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Farakka Barrage

Farakka Barrage constructed by India, about 18 km upstream near Monohorpur, to save Calcutta Port from silting, but in the process causing widespread and devastating effects, especially in southwestern Bangladesh.

India's unilateral withdrawal of the ganges water was not only leading to the destruction of the ecological and environmental system of Bangladesh but also posing a serious threat to sectors such as agriculture, industry, forestry and navigation. The issue of the sharing of Ganges water first came into focus when on 29 October 1951 the government of Pakistan drew the attention of the Indian government to the dangers of their scheme for diverting a large amount of dry season flow from the Ganges to resuscitate the Bhagirathi river in west bengal. India replied in 1952 that the project was only under preliminary investigation and described Pakistan's concern over possible effects as purely hypothetical. Thus began the long history of negotiations on the sharing of the Ganges water. In the years up to 1970, the governments of Pakistan and India discussed the issue many times at different levels, starting from technical experts to the heads of government. But even as discussions went on, India kept working on the construction of the Farakka Barrage, completing it in 1970, at a place nearly 18 km upstream of the Bangladesh border.

After independence in 1971, the government of Bangladesh took up the Ganges issue in earnest with the government of India. The Indo-Bangladesh joint river commission (JRC) was constituted in 1972. The prime ministers of Bangladesh and India, in a joint declaration on 16 May 1974, expressed their determination that before the Farakka project would be commissioned they would arrive at a mutually acceptable allocation of the water available during the periods of minimum flow in the Ganges. It was agreed in 1974 at the summit between Bangladesh and India that the Farakka barrage would not be put into operation before an agreement was reached on sharing the dry season flow of the Ganges between the two countries. Bangladesh, however, allowed India in 1975 to test the feeder canal of the barrage, for which 310-450 cumec of Ganges flow was diverted from Farakka over the 10-day period from 21 April to 31 May 1975. India commissioned the barrage and continued unilateral diversion of the Ganges flow beyond the stipulated period and throughout the dry season of 1976 for the ostensible purpose of diverting more than 1130 cumec of dry season flow of this river into the Bhagirathi-Hughli river of West Bengal to flush out silt for improving navigability of Calcutta port.

Failing to dissuade India, Bangladesh took the issue to the United Nations. On 26 November 1976 the UN General Assembly adopted a consensus statement which inter alia directed India to sit with Bangladesh urgently to negotiate a fair and expeditious settlement of the problem. Several rounds of discussions followed and on 5 November 1977 the two countries signed an agreement for sharing the dry season flow available at Farakka for a period of 5 years (1978-82). In October 1982 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for sharing the flow during 1983 and 1984. There was no sharing of Ganges flow in 1985 in the absence of any understanding or agreement. The two countries signed another MOU in November 1985 for sharing the flow for three years from 1986 to 1988. But in the absence of a long-term agreement, Bangladesh was unable to undertake any concrete steps for a meaningful and optimal utilisation of the Ganges water in different sectors of its southwestern region.

Since the dry season of 1989 there was no instrument operative for sharing the flow. Consequently, India started to make massive unilateral diversions of the scarce dry season flow of this river, causing a drastic reduction in its flow into Bangladesh. As a result, Bangladesh received only 261 cumec of water at hardinge bridge in March 1993 in place of the 1980 cumec which used to flow through this point in the same month during the pre-Farakka years. During the meeting of the Prime Ministers of the two countries in May 1992, the Indian Prime Minister categorically assured Bangladesh that every possible effort would be made to share the flow of the Ganges on an equitable basis to avoid undue hardships to Bangladesh. Subsequently, two ministerial levels and two secretarial level meetings were held between the two countries. No sharing agreement, however, emerged. The Prime Ministers met again in April 1993, but the Indian Prime Minister was not able to fulfil his pledge to avoid undue hardships to Bangladesh. Finally in December 1996, a 30-year ganges water sharing Treaty was signed between Indian prime minister Deva Gauda and Bangladesh prime minister sheikh hasina in New Delhi.

Crisis' The massive withdrawal of dry season Ganges flow by India had a serious impact on every sphere of life in the ganges dependent area of Bangladesh. This man-made hazard inflicted a crippling blow to the entire southwestern region of the country. It forced Bangladesh to incur massive losses in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, industry, navigation, water supply, etc. Direct damage caused to Bangladesh in these sectors amounted to about $3 billion. If indirect losses are taken into account, the amount would increase significantly.

Hydrology and morphology' The hydrological and morphological characteristics of the Ganges and its distributaries in Bangladesh were severely impaired during the post-Farakka years. The flow reduction had caused excessive siltation, a rise in riverbeds and consequent reduction of the conveyance capacity of the river channels, resulting in aggravated floods during the monsoon. The offtake of the gorai, the main distributary of the Ganges in Bangladesh, got choked every year as early as January, making this important river high and dry throughout the dry season.

Salinity during the post-Farakka years the advancement of the saline front in Khulna became a major cause of concern. The salinity intrusion, concentration and duration in the region depended mostly upon the quantity and duration of upland flow received in the area. The Gorai-Madhumati received a very low discharge in the dry months. As a result, the salinity and tidal limits penetrated well inside the country. In 1983, the 500 micro-mhos (salinity) line reached about 13 km north of Kamarkhali and up to 300 km inland from the mouth of pasur river and 17,100 micro-mhos salinity was also observed at Khulna. A few scientists recorded 563.75 mg/l chloride concentration levels in the surface water of rupsa river in Khulna area, which indicated the effect on stream flow salinity due to reduced fresh water discharge. Moreover, reduction of fresh water supply during the dry season caused invasion of salt water into underground aquifers.

Agriculture It is the worst-hit sector. The drastic fall in water level of the Ganges during the post-Farakka years seriously impaired the operation of the pumping plants of the largest irrigation scheme in the area, the ganges-kobadak irrigation project (G-K Project) with more than 121,410 ha under its direct command. The pumps of this project were forced either to remain idle or operate with drastically reduced capacity. Severe stress in soil moisture, soil salinity, and non-availability of fresh groundwater affected agricultural productivity of the entire southwestern region.

Fisheries Scarcity of water in the main Ganges and its distributaries disturbed the flow pattern, velocity turbidity, total dissolved solids (TDS) and salinity levels on which fisheries thrive. The Gangetic water system supports over 200 species of freshwater fish and 18 species of prawns in the area. Fish catches dwindled and thousands of fishermen were consequently left without jobs.

Navigation During the post-Farakka years the Ganges flow reduction affected the navigation sector as well. More than 320 km of major and medium navigable waterways were rendered inoperative during the dry season. As a result, hundreds of boatmen were thrown out of their occupation.

Groundwater There was considerable underwent depletion in groundwater, with the level falling in most places by more than 3m. The water quality was also degraded due to increased concentrations of total dissolved solids (TDS), chlorides, sulphates, etc, affecting agriculture, industry, domestic and municipal water supply, and the soil. itself over a large area. People were forced to drink water of 1,200 mg/l TDS, although the World Health Organisation's prescribed limit for drinking water is only 500 mg/l. This affected adversely the overall public health condition.

During the post-Farakka years the direction of groundwater movement changed gradually from a southerly to a northerly direction. The Ganges was gaining water from the surrounding groundwater aquifers for a longer period of the year, ie from January to July and October to December while it contributed horizontal recharge to groundwater aquifers for only two or three months. Before diversion of the Ganges water at Farakka, the surrounding groundwater aquifers would receive optimum recharge for much longer periods. [Sifatul Quader Chowdhury]

See also ganges water sharing treaty.