South Asian tempers rise as flood waters fall. DISPUTE OVER DAMS
Dacca, Bangladesh — As flood waters recede in Dacca, slogans have been going up on walls and signboards: ``Smash the Farakka Barrage.'' The Farakka Barrage is a dam built by India in the 1970s across the Ganges River that many Bangladeshis blame for their woes during summer floods and winter water shortages.
Ninety percent of Bangladesh's water flow originates in India. This year, Bangladesh faced its worst flood in recent memory, as heavy rain and overflowing rivers submerged three-fourths of the nation.
And, like the waters, political tensions have run high.
``The role of India is the main cause of this,'' says Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, an official with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Dacca. ``By allowing India to build Farakka, our government and others in the region have failed.''
Meanwhile, press reports in India say officials are miffed at Bangladesh's decision last week to return four Indian Air Force helicopters that have been helping with relief operations. India sees this as part of growing anti-Indian feeling that has brought new tensions to an old controversy: how to control water during rainy seasons and share it during the dry.
The Farakka dam is now a political bogy here, symbolizing India's control over the rivers and thus this nation's economy.
President Hussain Muhammad Ershad will go to Delhi for a one-day visit Tuesday, according to the Bangladesh High Commission. Bangladesh wants India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan - all of which are spanned by the two rivers - to join in coming up with a cooperative approach to water management.
India says the issue is only between itself and Bangladesh. But pressure from the United States, other Western nations, and the World Bank - which funds many such development projects - is mounting for a regional solution.
Asian and Western experts say that the problems defy easy solutions.
In the summer, when the region receives 80 percent of its annual rainfall, the overflow spreads destruction. But with the dry season comes drought.
The problem has been compounded by the silting up of rivers, caused partly by deforestation in the Himalaya mountains. The heavy rain sweeps large amounts of topsoil downhill. The silting reduces the rivers' capacity to handle heavy rainfall.
``There is a limit to what can be done,'' says Hamidur Rahman Khan, a water resources expert here. ``Even if we had the [money] to build a labyrinth of protection systems, it would still not be enough.''
Water experts say Farakka has little impact on flooding, though it does worsen Bangladesh's problems in the dry season. More annoying, Bangladeshi officials say, is India's refusal to consider a regional approach to building dams in Nepal to help control floods and store water.
India has long shunned regional talks, Western analysts say, because it wants to keep control over its own waterways and fears the influence of United States-dominated multilateral organizations which would be likely to fund the projects.
Bangladesh has already rejected an Indian proposal to build three dams in India's northeast Assam State and a 200-mile canal to direct water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganges, Indian officials say. They blame Bangladesh for failing to carry out flood controls of its own.
``A lot of myths have been built up. ...'' says B.G. Verghese, an Indian water analyst who is writing a book on the dispute. ``Bangladesh feels it is being affected by Farakka. And India fears other countries will gang up on it if it deals with the issue on a regional basis.''
Western analysts say Bangladesh could do more. River dredging is inadequate and maintenance underfunded. With corruption widespread, observers say, officials would rather take on new projects, for which payoffs are common, than keep up existing structures.
Some analysts say the floods themselves cannot be averted, but Bangladeshis should be better prepared for disaster and more emergency shelter areas need to be built on high ground.