Friday, June 26, 2020

Covid-19 hits Bhutan-India water cooperation

 Bhutanese officials scramble to restore irrigation channels after farmers thwarted by sealed border

Bhutanese officials overseeing repair work to allow water from Kalanadi to flow into irrigation channels in Assam, India [image by: Tshering Darjey]

In Baksa district of Assam in north-east India, right next to the Bhutan border, hundreds of farmers held a demonstration this month. They alleged that Bhutan had blocked the flow of water from the transboundary Kalanadi river to irrigation channels.

In normal years, the farmers walk into Bhutan through the open border and repair the channels before the monsoon. They were stopped this year because Bhutan has closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bhutanese officials point out that they have repaired the channels themselves.
There were reports in the local media saying Bhutan had blocked water to the dongs, as the traditional mud and stone irrigation channels are called.

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” said Ugyen Rabtan, vice-president of the Bhutan India Friendship Association’s (BIFA) Gelephu chapter. “Why should we stop water flowing down from the hills? The farmers from Baksa wish to cross the border to repair the dong channels but due to Covid-19 related protocols this cannot be allowed as Bhutan is taking strict measures to keep the country pandemic-free. But instead of having a dialogue with the local authorities about our efforts, these farmers have been misled into believing that we have deliberately stopped the water.”

Sewali Borgiary, a member of the local association that organised the demonstration, told news site East Mojo, “At this time every year farmers of the locality enter Samdrup Jonkhar [a town in Bhutan] and repair the irrigation channels to carry water of Kalanadi river to the paddy fields on the Indian side. But this year, due to Covid-19, the authorities in Bhutan have refused the entry of Indian farmers. Because of this, for the last five days the dongs have not been able to carry water to the paddy fields. We need water. Otherwise, we won’t hesitate to intensify our agitation.”

Explaining the situation, Tshering Namgyel, the BIFA focal person in Samdrup Jongkhar, said in a Facebook post that for the past three months since the lockdown started, officials and communities in Bhutan, “have been doing our best to ensure continuous supply of water to our farmer friends of India… Due to frequent rainfall in the mountain ranges resulting in sudden increase in the flow of water sometimes our hard and sincere efforts go in vain.”

Officials in Bhutan supervise the repair of irrigation channels so that water can flow
 to farms in India [image by: Tshering Namgyel]

When in spate (containing more water than usual and flowing fast), the river washes away the mud and stone walls that farmers put up to channel the water.

Dahal Narzary, who works in an NGO in the nearby town of Kokrajhar in Assam agreed with Namgyel. “It is difficult to understand why these farmers are agitating,” he said. “If anything, the DC (district commissioner) of Samdrup Jongkhar himself oversaw the repairs to channel the water to Baksa district. Unfortunately, due to heavy rains, the repairs were washed away last week. Following the news of the farmers’ problems, he hired another JCB [earth mover] and had the channels repaired once again.”

The dong system
This part of Assam bordering Bhutan is peopled largely by Bodos, believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the state. They practise a highly efficient community-managed irrigation system called Dong-Jamphai, which is over 100 years old. Dongs are created by digging canals that channel water from the many rivers and streams flowing down from Bhutan to Assam to reach fields and homesteads in the villages downstream.

Typically, a dong network starts at the point of diversion from a river or water source. The larger systems have subsidiary channels, around 3-5 feet wide, taking off from the main dong channel (7-12 feet wide). These subsidiary canals branch off eventually into jamphai, or field channels that supply water to the farms. Usually dongs dry out naturally at the end of their course or meet other large water bodies like rivers or wetlands.

The dongs are narrow but very long, with branches and sub-branches extensively throughout the paddy fields that are the main source of livelihood in the area. They can irrigate up to 5,000 hectares. The longest dong is reported to be 10 kilometers, but most are between 2 and 5 kilometers long.

A typical dong [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]

Community institutions called ‘dong-bandh committees’ oversee each point of this intricate network. These committees are found throughout the four districts of Bodoland Territorial Administration Council – Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri, and Chirang.

There is a long history of cooperation between the people of Bhutan and Assam over the maintenance of dongs and an informal early warning system on floods. Villagers, NGOs, and local administration from both sides of the border are very proud of this long-standing cooperation.

See: Villagers in Bhutan and India come together to share river
See:  WhatsApp messages from Bhutan save lives in Assam

The farmers in Baksa district decided to hold a demonstration despite this history. It may be a coincidence that elections in Bodoland are just around the corner. One observer said, “As soon as the Bhutan officials realised what was up, they took immediate measures to fix the problem and allow the water to flow. The problem is solved now.”

