Bridging the gap in Himalayan waters

Himalayan Waters: Promise and Potential. Problems and Politics

by Shim Subba,

Panos South Asia, 2001

This is an excellent and beautifully illustrated handbook on everything anyone may want to know about Himalayan waters but is afraid to ask. Karakoram waters are also appropriately included for good measure. Both the author, Bhim Subba, and the publisher, Panos South Asia, Kathmandu, deserve much credit for bringing out this handsomely produced volume written for the lay person with graphs and charts that provide telling international and regional comparisons.

Water looms so large in our lives and is so elemental that most of us take it for granted. When the rains play truant or are excessive, causing drought or flood and erosion, or water is polluted or runs short of the competing needs of growing populations, bringing distress and conflict in its wake, it attracts notice. Yet, it is only in recent years that the issue of water and society has become a prime subject of study. Even now, however, in many parts of the developing world and certainly in South Asia, water tends to be studied as a discrete discipline, mostly by meteorologists or engineers or agronomists or those concerned with drinking water and health or urban sewerage and sanitation. The interdisciplinary or holistic study of water in relation to land, people and governance — or hydropolitics, as it is sometimes called in the West as an academic discipline — is still largely unknown in these parts. Himalayan Waters, like a few other efforts, notably by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, takes a bold step towards filling that gap. This is a real service.

The volume traces the beginnings of Himalayan orogeny. A clash of tectonic plates uplifted the land to give birth to the great rivers of South Asia. This started a vast (and still continuing) landfill or erosive debris that created the vast alluvial Indo-Gangetic Brahmaputra-Meghna plain and the Sunderbans, through which this huge water system empties into the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. The enormous volume of eroded material, ground down and funnelled into the ocean, has built a chain of underground mountains, particularly the Bengal Fans that thrust far south into the Andaman Sea. The Himalaya-ocean interaction has in turn been parent to the annual monsoon saga. This elaborate interplay of forces is well told and illustrated.

The Himalaya is a geologically young mountain chain. Among its unique geographical features is the precipitous descent, the great "precedent" rivers make, from the Tibetan heights to the Gangetic plains through phenomenally deep and narrow gorges within a narrow band of intervening terrain. This architecture geometry means that relatively little water can be stored behind even very high Himalayan dams — a cardinal difference between the South Asian situation and that prevailing in practically every other part of the world.

A few comparative statistics will suffice to tell how valley geometry impacts on potential regulating capabilities. The 226 metre high Bhakra Dam on the Sutlej stores no more than 9870 million cubic metres (m cu m)  of water, whereas the 111 metre high Aswan High Dam boasts a reservoir capacity of 168,970 m cu m or over 16 times as much. Likewise, the 1218 m tall Kariba Dam on the Zambezi stores 160,336 m cu m of water as against the 13,690 m cu m stored behind the 143 m high Tarbela Dam on the Indus in Pakistan. The Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams, both on the Colorado in the US, are each able to store several times the annual discharge of the river. Put another way, the Kariba Dam had a reservoir capacity almost equal to that of all the high dams commissioned in the Indian subcontinent up to the year 2000. And India is among the greatest dam building countries in the world.

From physical to political

Author Subba has made a visible effort to maintain objectivity and balance in dealing with the very emotional issue of water disputes in South Asia. Though successful to a considerable extent, there are a few inadvertent statements that need review or elaboration. The Wulur Barrage, to which Pakistan objects, has not been built by India as stated and can therefore have caused no harm to that country on this count. On the other hand, the Tehri Dam is not in the early stages of construction as stated but, though delayed by litigation, is nearing completion. Further, the Tehri Dam design has been elaborately tested for seismic safety under worst-case conditions on more than one occasion and has been certified as totally safe. The scare stories repeated by some critics are without basis.

Bhutan has leveraged itself out of the poverty trap, thanks to the Chukha hydro project (336 MW, upgraded to 370 MW). Its capital cost was recovered within a few years and the returns from the project today account for the country's single largest source of revenue and have brought about a significant leap in per capita income. It is also not widely known that the Government of India is compelled to make substantial compensatory payments to certain Indian state electricity boards that must back down their hydro generation every monsoon in order to absorb Chukha power year-round as committed to Bhutan.

Again, the Farakka diversion is not the reason why south-west Bangladesh has been long starved of water. This is a stubborn misunderstanding. The problem was manifest even in the early 1950s, decades before the Farraka barrage was commissioned, and stemmed from geomorphologic changes resulting from a secular eastward shift in the entire Ganga system over the past 150 years. The Gorai outfall was gradually blocked with a massive silt plug. It is to cure this problem that a three-year Gorai resuscitation programme was taken up by Bangladesh immediately after the 1996 Ganges Treaty, with Dutch assistance, to dredge a deep channel through the blockage. The problem however persists on account of annual re-siltation. This has confirmed the Bangladesh belief that a permanent solution lies in constructing a Farakka-type barrage across the Ganges at Pangsha to pond the river and force water over the Gorai hump in order to revive its flow. Bangladesh  has turned to India, among others, for assistance in this regard.

Likewise, ranking water resource officials from Bangladesh and India did jointly meet their Nepali counterpart in Kathmandu in 1986 to make the case for seven massive Himalayan storages to augment flows at Farakka sufficiently to meet the assumed requirements of both lower riparians. The discussions made no headway after the Royal Government's spokesman asked what was in any such arrangement for Nepal. Interests and priorities are perhaps more easily matched given tradeoffs across a broader spectrum.

Then again, while it is true that mistrust has plagued Indo-Nepal water relations, the fact is that both sides have benefited considerably from their limited cooperation. The pity is that the unrealised gains are ever so much greater. The Mahakali Treaty of 1996 sets out a number of cost-benefit sharing principles that are to apply across the board to all Indo-Nepal water projects. This being so, it should be possible to negotiate specific project agreements regarding reservoir operations, the pricing of power and the assessment of downstream benefits from regulated releases of water for irrigation, flood moderation and other tangible uses to mutual benefit. As the larger partner, India should be and is willing to adopt a liberal approach.

The opposition to big dams can neither be brushed aside nor accepted as an ideological veto. The multilateral funding agencies are coming to recognise that poverty alleviation in many desperately impoverished parts of the developing world does require the sensible harnessing of water resources, not excluding large dams. Rainwater and rooftop harvesting, groundwater recharge, watershed management, improved efficiencies, demand management and the rest are a necessary but not by themselves a sufficient condition for satisfying compelling water requirements in all circumstances. Many parts of the world face increasing water stress and climate change poses new uncertainties.

That said, Himalayan Waters remains a valuable addition to the literature on the subject. Some pruning to accommodate sections on fish, health impacts, forests, navigation and the rich water-related civilisational and cultural heritage of South Asia, might be considered for future editions. The Mahakali Agreement is strangely missing in the texts of major treaties. These inclusions would enhance interest in the book.

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