Bangledesh's perspectives on Tipaimukh dam

Posted on January 18, 2012 - 23:33
This article by Md. Khalequzzaman deals with Bangladesh's position on the Tipaimukh dam.

The Indian government and two other Indian authorities have signed an agreement on October 22, 2011 regarding construction of the Tipaimukh Dam. Since the announcement was published in the news media, there has been a lot of discussion and debate about the potential impacts of the proposed Tipaimukh dam on the economy and environment of Bangladesh in general, and on the haor (wetlands that are breeding ground for fish and are cultivated for rice crops) region in particular.

This debate has intensified following publication of an article by Adviser Gawher Rizvi in the Daily Star on December 13, 2011 ( in which he called for a science-based analysis of the proposed project and its potential impact on Bangladesh.

For lack of field-based data and paucity of cooperation between India and Bangladesh on information about the project, it is difficult to make a sound judgment on the impact of this project.  However, based on other experience and track record on impacts of large dams on the environment and ecosystem in downstream regions, some inferences can be made. The following points about potential negative impacts of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam on downstream region in Bangladesh have been formulated based on the knowledge of hydrology and published information in the electronic and press media.

The Tipaimukh Dam will retain about 15 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water at peak level, which is about 31% of the total flow of water that enters Bangladesh through Barak into Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna rivers. Therefore, it is completely unacceptable to Bangladesh that India will have unilateral control over 31% of the water in a shared river. Many people (Advisor Gawher Rizvi, Water Minister Ramesh Shil, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, etc.) in the government claim that they have all the necessary information on the Tipaimukh Dam, and the Indian government (including Dr. Manmohan Singh) reassured them on numerous occasions that they (India) will not do anything to harm Bangladesh. This logic is unacceptable for many reasons:

(a) India should not decide what is good for Bangladesh and her people without taking them into confidence. If India’s intention was to help Bangladesh then they would have studied all environmental and economic impacts jointly with Bangladesh before initiating this project;

(b) India did not even inform Bangladesh about this project before they signed an agreement on Oct. 24, 2011. They are in clear violation of all laws, policies, and agreement that are practiced on shared international rivers. Article IX of the Ganges Treaty clearly demands such co-operation and prior consent from all stakeholders. If Bangladeshi news media did not raise this issue, then India would not even bother to mention it to anyone (including the government) about the project;

(c) Indian government has issued the environmental clearance certificate on October 24, 2008 and they are going ahead with the project despite serious objections from Bangladesh and Indian environmental groups (as well as indigenous people in Manipur and Mizoram).  In their environmental analysis, they never carried out any study in Bangladesh, especially in the Haor region to understand the natural ecosystems that exist that depend on natural flow of water in Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna and their numerous tributaries.  How can India assume (without any study in Bangladesh) that they will not cause any harm to the environment and ecosystem in downstream region in Bangladesh?  This assumption is not based on science – it is purely a guessing game. How can 40 million people living in Haor regions of greater Sylhet and Mymensingh rely on Indian assurance that is not based on any scientific study?

Tipaimukh Dam - Run-of-the-river project?

India claims that the Tipaimukh Dam is a run-of-the-river project and no water will be diverted for irrigation, and therefore, no harm will be done to Bangladesh. This is a flawed logic because:

(a) They will have to fill up the reservoir that holds 15 BCM of water, out of which about 8 BCM will be dead storage (i.e. will remain behind the dam permanently to maintain needed pressure to run turbines. If this 8 BCM water is released over 365 days in a year then it amounts to about 17,000 cu sec, which is a huge amount for the Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna rivers in dry season. As result of the dam, the flow characteristics and water release schedule will be different as compared to the flow that existed before the dam was built. Now the question is, how does anyone in Bangladesh know what that water release schedule will be after the dam is completed? No one in Bangladesh (maybe even in India) really knows how much water will have to be released on a daily basis for proper operation of the hydroelectric project. Can the Haor people live with this uncertainty to grow their crops? The answer is obviously NO;

(b) The life, livelihood, and ecosystems in Haor region have established an equilibrium with the natural flow of the rivers, and the farmers prepare their field in harmony with this natural flow regime. Now, if this natural flow regime is altered then farmers will not be able to prepare their land for boro cultivation on time, and the whole agricultural production may be jeopardized. On the other hand, if India releases way too much water in dry season then farmers will not have access to their land since these lands will be under unusual amount of water. In the rainy season, the opposite may happen. If the dam is completely full, then they will release water at their own will to save the dam.

