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Transboundary waters tussle and Tipaimukh dam:

The world is rife with conflicts over waters, especially over use and management of transboundary waters. Rivers with transboundary nature, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Barak etc are becoming subjects of controversy over the right to manage the waters. Some countries exercise power through military or economic means to weaker countries to justify control of transboundary waters. Conflicts emerge when countries upstream of a water resource use the water available to them to wield more power and when certain countries downstream use other forms of power such as military to get more water. Stronger countries use “exploitation potential”, both technical capacity and infrastructure to exploit water resources.

Two expressions of concerns, one Bangladesh’s opposition to Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project over Barak River in Manipur in India’s North East and the other, India’s objections to Chinese Government’s plan to dam and divert waters of Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River in Tibetan Plateau, elucidates potentials of conflicts over the use of transboundary waters and the need to explore feasible means to avoid conflicts. The critiques of Tipaimukh dam to be built in Manipur is moving beyond imposed frontiers, the traditional expression of concerns once confined limitedly in Manipur and parts of Bangladesh now resonates from afar. Never had Tipaimukh Dam been focus of international diplomacy, media attention, intelligentsia critics, environmentalist and those with high tentacles as in 2009. The Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh discussed the contentious issue at the recently concluded Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, July 2009 in Egypt. The issue has now moved from the confines of Manipur Assembly discussion to the British and Bangladesh parliamentary debates to the deliberations of several United Nations human rights forums.

The Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project is to be constructed 500 Meters downstream from the confluence of Barak and Tuivai Rivers in Manipur over Barak River with firm generation capacity of 401.25 MW. The main objective of the project is to generate 1500 MW hydropower and flood control on 2039 Sq. km. The North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) was earlier slated to undertake the project with the Manipur Govt at 5% equity till it was replaced recently by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).

The Government (Govt) of India had a tough time pursuing the Tipaimukh project in Manipur since 1970’s due to vigorous peoples’ opposition to the project and also in clearing out the armed insurgents who dominates the Tipaimukh dam site area. Manipur is afflicted with armed conflict as national liberation movement groups battle Indian armed forces operating under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 for full secession of Manipur since 1949, the year Manipur was merged to India without peoples consent. The Tipaimukh project is also opposed by several national liberation groups terming it as India’s yet another sinister effort for hegemony and exploitation of the natural resources of Manipur.

Proposed Tipaimukh Dam: Concerns and Responses:

The Tipaimukh dam issue currently continues to dominate the domain of political, media, intellectual and civil society’s discourse in Bangladesh with a unilateral demand for revocation of India’s decision for the project. Massive rallies, protest meetings, strikes and other forms of protest against the dam continues to gain momentum in Bangladesh. The Tipaimukh Dam concern is not a recent phenomenon as the first international Conference on Tipaimukh Dam, held way back in December 2005 had resolved against the project. The peoples’ concerns in Bangladesh are based on their bitter experience of severe water shortage and multifaceted impacts after commissioning of Farakka Barrage over the Ganges River by India. Concerns raised include staggering environmental degradation, economic crisis and hydrological drought. The damming of Barak River, seriously limiting free flowing Surma and Kushyara rivers will disrupt agriculture, irrigation, drinking water supply, navigation etc and reduce recharge of ground water during lean season, affecting all dug wells and shallow tube wells. Bangladesh gets 7 to 8 percent of its total water from the Barak River. The Surma-Kushyara with its maze of numerous tributaries and distributaries support agriculture, irrigation navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in the entire Sylhet division and in peripheral areas of Dhaka division and industries like fertilizer, electricity, gas . The dam would also leave millions jobless with the drying up of the two rivers. Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies, fed by the Barak, in the Sylhet region for fishing, agriculture and allied activities. The Barak-Surma-Kushyara is an international river with Bangladesh as a lower riparian country having rights over any decision over River. “Construction of a dam at Tipaimukh would be a death-trap for Bangladesh, it rather involves the very existence of the lives of the 15 Crore people of the country,” Bangladesh National Party (BNP) vice president Hafizuddin Ahmed asserted.

