The New Horizon

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Posts Tagged ‘Tipaimukh

Tipaimukh : The Conclusion

with 3 comments

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.

Silchar City and Barak river

Silchar City and Barak river

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.

Urbanization in Bangladesh

Urbanization in Bangladesh

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.


Written by Diganta

August 14, 2009 at 3:20 am

Posted in Bangladesh, India

Tagged with ,

Tipaimukh Dam : The Impact Assessment

with 16 comments

In my previous posting I complained about India hiding the data. I am proved wrong. The data on Tipaimukh is there – open for everyone on the internet. Now I hardly find a ground to accuse Government of hiding anything. It looks like the Environment Impact Assessment is open from 2007. It can be accessed here.

At the same time, I found Bangladesh also did impact assessment of Tipaimukh dam way back in 1993. The report was prepared as a part of Flood Control Project (part 6) and covers upside and downside of the project in details. As the earlier one, this is also open in the Internet for years. It’s me to get the blame as I didn’t search enough before I conclude anything.

Since the debated effects are mostly in Bangladesh side, we can go over what the impact assessment says. It was prepared by Sara Bennett and Mujib Huq as part of SNC Lavalin International & Northwest Hydraulic Consultants Ltd. Let’s go inside it.

In summary, it mentions –

“Operation of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam/Cachar Plain Project on the Barak in India would moderate flows along the Kushiyara River and upper Surma River, decreasing monsoon flood levels and substantially increasing dry season flows. Impacts during reservoir filling could be even more significant. Ramifications for biophysical and socioeconomic environmental components include changes in monsoon cropping, reduced infrastructure and homestead flood damage, slower post-monsoon drainage, increased dry season in-channel fisheries habitat and improved migration access in the pre- and post-monsoon seasons, and so on.”

The same was best dealt with in section 8 of the plan. Section 8.3.2 deals with the impacts which is detailed in 8.7.2. It says –

“The Tipaimukh Dam/Cachar Plain Project on the Barak in India will substantially alter discharges of the Barak where it enters Bangladesh at Amalshid. Available information suggests that monsoon peak flows would decrease by about 30% (from 5250 to 3500 m3 s-1). Winter flows would double or triple, increasing 100 to 200% (from between 170 and 250 to 500 m3 s-1). Of the monsoon peak decrease, monsoon flow in the Surma and Kushiyara Rivers would decrease by 800 m3 s-1. Surma-Kushiyara and Surma-Sarigoyain floodplain discharges would decrease by the remainder of 1150 m3 s-1.

The Surma and Kushiyara Rivers along their entire lengths, and part of their tributaries, are also affected. At Fenchuganj on the Kushiyara, for example, model monsoon peak flows decreased by about 20% (from 2900 to 2400 m3 s-1). Peak levels decreased by 1 m (Regional Plan Figure 21A). Model winter flows increased by about 80% (from 250 to 450 m3 s-1). Levels increased by almost 2 m.

Further downstream in the Kalni-Kushiyara, model water levels increased by as much as 0.3 m in the monsoon and 1.5 m in the winter and pre-monsoon periods, as a result of sediment deposition. The affected reach extends as far as Ajmiriganj. By Bhairab Bazar, model flows and levels are almost unchanged from current conditions. In a simulation based on a drier year than 1991, however, model winter flows might increase significantly; simulated discharge hydrographs show that Bhairab Bazar winter flows are highly variable due to tidal effects.

Similar but somewhat smaller changes occur on the Surma (Regional Plan Figure 21B). At Kanaighat, model monsoon levels decrease by 0.5 m, while winter levels increase by 1 m or more. At Sukdevpur model water levels are almost unchanged from current conditions. … 

The potential Tipaimukh Dam/Cachar Plain Project, which the model indicates would decrease upper Surma and upper Kushiyara monsoon peak levels by 1.5 m and increase winter discharges by 100 to 200%, for conditions similar to those in 1991.Expected sediment deposition in the Kalni and lower Baulai, which the model indicates would increase pre-monsoon and post-monsoon water levels by as much 1.5 m.”

Under 8.5 it mentions –

“Projects which would be significantly affected by dam implementation are Upper Surma-Kushiyara, Surma Right Bank, Surma-Kushiyara-Baulai Basin, and Kushiyara-Bijna Interbasin

It’s good to add that all the above mentioned projects were for controlling the flood. They will be irrelevant if flood is prevented upstream. The potential hazards are all mentioned in 8.8.1 and 8.8.2. The first of these is the Earthquake and next one is the any other dam failure condition.

“The region is known to be vulnerable to earthquakes. These events, though relatively rare are extreme in intensity, and can reverse existing morphologic trends and even induce re-configuration of the drainage system. The likelihood that during 1991-2015 the region would experience an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 (similar to the 1918 event, return period of 30 to 50 years) is between 40 and 60%; of magnitude 8.7 (similar to the 1897 event, the largest on record, return period of 300 to 1000 years) is perhaps 2 to 5%, assuming the events are random and can be described with a simple binomial probability model. … The Tipaimukh reservoir is huge (15,000 Mm3) compared with experience reported in the literature. In the event of a significant unplanned discharge, the river system in Bangladesh would respond (drain) rather slowly, as characterized by the outflow rate relative to the floodplain storage volume), such that most of the water released would remain ponded over the Northeast Region for some time. Assuming a release volume of 10 Mm3 and a ponded area of 100 km2, the depth of flooding would be an average of 1.0 m above the normal flood level. … we show modelled flood waves for a test case of a instantaneous failure, 50 m wide extending to 100 m below the crest of the dam. Discharge and water level hydrographs are presented for three locations (Figure 11): at the exit from the mountain valley (km 80), at Silchar (in the middle of the Cachar plain, km 140) and at Amalshid (km 200). It can be seen from this that substantial attenuation of the flood wave would occur upstream of Amalshid and that the flood wave at Amalshid is a long-duration event.”

The other impact is mentioned in section 9.2.1. It notes –

“Dredging of the Kalni and Baulai appears to mitigate the effect of higher discharges in the post-monsoon season due to Tipaimukh Dam. Actual impacts would have differed if other upstream dam/irrigation scenarios had been adopted in the simulations.”

Now if one moves to the Indian EIA document, the entire 3.9 section would be found to deal with these issues. It covers almost all possible conditions. They have to be the same since it is Science.

