In a much-needed relief for the people of Sabroom town in South Tripura, Bangladesh has agreed to let India withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water from Feni river for the residents of the border town. The negotiations, which were dragging on since the early 90s, finally came to fruition on Saturday as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with India to allow the release of potable water.
Bangladesh's decision comes at a time when India and Bangladesh have another protracted dispute on the sharing of the water of Teesta River as Hasina, who leads the lower riparian nation, made sure to remind Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the joint statement, Hasina highlighted that the people of Bangladesh are awaiting the early signing of the Teesta water-sharing agreement which was agreed upon by both the governments in 2011. Modi conveyed to Hasina that his government is working with all stakeholders in India for the conclusion of the agreement at the earliest.
But for the time being, Bangladesh's gesture provides some relief to Sabaroo residents who were forced to rely on groundwater as their only source of potable water. Due to high iron content, the groundwater is too unfit for consumption.
A booklet assessing groundwater quality, released by the Tripura government in 2012, reveals that the presence of chemical constituents in groundwater was more than permissible limit (eg, EC, F, As, Fe) and iron was found up to 3.66 parts per million in deeper aquifers.
"Groundwater from deeper aquifers of the area is characterised by a generally high iron content which ranges from 0.5 to 3.66 ppm. The concentration of iron in groundwater is generally much above the prescribed desirable limit of 0.3 ppm and maximum permissible of 1 ppm... The enrichment of iron in the water of the area is due to the ferruginous nature of Tipam sandstones, which forms the major aquifers. The high contents of iron render groundwater unsuitable for drinking purpose, hence the level of concentration should be brought down to the desirable limit before use for drinking purpose, to avoid any health hazards," the report said.
Another report in The Telegraph stated that the iron content in groundwater is so high that it cannot be treated and neutralised even by filtration. Studies suggest that prolonged consumption of high iron content in water leads to an overload which can cause diabetes, hemochromatosis, stomach problems, nausea, and vomiting. It can also damage the liver, pancreas, and heart.
Furthermore, the over-exploitation of groundwater table and people tapping into the groundwater through private borewells led to severe water scarcity in the region.
According to a 2015 report in Down to Earth, the daily water supply had dipped by 75,000 litres in just two years and the authorities had to cut down the supply from six hours a day just a few hours ago to two hours. It is expected that the additional 1.82 cubic feet supplied every second will quench the thirst of the parched town to a large extent.
However, despite securing a breakthrough in water negotiations with Bangladesh, back home, the situation is complicated by domestic policy of development and India's poor track record in achieving effective pollution control. Sabroom, a small border town with a population of 7,142 that has been dealing with acute potable water shortage, is now set to get its first Special Economic Zone. This was one of the promises by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the Assembly elections in the state, which the Centre approved on Friday.
Chief Minister Biplab Deb had said that he aspired to establish Sabroom as a major Indo-Bangla trade centre. To further that goal, India will construct the bridge on the river Feni to get access to the Chittagong international seaport in Bangladesh and the neighbouring country has agreed to allow India to use the Chittagong port, about 75 kilometres from Sabroom, The Economic Times reported.
According to a report in The Indian Express, "Rubber based industries like tyres, surgical threads, textile and apparel industries, bamboo industries, agri-based processing industries are expected to be set up at the SEZ."
However, SEZs are known to have a considerable ecological impact, especially on the water use pattern and the quality of the groundwater.
As Himanshu Thakkar of the NGO South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People writes, "Broadly, there are three kinds of impacts that SEZ can have on access to water for the people in the SEZ area. First would be due to the diversion of water for use within the SEZ. Second impact would be the impact of the release of effluents from the SEZ. Thirdly, the conversion of land to SEZ would mean the destruction of groundwater recharge systems." Cumulatively, all these effects if not managed properly can have a devastating effect on the local population whose access to water resource is already limited.
Tripura's water scarcity was also highlighted by the additional chief engineer in the state's water resource department, Sanchayita Das, and the board's scientist SM Hossain at a seminar in January 2016. Although in a context unrelated to the establishment of an SEZ in Sabroom, the experts did acknowledge the deepening water crisis in the state.
"There has been a steady decline in rainfall... Besides, large-scale deforestation as a result of the allotment of forest land and rapid expansion of rubber cultivation beyond acceptable limits have been compounding the problems," Das said.
The establishment of rubber-based industries in the proposed SEZ will further encourage the water-guzzling rubber crop rather than discouraging it in favour of other eco-friendly practices such as rotational farming.
Apart from reclaiming India's right on the Feni river by negotiating with neighbouring Bangladesh, optimising rubber cultivation and replantation of forest land to create congenial conditions for adequate rainfall is the only solution to prevent a severe water crisis from playing out in Tripura.
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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2019 19:09:18 IST