By Rafiqul Islam
DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladesh's plan to build a dam on the Ganges River to ease water shortages in its southwest coastal region hangs in the balance as neighboring India has yet to accept the plan.
Bangladesh started work on the proposed Ganges Barrage Project during the tenure of the previous ruling Awami League government in the late 1990s.
The country has already completed a feasibility study and the design for the proposed 2.1 kilometer-long dam, due to be constructed at Pangsha in Rajbari district, about 100 km downstream from the Farakka Barrage in India’s West Bengal state.
The Ganges, known as the Padma River in Bangladesh, is one of the major sources of surface water in the southwest of the country.
Water scarcity and water salinity - made worse by climate change - are common problems in the region, which is why Bangladesh has given the barrage project top priority.
Experts say salinity is on the rise in the southwest due to sea-level rise from global warning. The proposed dam would release water through river channels to help dilute the salt levels.
However, experts say it will be difficult to push forward with the project in the absence of support from India.
New Delhi sent a letter to the Bangladesh government in early 2015 saying Indian technical experts had evaluated project documents sent by Dhaka and were concerned the dam could cause flooding in India.
The Ganges flows out of India on flat terrain from West Bengal. India in the letter predicted that even a slight increase in the river’s water level would cause huge submergence in areas of India bordering Bangladesh.
New Delhi asked Dhaka to send the full feasibility study, including scientific modeling, so it could be sure there would be no increase in water levels on Indian territory.
Bangladesh Water Resources Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud told the Thomson Reuters Foundation all the documents requested by India were sent last April, but New Delhi had yet to respond.
During a visit to India in November, Mahmud met his Indian counterpart, Uma Bharati, who assured him of a response soon.
It will be a hard task for Bangladesh to implement the large dam alone, which is why it has sought cooperation from India, experts say.
The two countries are currently locked in a range of political squabbles over water, including over how to share the waters of the Teesta, another cross-boundary river.
“India may halt the (Ganges) project, showing technical issues that it (says) will pose adverse impacts on Indian territory – which is why Bangladesh has sought cooperation from India” on the project, said Delwar Hossain, an international relations professor at Dhaka University.
However, any project in a downstream country such as Bangladesh has little possibility to cause harm to upstream countries, Hossain said. He said Bangladesh should push ahead to quickly answer any technical questions India raises.
At a meeting with the outgoing Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh in October, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina emphasized the importance of engaging India in the dam project.
According to the feasibility study, around $4 billion will be required to implement the project over a seven-year period, but the government has yet to find the funds.
Minister Mahmud said the cost of the barrage project would be recovered within five years through increased agricultural and fish production in the Ganges-dependent area, as well as the 113 megawatts of hydropower the project is expected to generate.
A Chinese firm, Hydrochina Corporation, has expressed interest in building the dam, and has already held several meetings with Bangladesh’s Water Resources Ministry to discuss financing for the project.
According to Hydrochina Corporation officials, the Chinese government is willing to provide $20 billion in concessional loans to South Asian nations over the next five years.
“We are keen to implement the proposed Ganges Barrage Project. Funding could be managed with government-to-government negotiations,” said Zhao Yang, business development manager for Hydrochina Corporation.
The Ganges Barrage would create a reservoir 165 km long, covering 62,500 hectares and with a capacity of some 2.9 billion cubic liters of water.
According to the minister, the water would be diverted to 26 districts through 123 regional rivers.
Building the dam would alleviate water shortages and contamination of water supplies in southwest Bangladesh, experts say.
The reservoir’s water would be used throughout the year, regulated by water control structures on rivers, to meet demand for irrigation, fisheries, navigation and salinity control.
Acting project director Rowshan Ali Khan said the release of water from the reservoir through the Ganges basin river system would help manage siltation problems in river channels and facilitate drainage.
It would also preserve biodiversity and forest resources in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, he added.
(Reporting by Rafiqul Islam; editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)