Will mega projects provide genuine solutions? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 09, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:54 PM, February 10, 2019

Will mega projects provide genuine solutions?

Last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved the century-long Delta Plan 2100. The government has planned at least 80 projects and decided to spend about USD 37 billion by 2031 for the implementation of the scheme. Dr Nazrul Islam, an eminent economist and founder of Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), talks to Naznin Tithi of The Daily Star about the various problems of the Delta Plan and shares some of the major recommendations BAPA and BEN, in association with other environment organisations, have made recently for this plan to be most effective.

Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 is aimed at ensuring food and water security and coping with disasters through water resource management. Could you please elaborate on how this mega scheme is going to achieve those goals? If this plan is implemented, will our rivers get back their natural flow?

Actually, it is not clear how the Delta Plan is going to achieve its goals. The Plan does not emerge with a work plan of its own. Instead, at the end of the exercise, it asks various implementing agencies to submit project proposals, and out of 123 such proposals received, it selects 80, based on a scrutiny by economists and experts from the World Bank. The second volume of the Delta Plan contains the list and description of these projects. However, it is not yet public. Hence, we don't know what the Delta Plan's “mega scheme” is.

Meanwhile, the first volume of the Delta Plan presents a list of 14 projects. An analysis of this list shows that it is riddled with problems. It contains projects that are yet to be substantiated, can go in opposite directions, are at cross-purposes with each other, and are so obvious that they could be proposed without a Delta Plan. On the other hand, important projects that seem to emerge from the plan's analysis are missing. We are therefore worried and anxious to see the list of 80 projects, because these projects may suffer from similar problems too.

Also, we find it inappropriate on the part of the Planning Commission to finalise the list of Delta Plan's projects, without giving the public a chance to know and comment about them. This is more so, because these are likely to be mega projects, involving huge sums of public money and having effects going beyond a century.

As I said, the final list of 80 projects is yet to be made public. However, based on the philosophy espoused and the list of 14 projects available in the Plan's first volume, we doubt that it will be able to restore the free flow of rivers. There are two reasons for this. First, the Delta Plan does not offer any promising strategy to counter the diversion of transboundary river flows by upstream countries, in particular India. Yet, as you know, upstream diversions are the major reason for the decline of our river flows. That's the external factor. Second, internally, the Delta Plan seems to promote further obstructions to river flows. For example, the first project in its above-mentioned list of 14 projects is the Ganges Barrage. The third in the list is the Brahmaputra Barrage. Both of these are highly problematic project proposals. They are certain to create huge obstruction to the free flow of these major rivers inside Bangladesh. Also, in putting forward these barrage projects, the Delta Plan ignores completely the experience of the Farakka and Teesta Barrages. We know how much damage Farakka has caused to downstream Bangladesh. Farakka has caused damage to upstream also. It led to upstream siltation, flooding, and river bank erosion. As a result, there is now a growing protest in India demanding the demolition of Farakka. On the other hand, Bangladesh's Teesta Barrage mostly sits on a dry river due to upstream diversion in India.

These experiences show that the proposed Ganges and Brahmaputra Barrages inside Bangladesh are also likely to cause upstream siltation, flood and bank erosion. Downstream, they are likely to reduce flow of water and sediment, allowing salinity intrusion to move further north, and create other adverse effects. Also, in view of India's River Linking Project, it is uncertain how much water will be left in these rivers to make these barrage projects viable. Unfortunately, the Delta Plan does not offer satisfactory technical and economic analyses to justify these projects. The Delta Plan is likely to hamper free flow of rivers further by constructing more barrages, embankments and, so-called regulators, instead of restoring their natural flow.

Is this plan then just a continuation of successive governments' flood action plans or water resource management plans (like those taken during the '60s, '80s and later) which, as many believe, have been the major causes of death of many of our rivers? As we know that the polders and sluice gates built in the past had miserably failed to create any positive results.

That's what it looks like. In its current version, the Delta Plan, by and large, continues to advocate the Cordon or the Polder approach to rivers that was imposed on Bangladesh by the Master Plan prepared by the San Francisco-based International Engineering Company (IECO) in 1964. As you rightly observed, this approach led to the death of many rivers, did not solve the flood problems, and brought in the new problem of waterlogging. An important reason for the Delta Plan's failure to abandon this approach and adopt the correct, Open approach is that it does not try hard enough to learn from Bangladesh's past experience with so-called water development projects.

First, it does not gather data and conduct analyses of its own. Second, it does not pay adequate attention to critical evaluations of many of these projects that are available. Third, in its review of past water development projects, the Delta Plan relies mostly on the rosy evaluations of the implementing agencies. Hence it chooses to follow, by and large, the past approach and remains fixated on polders and sluice gates that, as you note, have failed in the past.

What are some of your recommendations to make this mega scheme a success and people-centric?

As you know, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) and Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), in association with universities and other pro-environment organisations of the country, held a two-day conference on the Delta Plan on January 11-12 this year. About 70 papers were presented at this conference. Based on these papers and discussions, the conference adopted a 40-point Resolution. In that resolution and in the book, Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100: A Review that I wrote for the conference, a set of recommendations has been offered. First, we called for a reworking of the Delta Plan on the basis of the open approach to rivers. Second, we recommended a bottom-up “people-centric” process, instead of relying on foreign consultants and proposals from implementing agencies. Third, we called for signing the 1997 UN Convention on international rivers and using it to restore the natural flows of transboundary rivers. Finally, we called for attention to genuine solutions, rather than fascination for mega projects, which can create a bonanza for many government agencies and contractors and consultants but may only aggravate the problems.

Unless the above is done, the Delta Plan, in its current version, may turn out to be a plan for damaging further what remains of the deltaic character of Bangladesh rather than saving it.

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