The Financial Express

River, people and water

A story of alienation

An emaciated stream of the Brahmaputra. 		— Photo: Collected An emaciated stream of the Brahmaputra. — Photo: Collected

The Brahmaputra is one of the largest Asian rivers that runs through China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. On its journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal (around 3800 km), it has hosted civilisations on its banks, because it was an easy mode of communication from one place to another for thousands of years. It has also brought in colonial powers to rule many of these civilisations and cultures coexisting peacefully on its banks. However, by now, its glory has changed - not because of colonisation but because of motorisation. Invention of paved roads and motorised vehicles changes the game. Over the past 100 years - the story is similar across the other rivers in South Asia. The question, however, is to learn how it has impacted the people who were dependent on these rivers.

At the moment, the Brahmaputra river basin is home to nearly 1.6 million people and the majority live in the poverty pockets compared to the rest of the countries. This has happened despite the fact that these people, at one time in the history, were the most prosperous communities of the region. The turn of the destiny has occurred and it has left them almost destitute. The critical question to examine for us is: how did it happen and is there any lesson to learn from this?

Today, the tide has changed again.  Bangladesh and also India - where the river lost capacity to serve as a route for transportation - have agreed to revitalise them. These two countries have agreed to invest money in order to re-introduce the navigation route so that the region gets its connectivity back. The World Bank is the key broker in this effort and has provided financial resources to do so. Bangladesh and India have signed navigation route-related treaties to transport their goods across the border using rivers.  They have agreed to invest in developing trans-boundary river routes to improve the capacity. Researchers in South Asia are now engaged in a race to improve navigability in shallow waters. Investment in dredging several rivers (the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna included) is currently being processed to ensure round the year navigability of rivers for vessels to carry at least 2000 tonnes of cargoes. Nepal is also eyeing the same route to transport its imports from Kolkata to Allahabad or to Patna and, if possible, up to its border. Bhutan has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Bangladesh to use its ports and bring their imports to Dhubri Port in Assam or to Chilmari Port in Bangladesh. These efforts are likely to contribute to a win-win solution for these countries as well as the world - because a ship carrying one tonne of cargo can travel a distance of 827km with a gallon of fuel while a train can cover 325km and a truck 94 km. Clearly, shipping cost is far less by waterways compared to railway and trucks and also there is a significant gain in carbon emissions. As such both traders and the world benefit from the trade-off-i.e. a switch to water-based transportation of goods from other modes.

In addition to this, there are other advantages: a) the number of deaths per billion tonne-mile of shipment of goods the waterways account for is 0.01, while it is 0.84 for roads and 1.15 for railways. The number of injuries the waterways account for is 0.09 while it is 21 for railways, b) oversized cargo is difficult to ship by road and railway and so the waterway is preferred as the easy option, c) there is almost zero maintenance cost for waterways in many parts of the world (however, it is not so in many of the South Asian rivers due to their heavy sediment loads). There is, however, a big disadvantage-it is the time.  The speed of shipment is affected when it is transported by waterways and hence in many cases perishable products are difficult to ship by these routes. In South Asia, rivers are also deemed as a gift of nature or gift of God, for which people use the water of rivers to wash away their guilt or remorse.  

The Prime Ministers of both Bangladesh and India have candidly declared to bring back navigation of their rivers so that they live longer. To give an example, in 1947, there were 24,000 km of navigation routes in Bangladesh against only 6000 km now during the rainy season and less than 4000 km during the dry season. The question is how these rivers were killed and by whom.

Answer to this question is perhaps easy. Mankind's increased ability to control the nature has killed it. As we have learned how to control our nature, we have been able to 'eliminate' rivers from the map. Sometimes it was abrupt through diversion of water and sometimes it was through encroachment on the rights of the rivers to flow. Yes, rivers brought misery to millions of people. The Yangtze is a perfect example in China and people used their knowledge to defeat it. Rivers are now controlled and are not allowed to stroll or drift haphazardly in the flood plains.  Rivers are monitored and trained not to swell across its routes through embankments and polders.

