Bangladesh jittery over India's river linking scheme
All of these enter the Bay of Bengal, carrying large volumes of water and silt. An extensive network of khal and beel (canals and wetlands) helps channel floodwater for agriculture and fisheries. The two systems are, therefore, central to Bangladesh's flood plain ecology. Simultaneously, a constant flow ensures silt removal, while the level at which rivers flow bear on navigation activities and groundwater recharge.
The vast flooding experienced by Bangladesh during the monsoon is not caused by local rainfall; it takes place as a result of water carried by rivers into the country. A total of 57 rivers enter Bangladesh, which is landlocked on three sides. Out of these, 54 rivers originate in India. Thus any intervention in the Himalayan river system in India is bound to affect Bangladesh. What needs to be ascertained is the extent of disturbance that the process is likely to create.
Fearing an adverse fallout from the project, in September 2003 the Bangladesh government asked the Dhaka-based Institute of Water Modelling (iwm), a consultancy group, to find out the extent of likely damage. iwm used a default model of the Bangladesh river system as it runs currently. "We had to change the variables according to the river-linking project's proposed quantum of water withdrawal, since that amount won't be available to us," reveals Emaduddin Ahmad, the executive director of iwm. "But it was important for us to be aware about the amount of water transfer that would take place in each basin; merely knowing the total was not enough," he adds.
Another crucial bit of information the model-makers didn't have was the timing of the transfer, as water required for various activities is always season-specific. Not surprisingly, unavailability of this data seems to have raised the hackles of experts in Bangladesh. But unlike anti-river linking activists in India, iwm conducted extensive research using the basic data available in the public domain. It also studied India's agricultural pattern to understand the timing of water withdrawal, and so came up with a model that ran on various options.
Bangladesh has an annual average water endowment of 1200 billion cubic metres (bcm). Almost 93 per cent of this is through the 57 rivers entering from outside. According to published data, India is supposed to transfer about 224 bcm of water annually from Himalayan rivers, which is 25 per cent of the annual water endowment from the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers.
There has been a major public outcry in Bangladesh over the siphoning of Ganga water by India through the Farakka barrage. With southwest Bangladesh reeling under increased salinity because of the low flow of the Ganga, the likely impact of the river-linking project on the flow of the Brahmaputra is fresh cause for concern.
Jahir Uddin Chowdhury, a professor in the Institute of Water and Flood Management of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (buet), is categorical about the expected damage due to any water transfer from the Brahmaputra (see table: Gauging the depth): "The effect of the Farakka barrage will be negligible compared to that of tinkering with surplus water in the Indian Brahmaputra." Crucially, the river gives Bangladesh about 60 per cent of its water endowment.
It is obvious that reduced water endowment in Bangladesh will have an adverse socio-economic impact. Expectedly, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has requested opposition parties to support the government in this matter. The Bangladesh government has also talked about seeking redress at international fora. "But, we should try our best to solve the deadlock at a regional level among countries who will be affected by the project," says Khan. He is hopeful of the new government in India: "We sincerely believe that India will not do anything that will create large-scale misery for Bangladesh."
The country has come out with its National Water Management Plan that looks at the optimum utilisation of water in a holistic manner. But it is estimated that almost 60 per cent of the investment required to make the plan a success will be rendered redundant if the Indian river-linking scheme comes to fruition.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.