Tipaimukh : The Conclusion
I read a good, long but comprehensive account of effects in Bangladesh due to dam in Tipaimukh (Thanks to Zahidul Islam, from University of Alberta, Canada). Although I differ from him in a few aspects of technical matters, I agree to the core of his arguments. The Tipaimukh dam will be an Environmental and Ecological disaster for Bangladesh. I agreed to this several times when I wrote about this earlier.
The purpose of the Tipaimukh dam is to control flood (I argued this also in my earlier article) and all the potential losses are tied to it. But flood itself is a part of ecology. Once flood is controlled, everything associated with it will face the consequences. The typical floodplain ecology consists of seasonal wetlands, alluvial plane and animals dependent on them. On the other hand, floods cause damages too. It disrupts roads, damages human habitat and causes heavy damage to economy.
I found that a large section of lower riparian living in Silchar and surroundings – are actually in favor of the dam. If you cross the international boundary and move to Bangladesh – the supporters would be few and far between. How can you reconcile this information? I agree that political climate in both of these countries do differ. In India, the discussion is much about how would it control floods and in Bangladesh the discussion is more about what possible disasters can it cause. Although, these are flip sides of the same coin – each side of the international boundary will have their own version of effects based on their own knowledge. In Indian side, they know it would control floods but doesn’t even know that it will reduce the fish catch, decrease silt deposits and dry up floodplain wetlands. On the other hand, in Bangladesh people know the latter part of the story and don’t want to believe that it would actually control flooding.
The political awareness alone can not explain the whole phenomenon. There is a huge gap in their effort to develop the country. India is more focusing on pulling people out of Agriculture and engaging them in other productive sectors, i.e. to it’s booming services and industrial sector. Bangladesh is still not have developed any alternatives to agriculture for occupation. The fun part is, officially both countries have approximately 70% population dependent on Agriculture. The difference is still in attitude. Indian would love to develop Silchar as a hub of BPO in North-East – resting on top of high literacy and English speaking skills of North-East India.
This attitude is reflected in flood control too. Floods, as I said, are beneficial to fisheries, land fertility and ecosystem on a whole. A modern urban person cares much less about these than a villager. So an agricultural economy would consider flood as an one month problem and eleven month asset. An urban economy would see it as only a liability that must go. For an industrial economy, floods halts production and increases cost of maintenance. For agrarian economy, flood recharges the wetlands, deposits silt and brings more fish with it. All these are flip sides of the same coin – as a part of nature – it helps people who are adapted to it and it opposes people who dislikes the old way and want to unfetter themselves from the indigenous way of living. The former would want to control flood and the latter would prefer to live with the flood. There is no doubt that there are pros and cons in both side of the story. But, the end message is the same – massive efforts of flood control is a result of increased pressure of unplanned urbanization (look at the picture above – how Silchar city is located in the bank of Barak – any flood would affect it).
When I call something unplanned, it forces me to rethink. The urbanization in India (and Bangladesh too) was actually never a planned one. All towns and cities in India were actually villages or conglomeration of highly populated areas. As more fertile land attracts more people – most of Indian cities end up being in high flood prone zones. So in essence, that was reflected in post-independence Indian policy towards erecting dams – flood control was one of the major benefits projected. In Bangladesh, under similar plans, the average normal flood was controlled from 20% of land area to 10% of land area.
At the same time, when Bangladesh took up its own flood control project (also known as FAP), and implemented parts of it, there were protests among a large section of educated people. They opposed plans of unplanned flood control citing the benefits of flooding. The govt of Bangladesh, though, has stuck to its old position of controlling the flood rather than living with it. Even in 2005-2006 budget, Govt allocated 2.3 billion taka for flood control where the total budget is of 64 billion taka. At some point of time, Bangladesh also would need to get rid of agrarian economy. In an industrial world – floods are liability. It would inundate garments factory, disrupt exports to foreign countries and close down the educational institutes. Silt can be good for agro-lands but would anyone love it on concrete roads? Fishing can be fun in flooded urban areas but can it be a source of living for urban people? As population grows, more and more people in Bangladesh would take refuge to urban centers – as they are doing in India and China also. As they integrate themselves with the urban habitat, they will start looking at flood to be a liability.
A glimpse of what needs to be done to mitigate flood damage in Bangladesh can be found in the causes of flood damage. As per Prof Khalequzzaman, the contributing factors are – Unplanned urbanization, Riverbed aggradation, Soil erosion, upstream deforestation, local relative sea level rise, inadequate sediment accumulation, compaction of sediments. Among these, the first and the foremost is the unplanned urbanization – all of Bangladesh cities are in natural floodplains and the expand in floodplains too. So, scope for “living with the flood” gets limited as people choose flood-prone areas for settlement. Increased people implies increased pressure on Govt to control flood. In a democracy, people drives country and not the other way around. Similarly, deforestation in Nepal and Indian upstream regions causes river to dump more and more silt on the riverbed. Embankments can provide temporary relief but it also increases sedimentation in the riverbed (Flood distributes silt – lack of flood puts everything in riverbed). The effect is described best at BWDB site about the flash floods in Northwest :
“This floodwater not only carries the water but also carry a huge amount of sediment originated mainly from hill. Over the time this sediment has deposited on the rivers and canals bed and has reduced the conveyance capacity more or less all of the water resources system with in the Haor area. As a result, when flash flood due to sudden heavy rainfall creates pressure on the water resources system, water easily overtopped and creates breaching at several locations on the submersible embankment eventually water quickly enter into the haor. Most of the cases, flood water comes into the haor very early in the monsoon and farmers are not get sufficient time to harvest their standing boro crop.”
Structural efforts are must to reduce harm done by flood. Flood ecosystem is not only controlled by dams and embankments, it also is controlled by forests, habitat and human population density. Once we can’t keep our forests, can’t keep the population at sustainable limit we would require structural intervention to stop natural revenge. Indigenous ways to mitigate flood damage can of course work with methods developed over thousands of years. But those methods were not developed for such high population density, neither those took account of urban culture and modern vehicles. Applying indigenous techniques to solve urban problems could bring disasters. The modern methods to live with the flood have problems too. The early warnings can save lives (so does the helicopter based rescue mission), but can they save property and financial damages?
I would be highly surprised therefore if Bangladesh changes its course from the current track of structural flood control and move to non-structural one. The other industrial and densely populated countries (Japan, the Netherlands) did it, China is doing it. And of course (as I mentioned in my previous article), all of them have taken inherent problems of flood control too. Flood is natural to Japan too. Japan is an island having high mountains in the middle. It’s expected to have heavy floods whenever it rains. They controlled it in order to protect its thriving manufacturing industry. Even today, most of Japanese lives in traditional floodplains and Japan loses 5 billion USD per annum on an average to floods (though it’s only 0.1% of their GDP). Of course, they lost their valuable wetlands too.
It may be argued that India is upper-riparian and hence it is pursuing such position. However, India is also pursuing plans to control floods in Bihar and UP by daming Kosi. India is completely a lower riparian in Kosi – having all floodplains at stake. But it will try to urbanize the area as time goes and hence the emphasize is on controlling floods. As an icing to the cake, dams geneate electricity too. Urban India would get less power cuts as dams come up. So, it’s India’s urbanization that it pushing it towards rampant flood control. Bangladesh is scheduled to join the race, very soon.