If anyone is interested, he can go through those docuements and provide valuable feedbacks. I am not an expert and would not like to be one in short term. However I read both of them and I was satisfied with the mitigation effort and planning published in EIA and EMP documents. Whether all of them will be implemented – is another question needs to be dealt with.

Written by Diganta

July 10, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Posted in Bangladesh, India

Tagged with , , , , ,

Does the Dam strangulate the river?

with 8 comments

I saw many misconceptions about dams are floating around different facebook communities (link1, link2). There are a lot of pictures showing dams as they are restricting flows of rivers and as if reducing the water supply of the channels. This is nothing but an anti-dam propaganda. Dams do have a lot of bad effects, most of them are ecological and environmental in nature. Besides, an unplanned dam can have a high running cost. But no way they should reduce the water flow downstream, if there are no major river diversions planned along with it.

In Indian subcontinent, most of the dams capture additional volume of water during rainy season and they release them during dry season so that they can achieve significant flood moderation. This is the way India achieves high water usage. India gets only 1750 cubic meters of water per year per capita. Ethiopia gets only a hundred cubic meters less. Although, Ethiopia runs into drought every couple of years and have constant food insecurity, India does not have similar problems. This is because Ethiopia can use only 2% of their water resource while India uses 34% (source : UNESCO). There is a bitter political story for Ethiopia which I don’t want to discuss right now.

Coming back to dams, the true picture of a dam can be revealed only if we observe the history. We need to see how it evolved after the dam was built. The pictures those show dams to be sucking water from the rivers are like ones displayed below.

Zipingpu Dam

Zipingpu Dam

Tarbella Dam, Pakistan

Tarbella Dam, Pakistan

Mettur Dam, India

Mettur Dam, India

These pictures can paint an image of a dam that strangulates a river and reduces the flow downstream. The viewer often gets the feel that the water volume before the dam was “natural” and the dam made it to reduce it to the flow we see coming out of the dam. Even I used to carry similar feelings a few years back when I visited a dam site in Karnataka. I saw a big wall separating the water reservoir from a thin flow of water coming out of it. I thought people upstream might have caused a lot of trouble to the downstream states by erecting it. Later I found out, it went as an win-win for both of those states – Mysore and the British India – as they both gained out of it. The engineer (Sir M. Visvesvaraya) who was the architect of it, was awarded both British and later Indian highest awards. Till date, India celebrates his birthday as Engineers’ day.

So what actually happens when a dam is built in a river? To find out the truth, one needs to see the picture of the dam before and after it is constructed. After a string of google searches, I was able to gather a few images.

Glines Canyon Dam

Glines Canyon Dam, Washington, USA

Mokihinui river dam : New Zealand

Mokihinui river dam : New Zealand

Three Gorges Dam : China

Three Gorges Dam : China

As you see in all theee images above, the true river flow before the dam was built was that of what is coming out of the dam. The dam holds the water when it rains and the river flow goes beyond normal. It releases this excess water when the river is dryer. It acts as a buffer to moderate the natural extremeties observed in the river. In a lot of cases, hydroelectricity is also been produced from the same dam site. I hope the readers are able to understand this properly.

One good example of why dams cause trouble is also depicted in the first image of Glines Canyon Dam, which happened to be located at the same state I live in – Washington. It obstructed natural Salmon habitat. The wiki page says :

“Lacking passage for migrating salmon, its construction blocked access by anadromous salmonids to the upper 38 miles (48 km) of mainstem habitat and more than 30 miles (48 km) of tributary habitat. The Elwha River watershed once supported salmon runs of more than 400,000 adult returns on more than 70 miles (110 km) of river habitat. Today, less than 4,000 adult salmon return each year in only 4.9 miles (7.9 km) of river.”

This forced US Government to restore natural habitat of Salmons through “Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992”. The dam has been decommissioned though the Salmons are not back yet.

In contrast, the dams in Bangladesh (Kaptai) and India (Damodar) significantly reduced the number of Gangetic Dolphins, who depend on seasonal change in waterflow for migration. However, no steps were taken to decommission the dams associated. In third world, the scenario is totally different – hungry people would have anyway probably killed these Dolphins. There are no public movements at all to save this species – welcome to the reality of poverty in the third world.

Written by Diganta

June 26, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Tipaimukh Dam FAQ : Effects and Politics

with 46 comments

Of late I have been reading about Tipaimukh dam and a lot more about dams themselves. I have gathered a lot of information about that dam in particular. I would like to share it with the readers. If anyone is afraid of reading the whole article, he/she can get a short form of the same from a Bangladesh expert – published in 2006 in the Daily Star and an article by an independent economist published in The Independent BD in 2009. My latest article on this is available here.

Where is Tipaimukh Dam located?

Tipaimukh is located at South-Western Manipur bordering Mizoram. Most of the people living here are actually of minority Hmar tribe. The proposed Tipaimukh dam is to be located 500 meters downstream from the confluence of Barak and Tuivai rivers. It is a huge earth dam (rock-fill) having an altitude of about 180 M above the sea-level with a average reservoir capacity of 15.5 BCM. (Proposed dam site at Wikimapia)

What is the technical purpose of the dam?

The Flood prone areas in East India

The Flood prone areas in East India

There are a couple of basic purposes – flood control and hydropower generation. It has been projected as a hydropower dam because of political purposes. Most of the inundation is in Manipur and Mizoram states, whereas it would moderate floods in lower Assam. To ensure fare share of benefits to those two states, hydropower generation is also taken into account. The states in North-East are having severe power shortage over years (peak shortage upto 25% in Arunachal). Once Arunachal starts producing hydroelectricity from giant Subansiri projects, the North-East India will become energy sufficient. On the other hand, there are no alternative to dams for flood-control of a rainfed river. Incidentally, both flood-control and hydropower generation reservoirs work in similar way – they retain water during Monsoon and release more during lean season, i.e. reservoir is filled up during rainy season and used up in dry season.

The Barak valley, consisting of three of the forty highly flood prone districts in India, goes under water three to four times (2002, 2004, 2007) in a decade. In 1995, plan for flood control Dam in Tipaimukh and reactions in Bangladesh were reported. Very often Barak flood is more devastating than that of Brahamaputra. A detailed assesment (2007 flood report) of floods in Assam can be found here. It has long been alleged that North-East has been neglected in terms of development and lack of flood control is one of the evidences.