In Manipur, where the dam is to be built, the concerns are diverse and premised on three aspect, first the direct physical aspect of displacement, loss of biodiversity, loss of economic activities of indigenous peoples, social and environmental impacts etc, the second being the procedural lapses, absence of holistic impact assessment and limitations of developmental and environmental regulations, weak enforcement mechanisms and lack of people oriented accountability norms and thirdly, unclear benefits of the project to the people of Manipur and nuances based on traumatic experiences from similar projects in Manipur such as NHPC’s 105 MW Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project (NHPC) which remains irresponsible and unaccountable for its devastation of Loktak wetlands ecosystem, submergence of vast tract of agricultural land, loss of species and failure to rehabilitate several thousands of affected peoples of Manipur even after nearly three decades of project commissioning in 1984. The NHPC further insisted on reaping more profits by filing Loktak project as Clean Development Mechanisms project for carbon credits under Kyoto Protocols of the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change.

A large number of Zeliangrong and Hmar tribes will be displaced permanently and deprived of livelihood. Official figures states 1,461 Hmar families will be directly displaced due to the project. The dam will submerge 311 sq. km covering 90 villages with 1,310 families, including 27,242 hectares of forest and cultivable land and posing serious threat to the rich biodiversity, flora and fauna of the region. Social impact due to demographic changes due to migration of workers from outside Manipur has not been addressed. The site selected for Tipaimukh project is one of the most active in the entire world, recording at least two major earthquakes of 8+ in the Richter scale during the past 50 years. The dam is envisaged for construction in one of the most geologically unstable area and the dam axis falls on a ‘fault line’ potentially epicenters for major earthquakes.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the Govt of Manipur and the NEEPCO was signed on 9 January 2003 even as the affected peoples both in the upstream and downstream of Barak River called for a wide consultation on Tipaimukh Dam based on provision of project information. Against peoples’ wishes, the power Minister of India, Sushil Kumar Shinde laid the foundation stone for Tipaimukh Dam on 15 December 2006. Of late, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) of the Govt of India accords environmental clearance on 24 October 2008 despite peoples’ objection to Tipaimukh Dam during the projects’ five public hearings held from the year 2004 to 2008. The environmental clearance of MoEF is despite the fact that the downstream impact assessment of the project in Assam and Bangladesh is still pending. Notwithstanding serious lack of information, Detailed Project Report (DPR) and Environmental Impact assessment and management plans of the dam, the Govt of India floated international tenders inviting bids for construction of the project. Largely the Govt of India rely on militarization of dam site area and suppression of voices for fair decision making process and sustainable development to pursue construction of the dam.

The Indian Govt’s response to Bangladesh concerns has long been marked by a state of denial. Indeed, the Indian High Commissioner Pinak Ranjan Chakrabarty’s statement of absence of an international law that could prevent India from constructing the Tipaimukh Dam and that Bangladesh’s concerns are based on ignorance on 21 June 2009 at Dhaka provoked an intense resentment in Bangladesh even calling for his expulsion. Experts counter reacted his statement as totally erroneous in view of the status of the 1996 Indo-Bangladesh Ganges Water Treaty and the applicability of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

Bangladesh experts though agreeing that it is not yet binding as an “international treaty” law, opined there is every reason to argue that the Convention, being adopted by a vote of 103 - 3 in the UN General Assembly, is applicable as “evidence of international customary law” to Tipaimukh dam or any such project on shared rivers. The 1997 Convention put heavy emphasis on comprehensive cooperation for equitable utilization of any trans-boundary watercourse, no-harm to all the co-basin states, and adequate protection of the watercourse itself. Sensing a political crisis in South Asia over Tipaimukh Dam, the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, James F Moriarty urge the people and the government of Bangladesh to discuss with India to settle the Tipaimukh dam issue,” while speaking at a discussion on ‘Engaging South Asia: Obama’s South Asia Policy,’ held in Dhaka.

