Wednesday, March 15, 2006














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The indispensable water management
Enayet Rasul

          THE crisis of water in the current dry season is once again being felt in Bangladesh. According to reports in both Bangladesh and India, the flow of the Ganges at Farraka point has reached the lowest ever level. In this situation, Indian authorities are seeking a meeting with Bangladesh authorities -- urgently -- to discuss the situation.
The Indian motive in wanting such a meeting should be obvious. Already, Bangladesh has been receiving less share of the Ganges water flow to its Padma section of the river under the water-sharing treaty between the two countries. Now, India would very likely want a formal consent from Bangladesh about this low release of water from the Farakka point as well as for actually stepping up the diversion of water from the Ganges on the plea of feeding hydro electric projects to be able to supply power to Calcutta and other cities. The unusual low flow in the Ganges is not only due to the scanty rainfall in the Ganges catchment areas. The same have a relationship to the many water diversion structures upstreams that India has built up over the years on the Ganges, unilaterally and without consultation with Bangladesh. Indian authorities are always careful not to discuss these issues with the Bangladesh government.
Thus, there is no point in chasing like a desert mirage a successful and extensive arrangement for sharing of the common rivers between the two countries. The only way that Bangladesh can expect redress from its water related torments involves its internationalising of the problem. One should remember that the first Ganges treaty between the two countries was signed only after Bangladesh brought the issue to the UN General Assembly. Facing international censure , rebuke and other actions, India responded by decreasing its most arbitrary and unilateral withdrawal of waters from the Ganges and agreed to a reasonable water sharing formula with Bangladesh.
While internationalisation of the water issues between the two countries is highly recommended, there ought not to be any further slack in doing whatever we can do inside Bangladesh to mitigate the water related sufferings. This course has been always insisted by the country's experts and foreign ones. But nothing of substance was done in this regard. The attitude of successive governments in Bangladesh has been waiting and waiting as if the same would fetch a change of heart and mind from India, magically, and resolve the water related problems of the country. The outcome of such fatal non activity has been the dying down of the river systems in the country in the dry season.
A very big contribution can be made to minimize the effects of lean season reduced water availability over a large part of the country by implementing the Ganges Barrage project that has been in a limbo for over 40 years. This project is also critically important to save a vast area which is almost one-third of the size of the country and which has been severely deprived of good water flows to it ever since the operationalisation of the Farraka barrage in India in the seventies.
The river-systems in the Ganges dependent south-west of the country has been gradually dying from the effects of the Farraka and even the signing of a Ganges water sharing treaty afresh in 1996 has not quite led to improvement in the situation because of the lack of Indian cooperation in implementing the treaty fully in its letter and spirit. The waterlessness in the region is causing desertification, loss of vegetation and fisheries and job losses thereof, declining irrigation facilities and consequent loss for agriculture, land subsidence from overuse of underground water, increasing salinity because enough water is not there in the rivers to flush out saline water inflow from the sea, endangering of the world's biggest mangrove forest, the Sunderbans, from such saline encroachments and adverse effects of the salinity on people's health. According to a study, the salinity front has moved 60 to 70 kilometres northward from its original location 30 years ago because of decline in fresh surface water.
But all of these Farakka related miseries in Bangladesh can be a thing of the past if determined steps are taken to build the Ganges Barrage project in Bangladesh. It is tragic that this major project which was expertly conceived and planned and had successfully passed several feasibility surveys, is still not even in the early implementation stages after long 40 years when one third of the country has been turning towards a state of unlivable conditions from water denial and related effects. The Ganges Barrage project can do many things. First of all, it can provide a reservoir of fresh water for release into the Bangladesh sections of the Ganges -- the Padma and its tributaries -- in the dry season. The effects of the same can be very great in keeping the flow in the Padma and specially its tributaries adequate in the crucial dry season. It will specially ensure irrigation waters for about 4.6 million hectares of land in the dry season. It will arrest land subsidence by reducing dependence on underground water for irrigation. The augmented flow of the Padma and its tributaries and distributaries will push back saline intrusion in the lands and save the Sunderbans. Desertification and threat to the overall environment will be much reduced and fishing and related occupations will experience good times again. But it is a big mystery why such a crucial project involving the lifeline of nearly a third of the country is getting so delayed with no convincing move taken towards its earliest implementation.
It was observed by many foreign sources that Bangladesh is a land of water which negates the views of its not having enough water. Indeed, the amounts of water which are discharged through Bangladesh to the sea in the wet season have few parallels in the world. The problem of water for Bangladesh is only for some months in the dry season but these months are significant for its agriculture. If only a part of this vast water flow over Bangladesh in the wet season can be retained, then the same can substantially meet the water needs in the dry season. Former President Ziaur Rahman realised the importance of this and started his famous canal digging programme all over the country. The canals were designed to catch and retain waters available in the wet seasons for helping irrigation and allied activities in the dry season. But the programme was stopped soon after his death and never revived. It is only getting lip service now though a BNP government is in power. But a full revival of the canal programme with pump houses and links to the rivers promises considerable deliverance from water related sufferings in the dry season.
Not only canal digging should be revived fully by applying the country's vast manpower, the rivers everywhere in the country -- big or small -- need to be also freed from 'encroachments' and dredged. The soil from the dredged rivers should be deposited far from the river banks so that these cannot go back to the rivers from floods. The dredged muds and sand can be used for manuring lands, for embankment building and construction activities. A systematic countrywide plan needs to be taken up at union level to dig ponds, to dig deeper existing canals and water bodies and to similarly treat presently moribund water bodies.
All of these activities will accomplish several things. First of all, the dredged and encroachment free rivers, plus the canals and water bodies, will create holding capacities for more water in the wet season, The same will contribute to preventing floods or limiting their effects. Secondly, there will be created substantial availability of water for irrigation and fishing from these water bodies during the dry season. The greater use of surface water for irrigation in the dry season will help the recharge of water levels of underground water and help to prevent land subsidence.
All of the above plans and more are feasible or were proved to be feasible. Why the same are not being taken up and implemented under a systematic water management policy poses a very big question indeed particularly when the water related woes are becoming bigger and bigger and intolerable in many areas of the country.


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