A bend in the Ganges

The Ganges: A Dying River (13 minutes, directed by Nazneen Azmi) is a condemnation of India's control over the Ganges waters, thanks to the the Farakka barrage. It has been produced by Hasna Moudud, team co-ordinator of the NGO Women for Water Sharing, with the help of the Foundation Pour Le Progre's de L'Homme.

Visually, it tries to accomplish this task mostly by a series of shots of silted up riverbeds. Although the voiceover tells us that untimely release of waters from the barrage subjects Bangladesh to a precarious existence, alternating as it is between severe drought and monsoon floods, we see only one shot of heavy rains eroding riverbanks.

More damning statistics are cited by Amzad Husain Khan, ex-chairperson of the Bangladesh Water Board. He points out that after 25 years of negotiation, a 10-year agreement was signed between India and Bangladesh that 34,500 cusecs of water would be released from Farakka every year. But in 1993, only 9,000 cusecs were released.

At the famous mile-long Hardinge bridge 112 km downstream from the Farakka barrage, there are formations of sandbags where water once flowed. The average flow of water has decreased by 60 per cent. In February 1994, the average depth of the Ganges was 10 metres, not enough to sustain agriculture.

The ramifications of what is undoubtedly an ecological disaster are obvious: peasants becoming daily labourers, having to do without their traditional fish diet, depleting groundwater through handpumps, migration in search of a livelihood...and, of course, the fact that in all these hardships it is the women and children who suffer most.

The question posed by the documentary is: "How long does a country like Bangladesh have to wait for a fair and equitable share of the water?" It offers a couple of solutions: in the short term, release of water at the right times by India. In the long term, a move towards integrated basin management of the Ganga, Mehgna and Brahmaputra should be endorsed to preserve the ecosystem of one of the world's largest delta regions.

Bangladesh may be unable to escape its fate of frequent natural disasters due to geological factors. There should, however, be a move to reduce the incidence of human-made disasters.