SURFACE covers only 0.02% of the global water resources, comprising water in rivers, lakes, ponds, canals, etc. There are 263 transboundary lakes and rivers in the world. They carry more than 60% of river water and their basins cover 44% of the world's basins. The riparians have water-use rights. Significant increases in water demand have created conflicts in almost half of the shared basins all over the world. The co-basin water conflict between Bangladesh and India has also become acute.
Bangladesh has 310 rivers, of which 54 enter from India. It is only 7% of one million square km basin of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system. It has 1% water in dry season and 99% in wet season, mainly due to Indian diversion of upstream water. The Farakka barrage on the Ganges was the first diversion initiative. Meanwhile, the number of barrages on 36 transboundary rivers has increased to 54. Such withdrawal has worsened the water situation in Bangladesh. Another problem is the Indian river-linking mega project, which will divert 141 cubic km water through artificial lakes to Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujrat and a few other states. How do the international laws and right systems cover such deprivation of a downstream country?
Upstream water rights are protected for Bangladesh in both the riparian and the appropriative right systems. The riparian rights allow the riparian to make reasonable uses. On the other hand, appropriative rights provide priority to senior users based on first in time, first in right. Nobody can deprive us of our historic rights going back over 3,000 years. In this regard, some international conventions have guidelines for water sharing. The Helsinki Rules 1966 call for reasonable and equitable use without causing substantial damage to co-basin states. Debates on this were held and the UN General Assembly accepted the 'Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses' in 1997. It puts obligation on each riparian to communicate and to cooperate and not to cause significant harm to any party. It also recommends conflict resolution with special regard to vital human needs. Can this law establish our social rights in the wave of economic dynamism?
The demand for water has increased over time for intensifying economic activities of growing population. Higher consumption in both agriculture and industry has led to small-scale diversions along the river way. Naturally, the price or user-cost of surface water is lower than that of groundwater. Consequently, the economic needs of upstream countries disregard the water rights of downstream countries. In addition, water quality gets deteriorated because of dumping of toxic chemicals and human wastes into a river. The Ganges alone receives three billion liters of sewage each day from dozens of urban centres on its bank. Consequently, the negative effects of diversion and abuse of river water cost us a lot.
Our upstream flow and rainfall contribute to 74% and 24% of surface water, respectively. It is not possible to irrigate three-quarter of our net crop area using surface water, even with adequate river flow. However, groundwater is recharged up to five meters from upstream and rain water in the wet season. As the river flow, which contributes to three-quarter of recharging, is decreasing, the water layer is going down. This has raised the cost of irrigation by 25% in a few northern districts. Moreover, low water flow has lifted the river beds up and reduced their water conveyance capacity. Consequently, the rate of river erosion reached 8,700 hectares per year and 117 small rivers died. Coastal erosion and saline water intrusion affected 5% of total land area. The cost of Indian water diversion is reported to be Tk. 300 billion. Can Bangladesh claim compensation or stop interventions through bilateral or international negotiations?
Without well-defined property rights, voluntary negotiations can neither realise compensation nor reduce negative externality as per the Coase theorem. How can negotiation bring water if India has disincentives to stop current and planned uses of cheap water? It is yet to implement the Ganges 30 years water sharing agreement. It did not even release agreed amount of water in 2009. Moreover, it was reluctant to agree to Teesta water sharing in the UN International Year of Water Cooperation with the excuse that a state government did not agree to it. Moreover, it is going to spend Rs.1 billion for river-linking project, which is a violation of the Ganges treaty that does not allow any interventions on common rivers without consensus. This project will largely reduce the flow of Brahmaputra and Jamuna. The Tipaimukh dam project may be revived any time, and that will reduce the flow to Meghna. How will Bangladesh save its lifeline, the Padma-Meghna-Jamuna?
Naturally, any fair and equitable distribution will raise the cost of water for India. However, it has no right to claim any economic compensation. Has Bangladesh the ability to pay for transboundary water, or should it? Bangladesh has given partial corridor for equipment and food supply in the name of bilateral negotiations, not as a trade-off for water. Strict economic sanctions are needed to deter political interventions on the international rivers. However, international solution is possible. A dispute among 11 riparian nations in the Nile basin was resolved under an initiative of the UNDP and World Bank. Bangladesh needs to take such an initiative.
Our maritime boundary dispute was settled through international arbitration, which might not have been achieved bilaterally. The UN conventions also allow the riparian nations to submit their legal disputes to an ad hoc or a permanent arbitral tribunal, or to the International Court of Justice. The non-implementation of the Ganges agreement may be placed for international arbitration. However, a question is, how much would the terms and conditions of the agreement favour us? We did not move for arbitration on the river-linking project initiated in 1980. Will it be easy to stop the project after investment is made?
If everything goes as usual, water crisis will cause rice crisis in Bangladesh. The water requirement for winter farming will be 1.6 times the current use in 2030. Winter rice farming will need an extra 9 billion cubic meters of groundwater to produce self-sufficiency, which is not possible at present because of upstream conditions. This is not the time to show anxiety but to seek international help to establish our rights on international rivers.
The writer is Associate Professor and Chairman, Department of Economics, Comilla University.