One can argue that there are Indians in the downstream regions of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur, and India will not release extra water to cause flooding for them. It might be true, but we will not know the extent of flooding in India and how many people will be affected if no joint venture research is done. Besides, Indian government can make plan to remove their own people before releasing additional water, because they will make the decision about water release beforehand, which they may or may not share with Bangladesh.

Tipaimukh Dam - Joint venture project?

India has offered Bangladesh the possibility of investing in the project and buy electricity from it, which is not acceptable on the following counts:

(a) If India was serious about a joint venture project then they would not sign an agreement with three Indian entity and set a deadline of 87 months for completion of the project. They would not issue the environmental clearance without involving environmental study in Bangladesh first.  So, it is safe to conclude that they are just doing lip service – they are not serious about any joint venture project;

(b) There is no treaty between India and Bangladesh about joint management of water resources in Barak-Surma-Kushiyara. If even Bangladesh invests money in the project, India will decide unilaterally how much water they will release and when they will release it;

(c) Since the Barak-Surma-Kushiyara is an international river system, Bangladesh should not pay for electricity, India should provide a fair share to Bangladesh for free as they agreed to provide some electricity to Manipur for free as a stakeholder. More importantly, Bangladesh should find other means to produce electricity – not by destroying the agriculture and ecosystem in the Haor region;

(d) On December 21, the government of Bangladesh signed 4 separate agreements with private investors to set up four power plants (3 coal-fired and one solar) to generate 1105 MW of electricity, which will cost a total of $1.7 billion or Tk. 112 billions, i.e. about Tk. 11 crores for each 1 MW of electricity (The Daily Star, December 21, 2011), which is very similar in content when compared to the proposed Tipaimukh dam in the sense that both of these projects are designed to generate electricity, and both of these projects are similar in magnitude. In other words, four power plants in Bangladesh will generate 1105 MW, while the Tipaimukh will generate maximum of 1500 MW of electricity. However, it is ironic that the Govt. of India is risking so much resentment and opposition from both India and Bangladesh to implement a project that is designed to generate merely 1500 MW at a cost of Rs. 6,979 million ($1.4 billion), which is not a much bigger project than the ones the Govt. of Bangladesh just signed with private companies!

Since the coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh will be constructed by private companies, there is a margin of profit factored into the cost. If the government could build these power plants using domestic resources (either coal or natural gas) then the total cost would be much less. Although the cost per MW of electricity produced is slightly less for the Tipaimukh dam as compared to the coal-fired power plants ($0.93 million per MW vs. $1.53 million per MW, respectively), environmental and political costs of the Tipaimukh hydel project clearly will outweigh the benefits. This cost to benefit analysis indicates that if the Tipaimukh dam is constructed solely to generate electricity then its benefit will be marginal; and if the environmental and rehabilitation (not to mention the political and seismic hazard) costs are factored into the project then the total cost of electricity will be much higher. Consequently, it can be concluded that there must be other plans and intention to make this controversial hydel project worthwhile for the Indian government. One of such intentions might be construction of water-diversion barrages at a downstream location in the future (such as the Fulertal Barrage proposed in the Sukla Commission Report).

