Indian river link project: a death sentence for Bangladesh

Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA
There was a time only a decade or two back when we would laugh, hearing that foreigners in the West were so fastidious that they used to buy even bottles of branded drinking water from shops. Water as a salable commodity was unthinkable to us because in the past we found pure drinking water abundantly and easily available absolutely for free in our unpolluted wells, ponds and rivers in addition to whatever quantity of water that was needed for our irrigation, agricultural and farming purposes. But now, even a poor rickshaw-puller in Bangladesh may feel a little hesitant to drink water from an open faucet on the street other than at least from a sealed sachet of drinking water for a small price, if not from a branded bottle.

With countries like China and India building dams after dams to produce electricity and reserve water and linking rivers after rivers in the up-stream to divert water to their drought-prone areas, it may just be a matter of time, you never know, when along with other products like gold, silver, petroleum, etc. bottles and drums of water, as a precious mineral or material, may also be traded on regulated commodities exchanges and in the futures markets.

The whole world is facing the scarcity of water though water is the most plentiful natural resources on our planet. The fact is, although two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water, 97 per cent of water is held by oceans that are saline water while only 3.0 per cent is sweet and freshwater. And, only 1.0 per cent of freshwater is easily accessible to humans, birds and animals as ground and surface water as the remaining 2.0 per cent is stored deep in the glaciers and icecaps. Moreover, freshwater is not evenly distributed across land surfaces. Water is a fundamental element of life whose preciousness requires diligent management.

However, the countries that are facing the acutest shortage of freshwater are the heavily populated ones like China, India and Bangladesh.

With water shortages around the world reaching real crisis levels, water may soon become the most contentious issue to trigger the next World War which may aptly be termed “Water War”. Nations which would feel threatened with deprivation of their due share of river water may be tempted to resolve the problem through mutually assured destructive combats and may thus divert their resources to build up their military strength in case an existentialist “Water War” becomes inevitable. International law has already proven inadequate in defending a country’s claim of equal or equitable share of water supplies in some parts of the world.

It is quite understandable that every country has every right to use water from the river that is flowing through their land and a country may also dig rivulets and canals to divert water to drier parts of their land. A country should also have a right to erect a dam on a river to harness hydropower. But, erecting a dam to divert river water to a different region depriving people of a different country in the lower riparian zone is like depriving them of their age-old birth rights. River waters, like air, should be allowed to flow in their natural courses, helping nourish the riparian habitats, vegetation, woodlands and ecosystems.

China has constructed a gigantic dam, the one and half miles wide ‘Three Gorges Dam’, near Yichang to help control the flooding of the Yangtze River Valley that will also be the largest electricity generating facility in the world, providing one-ninth of China’s total power output. Although there is a lot of controversy surrounding the construction of the dam in terms of destroying hundreds of villages and factories, thousands of acres of agricultural lands and causing extinction of some rare species of Asian birds and animals, the construction of the colossal dam is justifiable from the perspective of China’s greater interest. Plus, the dam is not directly affecting the interests and livelihood of people living in any of its neighbouring countries, such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan, India, Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Korea.

But, we were extremely concerned when a government spokesman of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh just the other day expressed his apprehension that China could have diverted the water of the Brahmaputra river, which is known as Yarlong Tsangpo in Tibet, as Brahmaputra water has nearly dried in Arunachal Pradesh. India is always extremely nervous about the danger of its giant northern neighbor diverting rivers that originate in Tibet and flow into India, or disrupting their flow with hydroelectric plants.

Bangladeshis had also reasons to be worried because Yarlung Tsangpo, is a watercourse that originates at Tamlung Tso Lake in western Tibet, southeast of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. It later flows through the South Tibet Valley and YarlungTsangpo Grand Canyon, before entering India at Tuting in Arunachal, taking the name of Brahmaputra in Assam and then enters Bangladesh. The 2,900-kilometre-long river ultimately joins the Meghna River before emptying into the Bay of Bengal, along the way supplying water to hundreds of millions of farmers and residents of India and Bangladesh.

However, much to our great relief, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, while talking to reporters on 2nd March, denied that a dam China was building on a major river in Tibet that could impact the lower reaches of the waterway. India too said that the apprehensions expressed by the Arunachal Pradesh government spokesman about a possible diversion of the Brahmaputra river by China “is not correct and is devoid of facts”. “China pays attention to the impact on the lower stream regions when developing its water resources”, Hong Lei said, adding that Chinese officials had briefed India on its development of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

“China pays attention to the impact on the lower stream regions when developing its water resources” -such a statement from China sounds like music not only to the ears of Indians, but also to the ears of Bangladeshis. Shouldn’t Bangladesh expect that India, now poised to be a great power, also assured its neighbouring countries in the lower stream of their due shares of water in the similar tone? But the reality tells us a different story.

Last Monday, Indian Supreme Court gave a positive ruling regarding implementation of Indian River Link Project that will redirect the flow of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges rivers towards the south and western parts of India, depriving Bangladesh of its much needed share of water. Some experts believe that at a time when northern part of Bangladesh has already turned into a kind of a desert by the impact of Farakka Barrage and Bangladesh is still bearing the punishing impact of water diversion from the Ganges and Teesta, the new Indian “River Link Project” at an estimated cost of RS 5000 billion (500,000 crore) is designed to turn the whole of Bangladesh into a barren land.

While China assured that they would not build any dam that may negatively impact the riparian people on the banks of Brahmaputra, India’s plan to go ahead with the River Link Project diverting the course of 30 major rivers, including Brahmaputra, will cause an apocalyptic havoc to Bangladesh which gets about two-thirds of its dry season water from the Brahmaputra River.

It is beneficial for both India and Bangladesh to maintain a lasting friendly relationship on mutual understanding. Bangladesh should allow India transit facility provided Bangladesh is benefited not only in terms of transit fees but also for building the infrastructures of roads, waterways and highways. The amount of annual savings India would make by using the transit facility through Bangladesh should not be less than 50 billion dollar. How many billions of dollars will Bangladesh get from India, not as loan, but as non-refundable grant in exchange of transit facility?

Bangladeshis in general would like to see that every deal with India, including transit, corridor and trade should be linked with fair share of common river waters.

Bangladeshis may in the near future stand poised between life and death due to an unprecedented scarcity of water in their own home that once was brimmed with sweet water nourishing their land and made it famous for floras and faunas and many other aquatic treasures and abundances.

There is a time when humans are not tired of marching a long distance or afraid of losing their life when their very survival is at stake. A dying man clutches at any straw, hoping for survival. The day as such is perhaps not far away when Bangladeshi people may become environmental refugees.

Water, the basic building block for life, is so vital that Bangladeshis, if they are trapped in a land totally robbed of water, would envy the Indians thinking how happy they are with water in abundance and may curse their own fate. Such fatalistic philosophy on the part of a people of a neighboring country may not augur well also for India.



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