In a recent interview with BBC, India's minister of water resources Uma Bharti unveiled her government's massive plan to divert major rivers including the Ganges and Brahmaputra. According to the Guardian, the project is just waiting for a rubber stamp from the environment ministry of India. While we do not want to be alarmists, it is hard to ignore the fact that, if implemented, the project will rob Bangladesh, a riverine country, of her very lifelines.
The project involves channeling water away from the east and south of India to the drought-prone areas in the north and west through rerouting major river courses. This means digging canals everywhere to link rivers defying the ecology of the rivers. Bangladesh has been formed as the greatest deltaic plain at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers and their tributaries. So any diversion of the natural flow of the rivers will be like redrawing the geography of the area.
The project is based on an overestimation: diverting water from where it is surplus to dry areas. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) told the BBC, "There has been no scientific study yet on which places have more water and which ones less". In the dry season there is hardly enough water in the rivers to meet the minimum demands of the river-adjacent areas. Where is the surplus water for diversion? A ruling BJP member Murli Manohar Joshi aptly said that the plan would be like transferring wealth "from one beggar to another beggar."
What basically goes wrong with the concept of the project is that it sees a river only as a source of water, not as an entire ecosystem. Any intervention in the ecosystem affects the whole community and wildlife dependent on the river. Thakkar accused the Indian water authority of disregarding this very fact. According to SANDRP, 1.5 million people will be displaced and 104,000 hectares of prime forested land will be submerged while the effects on other life forms are unpredictable. On our side, we are clueless because our water ministry does not have any substantial study on the possible consequences of the river linking plan. When asked about his reaction to this unilateral move by India, the state minister for water resources urged the Indian government, in his habitural manner, "to take Bangladesh's water needs into consideration". It seems our government was not even aware of the progress of the project that could spell disaster for Bangladesh.
India's reply to Bangladesh's concerns is equally vague: "We don't have the details, but we will ensure Bangladesh gets its share of water too", said a statement issued by water resources ministry of India. Such patronising rhetoric is hardly reassuring. We have learnt enough from the experience of the Farakka Dam which was built to divert water from Ganges to Hugli River. The reduction in water flow has proved disastrous for Bangladesh including the loss of fish species, the drying of Padma's distributaries, increased saltwater intrusion from the Bay of Bengal, and damage to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.
This unilateral move by India is a clear violation of the basic tenet of all the international regulations regarding water bodies i.e. no withdrawal from commonly shared water body without mutual agreement. The provisions of the Ganges Treaty unequivocally expressed resolve of both sides to solve the water sharing issue through mutual consultations and negotiations, and not to do anything detrimental to either side, specially the lower riparian.
But we also failed to raise or even hint at the issue of India's grand design which, if ever implemented, would create consequences, equal to half a dozen Farakka dams combined together, strangling the existence of Bangladesh. Does it reflect our overall apathy towards our rivers? Our rivers are dying of thirst due to rampant encroachment and pollution. We couldn't care less. It seems we are more interested in politicising the water issue rather than protecting our water sources, upon which our lives depend.
The writer is Sr. Editorial Assistant at The Daily Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org