Consequently, the developments that happened in the 70s and 80s took away the river's might and tamed it to serve our needs. We were happy but then we did not. As such-a reversal has happened. Political commitments to 'bring back rivers' to life by the leaders suggest that there were losers too. Who are they?  Growth of roads and rails choked the rivers in terms of their navigability but, maybe, it has also choked the roads through an unprecedented growth in demand for services, the result is traffic congestion. As a result, with an increase in the cost of transportation-time is also wasted on roads.

Why are we going around like merry-go-round? As we have progressed into the 21st Century, we have moved into a new era of economic emancipation - a new century for Asia. Academics have labelled this century as the Asian Century.  While we are on a path of high economic growth without appropriate safeguards - we might bring back misery on our people, which Malthus once described in his Theory of Misery - popularly labelled as Theory of Population Growth. Scientists have already described such a pathway through their meticulous research on nature. Revenges of the nature are not unknown to mankind and so nature has been respected for having super-natural strengths.

My critical observation is that there is a theory of alienation going on.  First, as we have moved into scientific discoveries and innovations, we went deeper into micro understanding of nature and its changes.  The result has been a tremendous improvement in our capacity to manage nature.  However, we have also separated the components of nature into a set of mutually-unrelated components when they are not.  For example, we have separated water from river. As a result, we forgot to look into the needs of rivers for water and did not recognise that the life of a river is in its flow of water. Once the flow stops - the river dies. On the other hand, we forgot that rivers are nature's drainage system and as such they need to be alive. Flow of a river allows the drainage functions to continue and so it also keeps the rivers within its banks.

Second, we have separated the stewards from the rivers. As such, rivers are now exploited to bring 'economic' benefits. The exploitation continued as we gathered superior knowledge power to control rivers.  Rivers do not have a say - we have all the say.  These 'we' are not the stewards. They are other people who see a short term benefit from over-extraction or from over-regulation. As the stewards took the back seat, they were replaced by mercenaries.

Third, as we isolated the complex function of a river into independent components-the relative importance or price or value from these functions changed. For example, production of rice began to take more importance than production of fish. So as we began to concentrate on rice through irrigation, fishing communities suffered. We did not take the full account of the value of services of the rivers-its economic functions are only a subset of the other functions for which we as a human race used to respect our rivers. The function of a river to protect culture has been much talked about but less understood.  Its values are only understood during conflicts- the sacrifice that a community make in order to protect their identity. Bangladesh is an example of it. Our fight for establishment of our language ultimately led to our independence.  Millions of people were displaced, millions died, thousands raped in the conflict. It shows values of culture. Any threat to the culture could be devastating for all.  Similarly, river basins preserve cultures, nurtures them and a death of a river could mean a death of the culture.

The value of a river to protect diversity of species should not be under-estimated. A simple example might be good for all of us. Mosquitoes are a menace in our life.  Killing mosquitoes inside your house is not a crime. Killing mosquitoes in cities are also seen as a 'benefit' to humans. However, what would happen, if we make them extinct i.e. killing them in nature? We will lose all of our aquatic life. It is part of the food chain - so despite the fact that it is not 'used' by us, its eggs are the feed for many others in the water. 

Let me tell a story of natural revenge. In the early 70s the US banned use of DDT in their agriculture.  It began in the early 60s when Dr Rachel Carson - a zoology professor - wrote her book The Silent Spring. She told the world that DDT might become responsible for extinction of many bird species. Heavy use of DDT in agriculture kills the insects which are regularly eaten by the birds in the crop fields and so the toxins accumulated in their body eliminate shells on their eggs. An egg without its shell is no good for reproduction of bird species.  Understanding this, DDT use was banned in the USA but not its production.  Companies continued to produce DDT and exported to many countries (it is also an important chemical to control epidemics like plague) where it has been used indiscriminately. In the 90s, US medical doctors discovered diseases in the USA which are linked to residues from DDT in their bodies. The discovery puzzled the scientists because the USA did not use DDT for the past 20 years. It was later discovered that DDT came back to the USA through several fruits which were imported from countries where DDT was used to control pest attacks.