Considering the murky nature of the project, it will be unwise on the part of the government of Bangladesh to enter into a joint investment plan as proposed by the government of India for the Tipaimukh dam project. By investing in the this project, Bangladesh will waive all her rights to complain against future environmental and economic devastation that the dam may inflict on Bangladesh and her people. Two independent studies in Bangladesh clearly pointed out potential impacts of Tipaimukh Dam on the environment, hydrology, fisheries, agriculture, navigation, and ecosystems. Bangladesh should not enter into any joint venture investment for this ill-conceived, poorly studied, and controversial project. The geological, environmental, ecological, political and socio-economic costs of the Tipaimukh dam hydel project is prohibitive; and it will be unwise for Bangladesh to be a party to this project without first carrying out a joint environmental impact analysis of the project.

Adviser Gawher Rizvi wrote that since the Tipaimukh Dam is 140 miles away from Bangladesh border its impact will be minimal on Bangladesh. The truth couldn’t be farther from this. Barak-Surma-Kushiyara is a continuous river and it empties in the Bay of Bengal through the Meghna River. Therefore, any interference with water flow will be felt all the way to the Bay of Bengal. For example, the Farakka Barrage is over 100 miles from the shoreline in Bangladesh, but its negative impacts on the salinity intrusion and the water level in the Gorai and other rivers in SW Bangladesh are documented facts. A similar situation will occur in the greater Mymensingh and Sylhet districts should water is diverted from Barak through any barrage (such as the proposed Phulertal Barrage in Assam). Salinity will encroach up the Meghna-Kalini-Kushiyara-Surma-Gorautra rivers farther inland, impacting the agriculture and fisheries in parts of Habiganj, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Sunamganj, Sylhet districts.

Flow in Bangladesh to increase in summer months?

As a part of Flood Action Plan (FAP-6) study, it was concluded that if the Tipaimukh Dam is completed then the flow in Bangladesh will increase in summer months and will decrease in rainy season.  This finding is questionable on the following accounts:

(a) Since India has not completed the dam they don’t have any water release schedule yet, and if even they did have a tentative schedule then it is not clear as to when and how they shared this information with Bangladeshi authority.  Therefore, the FAP-6 is carried out based on many assumptions, which may or may not be true.  In fact, Ainun Nishat clearly admitted that their study was done based on many unknowns and assumptions;

(b) As mentioned before, any departure from natural flow regime will mean adjustments for farmers and fishermen in the Haor region in terms of timing for  preparation of their agricultural fields, planting of seeds, and harvesting the crops. There is no guarantee that this disturbance in natural flow will bring positive feedback for the Haor region.  Most importantly, the people of Bangladesh will have to rely on the mercy and decision of Indian authority for the fair share or necessary amount of water needed for their life and livelihood.  The natural flow of the Surma-Kushiyara-Meghna should be warranted for the well being of the people and existence of Bengal delta which has been fed by water and sediments of Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system during its entire existence throughout the geologic time

Tipaimukh Dam is not the only water control structure that India is to build that will negatively impact the life and livelihood of Bangladesh. India has already completed 16 hydel projects in NE states, and has plan to build over 100 dams, which are at various stages of development, including Tipaimukh, Teesta, Loktak, Subansiri, Kameng, and Ranganadi. Plans for most of these projects are moving along smoothly without much objection from our government. Since these dams are not inside the mainland of India, the mainstream Indian media and environmentalists are not as vocal about their impacts. The Brahmaputra Board makes recommendations and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, NE Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), Central Electric Authority (CEA), Department of Development of NE Region (DONER) along with the state governments are involved in those projects. There are 22 schemes identified within the Brahmaputra basin alone (Source:  Manju Menon, 2005). These projects will have detrimental impacts on floods, agriculture, fisheries, wetlands (haors, beels, mangroves, etc.) on a long run. The current Indian govt. is following the footsteps of the BJP-lead govt. in water resources management under various banners, such as "50,000 MW initiatives" or National Water and Power Development Plan. The government of Bangladesh needs to discuss the future of all shared rivers in developing an integrated water resources management plan involving all co-riparian nations. Let the rivers flow freely.

Md. Khalequzzaman, Ph.D.
Dept. of Geology & Physics
Lock Haven University
Lock Haven, PA 17745, USA