The Tipaimukh dam is planned to produce 450MW in lean season and 1500MW in peak. All three states would have 12% share of the electricity and rest would go to the North East grid.

What are the objections to this dam in Indian side?

  1. Displacement of people especially of vulnerable minorities
  2. Vast forestland to be inundated along with the biodiversity
  3. Dams are not fruitful solution to any problems
  4. Possible earthquake could have devastating effect

What are the objections to this dam in Bangladesh?

  1. Possible river drying and devastation of wetland (Haor)
  2. Possible flood in summer/winter in lowlands causing damage to agriculture

Are Dams bad?

Shasta Dam, California

Shasta Dam, California

There is a widespread belief in India that dams are useful. On the other hand, the World Commission on Dams report on Indian dams has shown that they do more harm than help.

The report has a lot of loopholes in it. While reading, I saw it projects loss of Government (for example – tax on irrigated land did not produce as much revenue as projected) after building the dam as one of the key factors. However, in India, these are calculated as subsidies, i.e., where Government pays on behalf of its citizens. Also, it undermines the food security that has been obtained through irrigated land. It categorizes the agricultural land in two major divisions – rain-fed and irrigated. It shows that irrigated land has little contribution (~20%) to overall growth production. I don’t know how they classify land in West Bengal, where most of the agricultural land uses rainwater in in rainy season and irrigation in winter.

The Central Water Commission report praises dam-oriented water planning and plans for building more dam to hold onto monsoon water in big reservoirs. The purpose is to reuse the precious freshwater resource in dry season and moderate flood in rainy season.

Both of these reports fail to discuss in length the alternative of dams for these purposes and a comparative analysis of dams vs other methods of achieving the benefits. Hence, the entire policy calls for a widespread survey and comparative analysis.

One example of the above set of suggestion is to replace dam based hydroelectricity with a “run-of-the-river” type project. The former does not require a dam to hold water and depends on natural river-current. The problem with that in India is very low flow in the lean season and virtually no water flows through them during that period. The former projects are only feasible to work during rainy season and not over the year.

For flood control, the alternative proposal is to dredge the river and maintain the depth. While the dredging itself is a costly affair, this could also add to the lower riparian problems. If river channels are deep in India, the lower riparian Bangladesh would face the floodwater since the river needs land to dissipate its additional water. It’s the see-saw climate in India that makes the dams viable, not in other countries.

There are reports that advanced nations are not interested anymore in building dams. This is actually true. But this does not necessarily be replicated by India. Most of those advanced nations also have abundant resources. By resources I do not only indicate alternative sources of energy and water, but also per capita land availability and skills required to effectively utilize these. India gets only 1800 cubic meter water per person per year. India has already over 4000 large dams. The only comparable country with similar resources is China, who has built 22,000 of them. At the same time, there is a significant decrease in dam building efforts in India. Between 1971 and 1990, the number of large dams constructed was 2256 and the same after 1990 is only 695. Nowadays, the dams are built only if there is a compulsion for it.

Does the Dam reduce water flow in the river?

Not necessarily. If the dam also have one or more reservoirs attached to it and they actually hold the excess water during rainy season and release them in the dry season, then the dams don’t actually change the total water released.

A picture taken when the dam is not releasing water can be daunting to the lower riparian and is a material of propaganda. The picture of the Shasta Dam, California shows the case. Although this dam augments lean season flow, the picture projects it as a “take all” dam.

One proposal from Bangladesh (when Farakka was being built) was to add a reservoir dam in Nepal to augment the flow of Ganges during the lean season. It would generate electricity also. Water experts from Bangladesh are still in the view that it is the best possible solution for problems in lower Ganges in dry season. If dams were such that they always reduce water flow, they would not have proposed it.

To counter the propaganda, I had to post a separate article on this very topic.

What’s the possibility that Tipaimukh would end up drying the Surma-Kushiyara rivers?

A Typical Flood Control Dam outflow graph

A Typical Flood Control Dam outflow graph

It’s highly unlikely. The dam can be used in its full potential without withdrawing any river water. A dam with a reservoir actually augments the flow of a river during dry season, while it withdraws the same during rainy season. One typical flood control dam outflow graph is shown in the picture.

Also, to consider Hydropower generation, a limited discharge has to be there during lean season also. This discharge will add to the flow and increase lean season flow. (See the portion excess water coming out of reservoir)

Is there any other dam in nearby region that achieves similar goals?

Inflow Outflow graph for Karnaphuli

Inflow Outflow graph for Karnaphuli

Yes, the Kaptai dam (Bangladesh) on Karnaphuli achieves the similar goals with a much larger reservoir. It controls flood, generates hydropower and increases navigability in downstream Chittagong port. The Karnaphuli river is also a rainfed river and has high seasonal variation in discharge. A reservoir with a dam was able to moderate and coltrol its flow. (source)

It is interesting to note that this dam did not “dry up” the downstream flow at all, rather it augmented the flow during the lean season and buffered the additional flow during the rainy season.The picture shows the inflow (blue pillars in the graph) to Kaptai lake (the reservoir) and outflow (maroon pillars in the graph) from the dam . The inflow amount would have been the same as the outflow, had there been no Kaptai dam. In the second picture, one can see how the total volume of water in the river basin has been augmented using a reservoir. It shows the Karnaphuli river before and after the dam has been erected and the area inundated to create space for reservoir water.

Another river in context can be discussed since it has also been planned to moderate floods. It’s the Damodar river in West Bengal. It used to be the “sorrow of Bengal” in pre-Independence Bengal but was controlled successfully after DVC project with a series of dams and barrages. There are many periods in several years when the reservoir acted as a cushion and prevented catastrophic floods downstream.

The picture below shows the reservoir filling pattern in one of DVC’s storage facility named Maithon (source). Kaptai and Tipaimukh should follow similar patterns to fillup reservior. From October to May the reservoir releases more water than it receives, hence the reservoir water volume goes down. The rest of the period, the reservoir gets filled in.

Maithon reservoir filling strategy

Maithon reservoir filling strategy

To understand what is live storage and what is dead storage, one can refer to this simple picture.

Why is there such a huge difference between lean season and rainy season flow?

