Environmental justice on the Ganges

ganges riverThere’s a classic pattern of environmental injustice in which the more powerful overuse or divert natural resources to the detriment of less influential neighbors. The Ganges River could be the poster child for this phenomena.

The third largest river in the world, this slow moving behemoth meanders more than 1500 miles from the western Himalayas in India south through Bangladesh and into the Bay of Bengal. India, a rising global power a third the size of the United States virtually crushes Bangladesh in size (Bangladesh is approximately the size of Iowa) and economic scope ranging from per capita GDP (almost double that of Bangladesh) to energy production (nearly 21 times the output of Bangladesh). Unfortunately for Bangladesh, India also boasts the source of the Ganges and has the ability to control how much water actually flows beyond its national borders.

In 1975, India constructed the $23 million Farakka Barrage to divert 1100 cubic meters per second of the Ganges River to the Houghly River for the flushing of sediment from the Kolkata Harbour. A barrage, a cousin of the “dam,” is an obstruction constructed in wide rivers to control passing water using several gates that can be opened or closed according to need. As a result of the Farakka’s construction, Bangladesh has experienced a drastic reduction in its access to water from the Ganges over the last forty years.

india ganges

You can’t get a more literal analogy for the failure of “trickle down” economics than the changes wrought to Bangladesh by the impact of the Farakka Barrage. While India benefits from its control of the Ganges, Bangladesh barely hangs on with its water allocation. With less water from the Ganges, Bangladesh  has seen an increase in the salinity of its section of the Ganges. Increased salinity results in less freshwater for agricultural production and more environmental degradation, including the inability for groundwater to replenish.

Since 90% of the population of Bangladesh relies on groundwater for its drinking water, a source which, incidentally, is already so contaminated by arsenic that it is has been declared the largest mass poisoning in the world by the World Health Organization and is the leading cause of death for a fifth of the country’s population, decreasing groundwater results not only in less access to freshwater but higher concentrations of poisonous chemicals. Agricultural production, Bangladesh’s primary economic driver, is compromised by less available water with a higher salt content. This means not only are people left without economic opportunities to provide for their families but the whole nation is now vulnerable to acute food shortages.

It’s not that Bangladesh didn’t see this coming when India began building the Farakka Barrage in 1966. At the project’s completion, India agreed to discharge water at specific times for 41 days per year during the region’s driest months in April and May. The arrangement, however, was not enough to prevent Bangladesh from spiraling into drought and sending nearly half its population into famine several times throughout the late 1970s. Bangladesh brought the matter to the United Nations but no consensus was reached.

Twenty years later, in 1996, the two India and Bangladesh managed to eek out the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty which, despite the fact that many Bangladeshis considered a failure for not setting minimums on the amount of water required by India to release southward, at least provided improved monitoring of the situation during the dry season.

The agreement further allowed for Bangladesh to construct its own barrage on its portion of the Ganges to promote equitable water distribution throughout the year. Bangladesh was given 30 years to complete their “Ganges Barrage.” The planned project is, twenty years on, still in its planning phase. Located almost 100 kilometers downstream from the Farakka Barrage in India, the $4 million Ganges Barrage is expected to reduce the river’s salinity downstream and to recharge the “dead” rivers of the region, reversing the area’s desertification over the last several decades. The barrage is also expected to reduce environmental degradation in the Ganges dependent area, increase agricultural and fish production, reduce the rate of silt buildup in the southwest and benefit a third of the population economically.

This last point may be one of the most important as water shortages have led to widespread food scarcity and unemployment due to its impact on the agricultural industry (and no available wage labor in the region). These conditions make areas of Bangladesh ripe for exploitation by groups seeking to radicalize the disenfranchised, just as they have in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. In recent years, 1000 mosques in 16 northern districts along with orphanages, a university, and 100,000 deep tube wells have been constructed by the Kuwait Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) is awarding its full time “members” with the astronomical (for Bangladesh) sum of $25-50 per day for their participation.

A Special Report on Regional Impacts of Climate Change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 predictions may mean that conditions in Bangladesh will continue to deteriorate. While drastic changes in rainfall patterns increase the length and severity of flooding during monsoon season, moderately drought affected areas will become severely drought prone ones in the next 20-30 years, further exacerbating the precarious position of the nation’s poorest communities, making them more likely to turn to radical groups promising relief in exchange for obedience.


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