While renewable energy advocates see hydroelectric facilities as largely beneficial, things get complex when the rivers to be harnessed cross international borders.
Bangladesh and India are now at loggerheads over the latter’s proposed Tipaimukh Dam across the Barak River in Manipur. New Delhi is attempting to assure Dhaka that the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project will not adversely impact Bangladesh, but India’s bland assurances are contradicted by a 2005 study by the Institute of Water Modeling (IWM) Bangladesh, which concluded that during a drier monsoon season, when Bangladesh will need water for fisheries and cultivation, Tipaimukh dam authorities would nevertheless retain 27 percent more water in June, 16 percent in July, 14 percent in August and 4 percent in September than an average monsoon year. The water retention accordingly would also reduce the navigability of the Barak’s two downstream channels, the Surma and Kushiyara rivers.
In 2007 India’ North Eastern Electric Power Corp. commissioned the Agricultural Finance Corporation of Mumbai to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Tipaimukh dam. In the “Impact of the Project on Environment” section the EIA noted, “Average water availability at downstream for monsoon season at post dam condition will decrease by 30 per cent in comparison to pre-dam condition and thereby will provide relief to downstream populations from recurring flood havoc,” effectively validating Bangladeshi concerns about reduced water flow.
The EIA report asserted that the Tipaimukh dam will help control floods, a view supported by some Bangladeshi experts, who agree that the dam may help control flash floods, but others have warned of worse flooding to come. Among the skeptics is Shahjalal University of Science and Technology Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering head Professor Jahir Bin Alam, who observed, “The dam and the reservoir have certain limitations. The dam may control some of the annual flooding. But when there is a really big rise in water levels, the gates will have to be opened to save the dam itself. That will lead to a much bigger flood downstream.”
According to the Indian government, the 1,280 foot-long and 535 foot-high Tipaimukh embankment dam, first proposed in the early 1970s, is necessary for flood control and hydroelectric power generation in one of India’s most impoverished states. The dam was originally designed solely to contain flood waters in the lower Barak valley but hydro power generation was later incorporated into the project, which has now been redesigned to be able to generate 1,500 megawatts of electricity from six 250 megawatt Francis turbine-generators.
Brac University vice-chancellor Ainun Nishat, a water expert, observed that the Tipaimukh dam could be useful for Bangladesh and could play a role in flood control if it were a joint project and managed in line with Bangladesh's requirements "But we know neither their construction plan nor their management plan."
Prof Asif Nazrul, an expert on international river law, stated that being a lower riparian country, Bangladesh has the right to be informed before any action relating to an international river is taken, adding, "It is also a duty of a good neighbor and international practice to inform its lower riparian country about any project on any shared river."
Another factor worrying Bangladeshi experts is that the Tipaimukh region is seismically active. In August 1988 a major earthquake occurred on the Manipur-Myanmar border, measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale.
The Tipaimukh dam is now turning into a political issue in Bangladesh, as on 22 November at a public rally in Dhamrai, Bangladesh Jatiotabadi Dol (Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP) Chairman Khaleda Zia demanded India immediately discontinue the construction of the Tipaimukh facility and called for discussions between Dhaka and New Delhi on the controversial project, offering the government BNP support if it would lodge a protest with India against the project unilateral move. Khaleda also heavily criticized the government for not protesting the earlier construction of dams by India on many other common rivers, which disrupted and lessened the rivers’ flows by the time they entered Bangladesh.
As a result of political pressure, the day after Zia’s criticism Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that she will shortly dispatch a special envoy to India to discuss New Delhi’s intention on the Tipaimukh dam project, noting that in 1996 her government had negotiated and signed a water sharing treaty with India over the Ganges which ensured that both nations received an equitable of the river’s water.
Besides the Ganges agreement as a model, Hasina also has a second tool to hand, the Bangladeshi-Indian Joint River Commission (JRC), established in the 1972 Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace.
The JRC was instrumental in forging the 1996 Ganges agreement and reviving its mandate should be Hasina’s highest priority, while India should play the role of “good neighbor” and listen carefully to Dhaka’s concerns.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com