“Water treaties aren't legally binding; what binds them is goodwill“
The Daily Star (TDS): Please tell us a bit about the importance of water diplomacy in the context of Bangladesh.
Shafiqul Islam (SI): At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, they put water at the top of the international agenda, meaning water is becoming a global security threat from multiple perspectives. There are competing demands of water for humans, agriculture, ecosystems, industries, urban development, etc. Given that the amount of water is fixed and the number of usage is increasing, conflict is inevitable.
Although Bangladesh is considered a flood-prone country, over 80% of the rain in a year is seen during 100 days and 100 hours, primarily in July, August and September. The other nine months are fairly dry. Let's take the Ganges, for instance. Most of the Ganges flow through Bangladesh occurs during the rainy season when you don't really need the water. On the other hand, you have very limited flow during dry season when you actually need it. So we have to deal with this kind of asymmetry in water availability.
Water is a renewable resource that can be used multiple times for multiple usages. For example, water for household use today can be used tomorrow to grow rice. The whole premise of water diplomacy is to use flexibility in water use and allocation to create options that currently don't exist.
TDS: Would you say there's a lack of regional cooperation on such issues?
SI: Let's focus on the word cooperation for a minute. China has decided to share rainfall and stream flow data with Bangladesh. So how will it help? The data being shared is of an area almost 2500 km upstream. When it rains in China it takes about 20 days for it to reach Bangladesh. The sharing of data is surely a sign of cooperation but it won't address the problem of limited water supply in the dry season.
We face a water crisis during the dry season but the data is going to be shared during the rainy season. When we talk about cooperation, we need to think about what that entails. We need to figure out under what situations we're going to cooperate and how; that's where the conversation is not happening. We need to first define what the problem is, for instance, is the problem flood, drought or use of water for irrigation? These are all different problems that need to be tackled differently.
For any water problem, we need to ask: Who decides? Water for whom? How are we going to achieve it? For example, if we want to provide water to everyone in the Korail slum, the problem isn't that WASA doesn't have water. The problem may be illegal settlement. WASA may consider that by providing water to the slum they'll be legally acknowledging the settlers in an illegal land. That's a much more problematic situation than availability of water. We need to diagnose the nature of the problem before we can understand where the bottleneck is to design and implement effective intervention.
TDS: In light of PM Modi's upcoming visit to Bangladesh, where do you think the focus of bilateral talks should lie in terms of water sharing (if addressed at all)?
SI: India-Bangladesh talks need not be focused on just one river, whether it's the Teesta, Brahmaputra or Ganges. Conversations about connecting different issues for different rivers need to happen simultaneously -- for example, one can think of utilising the flow of the Teesta and the Ganges together as a creative option. If India builds a dam on Teesta, does Bangladesh have a corresponding benefit? If not, can we use the flow in the Ganges to get similar benefits? Can Bangladesh get more of the Ganges flow during the dry season? That's how we must think. If we focus on the Teesta only, we'll be stuck. We have to try to link benefits so that we have mutual gains.
India's hydropower development projects aren't taking up water; it's non-consumptive use. If they had used the same water for irrigation then we'd have a problem but if the problem is only hydropower-related, then there are easier solutions. We need to come up with creative options depending on which river we're talking about and how benefits from multiple rivers can be co-shared for mutual gains.
Complexity of issues as well as competing and often conflicting values and priorities for water allocation make the process of charting a path for the future difficult. Who benefits? Who bears the burden? At what scale? At what price? These difficulties are amplified by practical questions like, how can we reconcile the water needs of India for development with the need for adequate water supply and to minimise salinity intrusion during the dry season for Bangladesh? How can increasing future demand for water meet the previous agreements for the Ganges? How can a new agreement for Teesta relate to larger regional concerns beyond water, or the needs of other GBM basin countries? How does uncertainty related to climate change, demographic shifts, and consumption habits affect annual and long-term operation and management of water in the GBM basin?
These are a small subset of many questions that need to be raised and discussed. More importantly, these questions are contingent upon the context, framing, and choice of the problem's scale. Consequently, there are no pre-specified solutions to these complex problems. As the Water Diplomacy Framework – developed by academics and practitioners from around the world led by faculty from Tufts University, MIT and Harvard University – argues, complex problems cannot be solved but can be resolved through a negotiated mutual gains approach. Hopefully, the visit of PM Modi will open the door to initiate such a conversation between Bangladesh and India.
TDS: How can the rights of a lower riparian country like Bangladesh be ensured?
SI: These rights look good on paper but it's hard to implement them in reality. Water treaties aren't legally binding; what binds them is goodwill. Despite there being wars between India and Pakistan since the Indus Treaty was signed between the two countries in 1960, the treaty is still respected. A trust has to be developed over time.
If Bangladesh and India sign a treaty on the Teesta, a neutral third party could oversee that the treaty is followed through. Since these treaties aren't enforceable, we have to develop a mutually beneficial mechanism so that they become nearly self-enforcing.