Dams over transboundary waters in South Asia and Challenges:
As Bangladesh engaged India to drop construction of Tipaimukh dam, India too is busy raising concerns with Chinese Govt’s efforts to dam and generate 40,000 Megawatt power from Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) in Tibet and to divert 200 billion cubic meters of waters to the Yellow River for easing water shortages in cities of Shaanxi, Beijing and Tianjin in Northern China. The dam and diversion plan is at the Tsangpo River’s big U-turn at 7,782-meter-high Namcha Barwa, the world’s deepest canyon before entering India. Shu Yinbiao, vice president of State Grid Corp. of China opined, “An initial study shows the river can accommodate hydropower stations with a total capacity of 70 gigawatts, or about 10 percent of the nation’s overall generating capacity”. The diversion of the waters is part of a China’s larger hydro-engineering project, the South-North water diversion scheme. The 2,906-km long Brahmaputra is one of Asia’s largest rivers that traverse its first stretch of 1,625 km in China’s Tibet region, the next 918 km in India and the remaining 363 km in Bangladesh before converging into the Bay of Bengal. The Tsangpo is now perhaps the only Transboundary Rivers yet to be dammed in China after dams are constructed over Mekong, Salween, Irrawady, Sutlej, Indus etc.

The water diversion project at the Great Bend will spell disaster for the Tibetan plateau and the lower riparian countries, India’s North East and Bangladesh. India is also facing a security dilemma over the Chinese control over the principal watershed of South and Southeast Asia in Tibet. India fears Chinese reported plans to use nuclear technology in the project will lead to environmental concerns in the Eastern Himalayas. Indian experts say the mega scheme could be disastrous for the 185 million people of India’s North East and Bangladesh. In Assam, 80 per cent of the population is involved in agriculture, depending on Brahmaputra for irrigation and the region’s regular earthquakes, that can hit 8.0 on the Richter scale, can destroy the proposed Chinese dam and cause devastating floods downstream.

India’s proposed Tipaimukh dam and China’s proposed dam over Yarlung Tsangpo bears much similarity in terms of scale of destruction, threats and challenges both in upstream and downstream portion of the rivers. In the latter scheme, both India and Bangladesh shares common challenges when China proceeded with diversion of Brahmaputra waters in its territory primarily due to shortage of water. Bangladesh exists because of its waters coming from the Mighty Rivers Ganges, Teesta, Brahmaputra, and Barak etc. India’s Farakka Dam over River Ganges burdens Bangladesh with an irreparable crisis of unfathomable magnitude.

India pursued a perfidious double game. While objecting China’s plan to dam Yarlung Tsangpo, India aggressively pursued mega dams construction spree in India’s North East, including gigantic dams over the same river Yarlung Tsangpo, called Siang (the Brahmaputra) in Arunachal Pradesh, notwithstanding concerns in India’s North East and Bangladesh. The Siang Upper HE Project is a massive 11000 MW project to be built over Siang River in East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. The Middle and Lower Siang Hydel project with 750 mw and 1700 mw power generating capacity are other mega dams planned over the same river. The 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric project is another mega dam over River Subansiri, a main tributary of Brahmaputra River. Other dams over the tributaries of Brahmaputra includes the Ranganadi I and II (450 and 150 mw respectively), Kameng (600 mw), 3000 MW Dibang HE project etc. the construction of series of dams over Siang River and its tributaries will exacerbate the water crisis and related problems in Assam and Bangladesh.

India’s plan to construct more than 169 dams in India’s North East and connotation of the region as India’s Power house has been met with stiff opposition from the region. The Assam Govt strongly opposed proposed construction of mega dams on the Siang River and several other rivers in Arunachal Pradesh. “I am aware of Assam’s concerns over the dams and I feel there is no need to construct mega dams”, Governor of Assam, Shiv Charan Mathur said while addressing his first press conference. The Assam Govt set up a commission to study the environmental impact of mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh and other neighboring states on Brahmaputra valley region. “Large-scale diversion of water would adversely hit the state’s economy and could even lead to environmental problems and affecting the surface water table” according to Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi. Anti dam movement is increasing In Arunachal Pradesh where most of the dams are being planned. India use all means, mis-information, flouting of norms, manipulations, militarization, brute use of force and nepotism etc to push through dam projects.

