- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

DHAKA, Bangladesh — As India ignores growing opposition from its neighbors and presses ahead with a vast $120 billion project to divert water from eastern rivers to its arid west, Bangladesh has decided to seek international intervention, including that of the United Nations.

Last month the government in Dhaka sent a protest note to New Delhi expressing its concern about adverse downstream ecological, navigational and economic impact on Bangladesh, where major rivers flowing from India provide 85 percent of the smaller country’s fresh water.

In the note, Dhaka accused New Delhi of making its decision without consulting its neighbor, flouting an international treaty that prohibits unilaterally altering the natural course of international rivers.

“We have not got any favorable response to our protest note from New Delhi. India seems to be going ahead with the project unilaterally. We would do everything possible to stop India from implementing the plan to protect the livelihood of 100 million of our people,” said Hafiz Ahmed, Bangladesh’s water-resources minister.

Early this month, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the river diversion project is being personally overseen by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and that work would begin by the end of this year.

“We are very keen to pursue the project which will free India from the recurring curse of droughts and floods,” Mr. Vajpayee said in a recent address to the nation.

In order to store and transfer water, 32 dams are to be built on rivers in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Thirty-seven Himalayan rivers are to be linked with those in peninsular India through 6,000 miles of canals to bring drinking water, electricity and irrigation to water-deficient areas of the country.

Environmentalists in the region say the Indian plan would cause severe flooding during the monsoon rains and worse drought during the dry season in Bangladesh.

“Once the Indian plan is implemented, the world could lose the richest fisheries in south Asia,” said Jayanta Bandopadhyaya of the Center for Development and Environment Policy at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta.

“Salinity would also make inroads into the region, affecting thousands of hectares of arable land [and] affecting the lives of millions of people living on agriculture in Bangladesh,” he added.

Because mangroves depend on the steady rise and fall of tides for their roots to breath, arresting the natural flow of rivers could be a death knell for world’s largest remaining coastal forest — a World Heritage site shared by the delta regions of Bangladesh and India — Mr. Bandopadhyaya said.

Environmentalists in Nepal say large dams in the foothills of the Himalaya would flood forests and cultivated areas, and thousands of people would be displaced in that country.

“Water experts in Nepal have bitter memories of previous Indian water projects,” said Jyotsna Singh, a BBC analyst.

“They say their country should be extra cautious. When India built a barrage on Nepalese soil to stop the Kosi River flooding, the problem was simply shunted upstream,” Mr. Singh recalled.

“The [Kosi] river was once known as ‘the sorrow of Bihar,’ but it has now become Nepal’s sorrow,” said a Nepalese journalist.

Many Indian states with surplus water fear that New Delhi’s plans could adversely affect the existing systems of irrigation and power generation.

Some Indian environmentalists have also expressed doubts about the wisdom of linking up rivers because more than 70 percent of Indian river water is polluted.

“Interlinking a toxic river with a nontoxic one will have a devastating impact on all our rivers and, as a consequence, on human beings and wildlife. The proposal is ecologically destructive,” said Ravi Agarwal of the Indian environmental organization Srishti.

He pointed particularly to the Par River in Gujarat, which is contaminated with mercury, and the Yamuna, which he said is more like a big gutter than a river because it carries 80 percent of Delhi’s sewage and toxic effluents of many factories in north India.

India’s ruling BJP, however, has chosen to ignore all opposing views. It says the country must enhance its irrigation potential to meet the demand for grain to feed an estimated population of 1.5 billion by 2050.

“Once the rivers are linked, India’s food production will increase from about 200 million tons a year to 500 million tons, and it would boost the annual average income of farmers from the present $40 (U.S.) per acre to over $500,” said G. Kishan Reddy, president of the BJP’s youth wing.

As Indian officials lobby for foreign aid and loans in Washington and the Indian prime minister calls on Western governments to invest in the project, Mr. Vajpayee’s government believes it can raise the money through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and bond issues.

For the time being, the BJP and its leaders in the government have decided to ignore the international implications of the project simply for “political reasons,” some analysts believe.

“For the moment, the party is backing the prime minister — who is keen on the project — in the hope that even if water does not reach dry areas, the project would win it votes in key elections this year,” said Abhisek Prabhat, an analyst in New Delhi.

Mr. Ahmed, Bangladesh’s water-resources minister, said: “We are still trying to settle the issue bilaterally. If this effort fails, we would take up the matter with international financial institutions, donors and the world community to make our legitimate case heard.

“We will also ask the international donors not to fund the project, which could force miseries on Bangladesh.”

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