The Bengal Basin lies on the confluence of three major rivers -- Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. The Ganga basin has 1,087,000 sq. km catchments area -- 860,000 sq. km lies in India, 147,480 sq. km. in Nepal, 33,520 sq. km in China, and 46,000 sq. km in Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra River has 532,000 sq. km catchments area -- 270,900 sq. km lies in China, 47,000 sq. km in Bhutan, 190,000 sq. km in India, and 24,100 sq. km in Bangladesh. The Meghna River has 102,000 sq. km catchments area in total -- 51,000 sq. km lies in India, 1,000 sq. km in Myanmar, and 50,000 sq. km in Bangladesh. Because of this, Bangladesh has many common rivers with its neighbours.
The Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was established in Dhaka pursuant to the joint declaration of the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh on March 19, 1972. There is a counterpart JRC for India based in New Delhi. The minister of water resources is the ex-officio chairman of the Commission on each side. The JRC started its activities as an independent organisation in 2000, under the Ministry of Water Resources. It monitors flows of 57 trans-boundary rivers (54 with India and 3 with Myanmar) on an annual basis. According to the website of JRC, its activities include:
* Negotiating with the co-riparian countries on development, management and sharing of water resources of common rivers;
* Meeting with India at different levels on sharing of waters of common rivers, transmission of flood related data, river bank protection works along common/border rivers etc.;
* Monitoring and sharing of the Ganga/Ganges waters at Farakka, India, and at Hardinge Bridge, Bangladesh, from January 1 to May 31 as per the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, 1996;
* Working jointly with Nepal for harnessing common water resources, mitigating floods and flood damages, and conducting research and technical studies;
* Co-operating with China in the field of water resources, enhancing the flood forecasting capability through exchange of flood related data and information keeping in mind the principles of equality and fairness, conducting training in the relevant technical field, etc.;
* Principles of equality and fairness, conducting training in the relevant technical field, etc.;
* Working jointly with co-riparian countries on hydro-power development and water resources management under sub-regional co-operation.
According to its website, the JRC has held 37 meetings since its establishment in March 1972. Several other meetings at various levels were also held. The issues mainly addressed at those meetings are as follows:
* Sharing waters of common rivers;
* Transmission of flood related data from India to Bangladesh;
* Construction and repair of embankments and bank protection works along common/border rivers;
* River interlinking project of India;
* Tipaimukh Dam project of India;
* Mahananda Barrage constructed by India.
No meeting has been held till now after the 37th JRC meeting on March 2010 in Delhi. The 38th JRC meeting was scheduled to be held on September 5, 2011, when a deal on Teesta water sharing was to be signed. It was postponed. Several dates were set afterwards for that meeting, but were postponed on request from the Indian side. The reason for this stalemate is clear: Chief Minister of Paschimbanga Ms. Mamata Banarjee wants to reframe the proposed Teesta agreement, along a line which is not at all agreeable to the Bangladesh side. Bangladesh wants 20% water for the river and the rest distributed between India and Bangladesh on 50-50 basis. Mamata said: “There is no water in Teesta in lean period, so no water to Bangladesh.” Historical records say that the minimum average flow of Teesta is no less than 8,000 cusec towards Bangladesh.
In the 37th JRC meeting in Delhi, Bangladesh Water Resources Minister Ramesh Chandra Roy expressed satisfaction for getting 3,500 cusec of water without asking. After a secretary level meeting of JRC in Dhaka, in January 2011, it was in the air that the Teesta water sharing agreement was imminent, with the formula of dividing the flow 50-50, keeping aside 20% of the total flow for the river. But The Daily Star on September 3 carried two contradictory reports: one quoting a JRC official in Dhaka, that keeping aside 20% of the total flow for the river, water shall be divided on 48-52 basis for 15 years; the other, quoting PM's advisor Mashiur Rahman that, “In fact we do not know how much water is flowing through the Teesta River. We are to measure it for 17 years; then the agreement shall be signed.” It was stunning and a matter of great shock. On the same day, Anandabazar Patrika of Kolkata reported that by keeping aside 460 cusec of water, it shall be divided 48-52 between Bangladesh and India. This raised a big question. If 460 cusec is 20%, then the total flow (100%) is 2,300 cusec! In that case, would Bangladesh get 1,104 cusec water only?
After the Hasina-Manmohan Summit in Dhaka, Foreign Affairs Secretary of Bangladesh Mijarul Quayes said on September 8, 2011: “Teesta agreement is finalised; we are not to give any more concessions.” Since then, it has remained a mystery. What is there in the document? What is the amount of flow to be distributed? Many days have gone by since the controversy developed in September 2011; JRC has still not yet clarified to the public what was or is the real situation. In the meantime, India has closed the Gazaldoba gates towards Bangladesh, and is diverting all the lean period flow of Teesta towards the Mechi River in Bihar through the Mahananda River. Bangladesh is getting only the regenerated flow from the dry bed downstream, added by the Dharla River flow coming at Domohoni Bridge.
We often quote Article II of the Helsinki Rules of 1966, which says that 'an international drainage basin is a geographical area extending over two or more states determined by the watershed limits of the system of waters, including surface and underground waters, flowing into a common terminus.' The UN Convention on Non-navigational uses of International Watercourses of 1997 agrees with this definition [Art. 2a]. According to this clause, transfer of water from one watershed basin to other is prohibited. This convention sets out norms on agreements between watercourse states [Art. 3(3)], and those based on negotiating in good faith [Art. 3(5)], and no party can adversely affect uses of another state without the consent of that state [Art 3(4)]. The convention allows the watercourse states to utilise an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner in their respective territories [Art. 5]. This instrument can definitely settle water disputes with our neighbours.
Bangladesh did a commendable job by approaching the International Tribunal to settle its maritime boundary with Myanmar. Bangladesh is a signatory to the UN Convention on Law of the Seas, but why not to the UN Convention on International Watercourses? This convention is yet to come into force with ratification, acceptance, approval or accession by 35 countries. As on April 8, 2014, 34 countries had done it, one remains. Why is Bangladesh not doing that?
The JRC in Bangladesh is a small unit fully dependent on other departments for data and logistics. It cannot work on its own for its mandate and research. In India, the Central Water Commission, which acts as the secretariat of JRC, is very strong on its own. The JRC in Bangladesh may need reformation and integration with the Hydrology Department of the Water Ministry.
He writer is Chairman, Institute of Water & Environment.