Cherapunji rainfall variation by month
Cherapunji rainfall variation by month

The Barak river basin region receives a lot of rainfall. The highest rainfall area – Cherapunji – is located nearby. However, virtually all of these rain comes during three months of rainy season due to Monsoon. The picture shows monthly variation of rainfall in Cherapunji. The flow in these rivers, apart from a small component of water resulted from glaciers, is from monsoon rain. Hence, in the rainy season the rivers exceed the capacity of the channel and overflow. In the lean season (summer and winter), the same river is barely seen. It is estimated that the contribution of glaciers in Himalayan rivers is mere 5%. The rest is rain water.

What could be the effect of Fulertal barrage 100 km downstream?

A barrage can be thought as a tool of diverting water. In this case, water could be diverted to irrigate the Barak valley farmlands. This could be done during the lean season when the river flow is augmented, i.e., we have more water than we used to have. This would make good use of the additional flow coming out of the reservoir.

However, the amount of water to be withdrawn at the barrage site, is the key criteria whether it would harm the downstream. If it takes away the augmented portion of the lean season flow – it should not cause any issue. If it takes more, damages are done. (Fulertal/Phulertal barrage – location)

At this point we can do a reality check on how much water can be withdrawn for irrigation. We need to remember that irrigation is not for inundating the landscape, but for effective use of additional water during dry season. Hence, there is an optimal limit of how much water can be withdrawn of a river. The area under cultivation in Barak valley is 220,000 Hectares (in 1992-93, source). I found that Sudan has similar area under irrigation and uses 1.6 BCM of water per year (source, pg 21) from river Nile. Although, Barak valley is not as arid as Sudan is, we can assume at most similar amount of water will be withdrawn from the river. At the same time, the river water volume would be augmented by 15.5 BCM, of which at least 10 BCM would be live storage water. From another angle, India uses 500 BCM water per year to irrigate 54 million hectares. For North East, it’s almost  the half of National average due to high rainfall. So, it requires only a half BCM to irrigate Barak valley arable land. Even after withdrawal for Barak valley irrigation, the flow downstream would be much higher in dry season. I am sure that no one is thinking about the effect of an inter-basin transfer. The cost to transfer Barak water to the next basin, incidentally India’s “water-richest” Brahmaputra Basin, would be very high and benefits will not justify the cost. It had to be pumped from one basin to the other. This is why even Indian great river interlinking plan did not take this channel into account.

There is a widely held belief among lower riparian states that any amount of water could be diverted from the river upstream. This is not true. The amount of water diverted from a barrage is proportional to the Population (drinking and sanitary needs) and agricultural land available in the river basin. In this case, neither of these two are large enough to take even the water volume augmented by the reservoir.

Why Farakka causes damages downstream, where this barrage should not cause similar harm?

Farakka does not have any reservoir upstream to augment its lean season flow. So, it’s merely the same amount of water that comes to farakka a significant part of which is then diverted to the feeder canals. This results in reduced flow downstream.

As i mentioned earlier, one of the proposals from Bangladesh side when Farakka was being built, was to add a reservior dam in Nepal to augment the flow of Ganges during the lean season. The World Bank was ready to fund the project. It did not happen because India stuck to its position to augment flows from Brahamaputra basin. Interestingly, I read that India has of late initiated works on what Bangladesh had proposed. Had this been done a little earlier, Bangladesh would not probably been hurt so much.

In case of this (Fulertal) barrage, the flow is augmented in the lean season. Hence it should not reduce the downstream flow in Surma and Kushiyara. Of course, there should not be any desertification with full potential dam and barrage as I argued in the previous section. The irrigation potential can be fully utilized without harming the lower riparian.

Another aspect of Farakka makes it different from Tipaimukh. The water diverted in Farakka is sent to the Bay of Bengal through a separate channel (Bhagirathi-Hugli). However, the flow of Barak can not be diverted in similar fashion to any of other areas – it has to come downstream. Apart from that small amount of water taken for irrigation of 220,000 Ha of land, the rest is virtually non-consumptive use, i.e. it would be passed downstream. The Tipaimukh dam would only change the temporal distribution of river flow.

What’s the possibility that an Earthquake would cause the dam to collapse or at least create a few cracks in it?

Damage due to earthquake cannot be ruled out though the possibility is remote. In case there is a really high intensity earthquake, it could cause the dam to have cracks. I believe Indian designers would take necessary steps to prevent any damage to the dam since it is known to be located on a geo-tectonic faultline. A basic text literature on dams says –

“If the dam site is located in a seismic zone, the most suitable type of the dam is one which can resist the earthquake shock without much damage. Earth dams and rockfill dams are generally more suitable for such sites, provided suitable modifications are made in the design. However, by adopting suitable measures and considering various forces and factors affecting the seismic design, other types of dams can also be provided.”

To add to the above literature, the Tipaimukh dam is indeed a rock-fill dam to mitigate the risk of a possible earthquake. The Kaptai Dam in Karnaphuli is an Earth Dam.

I would also like to add here that Japan has more than 2000 dams even though the whole of Japan is Earthquake prone. There were many earthquakes in Japan for last 100 years and no news of dam failures due to earthquake yet. Last 150 years of history did not record any incident of dam failure anywhere in the world due to an earthquake. In these days, building an earthquake safe dam is merely a choice of technology.

How the 15.5 BCM capacity of the reservoir would be filled up and what would be its consequence?

The first time it would be filled up from the empty position. Hence, it would require 15.5 BCM of water. Most likely, it would be filled up over a few years depending on flow during the rainy season. However, till the fill up is completed, the downstream flow will be lower. Dam fill up is generally done during high flow so that the effect is moderated downstream.

It also needs to be mentioned that reservoir fill up is a one time process. This would have no effect over long term yearly flow of the river. Some of the experts projected (pg 21) that 15.5 BCM of reservoir would cause 491 cumec (which is equivalent of 15.5 BCM per year) reduced flow downstream. This is not true. The dam is filled up only once and the water is used dynamically to fill up in rainy season and to release in dry season (look at Maithon reservoir graph and Karnaphuli inflow-outflow statistics).

Recently there was a contention between India and Pakistan regarding this first time fill up of the reservoir.

How would this affect the ecological balance of the region?

Dams, like all other man-made infrastructures, are actually disasters for ecological balance of a region. When a dam creates it’s own rule of ecology, the existing one is demolished. A brief overview of how Dams cause damage to ecological balance can be found here.

