Bangladesh Scuttles Plans for Ganges Dam

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
170418-BD-Ganges-1000 A man walks along a bank of the Ganges (Padma) River in Dohar, an area on the outskirts of Dhaka where hundreds of families lost their homes due to erosion, Aug. 12, 2016.

Bangladesh is trying to solve a perennial fresh-water shortage amid uncertainty that waters of the Ganges River flowing in from India will be available to millions of people who depend on it after a bilateral treaty expires in 2026.

Such concerns underscored a high-stakes trip to India by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina this month, during which a long delayed water-sharing deal on another river topped the agenda. A day after returning home, Hasina shocked reporters by announcing she had cancelled a much anticipated project to build a dam along the mighty Ganges in Bangladesh.

“The [feasibility] study and the design of the Ganges barrage prepared by our Water Resources Ministry are totally flawed. I have rejected it. This is because it will be suicidal for us, like that Teesta barrage,” the prime minister told a news conference last week.

She was referring to a dam built on the Teesta River – another crucial source of water that flows in from India – where water levels have fallen dramatically over the decades due to India’s failure to implement its side of a water-sharing deal signed in the 1970s.

Implementation has been held up lately, despite promises from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, because of opposition from Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal, who says it would suffer if the Teesta River waters were divided.

Soon after the prime minister announced she had scuttled the plans for the new dam, Minister of Water Resources Anisul Islam Mahmud told reporters that his ministry was forming a committee to identify other potential sites for a dam on the river.

‘A crying need for Bangladesh’

The project was to have been built at Pangsha, a sub-district in Rajbari, near where the Padma River – as the Ganges is known in Bangladesh – meets the Brahmaputra River.

According to officials at the Prime Minister’s office, Hasina believes Bangladeshis would benefit from more from a dam built elsewhere along the river.

Situating the dam at Pangsha would put Bangladesh at risk of relying on the Ganges as a water source, said Ataur Rahman, chairman of the department of water resources at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet).

“The Honorable Prime Minister did not oppose construction of the Ganges barrage; she just pointed out the wrong selection of the site, Pangsha. She is correct. If the barrage is constructed in Pangsha, we have to depend solely on the Ganges for water,” he said.

“If the Ganges treaty is not renewed or if the volume of water from the Ganges is reduced after 2026, the project would be a disaster for us,” Rahman told BenarNews.

“[If] we build the barrage … where the Ganges and the mighty Jamuna (Brahmaputra) meet, here we will get adequate waters for the barrage. In that case, the barrage would be viable,” he added.

Such a project is sorely needed by 19 southwestern districts plagued by salinity that has seeped in from the Bay of Bengal since the mid-1970s, when India started diverting waters from the river upstream at the Farakka dam in West Bengal.

“The Ganges barrage is a crying need for Bangladesh. If implemented properly at a right place, the barrage would meet the water demand for the entire southwestern districts and northwestern districts of Rajshahi and Chapai Nawabganj. At least 40 million people would benefit from the barrage project,” Ainun Nishat, an expert on water and river issues in South Asia, told BenarNews.

30-year deal

In 1996, Hasina and her Indian counterpart at the time signed a 30-year agreement on sharing the waters of the Ganges, which originates in Nepal and flows into the Bay of Bengal via China, India and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh and India signed the deal, which expires in 2026, because waters of the Ganges downstream in Bangladesh began to dry up as a result of India’s decision to divert water through the Farakka dam.

The decreased flow brought about higher salinity levels in southwestern Bangladesh. In addition, erosion in tributaries of the Ganges became worse, severely hampering fish production and helping impede river navigation.

The areas affected by salinity include the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest that is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

“The Ganges water-sharing treaty with India is a big achievement for Bangladesh. But the main limitation of the treaty is it is for 30 years. The deal should have been perpetual,” Nishat said.

And because time is running out on the deal, “the government should form a team of experts to start a negotiation on extending the Ganges water treaty,” he added.


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