The story is narrated to reiterate that nature needs a lot of stewardships. The stewards of our rivers are the people living around. For thousands of years, they protected the rivers from being choked by others, used the rivers for their needs - navigation, irrigation, production, and also for migration. They also suffered from its rages but their stewardship brought to them prosperity.

In one of my research works, we found that large barrages did not bring significant economic benefits as it was predicted - it was in the case of the Teesta in Bangladesh. Similar results have been shown by others in India.  However, we constructed these large barrages in the name of increasing agricultural productivity. Many would argue that we were overwhelmed with our ability to 'control' rivers and so we constructed barrages to show our might and not to show our strength. We believed that 'water' is separate from 'river' and 'river' is separate from its 'stewards'. As a result, we entered into long term conflicts on the pretext of 'fair share of water', we never wanted to discuss sharing of rivers.

In one of my recent studies we wanted to understand this more deeply. Why did the stewards of our rivers (the communities living around or taking benefits from rivers) failed to protect the rivers and at the end lost assets and became poor?  The answer is equally dramatic:

  1. a) The rules and regulations developed by the governments did not promote them. The rights of the local communities were never recognised in our laws. Rights to fishing, for example, by fishing communities, who had been doing so for centuries, were not a 'right' per se and so the government can always revoke it. 
  2. b) The rivers became a playground of power by polluters - who used the loophole in the law to pollute rivers. Rivers have no legal owner, no legal guardian.  Every department of the government considers a river as the source of resource - irrigation authority uses it to extract water for agriculture, water supply authorities use it for city water supplies, industries use the rivers for dumping waste, and so on.
  3. c) Beneficiaries of rivers are not equal. There are some who are powerful and hence extract their benefits while let others bear the cost. The classic theory of externality is applied. Hence, while for some it reduces costs, for others it enhances the cost too. We saw a villager living on a riverine reclaimed land who found it difficult to cross the river as large vessels ply it more frequently. One villager complained of increased erosion due to hi-speed navigation on water. Another villager mentioned that stoppage and turning of large vessels in rivers caused unexpected erosions.
  4. d) It was also understood that while rivers flow between boundaries, people cannot. Their livelihood, however, are dependent on each other. River training, river dredging and similar activities on a river across boundaries must be synchronised well in order to realise the benefits. For example, upstream dredging without downstream dredging might cause floods while downstream dredging without upstream coordination will increase erosion.
  5. e) The 21st century is an opportunity for South Asia to eliminate poverty. It is not going to be possible without reducing poverty of the people in riverine areas. They must be brought into the mainstream of economy and so access to education, healthcare and other facilities must also be equally extended to them and for people in riverine areas it has to be through rivers. Most of the logistics for supply of these facilities to these people are missing. Similarly, control of flood and sedimentation are not possible without coordination across boundaries. Therefore, river management is a transboundary issue and should be coordinated in that fashion.
  6. f) Renewed interest in 'bringing back' rivers to life is also considered a new threat for people who are dependent on them. For example, char people-living in riverine islands-use rivers in their daily life. The current approach to rivers is not designed for them - rather it is eyeing bringing navigational benefits for tour operators and ship owners. Navigation benefits often do not trickle down to the local communities unless a government is mindful of it. Most of these people in riverine areas are not equipped to adapt to any rapid changes around them. 
  7. g) Nepal and Bhutan are not direct beneficiaries of the river navigation system but they can also benefit from improved navigation facilities in rivers because it will also reduce their transportation cost of goods from ports in India and Bangladesh. The river issue should be clearly defined so that all stakeholders see a positive reason for engagement.
  8. h) Finally, to develop sustainable communities in riverine areas the countries in the river basin must work together and develop a common set of rights for them.


Dr. A.K. Enamul Haque is Professor of Economics at the East West University. This piece was presented at the Himalayan University Consortium meeting in Chengdu, China on October 31 last, organised by the ICIMOD in Nepal and the Chengdu University. 

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