In this particular case, there are a couple of major ecological balance shifting. In India, this could potentially cause destruction of a vast forestland. In Bangladesh, it could potentially damage a vast natural wetland, known as Haor. Although, the extent of the damage to the Haors could not be measured at this point, the damage due to inundation is obvious.

I need to add a point on ecological balance in general. Shift in ecological balance does not always mean a problem in short term. It causes problem in the long term. Any flood moderation structure would cause damage to ecology – be they embankments or dams – as floods are part of ecological balance. There are two options – the first is to allow people to live with the floods and cause no damage to the ecology. The second is to establish a flood moderation embankment and damage the ecology for the long term. In this part of the world, building a flood moderation structure is more popular because of high population density in the floodplains. The problems of flood affected people generally exceed by far the concern of damaging the ecology even in the long term. People assume that by that time, they would probably have sufficient technology to counter the backlash of Nature. Also, the democratic society creates pressure on the Administration to act proactively towards moderation of human problems. If humans are illiterate and unaware of long term damages, the short term solutions get political preference.

Of late, there are a lot of proposals floating against traditional flood moderation structures like river training, embankments and dams. However, the alternatives floated with those arguments are not significantly different than the structures they argue against and the alternatives do actually retain a lot of problems those are created by current structures. Although the alternatives are claimed to be more sustainable in Nature, a complete feasibility study along with their long term effects are yet to be observed, i.e. they are not yet tested to be sustainable, only claimed to be sustainable.

What are the Haors and how they are going to be damaged by this project?

A haor is a wetland ecosystem in the north eastern part of Bangladesh which physically is a bowl or saucer shaped shallow depression, also known as a swamp. It receives surface runoff water by rivers and channels. Consequently, a haor becomes very extensive water body in the monsoon and dries up mostly in the post-monsoon period. The haor basin is an internationally important wetland ecosystem, which is situated in Sunamganj, Habiganj and Moulvibazar districts and Sylhet Sadar Upazila, as well as Kishoreganj and Netrokona districts.

Haors in flood season - villages are islands

Haors in flood season - villages are islands

During the rainy season, haors turn into a vast inland sea within which the villages appear as islands. Occasional high winds during July to September generate large waves in the haor, which may cause considerable damage to homesteads. During the dry season, most of the water drains out leaving one or more shallow beels which become mostly overgrown with aquatic vegetation or completely dry out by the end of dry season exposing rich alluvial soils extensively cultivated for rice. As population increased in Bangladesh, boro (a rice variety) cultivation expanded onto these haors, leading to a large area being drained. Thus, the very existences of these wetlands are now threatened.

The wikipedia entry for beels clearly says – “Typically, beels are formed by inundation of low lying lands during flooding, where some water gets trapped even after flood waters recede back from the flood plains. Beels may also be caused by filling up of low lying areas during rains, specially during the monsoon season.”

As the dry season flow would increase and rainy season flow decrease due to the dam – these wetlands would be impacted. The amount of inundation during the rainy season would reduce the water-logging of villages. At the same time, during boro cultivation, less water would be drained out, i.e. less land would be reclaimed to start cultivation. So, there are both threats and opportunities with the new seasonal variation of flow. A lot has been said on effect of Tipaimukh on haors. It is argued that the change in flow would eventually cause haors to dry up. I do see a possibility of haors getting dried up but not as a result of change in flow variation. The haors are already drying up as more and more population is trying to reclaim them. A few of articles (link1, link2, link3, link4, link5) on this topic can make my point clear.

Birds eye view of Haor Basin

Bird's eye view of Haor Basin

A brief look at the Government of Bangladesh priorities throws light into some different aspects of haors. As per the Daily Star report (latest report), Govt has started a massive flood control measure in Sylhet. This includes raising embankments and creating irrigation channels to divert water from the river flow. An editorial in the Daily Star reported how the embankments were able to save haor crops from destruction. These would also do the same with the haors, reduce the inundated area dry up haors as flood water would not be allowed to enter those. The long term flood action plan (FAP, also known as FCD) of Bangladesh clearly mentions eleven goals of flood moderation. The clause (7) says –

“Reduction of flood flows in the major rivers by diversion into major distributaries and flood relief channels; “

However, this goal also would have adverse effect on haors since river diversion implies less water for wetlands. Bangladesh Government’s own Flood control plans have significant adverse effect on its ecology and especially fishing. In a paper published in Cambridge Journals it was argued that structural changes made under Flood Action Plan actually reduced the fishing. Another paper by Jim Scullion mentions that :

“Whenever flood control projects reduce the area of flooded land there will be a loss of habitat for fish production. FAP 17 results from free-flooding areas showed that there would be an annual loss ranging from 68 kg to 202 kg with a mean of 119 kg of fish for each hectare of flooded land lost. … In only one of eight projects studied by FAP 17 was full flood control achieved and river flooding prevented to increase the production of HYV rice. This resulted in a reduction in annual catch per unit area (CPUA) of 81% and a significant reduction in fishing effort. Species diversity was reduced by 33% mainly due to the blockage of fish movements between rivers and flood- plains. Migratory species were almost eliminated from floodplains (95% reduction in CPUA).”

Although there are efforts to mitigate these side effects of Flood Control Plan by promoting farm-fishing, it was only able to reduce the damage done. So, why Bangladesh is going ahead with such plan that destroys ecology and fishing? It’s the demand of population that drives Flood Action Plan. Preventing loss due to floods is clearly a priority over ecology of Bangladesh due to high population density.

Bangladesh Flood Map

Bangladesh Flood Map

Tipaimukh dam would do the same that Government of Bangladesh already planned for – it would damage the current water cycle of haors. Haors are replenished by the floods and any effort to moderate the flood would cause the same – be it is done in India or in Bangladesh. The choice between “letting people to live with the floods” and “saving haors” – is open to individual personal views. It’s a choice with threats and opportunities. I am afraid one cannot achieve both “save Haor” and “Stop floods in Haor basin” – choice is limited to only one.

To know more about Haors – link, link2, link3, link4.

The image beside shows the flood map of Bangladesh. The Haor basin is subjected to Flash Flood frequently. This type of flood is
characterized by rapid rise and fall in water levels. Flash flood can occur within a time-period between few minutes to few hours. (Source) The Bangladesh Govt has taken steps to control this flood so far. With Tipaimukh dam in operation, the probability of this kind of flood would reduce significantly. One important addition to this is Haors do exist in India (Barak Valley) also and people of those regions are also affected by floods regularly.