Animesh Prakash of Oxfam India, who has been studying the dong system as part of Oxfam’s Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme, said, “In the long term, this people to people cooperation needs to be institutionalised where both governments including local administration should have significant roles to play. Already the cooperation between the civil society organisations on both sides of Indo-Bhutan border is considered unique in the region. Such cooperation is very significant in these trying times.”

This report was first published on

Thursday, June 18, 2020

India’s first climate change report offers a stern warning

A new report by the Government of India reveals that local climate change is influenced not only by the increase in greenhouse gases but also by the increase in air pollution and the local changes in the land-use pattern. The report goes on to warn that the rapid changes in India’s climate will place increasing stress on the country’s natural ecosystems, agricultural output, and freshwater resources, while also causing escalating damage to infrastructure and economy.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences’ (MoES) ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’ is the first-ever attempt to document and assess climate change in different parts of India. The report describes the observed changes and future projections of precipitation, temperature, monsoon, drought, sea level, tropical cyclones, and extreme weather events.

The report is edited by scientists of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, and unlike the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports that are global, this report looks at regional climate change projections based on the IITM Earth System Model and Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment datasets.

According to the report, India’s average temperature has risen by around 0.7°C during 1901–2018 and projects that the frequency of summer (April–June) heatwaves over India will be 3 to 4 times higher (approximately 4.4°C) by the end of the 21st century as compared to the 1976–2005 baseline period. This, in turn, will lead to a high likelihood of an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts (>2 events per decade), compounded by the increased variability of monsoon precipitation and increased water vapour demand in a warmer atmosphere.

The seasonal monsoon rains during the June-September months, which contribute to more than 75 percent of the annual rainfall, and are vital for India’s agriculture and economy, has declined by around 6 percent from 1951 to 2015, with notable decreases over the Indo-Gangetic Plains and the Western Ghats. There also has been a shift in the recent period toward more frequent dry spells (27 percent higher during 1981–2011, relative to 1951–1980) and more intense wet spells during the summer monsoon season.

This trend of increasing year-to-year rainfall variability will disrupt rain-fed agricultural food production that will adversely impact food security in the future.
The report further cautions that the growing propensity for droughts and floods because of changing rainfall patterns caused by climate change would be detrimental to surface and groundwater recharge, posing threats to the country’s water security.

At the end of the 21st century, sea level in the North Indian Ocean (NIO) is projected to rise by approximately 300 mm relative to the average over 1986–2005, with the corresponding projection for the global mean rise being approximately 180 mm. Low-lying coastal zones, especially on India’s east coast, may witness rising sea levels damaging property and increasing groundwater salinity. A rise in cyclone intensities will result in increasing inundation from the accompanying storm surges that will turn coastal agricultural lands and lakes saline, and imperil wildlife.

Climate models also project a rise in the intensity of tropical cyclone intensity and precipitation in the NIO basin during the 21st century. Already, observations indicate that frequency of extremely severe cyclonic storms (ESCS) over the Arabian Sea has increased during the post-monsoon seasons of 1998–2018. Cyclone Nisarga that devastated parts of Maharashtra coastline earlier this month practically proves that the climate modelling in this report is remarkably accurate.

The report observes that the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau have experienced a temperature rise of about 1.3°C during 1951–2014. The warming trend has been particularly pronounced over the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), which is the largest area of permanent ice cover outside the North and South Poles. Popularly known as the ‘Third Pole’, the meltwater generated from the Himalayan glaciers supplies the rivers and streams of the region, including the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river systems of India. These rivers collectively provide about 50 percent of the country’s total utilisable surface water resources. Several areas of the HKH have experienced a declining trend in snowfall and also retreat of glaciers in recent decades. By the end of the 21st century, the annual mean surface temperature over the HKH is projected to increase by about 5.2°C.

Finally, the report concludes that rising temperatures are also likely to increase energy demand for space cooling, which if met by thermal power would constitute to global warming by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, a rise in water withdrawal by power plants would directly compete with water withdrawal for agriculture and domestic consumption, particularly in water-stressed areas.

On the other hand, power plants located around the coast that use seawater for cooling are vulnerable to damage from sea-level rise, cyclones, and storm surge. In short, climate change could impact the reliability of the country’s energy infrastructure and supply.

Although this path-breaking report is not intended to be ‘policy prescriptive’, the message is clear — in the absence of rapid, informed and far-reaching mitigation and adaptation measures, the impacts of climate change are likely to pose profound challenges to sustaining the country’s rapid economic growth and achieving the sustainable development goals.

First Published in Moneycontrol