Natural systems, rivers cannot be bartered

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
A two-day international conference on water – from conflict to cooperation, ended in Dhaka early this month with the formation of a committee to work out an agreed-upon resolution by participants from Bangladesh, India and Nepal.The bone of contention in the draft resolution was a paragraph that read, “India restore(d) the full natural flows of rivers shared with Bangladesh so that it becomes politically feasible for the latter to grant transit facilities to India’s northeastern states necessary for faster economic development in these states.”
The Bangladesh Environmental Network (BEN) in Association with the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan (BAPA) organised the conference at the Nabab Nawab Ali Chowdhury Senate Bhaban of Dhaka University. Environment and Forests Minister Hasan Mahmud inaugurated the two-day conference which was addressed by a couple of government ministers and several members of Parliament besides water activists, environmentalists and experts.
A US-based researcher and teacher in economics, BEN’s founder Dr. Nazrul Islam has mooted the proposal of transit for rivers which he has termed as the key to improvement of relations between India and Bangladesh.
The 5-page resolution draft carrying a total of 16 recommendations brilliantly highlights the water problems faced in the region due to unilateral construction of structures like dams and barrages on shared rivers, calls for cost benefit analyses of those and demolition of the ones that show negative results in such scrutiny.
The proposal to grant transit in exchange of rivers has however, come under severe criticism on several points. First, there cannot be a barter for rivers with transit, because riverside people have natural rights on the rivers plus the rivers themselves have their own natural right to remain alive and flow up to the sea. Transit on the other hand, is a political arrangement between countries.
Water activists and environmentalists from outside Bangladesh expressed the view that the idea that was mooted came from the Bangladesh state point of view, and not from the point of view of environmental sustainability of the region, plus the proposal by its very nature precluded the interests of others who want sustainable management of the rivers from diverse perspectives.
A key participant pointed out that by floating a barter type of proposal one would rather diminish the interests of the people of North East India who are also at downstream of the Himalayan rivers and think like Bangladeshis to protect downstream rights. Why then transit should be made conditional to restoring flows of rivers, he asked.
Insiders among organisers of the conference say, Dr. Nazrul Islam’s plea is based on the apprehension that Bangladesh is anyway granting transit facility to India. So why not make a bargain to protect the country’s lifeline? If India does not agree to the idea Bangladesh also does not grant transit, he says.
This is what has been argued as the cooperative approach as against the commercial approach to the utilisation of water resources, for irrigation and industry plus the construction lobby’s interest to promote and gain from the building of big dams and barrages. An Indian environmentalist suggested that the resolution should not have upheld the Bangladesh point of view. He is right from his perspective because why then participants from all over the region should come to such a conference.
Thus the urge made brilliantly for a regional and basin-wide approach to management of the rivers have been weakened by the appeal of the resolution draft that needs moderation. The observation part of the resolution begins with a statement, “Boundaries of South Asian states were drawn in 1947 based on politics and not physical geography, and as a result, river basins got dissected.” But countries are always political entities which should, and elsewhere have actually started to, respect the natural environment that is shared not merely regionally but also globally.
Herein lies the importance of regional and basin-wide integrated management of rivers not only to benefit from their services, but also to keep these systems alive so that they continue to give the services sustainably from generation to generation. The unilateral approach of using up a river to meet the present day needs at one segment of its catchments regardless of its consequences to other segments is bound to lead to its death. Because rivers naturally flow through their flood plains which supply those with water through seepage from ground during the dry season, and get recharged from rainfall and river overflow during the wet season. Arid regions through which rivers are diverted cannot perform this mutually reinforcing function, but instead suck up rivers leading to their death.
The need therefore is for an alliance to ensure sustainable management of the rivers from the points of their origin to their outfall into the sea. Since most rivers in the region flow down the Himalayas such an alliance could devote to work for ensuring sustainable management of Himalayan rivers for environment-friendly development of the region as a whole.

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