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India and Bangladesh at odds over water as rivers run low

For years, through deluges and droughts, India and Bangladesh have bickered over water. Now, water experts say, they are running out of time to settle their differences.

The countries are spanned by the basin of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, two of the world's largest and most erratic waterways. During the summer monsoon season, when 80 percent of the annual rain falls, the rivers become raging torrents spreading destruction.

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But, during dry months, the rivers slow, at places to a trickle, causing water shortages and drought. The lean flows have fed a 37-year dispute between India and what is now Bangladesh over sharing the waters.

Experts in both New Delhi and Dacca say the stalemate is blocking regional development and may soon bring new misery to one of the poorest and most densely populated areas.

The basin's population of about 500 million is expected to more than double by the middle of the next century, further slowing the current economic growth rate of only 1.3 percent, according to private estimates.

``These are not two rivers but one river in one region,'' says Mahesh Chaturvedi, a water resources expert in New Delhi. ``If economic development does not take place in Bangladesh, then India also is hurt because poverty and other development problems are [infectious].''

However, political observers say it will be difficult to resolve the dispute. For two years, Bangladesh has suffered devastating floods, meanwhile two-thirds of India is enduring the worst drought of the century.

With the expiration of a three-year water-sharing agreement last month, the two governments have begun talks on a new pact. Both countries, which first agreed to share water in 1977, contend that a longer term plan is needed but are deeply divided on the best course.

Ninety percent of Bangladesh's water flow, upon which most of its economy depends, originates in India. Officials in Dacca claim India is holding the country's economy hostage. If water management measures are further delayed, Bangladesh could see serious food shortages by the year 2000, they predict.

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``We can't solve the problems of irrigation in the dry season and floods in the monsoon season because India is not sharing the waters,'' says Amjad Hussain Khan, head of the Water Development Board in Dacca.

Bangladesh has proposed building a series of dams at the headwaters of tributaries to the Ganges in Nepal. During the wet season, the dams could help control floods and store water.

India, however, is not anxious to share the Ganges flow which officials say already is short of water. India maintains that Bangladesh has too much water and is exaggerating shortages.

Anxious to keep control over the Gange's sources, India has shunned involving Nepal and proposed a 200-mile long, half-mile wide canal to channel water from the Brahmaputra to the water-short Ganges. Bangladesh officials say the canal's impact would be disastrous.

``India has said no to the Bangladesh package and Bangladesh has said no to the India package, and there they are, glowering at each other,'' observes B.G. Verghese, an analyst who follows water issues.

Meanwhile, the millions of people living along the Ganges and Brahmaputra and their tributaries pay a high price for the political delays. Only ten percent of the population in the river basin has safe drinking water, and irrigation covers only a quarter of the cultivatable land.

Efforts for flood control and navigation improvements are just beginning, and only two percent of the basin's hydroelectric potential has been developed, says Mr. Chaturvedi. India is experiencing widespread deforestation. And acute water shortages in New Delhi recently have brought public outcry.

In the northwest of Bangladesh, water was also in short supply in the January-April dry season. Water experts say in the last two years, the signs of a desert have begun to appear.

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