Was reading the TV news scroll the other day and learnt that a boat had capsized in the Padma river and at Daulatpur, Kushtia. Twelve persons had died. Sad news indeed, but ironically some may have felt a sense of relief. It meant there was plenty of water in Padma, enough in which people could drown. A few days ago it was reported that Teesta was flowing five centimetres above danger level at Dharla Point. Yet during the dry season there is such hue and cry over this same Padma and Teesta. The newspapers carry pictures of trucks driving across the riverbed. This is nothing new.
The change, however, has become more rapid. Natural causes have been exacerbated by man-made ones. Silt is steadily deposited on the riverbeds and the rivers gradually die. That is why even during the monsoons we find ferries getting stuck on sand bars. Rivers are losing navigability. According to the latest reports of the Water Development Board, the lowest depth of Padma at Goalanda is two metres, Meghna’s depth at Bhairab Bazar is one metre, Surma’s depth in Sylhet is 2.1 metres.
Rivers are the gift of Allah. We didn’t need any project to make rivers, nor was there ever any allocation in the budget for creating rivers. Yet we ourselves are destroying this gift of water. We shed so many tears over coal, oil, gas, fish, trees, tigers and crocodiles, but we have done virtually nothing to protect our biggest resource, rivers.
It is the responsibility of the ministers and bureaucrats to work. They talk a lot, but are nowhere near work.
Another problem of our rivers is that structures are made upstream which hamper the natural flow of water. One barrage is being constructed after the other. The waters are being redirected. Many of our fields are drying up, crops are dying, the groundwater level is falling further, salinity is increasing in the land and water of the coastal region.
We are surrounded by India on three sides. We are ‘India-locked’. We often say that India is destroying us with water. India is upstream, a convenient position in water wars. We are people of the downstream region. Like the chatak bird, we gaze longingly for water, waiting for India to benignly open the gates and allow us to have water.
There is no denying that the demand for water is increasing by the day. There was a time when water was used only for agriculture and transportation. Now urbanisation is on the rise, new industries are cropping up, and the multiple use of water in modern life is increasing. It is getting impossible to keep a balance between supply and demand. Along with supply, we need proper management of water too. Water storage facilities are required. The reality of water shortage must be taken into cognizance and lifestyles adjusted accordingly. But none of this is being done. We don’t know how much water we’ll have access to in the coming years. We could plan, if we knew.
India is planning to implement an inter-river linking project involving the rivers of the Himalayan region. It has allocated 100 crore rupees in its central budget this year to carry out various surveys for the purpose. It is apprehended that if this project materialises, water flow into Bangladesh will fall drastically further. Our agriculture and urban life will face even worse water shortages.
In 1980 the Indian government had proposed a Brahmaputra-Ganges link canal to increase the water flow of the river Ganges. A 320 km canal was supposed to have been dug from Dhubri in Assam to Farakka Point in West Bengal, channeling Brahmaputra’s waters to Ganges. Bangladesh rejected the proposal. But the situation is such, that there is doubt whether we will receive Ganges water at all in the future. Even the people of West Bengal are skeptical about how much water will reach them after the river crosses Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The main objective of India’s inter-river linking project is to bring water into Ganges and channel this to its states in the south. This is needed for India. Why will we shrivel up and die to meet their needs?
The Joint Rivers Commission is supposed to deal with this. The commission was founded on March 19, 1972. On November 24 the same year, an agreement was signed between the two countries and the commission was supposed to meet four times a year. Till date only 37 meetings have been held. In other words, the commission is nothing but a paper tiger. We look to our political leaders to bargain and negotiate with India.
There are successful models before us. India and Pakistan are deadly enemies, often breaking into war with each other, yet they have the Indus Basin Treaty. Indian Prime Minister Nehru went to Karachi in 1960 to sign the treaty. He came to an agreement with Pakistan’s military ruler President Ayub Khan and they ensured a permanent trans-boundary river arrangement. They didn’t share water; they shared rivers. Three rivers to the east, Irrawaddy, Bipasha and Satadru, went to India and they could do what they wanted with these rivers. To the west, the rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab went to Pakistan. Pakistan was given ten years to build up the necessary infrastructure. The World Bank mediated the agreement. The US and the UK provided Pakistan with financial assistance to build the infrastructure. This was possible due to the farsighted leadership of Ayub Khan and Nehru.
Water nationalism is strong in our region. People easily talk about going to the international courts. Even Ayub Khan came under pressure but he resolved the issue bilaterally. We reached a resolution regarding sharing of Ganges waters through bilateral talks. There are 53 more rivers shared with India. If separate agreements are to be signed for each river, it will take a thousand years!
We have to change our strategy. Our policymakers don’t easily think outside the box. They don’t have the ability to do so. But we must. I have a specific proposal in this regard. You don’t need to be a water expert for this sort of proposal.
The river Brahmaputra (along with Jamuna), hasn’t been affected. The most water that flows down into our country is through Brahmaputra. We can have a trade-off with India — you take Ganges, we’ll take Brahmaputra. We can divide up the other rivers too. It is unfortunate but true that we waste most of Brahmaputra’s waters. No irrigation or reservoir infrastructure was ever created for the waters of Brahmaputra-Jamuna. What a waste!
The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Jamuna basin contains the world’s largest irrigation network. There are 26 million acres of land under irrigation. Only seven percent of this basin is in Bangladesh. When we talk about our ‘fair share’, we must keep in mind and every person living in this basin has equal rights, be he or she a Bangladeshi, an Indian, a Nepalese or Chinese. Much time has been wasted in unrealistic ideas, in obstinate and cheap politics. Let sense prevail now, both sides of the border.
The main objective of India’s the inter-river linking project is to take water from areas of surplus and channel it to areas of deficit. Political borders cannot determine neighbouring areas. It can be planned that this inter-river linking project includes Bangladesh and other countries of the basin such as Nepal and Bhutan. The whole issue can be resolved by means of a regional master plan. The main requirement for this is dialogue. Threatening to launch a movement will not resolve the problem. We must continue dialogue, with creating awareness and consensus within the country. We must emerge from water politics and determine a strategy based on ground reality.
We do not have many alternatives before us. Time is running out fast.