The rivers are life-giving to the still largely agrarian economy of Bangladesh. But most of these rivers, their tributaries and distributaries present a sorrowful spectacle today compared to their previous state. The rivers are common to both India and Bangladesh but have been unilaterally regulated on the Indian side through dams and other structures to divert water for various purposes in that country. The result has been the drying up of these rivers on the Bangladesh side and the silting of their beds. This means very lean flows of such rivers in Bangladesh during the dry season that make them practically useless or difficult for navigation or for irrigation of the agricultural hinterlands. In the wet seasons, the heavily silted river beds easily and frequently produce devastating floods.

Reportedly, a national water management plan is in the offing. Clearly, the cornerstone of such a plan will have to be the vigorous initiating of a process of discussions and negotiations with India so that Bangladesh is assured of its rightful shares of the common rivers, some 54 in number. Presently, there is one 30-year treaty for sharing of the Ganges water but this is very inadequate and it is imperative to go all out to engage the neighbouring country in dialogue to prevent its unilateral water withdrawals from all other common rivers. The aim should be signing treaties to provide Bangladesh with its legitimate share of waters from all the common rivers.

The absence of water sharing treaties for common rivers, except controversial one, are already much in evidence in Bangladesh. Transportation through the inland waterway- the cheapest and most convenient for bulk cargoes, was possible through some 24,000 kilometres of waterway in Bangladesh prior to the commissioning of the Farakka Barrage in India. This waterway shrank to some 7000 kilometres after the operationalisation of the Farraka Barrage and further shrank to some 3000 kilometres only in recent years due to intervention in the common river systems by India.

According to a report, the dry season length of the waterway came down to about 1500 kilometres in the last dry season. This is clearly a frightful picture and underlines the necessity of giving the highest priority to getting rightful shares of water of rivers in support of a water management plan. Agriculture or irrigation, fisheries, transportation and related sectors are experiencing havoc in Bangladesh due to unilateral policies of India in the use of the waters of common rivers. There is also much that can be done to conserve the massive flows of water throughout Bangladesh from rivers in spate in the wet season or from heavy rainfall.

Barrages established at favourable points can lead to storing of ample water received in the rainy season for irrigation and other uses in the dry season. Rain water harvesting and other methods can be taught and popularised also to this end.

Source: The New Nation, September 4, 2002

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