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The Hindu on : 'Harnessing' rivers - I

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, April 27, 1999

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'Harnessing' rivers - I

By Kalpana Sharma

THANKS TO chaos in Delhi over the formation of a government, all other issues that the country ought to address seemed to have been put on the back burner. One more massacre takes place in Bihar but it is hardly noticed. Villagers opposing the privately- constructed Maheshwar dam in Madhya Pradesh go on a hunger- strike, their demonstration is brutally broken up by the police but hardly anyone notices. The dilemmas of development are thus, yet again, buried in the high drama of politics.

Yet, whatever the shape of the next government, these are issues that will have to be addressed. Do we do anything about continuing Dalit massacres in Bihar and blatant discrimination elsewhere? How do we deal justly and equitably with displacement when dams, roads, power plants and other infrastructure projects are planned? Should the affected communities have a say in such decisions? These are not academic questions. They govern the lives of millions of people. Yet, they figure nowhere on the ``national'' agenda.

Some of these deeper philosophical questions on how we view and use the natural resources came up at a recent meeting in Kathmandu convened jointly by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, the Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad (BUP), Dhaka, and the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), Kathmandu. Discussions centred on arriving at a consensus on ``harnessing'' the eastern rivers for the benefit of the entire region.

More than one person asked whether ``harnessing'' was an appropriate concept in thinking about a natural resource such as river. The debate over ``taming'' or harnessing rivers, as one would harness a horse, has raged for many years. The question how best to control the turbulence of swollen rivers, for instance, has never been properly concluded.

The solution suggested by many who live in flood-prone areas like north Bihar is to leave the river alone and instead prepare themselves for the annual flood. These people argue that in the past floods did some damage but also a great deal of good. The silt they deposited on the land added greatly to its fertility. Within a few weeks of the flood, the land would be ready for cultivation. Today, thanks to embankments, rivers have no natural way to discharge silt. It builds up, raises the level of riverbeds and forces the river to break through any weak spot on the embankment. The force of this flood destroys everything in its wake. There are no benefits. Worse still, the water does not recede for months, sometimes years, as the embankments destroy the natural drainage of the land.

By virtue of its being at the tail-end of all major rivers flowing through this region, Bangladesh has to suffer devastating floods during monsoon and shortages during the dry season. The differences with India over sharing of the Ganga waters after the construction of the Farakka barrage are now legion. Despite the 1996 treaty between the two countries, the problems are by no means over as this writer saw firsthand during a visit to that country.

For one, there is the practical problem of implementing a lean season sharing formula. An intricate system of measuring and checking has been put in place. But ultimately the successful implementation of the treaty depends on trust. At the moment, the ruling party in Bangladesh is for the treaty. A change of government could result in reopening of all issues on water sharing.

The dominant belief in Bangladesh, echoed by politicians, technocrats and even the media is that the overall quantity of water in the Ganga is less today than in previous years because of excessive use by India upstream. Thus, Bangladesh has been pushing for ways to ``augment'' the river waters, a concept unique to the subcontinent.

Whether augmentation is needed and whether it will make a difference or not are still issues being debated. But central to any future strategy is Nepal's role. Many of the rivers which are in floods annually and bring with them huge loads of silt, like the Kosi which enters India in north Bihar, flow through Nepal. It is argued that a high dam on such a river could help regulate flows during the peak and low seasons.

Although on paper this might sound a straightforward proposition, it is not so simple. Why, for instance, should Nepal agree to build large storage reservoirs unless it gets some benefits? While it could sell the excess power generated by such projects, is it worth the price it will pay in terms of environmental costs? Equally relevant is the destabilising impact of large projects, attracting large funds, in a poor economy. Several of the projects recommended will cost many times more than Nepal's annual budget. For a country struggling to establish a democratic system and already heavily dependent on donor-money, such additional funds could prove disastrous.

Apart from the pros and cons of ``augmentation'', the original proposition - that flows in the Ganga are declining - is taken as a given. According to Mr. M. Ramaswamy Iyer, former Water Resources Secretary and now with CPR, although the quantum of water fluctuates seasonally, the overall quantity has not declined significantly. He argues that what is needed are not high dams and canals to feed more water into the Ganga during the lean season but a wiser use of the water.

Interestingly, one of the papers presented, which was a consensus document among the three institutes, also mentions this as one of three ways to augment supply. One way is to divert water without creating a storage and use barrages and canals, the second is a major surface water storage through dams and a third, ``indirect form'', is ``through efficient management strategy emphasising conservation. This strategy might include conservation and management measures like water rationing, improved distribution of the available supplies, increased efficiency of water use, rain harvesting, prevention of water pollution, recycling and appropriate pricing policy.''

Although this has been presented as a third alternative - which is mentioned but not seriously addressed as the rest of the paper concentrates on the second option of building dams - it ought to be the first. For this is a strategy that all the three countries could implement right away regardless of the areas of cooperation.

However, the argument against making this option priority is always ``time''. For instance, Mr. B. G. Verghese, who has written extensively on water-related issues, emphasises that ``time is of the essence'' and that there is no room for debates that delay decisions on harnessing water resources for irrigation and power in all the three countries. Delay leads to escalation of cost. For instance, although the Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal was signed in 1996, no progress has been made on building the Pancheswar Dam, thereby leading to a 20 per cent escalation in cost. Regarding environmental costs, Mr. Verghese holds that there is no such thing as a ``pristine'' forest in this region which has to be saved as much of the vegetation is secondary. Thus, these considerations should not colour the importance of projects which would provide long-term benefits.

Mr. Iyer, on the other hand, projects a different view. He says that proponents of large projects hold that all their negative implications could be foreseen. But experience has shown that this is not true. They also assume that these problems can be remedied or compensated. This too has not happened in most recent projects in India. He says that the alternatives are generally dismissed even without being given a chance. He suggests that big projects are pushed because it is easier for a technocratic bureaucracy to build one large dam than to manage and regulate several smaller projects.

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