Should we sing a requiem for our rivers?

Dried-up rivers have something nightmarish about them. A lot of people are overtaken by this frightful spectacle, be it in dreams or real life. I felt literally short of breath when I came across a page in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It describes the dilapidated hull of a wooden ship stuck in the middle of a forest. The person who discovers it, a warrior-member of the famous Buendia dynasty of Macondo, gets so awe-struck watching the ship that he starts wondering if the jungle once was a part of a vast water body. Although this is characteristic of Marquez’s inimitable magic realism, the illusory theme of the episode nonetheless has something suffocating about it.

The common dread for dried-up rivers has kept haunting me as well since the recent appearance of the news in the media about India’s preparations for a colossal river-link project, that will withdraw and divert water from the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Teesta and other Indo-Bangladesh common rivers to the shrinking ones on the Indian side. Not only that. After tampering with the big and small rivers in the south-western region of Bangladesh by manipulating the Farakka Barrage waters, that was intended to save the Calcutta port from siltation and maintain its navigability, our powerful and ‘blessed’ neighbour has now reportedly undertaken this mega-project to make its arid regions fertile by sucking water from international rivers. With the fruits of the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement between India and Bangladesh still elusive to the latter, the recent river interlinking project cannot but make the people of Bangladesh quite jittery.

That the new Indian project will have a catastrophic impact on the river courses of Bangladesh does not need an expert to make us aware of; any layman is capable of realising it. We do understand the need for full-stream rivers in the rugged regions of India. But any initiative to withdraw and divert water from the 54 India-Bangladesh common rivers ought to be taken keeping the two sides squared with each other on the issue. A unilateral step by India in this regard has the grim potential for driving a wedge in the relations between the two countries. However, the issue has been raised in earnest at the 35th India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission Meeting, where Bangladesh Minister for Water Resources Hafizuddin Bir Bikram expressed our deep concern over the project. Being the lower riparian country, Bangladesh has reasons to become wary of the Indian initiative. Already we have passed through a series of disastrous phases triggered by dry-season unilateral withdrawal of water at the Farakka point in India. Given the tolerable situation now prevailing in the country when it comes to river-flows, following the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement, the people of the country shudder to think of yet another Indian project targeting the rivers of Bangladesh —- both big and small.

At the moment we can urge the Indian authorities not to implement the project, unless a consensus between the two countries is reached. In fact, this is what the Bangladesh Water Resources Minister put his emphasis on —- a pleasant way out based on mutual understanding and negotiations. The other day the minister informed the Jatiya Sangsad that the two countries have agreed to include the issue in the agenda of the next JRC meeting, thus making way for further discussions on it.

As a small neighbour, we will have to look forward to the friendly attitude of India towards us in all respects ranging from trade and commerce to a vital issue like water-sharing. Already the thorny issue of Ganges water sharing has created a lot of bad blood between the two countries, not to speak of the calamitous effect of India’s unilateral water withdrawal on Bangladesh’s crop pattern, navigation and eco-system. The country can ill afford to deprive itself of the sigh of relief coming after the Water Sharing Agreement. Against this backdrop, India’s river interlinking project will deal a fatal blow to Bangladesh, a great bulk of whose domestic economy depends on rivers. It is really a geo-political absurdity, or, should we say irony, that we are veritably encircled by Indian territory, with no less than 54 rivers flowing into the country from India.

Although in modern diplomatic parlance they are dubbed international or India-Bangladesh common rivers, Bangladesh enjoys little leeway in demanding its due share from these rivers. Immediately after the independence of Bangladesh, India, in a bid to display its fraternal attitude toward the newly-born Bengalee-dominated state, made significant concessions when it comes to sharing of the Ganges waters. As had been expected, the people of Bangladesh welcomed the Indian step. But the increased flow of water through the Padma and its tributaries during the lean season, and a decrease in the water volume flowing through these rivers during monsoon had yet to reach people’s full expectation. Rather, after the mid-seventies the state of rivers in the south-western zone of the country kept deteriorating, the once-mighty Padma shrinking from two sides with the advancing shoals and literally turning into vast expanses of sand at many places. In the process, salinity has alarmingly increased in the Pashur and other rivers in Khulna

We saw the photographs of manual and motorised vehicles plying beneath the Hardinge Bridge, where not long ago there were spectacles of massive sailed boats gliding at ease. The heart-rending spectacle was in stark contrast to the one that saw the great Bengalee poet Rabindranath Tagore gliding in his favourite Boat on the mighty Padma, with its two banks faded out into the misty distance. Farakka Barrage was originally conceived to augment water flows in the rivers Hoogly and Bhagirathi in West Bengal. Unfortunately, the scheme materialised at the cost of our rivers in the south-western part of the country —- that resulted in negative effects on our agriculture and other vital areas of national interest.

To speak without mincing words, Bangladesh is still far from enjoying the full benefits of the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement. Upon witnessing two years of augmentation in the flow of water down the Padma and other rivers, following the Agreement, Bangladesh has again started feeling the pinch of a thinned water flow.

With this grim reality in view, the prospect of another river-related project, that will badly affect Bangladesh, will only confound the people of the country —- who are ever grateful to India for its humanitarian, diplomatic and military help extended to them during their 1971 Liberation War. As a small neighbour, Bangladesh looks to its vast and powerful neighbour for behaviour that does not infringe on the contours of justice. In spite of being affected by bitter experiences when it comes to sharing of the common river waters, Bangladesh is ever eager to go ahead with its friendly ties with India. Given its regional power status, India does not need to be pestered on this issue.

Against the overall confusing backdrop, it has been reported that India is planning to commission its barrage across the Barak river, in Assam, from where the streams of Surma and Kushiara are flowing into Bangladesh. Experts fear, with the completion of the proposed barrage, also called Tipaimukh Project, to feed the north-eastern India, the two rivers in Bangladesh will experience a thinned water flow —- that will, to the horror of many, begin the process of gagging the great Meghna. Hardly could we come free of the Padma fallout; the river-linking project looms like a potential threat to the country’s river system, agriculture and ecology. The coming into operation of the barrage over the Barak on the Indian side of the border will veritably spell doom for this agro-based LDC, because the tampered flow of the Meghna will turn vast expanses of agricultural tracts in the eastern and southern Bangladesh into a mere wasteland.

For me, the shrinking of the Meghna has a personal ring to it. Despite being born and brought up in Dhaka, I sometimes visit my paternal village on the bank of the Meghna in Ashuganj. I can still remember the awe-inspiring beauty of the river seen in my boyhood. The Meghna is still flowing with full glory. But if my dream-river loses its normal flow and is sucked into the process of drying up, that will be unbearable for me. (Shihab Sarkar, Associate Editor, New Age , December 04, 2003


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