The demand to decommission and demolish the Farakka barrage is getting louder in India. Among the politicians, Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, has been making the above demand for quite some time. He had raised this demand formally with the Indian central government, meting with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 12, 2016. He has raised the demand again on February 20, 2017.
Many prominent Indian river experts have now joined Nitish Kumar. Among them is the Magsaysay award winner Rajendra Singh, also known as Waterman, who said in the international seminar on "Incessant Ganga", organised by Bihar's water resources department in Patna in February, 2017, "Farakka is inauspicious (ashubh) for Bihar. It is a curse (abhishap) which needs to be removed, because unless and until we remove it, we cannot move forward” (The Hindu, February 27, 2017)." In the same seminar, Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, River and People, New Delhi, urged for an urgent review of the Farakka barrage, which, in his view, had failed to fulfil any of the purpose — irrigation, hydro-electric power, water supply — of the barrage for which it was built (The Hindu, February 27, 2017).
Of course, the Indian politicians and river experts are demanding demolition of Farakka not out of any concerns for Bangladesh. Unfortunately, consequences for Bangladesh, of river intervening structures built by India, do not figure highly in the considerations of Indian experts and policymakers. In raising the demand for demolition of Farakka, they are motivated by the damage it has done and is doing to India itself. It has been reported that about 328 million tons of sediment – about 40 percent of the current sediment volume of the river – is getting trapped behind the Farakka barrage and deposited in the upstream riverbed. As a result, the riverbed has risen in elevation, aggravating floods. The barrage has also triggered the funnelling process, as a result of which upstream riverbank erosion has worsened. It has been reported that more than 3,000 hectares of land has been lost to river erosion in the Murshidabad and Maldaha districts of West Bengal alone. The extent of erosion in Bihar is reported to be greater.
Meanwhile, the Farakka barrage has failed to live up to its professed goals. It failed to desilt the Kolkata port to the extent that it could continue to be a sea port. The fate of Kolkata as a sea port was actually sealed by the fact that it is located about 100 miles inland along a shallow, winding river. This was alright when Kolkata was chosen by the British East India Company as a port in the 17th century when ships had sails and shallow drafts. However, it was simply impossible for Kolkata to continue as a sea port in the age of super tankers and container carrying mega-sized ships. Farakka did augment the flow of the Bhagirathi-Hoogly channel. However, it is difficult to see what tangible, significant benefits this brought to an area that had already adjusted over several centuries to the eastward shift of the main flow of the Ganges toward Bangladesh and away from the Bhagirathi-Hoogly channel.
By contrast, the damage done to Bangladesh by Farakka is simply huge. It has dried up most of the rivers of southwest Bangladesh, harming the ecology and economy of the entire region. By reducing flow of fresh water and aggravating salinity ingress, Farakka has harmed the health of the Sundarbans. Farakka has been damaging for the ecology of northwest Bangladesh too, as it cut off the flow into the Baral River – the main river of the Chalan Beel area, extending over several districts of the region. Farakka has been the main reason for the drastic drop of the sediment carried by the rivers to the Bay of Bengal from an annual about two billion tonnes to only about one billion. As a result, the coastal land elevation and normal delta formation processes have been thwarted to a significant extent, making Bangladesh more vulnerable to the sea level rise caused by global warming.
In view of the above, Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) and many other organisations in the country have been calling for the demolition of the Farakka barrage for a long time now. In recent years, they made this demand very forcefully in the presence of top Indian water experts and policymakers during the International Conference on Regional Cooperation on Transboundary Rivers (ICRCTR) held in Dhaka in 2004.
In this backdrop, it is heartening to see that Indian politicians and river experts themselves are now asking for the demolition of the Farakka barrage. The government of Bangladesh should formally raise the demand for demolition with the Indian government. In fact, it should also ask for the demolition of the Gajoldoba barrage and other river intervening and diversionary structures. The failure of Farakka is an example of the inappropriateness of structural interventions in rivers in general. These interventions, promoted by a commercial approach to rivers, ultimately prove to be counter-productive.
It is important in this regard for Bangladesh to sign and ratify without any further delay the 1997 UN Convention on Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which can provide a legal basis for Bangladesh's demand. This convention upholds the lower riparian countries' right to historical and customary use of river flows and prohibits upper riparian countries from construction of river intervening structures without the consent of lower riparian countries.
It is also important for Bangladesh to take lessons from the Farakka experience in deciding about the proposed Ganges barrage to be built inside Bangladesh. Like Farakka, this barrage, if built, will cause upstream riverbed aggradation, leading to increased flooding and riverbank erosion. There is no doubt that flows of the rivers of southeast Bangladesh need to be increased. However, the real solution to this problem lies in the demolition of Farakkka and other diversionary barrages, so that the full natural flow of the Ganges can be restored. This, in turn, will restore the flows of the rivers of southeast Bangladesh.
The growing demand inside India for the demolition of the Farakka barrage signifies a paradigm shift in the Indo-Bangladesh negotiations regarding common rivers. It proves the futility of the commercial approach to rivers and the desirability of an ecological approach, which advocates for restoration of the natural flows of rivers. Bangladesh needs to take note of this paradigm shift, adopt the principled position of ecological approach to rivers, sign the 1997 UN convention, and ask the Indian government to remove the Farakka and other river diversionary barrages. This should be the main water-related agenda in PM Sheikh Hasina's upcoming meeting with the Indian PM. Merely focusing on the arithmetic of the dwindling Teesta flow will not help, because unless the root problem is addressed, pretty soon there may be no water left in the river for Bangladesh to share! [For details regarding the harmful consequences of the commercial approach to rivers and benefits of an ecological approach, see the author's newly published book, Let the Delta Be a Delta – The Way to Protect Bangladesh Rivers (Eastern Academic, 2016)]
The writer is Global Coordinator, Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), and Vice President, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA).