Emerging Water Shortages Threaten Food Supplies, Regional Peace
|September 15, 2002||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Natural Resources Are Important!
Himalayan Water Problem
by Mahesh Uniyal
FARAKKA, India – A mere trickle when it arises in a far away Himalayan glacier, the river Ganges is a vast sea of churning water as it cascades through the giant sluice gates which regulate its flow past this small eastern Indian town.
For nearly a quarter century, the sluices of the barrage at Farakka, close to the India-Bangladesh border, have been one of South Asia’s trickiest diplomatic disputes.
The river divides into two main streams at Farakka, one flowing southwards to the eastern Indian port of Calcutta and the other eastward to Bangladesh. The barrage aims to ensure enough water in the south flowing tributary to keep one of India’s main foreign trade ports navigable during the dry pre-monsoon months.
Despite a landmark deal three years ago on sharing the dry season flows at Farakka, India and Bangladesh continue to squabble over what many consider to be the region’s richest natural resource.
The surrounding countryside is covered with lush green paddy farms and water bodies teeming with fish. The Ganges and its Himalayan tributaries have blessed the plains of north India and Bangladesh with farm abundance, giving huge profits to landlords, agribusiness corporations and major food exporters.
This is why years of diplomatic negotiations and various accords on sharing the river water have failed to fully satisfy Bangladesh where the Farakka barrage fires political passions.
The dispute centres on differing views about the negative effect of the barrage on farming, fisheries and industry in Bangladesh and ways of boosting the lean season flow of the Ganges at Farakka.
Farakka typifies the deepening water crisis in South Asia which can worsen hunger and cause widespread economic loss in the region unless riparian governments show greater maturity in tackling differences over water sharing, say experts.
Because rivers do not respect national boundaries, it is vital that India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh stop viewing river water sharing issues from exclusively national angles, they argue.
(Publisher’s note — is it that rivers do not respect national boundaries, or rather that nations do a poor job of respecting rivers?)
According to Himalayan water expert Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, the two largest Himalayan rivers — the Ganges and the Brahmaputra — along with their tributaries, comprise the third largest water resource in the world after the Amazon and the Congo-Zaire group of rivers.
Yet, the region has one of the lowest per capita water availability because of the huge population of half a billion people living within the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin stretching from southern Tibet to the arid western region of India.
The population, which includes the single largest concentration of the world’s poorest, is expected to double in the next three decades coupled with a large increase in industrial demand for water.
”In the absence of a well-coordinated process of sharing and prioritising diverse uses within the basin, the regional conflicts (over water sharing) are showing signs of becoming acute,” says Bandyopadhyay.
Harnessing South Asia’s Himalayan water resource is key to raising living standards in one of the world’s poorest regions. But this requires a level of mutual trust and coordination, so far lacking.
Despite the huge annual flow of 1,400 billion cubic metres, the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin faces water scarcity, say experts. A major reason is that too much of South Asia’s rainfall pours down in too short a time.
Most of this comes during the four monsoon months beginning June. Between January and August, the flow of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, measured at points in Bangladesh, has been found to swell nearly 20 times.
The unequal bargaining power of India and its small neighbors such as Nepal and Bhutan is seen as a crucial stumbling block in joint harnessing of Himalayan waters. This was evident during the talks between India and the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan during the construction of the 336 MW Chukha Hydel Project on Bhutan’s Wangchu river.
The scheme was entirely funded and built by India which is the sole buyer of the surplus electricity. According to former Bhutanese government engineer Bhim Subba, India was ”able to do so under her own terms.”
Critics of the proposed large dams in Nepal say that like Bhutan, Nepal too would have to operate in a buyer’s market. Nepal’s estimated hydroelectricity potential of over 45,000 MW is much in excess of domestic demand and energy deficit India would be the only buyer.
This material came from the Institute for Global Communications.
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