India is proactive in addressing concerns with the Chinese Govt on the proposed dam over Tsangpo River, relaying its concern to Beijing in 2006. However, the Govt of Bangladesh needs be more proactive to the whole scheme to dam the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries in China and India, which will worsen water crisis in Bangladesh and Assam. Bangladesh faces a big challenge to confront the “exploitation potential” of both China and India over the use of transboundary waters. There is indeed, a primary urgency for Bangladesh and the people of India’s North East to explore all means to ensure China and India to adopt a multilateral, multiparty decision over transboundary water use with due and full respect of rights and participation of indigenous peoples depending on waters. All States indeed, should refrain from unilateral and contradictory decisions over transboundary waters disregarding downstream concerns and rights of indigenous peoples.

Towards multilateral and human rights based approach to manage transboundary waters
Diplomatic engagement between India and Bangladesh over proposed Tipaimukh Dam, latest being the Prime Ministers meet at NAM summit in Egypt and past experience of efforts to resolve water dispute between the two countries, such as the Indo-Bangla Ganges Water sharing treaty, 1996 and setting up of Teesta River Commission, 1997 etc, indicates possibility of the two countries converging towards establishing dialogues for resolution of differences. Intervention of the United States envoy to Bangladesh favoring a dialogue to settle the row further reinforces this possibility. Indeed, Bangladesh Prime Minister called for political unity with the opposition BNP to be able to “bargain better with India” over Tipaimukh Dam issue. However, the Statement of Mr. Razzak, proposed head of Bangladesh parliamentary team to visit Tipaimukh dam site, that the Tipaimukh dam is beneficial for Bangladesh, is premature given that Bangladesh Govt is still yet to take an official position on the dam and despite absence of comprehensive and multilateral impact assessment. The statement seriously negates and undermined the rationale and objectives of the visit to Tipaimukh dam site.

In transboundary waters such as Mekong River, Yarlung Tsangpo, Barak River etc, question looms large as to whether a single country or States solely decide over the use of the waters in exclusion of indigenous people who lives and depends on the waters over millennia and whose cultures, identity and traditions evolved with such relationships? The big question still remains, will the people of Manipur accept any compromise bargaining, if any and exclusively crafted between India and Bangladesh. Any bilateral Agreement between India and Bangladesh without the people of Manipur will be unacceptable. The people of Manipur have inalienable rights over the transboundary waters. International law has also evolved that Indigenous peoples have right to self determination over their land resources, need for recognizing their rights over their land and resources and having clear rights to define their develop priorities on how to use, manage their land and resources in accordance with the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, 2007 and recommendations of the sessions of UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at UN HQs, May 2009. Such approach can prevent all sufferings of indigenous peoples affected by Bangladesh’s Kaptai Dam in Chittagong Hills Tract, India’s Loktak Hydroelectric Project in Manipur or India’s Dumbur dam in Tripura etc.

The resolution of Tipaimukh dam seriously needs a multilateral, inclusive and human rights based approach to development and sensitivity to the concerns & established rights of all affected peoples. Bangladesh Govt’s announcement of sending an all-party parliamentary committee to visit Tipaimukh dam site in end July 2009 to review the dam’s impact will be a right step if the visit forms the basis for an inclusive process to conduct detailed impact assessment of the dam in upstream and downstream of the Barak River based on recommendations of World Commission on Dams, 2000 and other applicable Int’l law on transboundary waters, such as the UN Convention on the Law of Non Navigational Uses of International Watercourses of 1997. The visit can be a good grounding for a multilateral approach in addressing Tipaimukh Dam issues.

Bangladesh and the indigenous peoples of India’s North East needs be fully sensitive to the multitude of mega dam projects planned both by India and China in transboundary waters and tributaries and should strategize for a multi dimensional and multi party approach in the use and management of transboundary waters with due respect of rights of people in lower riparian areas and indigenous peoples dependent on such waters.

India should refrain from constructing Tipaimukh dam to avoid multidimensional conflicts and complications as the project is potentially rife for causing conflicts between states, between state and indigenous peoples and between indigenous peoples all over control and management of resources and definition of developmental priorities. As Manipur is already rife with movements for right to self determination, any forced construction of Tipaimukh dam with its multifaceted impacts will only legitimize their movement to defend their land and resources. The NEEPCO and the Govt of Manipur must revoke the Memorandum of Understanding on Tipaimukh dam project inked in 2003 and initiate a comprehensive process for a just decision making process.

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