Dream, Bangladesh's Disaster
24 July, 2003
Indian plans to
divert vast quantities of water from major rivers, including the Ganges
and Brahmaputra, threaten the livelihoods of more than 100 million people
downstream in Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi government fears. Ministers
are so concerned that they are considering appealing to the United Nations
to redraft international law on water sharing.
The ambitious Indian plans to link major rivers flowing from the Himalayas
and divert them south to drought-prone areas are still on the drawing
board, but Bangladeshi government scientists estimated that even a 10%
to 20% reduction in the water flow to the country could dry out great
areas for much of the year.
More than 80% of
Bangladesh's 20 million small farmers grow rice and depend on water
that has flowed through India.
"The idea of
linking these rivers is very dangerous.It could affect the whole of
Bangladesh and be disastrous," said Hafiz Ahmad, the water resources
minister. "The north of Bangladesh is already drying out after
the Ganges was dammed by India in 1976. Now India is planning to do
the same on [many of] the 53 other rivers that enter the country via
India. Bangladesh depends completely on water."
The minister said
the government had protested to India but had so far not had any response.
"Without this water we cannot survive," he said. "If
[rice] production falls then we would not know how to survive. We want
no kind of war, but international law on sharing water is unsure and
we would request the UN to frame a new law. It would be a last resort."
The Indian government
is preparing to seek international funds for its giant river-linking
project, intended to divert water from the north of the country to drought-prone
southern and eastern states. Up to one third of the flow of the Brahmaputra
and other rivers could be diverted to southern Indian rivers to provide
173bn cubic metres of water a year, supplying millions of people in
Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka states with more reliable drinking and irrigation
But the plan - which
could cost between £44bn and £125bn and take at least 14
years to implement, making it potentially the largest and most expensive
water project in the world - would redraw the subcontinent's hydrological
map with immense ecological and social consequences.
It involves building
hundreds of reservoirs and digging more than 600 miles of canals. Preliminary
estimates by environment groups suggest that more than 3,000 square
miles of land could be flooded and 3 million people forced off their
water development agency, which is backing the scheme, has said it will
divert enough water to irrigate 135,000 square miles of farmland and
produce 34,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity. However, much of the electricity
would be needed to pump the water around.
trigger a long-term disaster on the subcontinent and trigger bloodshed
in the region," said Shashanka Saadi, of Action Aid Bangladesh.
knows the consequences of India restricting its water. The Farakka barrage,
built across the Ganges 11 miles from the Bangladeshi border in 1974,
had at certain times of the year reduced by half the water that once
flowed via the Ganges into Bangladesh, said Mr Ahmad.
are turning into a desert, rivers have lost their navigability, salt
water is intruding into farming areas. You can walk across the river
Gori at some times of the year," said the minister.
Although the Indian
and Bangladeshi governments have a water sharing agreement for the Ganges,
there are none for the other 53 rivers that cross the border. Bangladeshi
water engineers say that Indian barrages, canals, reservoirs and irrigation
schemes are slowly strangling the country and are stopping its development.
is too flat for major reservoirs, says if India goes ahead with its
schemes, it may have to build a network of expensive canals to irrigate
large areas now fed naturally by the Brahmaputra.
"It would cost
a huge amount of money, but we may need it to survive," said Mukhles
uz Zaman, the director general of the Bangladesh water development board.
"At the moment there is just about enough water for everyone, but
the Indian plans could be disastrous. They would have catastrophic effects
on Bangladesh's rice fields."
One of the most
serious consequences of India's continuing search for irrigation water
is expected to be the further drying out of the Sunderbans, the world's
largest coastal forest, a world heritage site shared by India and Bangladesh
and vital for fish. "The forest needs fresh water to survive. Because
of the Farakka dam fresh water is not reaching there and the rivers
are silting up rapidly. The trees are dying" said Mr Zaman.
Local people say
the Farakka barrage has already changed millions of people's lives.
"In eight to 10 years I believe that most of the Sunderbans will
be silted up. The rivers flow far less than before the barrage was built,
and it is getting worse every year," says Humayun Kabir, of Noapara,
where a large river is now a small backwater and 6 metres (20ft) of
silt has been deposited across thousands of hectares.
Indian plans would finish the whole area."