In fact, Bangladesh Flood Action Plan (part 6) categorizes Tipaimukh as a flood control plan. It also writes –

“Operation of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam/Cachar Plain Project on the Barak in India would moderate flows along the Kushiyara River and upper Surma River, decreasing monsoon flood levels and substantially increasing dry season flows. Impacts during reservoir filling could be even more significant. Ramifications for biophysical and socioeconomic environmental components include changes in monsoon cropping, reduced infrastructure and homestead flood damage, slower post-monsoon drainage, increased dry season in-channel fisheries habitat and improved migration access in the pre- and post-monsoon seasons, and so on.”

To know more about Bangladesh hydrology, read a banglapedia article.

To know more about Bangladesh flood, read a paper from BUET. This one puts utmost importance on Early Warning System (EWS) for flood control. If tipaimukh controls water, this could definitely be developed.

A Bangladesh newspaper (The New Nation) has unfortunately copied the above two paragraphs and published without even referring to my name or the blog site. And of course, forget about getting my permission. The quality of copy-paste job is also very low since they didn’t even bother to remove the links.

Are there any other effects of the Dam?

Like the haors in Bangladesh, a lot of small wetlands exist in Barak valley also. Once the flood moderation kicks in, those would also probably dry up due to lack of replenishment. The valley would become dependent on irrigation water during dry season. Since the irrigation water is more regular – it would actually improve the consistency of cultivation in that area.

Similarly, Bangladesh plan for flood moderation and river diversion can also utilize the augmented flow in dry season. But a lot of these benefits would actually depend on how efficient the irrigation planning would be.

On the other hand, a lot of sediments carried by the river would now get deposited under the reservoir. The same would have been deposited to the haors and added fertility to the land, had there been no dams present. At the same time, less sediment would mean better navigability of the river.

I also read about possibilities of Winter flood. I do not have sufficient data at this point to discuss it in length.

How does this case goes as per International Water Laws?

Neither India nor Bangladesh is a signatory of any of the International Water Laws (Such as Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses and Berlin Rules). However, neither of these are very specific laws – these are just framework of cooperation.

As I discussed in details in my earlier post, the equitable share of benefits can be claimed by any of the river basin countries. The obligation not to cause significant harm is a “best effort” clause and to achieve flood control a minimum extent of harm is justifiable. About the equitable distribution of the benefits, I am optimistic. Once the North-East India produces surplus electricity, a fair share of that can be exported to Bangladesh at a reduced price. For the time being, the barrage at Fulertal could divert some of the water to irrigate in Bangladesh, as suggested by B. G. Verghese (Member of Center for Policy Research) in his presentation to World Bank. He also noted –

“Indeed, Tipaimukh was the first flood moderation study suggested by Bangladesh when the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission was established in 1972.” (Supported by Dr Nishat, Indian HC claims the proposals were recorded in the statement of Joint River Commission meeting in 1972 and 1978.)

In this context, I need to mention that lower riparian does not have a veto power over a river development project upstream even if it harms them. For example, only 25% of Nepalese population has access to electricity. A huge population of Nepal is displaced every year due to floods. If Nepal plans to add 10,000 MW of electricity and want to achieve flood control in its rivers – the lower riparian India and Bangladesh cannot object without a mention of less harmful alternatives.

The project at Tipaimukh is still waiting for clearance from the state of Mizoram (Official status). Once that happens, I hope we would see the planners and designers would publish detailed data on the site and will not violate the obligation to exchange information. (update – Data exchange on June 19th)

Update on this — Bangladesh Flood action plan 6 (prepared in 1988 by Bangladesh experts) clearly mentions Tipaimukh as a Flood control option for Bangladesh. The same report also predicts other good effects of the same plan in Bangladesh. This proves Bangladesh was aware of Indian initiative for long.

How are the protests in India?

Protest in Manipur against Tipaimukh

Protest in Manipur against Tipaimukh

In India, protests are taking place mostly in Manipur and Mizoram, where most of the displacement would take place. Despite the promise of 12% free electricity, a lot of people stood against the dam. I saw a lot of newspaper editorials, blogs and pictures of protest from Manipur and Mizoram. However, the issue had little impact on the 2009 Indian Election as the ruling parties won again in both of these states. The Govt of Manipur has already picked up 5% stake in the project. I don’t see any reason why Barak valley in Assam is not happy with it. In fact Barak valley people are strongly in favor of Tipaimukh Dam. The author from Bangladesh noted that as many as 95% of Barak valley population are in favor of the dam. In fact when Silchar was under water in 2008, the Institution of Engineers in Silchar prepared a 13 page document to suggest mechanisms for flood control – Tipaimukh dam was the main point there too.

I mentioned in my writing that dams do have short term benefits and it seems people are more interested in those.

Why are there so many protests in Bangladesh against this dam?

I saw protests has basically two categories. The first one is by environmentalists – who always protest any dam construction as they oppose damage to ecology. These people are in India as well as in Bangladesh, and their voice is the same. Whereas a lot of Bangladesh based authors have emphasized on lower riparian effects (such as damages to haors), the environmentalists based in India mostly have protested the loss of forest and biodiversity.

The other section of protest in Bangladesh is alarmist in nature. They project Tipaimukh to be another Farakka. They also claim that dry season flow would be significantly down after the Tipaimukh project is completed. These people mostly also attack the current Bangladesh Govt. for their alleged inaction against the dam as they clearly have political motive. I found they are similar to one launched by a lot of Pakistanis during Baghlihar dam. Later, it was cleared by International experts and one major Pakistani newspaper wrote about “Lower Riparian Alarmism.”. It discusses that any dam in upper-riparian upsets their lower counterpart with a lot of speculation about the water security. Politics actually latches on this insecurity.

The ruling party does the opposite. They try to defend the dam by merely saying it would do good for Bangladesh. That’s another extreme position and it seriously dilutes country’s ability to bargain a deal. I saw it in Pakistan and Bangladesh is merely repeating the same. Even a graduate knows that any dam can cause problems downstream. They should get all the information required and take necessary action downstream to prevent problems caused by the dam. The internal politics damages every cause of the downstream nation. I am hopeful that I won’t see it when China would dam Brahmaputra. They should get the data and take necessary action to build water-store or barrages to hold excess water of monsoon.

