Transit in exchange for rivers? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 08, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 08, 2011

Transit in exchange for rivers?

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River water sharing and transit are two major issues for the upcoming Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh. So far, these two issues have been kept separate, and Bangladesh is focusing on duty, fees, etc. while considering the transit issue. This is a wrong approach. Transit is a strategic issue. Bangladesh should aim at some strategic gain in exchange for transit. Bangladesh should offer a historic compromise of giving transit facilities to India in exchange for full flow of all shared rivers.
The argument for such a compromise is very strong. It is geography that allows India to withdraw river water from Bangladesh. Similarly, that same geography allows Bangladesh to withhold transit from India. By agreeing to the "transit in exchange for rivers" formula, India and Bangladesh can trade their respective geographical advantages.
The most prominent example of withdrawal of water is Farakka. Since 1974, India has been diverting Ganges water towards the Bhagirathi-Hoogly channel. As a result, the rivers in the south-western region of Bangladesh are dying.
Another prominent example is the Gajoldoba barrage built on Teesta. India has constructed similar water-diversionary structures on Dudkumari, Khoai, Someshwari, Monu, Gumti, Muhuri, Dharla and many other rivers. The flow of Surma, Kushira, and Meghna will decrease if the water-diversionary Fulertal barrage is built in combination with the Tipaimukh dam. In fact, India has built, is in the process of building, or is contemplating to build water-diversionary structures on almost all major shared rivers. Thus restraining India from withdrawal of river water is an urgent task for Bangladesh.
Further more, three ways in which climate change will affect Bangladesh are submergence, salinity intrusion, and destabilisation of rivers. Restoration of full flow of Bangladesh's rivers is a must to resist these effects. Rivers here over time have brought in about 2 billion tons of sediment, which has raised its surface by about 2 millimetres each year. Continuation of this sedimentation process is a must for Bangladesh to withstand the submergence effect.
Yet, by withdrawing water India is also withdrawing sediment flow, which has already decreased to about 1.5 billion tons. Also, full flow of rivers can help resist salinity intrusion and full winter flow can mitigate the river destabilisation effect of climate change.
It is in India's own interest to help Bangladesh survive climate change. The millions of Bangladeshis displaced by submergence will not swim to the shores of America or Australia. Instead, they will head towards where they can reach by foot. No barbed fence will withstand the pressure of millions of desperate people.
Besides the climate change issue, large scale interventions into rivers are not beneficial for India in the long run. The best example is Farakka, which was apparently meant to revive the Kolkata port. However, Farakka has not been successful in flushing out Hoogly sediment to the desired extent. Even if more sediment was flushed out, Kolkata, situated 126 miles inland, could function as a sea-port in this age where ships are larger, deeper, and faster than before.
Instead, Farakka is now responsible for flooding many parts of Bihar and West Bengal, where the people there are strongly demanding Farakka's demolition.
Meanwhile, the Ganges itself is expressing its dislike for the Farakka obstruction. Studies have shown that the main flow of the Ganges is gradually shifting to the north of Farakka. Thus, in future the Ganges may bypass Farakka completely, leaving this barrage standing on a dry river bed as a worthless but cruel memorial to technological hubris. Thus, Farakka has not brought much benefit to India, while causing significant harm to Bangladesh.
The main argument behind Gajoldoba barrage has been irrigation. However, research has shown that this type of irrigation projects ultimately prove to be a waste. First, irrigation water is misused. Secondly, artificial irrigation gives rise to new problems of water-logging and salinity. Thirdly, the desired increase in output can often be achieved through development and adoption of water-saving crop varieties. Thus, just as navigability of Kolkata cannot be an argument for Farakka, irrigation also cannot be an argument for Gajoldoba.
Experience from other parts of the world also shows the futility of nature-defying river projects. The flows of Amu Darya and Sir Darya were diverted northward in order to increase cotton production in Kazakhstan's steppes. Unfortunately, the project led to the disaster of the Aral Sea and caused water-logging and salinity in Kazakhstan, ultimately harming cotton cultivation there.
The intellectual source of nature-defying water projects is the "Commercial Approach" to rivers according to which river water passing into the sea is a waste. Instead all the water is to be utilised for various commercial purposes. This approach in turn was associated with modernisation heralded by the industrial revolution.
Therefore, domination of nature should not proceed along an anti-nature direction; otherwise in the end nature exacts its revenge.
This realisation has led to the Ecological Approach that discourages large-scale interventions in rivers. Many countries are now following the Ecological Approach. According to the World Commission on Dams (WCD), more than 500 dams have been decommissioned in the US by 2001. Many proposals for construction of new dams have been rejected.
In Japan too, many dams have been decommissioned. There is thus a growing global movement to free rivers from barrages. While the Commercial Approach leads to conflicts among co-riparian countries, the Ecological Approach creates amity and strengthens friendship.
The Ecological Approach to rivers is spreading in India too. There was a strong movement against the Narmada dam in India. Many Indian river experts and activists joined the 2004 international conference organised in Dhaka by Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), and other organisations, to examine the possible impacts of India's River-Linking project. Most of them expressed support for the Ecological Approach.
India's diversion of river flows away from Bangladesh goes against the 1997 UN Convention on non-navigational uses of common rivers. Article 7 of this Convention prohibits steps that cause "significant harm" to co-riparian countries. Similarly, the Convention's article 23 prohibits steps that harm river estuary and marine environment. The "right to prior and customary use" is also recognised internationally. Thus "transit in exchange for rivers" compromise will allow India to conform to international rules and norms regarding common rivers.
Bangladesh should demand duties and fees for transit and transshipment privileges. However, duties and fees should not be the main focus of transit negotiations. No matter how high these rates are, the total amount earned will be miniscule relative to the volume of remittances sent by non-resident Bangladeshis.
Transit is the only bargaining chip that Bangladesh has in convincing India to restore the full flow of rivers. Once this chip is given away, there will be no hope left for restoring Bangladesh's rivers. The strategic value of transit should not get lost in the minutiae of duties and fees.
Bangladesh needs India's friendship. India's help was crucial for the success of Bangladesh's Liberation War. Development of India's northeastern provinces can be helpful for Bangladesh too. At the same time India needs Bangladesh to succeed in withstanding climate change. Thus "transit in exchange for rivers" compromise can be beneficial for both Bangladesh and India.

The writer is the Global Coordinator of Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN).

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