Opinion: Beware of India’s river-linking project

tista river
Muhammad Zamir

Hydrologists, environmentalists and responsible authorities in the Bangladesh government have been expressing for the last few weeks serious concern with regard to reports published in the Indian media on July 13, 2015 suggesting that plans are afoot afresh in India for carrying out its much debated and controversial inter-river linking project.

It may be recalled that this concept of inter-linking of rivers was first proposed in undivided India by Engineer Arthur Cotton in the 19th century. Subsequently, in recent times, over the last four and half decades we have seen Indian planners focusing on this issue time and again. In the 1970s, the then Indian Irrigation Minister K.L. Rao proposed a “National Water Grid’ to facilitate provision of water for deficit areas from surplus parts of the country through the process of inter-basin transfer projects. The idea was examined but remained in limbo. Later, in 1980, the Indian Ministry of Water Resources prepared a report entitled ‘National Perspectives for Water Resources Development’. As pointed out by economist Jafar Ahmed Chowdhury, this report suggested three components for the water development project – the Himalayan component, the peninsular component and an intra-State river linking component. This idea was, however, binned by the Congress government.

Nevertheless, the Indian planners continued their efforts in this direction through reports subsequently published in 1982 (by the National Water Development Agency), the proposals drafted in 1999 by the Indian central government and lastly in 2004, after the Congress came to power in New Delhi.

The enormous cost of such a project and some other considerations led to some disagreement among the younger generation of the Congress party, particularly Rahul Gandhi. He, in 2009, pointed out quite correctly that inter-linking of rivers was dangerous and had severe environmental implications.

The Indian plan to inter-link the Teesta-Ganges-Manas and Sankosh will require cooperation and agreement in principle of the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Bihar to share their waters. This Plan will also most certainly affect the flow of water in the 54 rivers jointly shared by Bangladesh and India.

These rivers will include in particular the Ganges (Padma) which originates from China, flows through Nepal and India into Bangladesh; the Brahmaputra, which also originates in China, then enters India and subsequently flows into Bangladesh (with part of its catchment lying in Bhutan); the Dhorola and the Dudkumar which originate in Bhutan and then flow through India into Bangladesh; the Meghna which originates in Assam, India before flowing into Bangladesh. The Manas and the Sankosh rivers are tributaries of the Brahmaputra that add to the water flow of this mighty river.

Beware of India's river-linking project

Media reports suggest that India intends to implement eventually 14 inter-link projects under the Himalayan component, 16 projects under the peninsular component and 36 projects under the intra-state component. The Ganges- Teesta- Sankosh- Manas link will come under the Himalayan rivers inter-link component. Indian planners aim to construct a number of dams which will act as storage reservoirs so that additional water available can be used as surplus water from the eastern Indian states by the southern and western Indian states.

It is claimed that these measures will help to control flood in the adjoining territories of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, facilitate irrigation over 22 million hectares and also generate considerable amount of hydro-power. It is anticipated that the efforts undertaken through the peninsular river inter-link paradigm will help to irrigate 35 million hectares, generate substantial amount of hydropower and will help in improving food security in India.

M. Inamul Haque, Chairman, Institute of Water and Environment, has made some interesting points. According to him “from an engineering point of view, the interlinking project can be executed and delivered on the ground” but, there is the question of cost and also the principle of movement of water as a hydraulic mass. He then mentions that “the cost of the project in 2005 was Rs. 560,000 crore [5,600 billion]. By now it has increased three-fold.” He then goes on to add that the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank or both might still be interested in helping the Indian government to complete the project despite lingering opposition from certain quarters of the state governments of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar.

The question that it raises, however, is the cost such an environmentally destructive project will have for the sub-region in general and Bangladesh, in particular. This assumes serious dimensions, according to Professor Shafiqul Islam (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA) given the fact that there is “lack of technical information about the viability of the project”. He then points out that “beyond a few lines drawn on the map to indicate the rough location of the dams and canals, nothing is available to the professional community to verify the justifiability and efficacy of claimed benefits from the project”.

Bangladeshi experts have correctly pointed out that such inter-linking of rivers and diversion of water flow by the upper riparian India, which will be in violation of international legal principles, will have catastrophic ecological consequences for the lower riparian Bangladesh – water logging, salinisation in the coastal areas and desertification in the north-western regions. All these hydrological and geological factors will have serious impact not only on our economy but will also trigger displacement of people and affect the re-charge of groundwater aquifers within the fresh water aquatic system. More than 20 million Bangladeshis will, directly or indirectly, suffer.

India over the years has always assured that they will refrain from taking any unilateral decision that might prove to be harmful for Bangladesh. Some Indian water experts have pointed out that upper riparian states have a responsibility towards the lower riparian states and they would equally be upset if China were to take unilateral action to reduce water flow in the Brahmaputra. This has led these water experts to reiterate more than once that there will have to be discussion between India and Bangladesh ahead of the adoption of any inter-linking measures.

Analysts associated with water have drawn the attention of the relevant Indian authorities that as of now there are more than 400 treaties in the world that apply to various aspects or forms of trans-boundary water sources. In all these agreements the common factor is the stress laid on the obligation to honour the legal principle of ‘equitable and reasonable use’ of international water course flows by the concerned parties.

In this context one needs to refer to certain provisions in the Convention on the Non-navigational uses of International Watercourses which was adopted in 1997 and came into effect in the second part of 2014 after it had been ratified by 41 States. Bangladesh is a signatory of this Convention. Articles 5 and 7 of the Convention draws attention to the fact that “Watercourse States, shall in utilising an international water course in their territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other Watercourse States”. The Convention, consistent with other international instruments and customary international laws also underlines that Watercourse States shall individually and, where appropriate, jointly, protect and preserve the ecosystems of international water courses and refrain from causing significant harm to other watercourse States (their citizens or their other living resources) or to their environment.

It is understood that the Bangladesh government has reacted to the recent developments with seriousness. It is reassuring to note that the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) has come out with a constructive statement that their party “will extend all-out cooperation to the government in resolving all national issues, including the one related to water”.

Water Resources Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud has told the media that the government has taken steps in the fourth week of July to secure an explanation in this regard from the Indian Water Resources Ministry. A communication has already been sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they have been asked to take action and ascertain the facts from New Delhi.

This is an important step. One hopes that the Indian government understands, that on such an issue that is unacceptable according to prevailing international law and that might adversely affect our national interests, the people and all political parties across the divide in Bangladesh are bound in bonds of unity.

Bangladesh has resolved bilateral problems with regard to maritime boundaries with India and Myanmar through international arbitration. There is no reason why it should not be able to seek such international intervention again to resolve the problems with the common rivers. In the meantime, the common development partners and international financial institutions need to refrain from getting involved in a project that is controversial, to say the least.

The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

Source: Financial Express