One important aspect of bilateral politics in Bangladesh (and India) is noticeable. The opposition does not at all own the international treaties, neither it is responsible for any international relations of Bangladesh. Only the ruling party is the international face of Bangladesh. For years, Bangladesh has asked for and got loans from ADB and UN for flood prevention and post-flood disaster recovery. The extent of damage these floods caused is also well-known. I found in UN Database, one presentation about 2004 floods claims $2.3 billion loss to Bangladesh. An Editorial on how to combat includes option of high-cost dredging operations. The same Haor region, which is supposed to be affected by this project, lost nearly 80% (in value term) of its paddy production due to flood in 2009 (report). (Someone also wrote in his blog that farmers in Haor region were able to reap their harvest 4 times in last 10 years) Not only that, Bangladesh has asked India to augment the lean season flow for years. After all these, if Bangladesh internationally disagrees with a plan that would reduce the rainy season flow as well as augment the lean season flow – it would become an example of double standard. It would weaken their position to ask for any flood recovery loans from any organization. The current Govt knows this very well and that is what is keeping them away from taking it to any international organization. It’s totally untrue that they are less patriotic than their opposition counterparts are.

I mentioned before that Farakka remains to be one of the major breach of trust by India against Bangladesh. To add to that, India had claimed Farakka would not cause any damage to Bangladesh before they started the project. A project targeted at reducing dry season river-flow by 50% had to damage the lower riparian and that’s exactly what has happened. To add to that injury, India and Bangladesh did not have a water-sharing treaty between 1982 and 1995. India channelled water unilaterally in this period, reducing the lean season flow to as low as 10,000 cusec at times. Till date, India failed to initiate any meaningful measure to the promise it made in Ganges Water Treaty to augment lean season flow in Ganges. If the affected country refuses to believe the promise by India this time, I don’t blame them.

These alarmist allegations though, most of the times, carry little fact. A widespread claim of “desertification” of Western Bangladesh is baseless. The Indian North-East region does neither have much arable land nor a huge population though it is water-surplus. Bangladesh can safely assume the water available from western rivers to be constant in lean season and plan according to them. India doesn’t have any utility of that water until it connects its’ rivers.

Interestingly, The New Nation newspaper in Bangladesh, who has copied my writing, has copied only the “Damage to ecology” part of my writing. They avoided the other parts – especially augmentation of lean season flow due to the dam. A careful pick-and-choose is signature of an alarmist nature and it betrays the true notion of debate based on facts, data and priority.

Windows are open for future politics too. All rivers in Indian subcontinent have largely varied flow in different years. I have seen the data for Ganges, where the maximum is more than three times of that of the minimum flow for a given month between 1934 and 1964. Surma, one of the affected rivers, recorded lowest flow of just 487 cusecs between 1950 and 1960. If the river flow goes down to that level once more due to natural causes, won’t these people accuse Tipaimukh? Also, wouldn’t there be an effort to project the drying up rivers once the first fill up of the reservoir happens?

I do blame Indian Government for not caring for Bangladesh’s woes. They could have done so much better. They could have modelled the input-output waterflow and predicted the effect on the environment more accurately. They could have published monthly expected water flows projected after Tipaimukh completion. They should have promised a minimum flow during first fill up of reservoir. A farmer in haor basin would have benefitted directly or indirectly from each of these data. Keeping the data closed to public eye only causes public suspicion to grow. It is also a breach of International law and in a way refusal to cooperate with the lower riparian. Last but not the least, we, as citizens of India, want more transparency in Indian way of development. I am hopeful that India Govt would look into these issues very soon.


An article published in The Independent BD today highlighted a few points of gain from Tipaimukh project. The article also pointed how to avoid a water war between India and Bangladesh. A key portion of the article reads :

1. Will the reduced wet season flows adversely affect the aman crop irrigation? Probably not, as most aman crop water comes from rain. Nevertheless, there may be areas where water is extracted from the river for irrigation in the aman season. Bangladesh authorities should estimate any such losses; it may mean the costs of pumping from the river to the paddy field are higher as the river level is lower (in the wet season).

2. Will the reduced wet season flows mean that ground water recharge on the Bangladesh side is reduced? To some extent, yes; but how much? This is unlikely to be a major effect as most recharge is from rainwater.

3. Will the reduced wet season flow reduce flood loses? Almost certainly yes. In this sense the Tipaimukh dam will reduce flood caused loses of crops and assets in Bangladesh.

4. Will the increased dry season flow help irrigation? Definitely! The cost of surface irrigation will decline as the pumping cost is lower; while there will be some favourable impact on water table levels in the dry season this is unlikely to be significant.

The impact of the dam on Bangladesh can only be answered by reviewing the details of rice cultivation, irrigation methods on the Bangladesh side and the expected changes in the river flow. On balance the impact on agriculture is probably going to be favourable, reducing flood losses and improving irrigation. There is no real basis for believing that the impact of the dam will be detrimental to Bangladesh agriculture!

Another consequence of the construction of the dam is the risk of earthquakes induced by the dam. This is a serious issue for Bangladesh. The risks are complex and Bangladesh probably needs to engage an expert to prepare an assessment. However, for the size of this project the risks seem not excessive Nevertheless an assessment of such risks must be made. The Indian geologists are particularly strong in RIS (Reservoir induced sesmimology) but a Chinese expert would be preferred!

Use of the river for transportation would be improved with the smoothing of the water flows, in particular raising water levels in the dry season.

Finally, there are suggestions of unfavourable impact on flora or fauna. It is difficult to get excited about this.

A report from an independent personality is really helpful in order to have a neutral and fact-based debate on any issue. The article from Forerest Cookson had helped me to get that.

Also read – Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury on Tipaimukh.

Prothom alo has published something similar to this writing – written by M A Kasem, another water expert.

Acknowledgment – I was helped by innumerable blog entries and research articles to prepare this writing. If someone wants to copy contents of the above please at least notify me first.


