Indo-Bangla water conflict/cooperation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 28, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 28, 2011

Indo-Bangla water conflict/cooperation

There were a lot of expectations from the Hasina-Manmohan summit, particularly Teesta water sharing treaty. But, they were in vain. Bangladesh has been negotiating for a long time with India for harnessing, developing, and equitably sharing trans-boundary river water, which has been a major cause of dispute between them.
Water is a natural resource, and natural resources in general have an impact on conflict/cooperation dynamics. First, they are embedded in a shared social space. Actions undertaken by one individual or group or country may generate effects far off-site. Second, natural resources are subject to increasing scarcity, which is complicated by issues like unequal distribution. From the perspective of the above characteristics, trans-boundary waters are important in the development of patterns of conflicts or cooperation.
Regrettably, despite sharing fifty-four rivers with India, Bangladesh has only one water sharing treaty with it, on the River Ganges, which was signed in 1996. But India removed the guarantee and arbitration clauses regarding minimum water from the treaty. On sharing of common rivers, Article 9 of the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty makes it obligatory for India to conclude water sharing agreements with Bangladesh on principles of equity, fairness and no harm to either party. But the real picture is different. Although a thirty-year water treaty has been in effect between the two countries since 1996, India has been diverting water according to its will, depriving Bangladesh from its just share during dry season.
After originating from the Himalayas in most cases, the rivers flow through a third country, before they cross into Bangladesh. This has put Bangladesh in a tight spot on the issue of sharing water from the rivers that come through India.
The trans-boundary rivers flow through Indian territory, but India did not come into agreement with Bangladesh on the blockage or diversion of river water although an Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission (JRC) has existed since 1972. India constructed the Farakka Barrage in 1975 in order to divert a portion of dry season flow to increase the navigability of Calcutta port. When the Barrage went into operation in 1975, the fresh water supply of the Ganges decreased considerably, with a number of consequent effects in the south-west part of Bangladesh. Moreover, agriculture, navigation, irrigation, fisheries, forestry, industrial activities, salinity intrusion of the coastal rivers, ground water depletion, river silting, coastal erosion, sedimentation as well as normal economic activities have been adversely affected.
Water sharing of Ganges is one of the most serious and disputed issues that have bedeviled relations between India and Bangladesh. Conflict regarding the sharing of the water resources in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system between India and Bangladesh can be traced back since the birth of Bangladesh.
The construction of Tipaimukh dam on the trans-boundary Barak River has raised hue and cry both in Manipur state in India and in Bangladesh. According to experts, the construction of the dam in a geologically sensitive zone, adjacent to the Taithu Fault, is a major concern. A major earthquake may cause the failure of the dam and endanger the lives, land and forests of both India and Bangladesh. The risk of dam failure is a significant issue. A dam-break is a catastrophic failure which results in the sudden draining of the reservoir and a severe flood wave that may cause destruction and death downstream in Bangladesh.
If India implements the project, the downstream Meghna river will lose its water flow and the country will gradually turn into a desert amid acute water crisis. Without any doubt, this dam will have catastrophic effects on Bangladesh like Farakka. India's river linking projects (RLP) is highly likely to have disastrous consequences for Bangladesh, in even greater magnitude and scale covering the whole of the country.
It is unfortunate that India has postponed the proposed Teesta water sharing deal with Bangladesh amid opposition from Paschimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Mamata had expressed her unhappiness about equal sharing of Teesta water with Bangladesh, and strongly believes that Bangladesh should get only 25% of the water.
No state has the right to divert the natural flow of international river water within its territory through unilateral action. The question of water sharing treaty should not arise regarding an international river. If one looks at West Europe and North America then it will be clearer. They do not divide the water, they collaborate in its use, development and preservation. During the last twenty years East Europe (ex. Save river), Africa (ex. Lake Victoria, Zambezi river), South America (Pantanal, Paraguay river) did the same.
Water sharing of international rivers must be on the basis of international law of rivers. India has no right to divert waters of international rivers like Ganges or Teesta. The International Law Association in 1966 laid down that every riparian state is entitled to a reasonable and equitable share in the beneficial uses of waters of international drainage basin. The UN International Law Commission (in Article 7) also emphasises that states shall utilise an international river in an equitable and reasonable manner.
Therefore, it is a legal right of Bangladesh to get equitable share with regard to water sharing. This is not benevolence but justice. Bangladesh should take a strong stand during negotiations as national interest is the cornerstone for any negotiator, and each of the parties will try to ensure its national interest.
Freshwater is already a scarce resource and is becoming scarcer day by day, which could be a source of conflict. Therefore, there is no alternative but cooperation with regard to water sharing. Regional cooperation of the co-riparian countries is crucial for Bangladesh to address her water challenges. Bangladesh needs to build up coalition and strengthen lobbying with Nepal, Bhutan as well as with Pakistan as there is a water sharing dispute between India and Pakistan.
Many experts suggest that it is not possible to resolve the water dispute with India bilaterally and, therefore, we have to raise the issue in multilateral forums like the UN. In this regard, former joint secretary A. B. M. S. Zahur said: "We have waited for 36 years and failed to solve the problem bilaterally. It appears we have no option except taking the matter before the UN to draw the attention of the world community to our miserable plight. We want dispensation of justice, not favour or benevolence (The Daily Star, April 2, 2010)."
Unless the riparian countries join together to ensure optimum use of water, there is a likelihood of conflict and tension in the future. Saarc can play an important role in reducing vulnerability to future water-related disasters through regional cooperation on water management and conservation and development of cooperative projects at regional level in terms of exchange of best practices and knowledge, capacity building and transfer of eco-friendly technologies.
Many think that there is another lesson for Bangladeshi negotiators from Kautillay's diplomacy. Indian mindset and zero-sum gain attitude in negotiation must change to ensure long and healthy Bangladesh-India relationship. Lastly and most importantly, India and Bangladesh should recognise and respect each other's rights, and efforts should be made to firm up regional cooperation to solve the problems of the rivers and the people who depend on them to avoid a water conflict in future.

The writer is a Post-Graduate student in International Relations Department, University of Dhaka. E-mail:

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