying key projects and consensus on issues at the NGO level. Back from the summit, senior journalist and noted water expert B G VERGHESE shared his optimism and caution with Sumanta Pal.

Published: Monday 31 January 1994

Who organised this meeting and what was the specific purpose of this convention?
The meeting was convened by the Global Infrastructure Research Foundation (GIRF) of Japan -- a body set up 10 years ago, with the Japanese government and business community as members, to sponsor very large infrastructures spanning countries and large regions.

How did this concept of global infrastructure come up? How would you assess the contribution of GIRF in water-related issues?
This concept was originally mooted during the global recession of the 1980s, when Japan, because of its trade surplus, was pressured to demonstrate greater global responsibility. GIRF was originally supposed to fund mega-projects, but things are different now. GIRF is supposed to assist in research to bring projects to the investment stage and to enable subsequent funding of the project either through the market or its own resources.
Harnessing the eastern Himalayan rivers, namely, the Ganga-Brahmaputra river system, has been an important concern for the foundation. If India, Nepal and Bangladesh could reach an agreement on tapping the immense hydroelectric potential of these rivers, GIRF could provide the financial infrastructure.
The Dhaka summit was one in a series of conferences organised by GIRF, the first being held in March 1993 in New Delhi. Since GIRF is a non-governmental body, it was looking for local non-government sponsors in the previous conferences. The Centre for Policy Research and the Indian Water Resources Society were co-sponsors for the conference, where participants included representatives from the governments of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan and the US.
The Dhaka summit and the forthcoming Nepal summit in April 1994 are an attempt to move from the more general to specific issues. The important thing was to identify the size of projects, their location, design and development. Once we know the specifics of the project, we get a clearer idea about what we have to decide on. And, it's only then that we can start talking about investments -- a stage where the governments concerned can actually start talking of cost benefits.

Were any specific projects identified? What was the basis of the selection?
A number of projects were listed and such projects were taken up where the governments concerned can actually talk of cost benefits. Some projects are already on the anvil. The Kosi and the Ganga barrage projects were discussed in detail in Dhaka.
The other projects that were referred to were the Flood Control Project in Bangladesh on the Brahmaputra and the Tipaimukh dam on the Barak in India, which would also benefit Bangladesh. The possibility of a power and gas grid for the eastern region was also discussed.

Is there any particular reason why the summit focussed on these two projects only?
In the course of the discussion, the participants felt these were worthwhile issues of interest to the countries concerned, the GIRF and its affiliates. They are not new projects and it was a question of carrying things forward.
Take the case of the Kosi dam, where the barrage and embankments had been built but where building of the dam was kept in abeyance because of differences between India and Nepal. The barrage in any case has been severely criticised as being responsible for floods. In this context, any assessment of the benefits of the Kosi Project has to take into consideration the problems of flood control and embankments. The initiative to build the Kosi dam is only an affirmation of the old project.
The Ganga barrage project is relatively a new project and one of its aims is to divert some of its waters into the moribund channels of the Sumati and the Gorai rivers, which water the whole of southwest Bangladesh.
Tipaimukh is a later dam across the Barak river, which flows east into Silchar in Assam to Bangladesh. The Tipaimukh project has to be a multipurpose project with flood control measures because Cachar in India and the Sylhet depression in Bangladesh are very prone to floods. The project would have a dam on each side of the India-Bangladesh border and a barrage 100 km upstream near Silchar, which will have an installed power generation capacity of 1,500 MW. A whole system of locks from Silchar to Mizoram facilitate navigation the year round. This is being studied by the Brahmaputra board. The Central Water Commission has also come up with a detailed engineering report. The project is also being included in India's Eighth Plan.
The devastating flood in Cachar, Assam, last year has highlighted the fact that work on the project has to start at the earliest. The Indian position has been that if we have so much water stored, the barrage can provide water for irrigation on the Bangladesh side. Bangladesh wouldn't need a separate structure in that case. Similarly, there could be an integrated system of flood control and power generation. The Bangladeshis still have some doubts on the flood control benefits. The dam might also cause problems of excess water during monsoons.

Following identification of projects, what will be the role of GIRF in the near future? In this context, do you think NGOs have made some headway at the Dhaka summit?
If things have to be carried forward after the Dhaka meet, one will have to conduct specific studies on the identified projects. The question is: Who would conduct these? Can it be done by NGOs? Suppose you want to study the feasibility of the Ganga barrage in Bangladesh -- keeping in mind that no such study has been done so far -- the purpose would be to find out what kind of structure you can build, how much you can pond it up, how much water you can divert and how much additional water you would require from India. All these would require specific studies.
The size of the studies would demand state involvement. Funds and technical collaborations could be had by way of international support from agencies like the GIRF. Realising the role of government intervention, an important

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