After reading and answering a lot of comments, my position remains intact. The way Bangladesh Govt should approach the issue of Tipaimukh dam should be based on objective analysis. The analysis should list out all gains, losses, opportunities, threats and risks caused by this project. Then they should weigh the options to mitigate losses and risks as well as try to optimize the gains and opportunities. At the same time they should have some alternatives to Indian plans. In the end, if it turns out to be a project of net negative impact – they should notify Indian Govt of the possible adverse effects and request them to stop the dam project. If India agrees – all end well. If India disagrees, Bangladesh should request India for an arbitration under International law. If Bangladesh wins – the process should focus on asking India to stop the dam. If Bangladesh fails to win the arbitration – they simply have to focus on mitigating the dangers. But typically an arbitration results in options and not in outcome. Bangladesh should be prepared to choose best option without any bias. At the end of the day, if Bangladesh confronts India, they have to rely on this objective analysis. This won’t be published as newspaper articles to be consumed by common people but would be consumed by experts.

Written by Diganta

June 8, 2009 at 10:29 am

Equitable Allocation and No Significant Harm

with 2 comments

Of late, I have been reading about international water laws. The topic was started with Farakka and then continued with current debate on another dam in the North-East India at Tipaimukh. One particular article of Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses gets overwhelming mention in almost all the literature – an upper riparian state should not cause “significant harm” to the lower one with its water planning (article 7) – i.e. “Obligation not to cause significant harm”. However, the very basic principle of the convention was centered on the equitable and reasonable use of the resources in the trans-boundary watercourses. So, what happens if even equitable use causes significant harm to the lower riparian?

The same question was nicely rephrased in Steven McCaffrey’s article on the convention.

“Suppose, for example, that – as is often the case-upstream State A has not significantly developed its water resources because of its mountainous terrain. The topography of the downstream states on the watercourse, B and C, is flatter, and they have used the watercourse extensively for irrigation for centuries, if not millennia. State A now wishes to develop its water resources for hydroelectric and agricultural purposes. States B and C cry foul, on the ground that this would significantly harm their established uses. How should the positions of State A, on the one hand, and States B and C, on the other-neither of which seems unreasonable on its face-be reconciled”

I was astonished to see a lot of articles mentions the equitable use and the obligation not to cause significant harm without even understanding the complexity of it. Equitable use is a much broader term that takes account of the riparian population, geography/hydrology, social/economic factors, effects of that particular use, costs and economy of usage and last but not the least – the availability of alternative resources. The definition was even extended in Berlin Rules to add existing and potential uses, sustainability of the proposed use and minimization of environmental harm. One additional factor that got a special note is the “Vital human needs”. McCaffrey quotes from ILC text –

“In determining ‘vital human need’, special attention is to be paid to providing sufficient water to sustain human life, including both drinking water and water required for production of food in order to prevent starvation.”

At this point one can read an interesting article on trans-boundary water allocation treaties and the approach that should be used to get to them. It discusses different kind of negotiations – from need based approach to baskets of benefits.

Let’s again dive into the controversial question. Between the articles – “Obligation not to cause significant harm” and “Equitable and reasonable utilization and participation” – which one gets priority? McCaffrey has discussed in details and answered it in his books those I can only partially access through google books (The Law of International Watercourses By Stephen C. McCaffrey). However, another article by Kerstin Mechlem discusses the issue in details. It notes –

“A complete prohibition of causing any harm would result in almost a veto power for new uses since any new use of a river, lake or groundwater resource is likely to cause some negative effect somewhere in the system. Were this to be prohibited states that develop their water resources later than others would be disadvantaged and new developments would be blocked leading to an inherently inequitable situation.”

This is the question that bothered me the most. Is it going to be a veto power to the existing water user? Would India and Bangladesh deny Nepal its equitable share of water only because Nepal is late in the party? The article refers to the ICJ decision on Gabcikovo-Nagymaros case where Hungary, the lower riparian heavily relied on the “No Significant Harm” principle. However ICJ stressed on equitable uses of the watercourse. The water encyclopedia mentions about the same  –

“The Court’s failure even to mention the “no-harm” rule despite Hungary’s heavy reliance on the principle in its pleadings confirms that the rule of equitable utilization is primary, and that avoidance of harm is to be considered only in analyzing whether a particular use or pattern of use is equitable.”

The article concludes –

“The no-harm principle is therefore limited by and only operates in conjunction with the principle of equitable utilization. It is the balancing of interests under the equitable utilization rule that has to solve the problem whether in a specific case a certain type of harm may be caused or not. The duty to consult with the affected state to eliminate or mitigate such harm, and to discuss compensation where appropriate (Art. 7 para. 2), alleviates the burden of this compromise for the state subject to harm.”

One important thing should be noted in the article 7 text. The text talks about “taking all appropriate measures” and does not specify what to do if harm can not be mitigated despite all those measures. It is therefore can be inferred that the obligation is not for preventing significant harm, but to take measures with diligence.

The proposition that the “no-harm” rule does not enjoy inherent preeminence is supported by Article 10 of the Convention, which provides that any conflict between uses of an international watercourse is to be resolved “with reference to articles 5 to 7”. McCaffrey also added one example –

“This would presumably mean that if State A’s hydroelectric use conflicts with State B’s agricultural use, the conflict is not to be resolved solely by applying the “no-harm” rule of Article 7, but rather through reference to the “package” of articles setting forth the principles of both equitable utilization and “no-harm”.”

In water encyclopedia, it is written that –

“The final version of Article 7 makes clear that the “no-harm rule” is subordinate to the rule of equitable utilization. Article 7 requires watercourse nations, in utilizing an international watercourse, to take all “appropriate measures” to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse nations. If significant harm nevertheless is caused to another watercourse nation, the nation whose use causes such harm must, in the absence of agreement for the use, take all appropriate measures, having due regard for the provisions of Articles 5 and 6 (equitable utilization) in consultation with the affected nation, to eliminate or mitigate the harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation.”

To write down the conclusion, I understand that the “obligation not to cause any significant harm” is nothing but another criterion while considering equitable allocation of water resources and can be fulfilled if the riparian states agree upon appropriate measures. As per McCaffrey, the equitable allocation can be reached in case of trans-boundary disputes only through the gestures of “good neighborliness”. He rephrased his conclusion about “Equitable Allocation” and “No Significant Harm” in a nice way (pg 353 in The Law of International Watercourses) –

“Being a good neighbor means not only refraining from causing significant physical harm to other states in the vicinity, but also tolerating a certain level of harm emanating from activities in those states.”

As per the spirit of his statement, the inter-state disputes should be approached from the equitable allocation point of view and existing users should be ready to share the burden of the newcomer, if the need of the newcomer is genuine.

Written by Diganta

June 4, 2009 at 8:23 am

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