The waters we share with our neighbours
Twenty-Four years ago, when the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India signed the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty on December 12, 1996, it was quite a different world to mark such a milestone. No social media, no late-night talk shows. But there was excitement, concern, and confusion that invaded the parliament, the streets and the media. After all, it was the first-ever long-term water-sharing treaty signed between the two South Asian neighbours.
Politically, it was a great achievement for the then Awami League government to sign this long-awaited deal within the first 175 days of assuming power, 21 years after losing it to the assassination of the Father of the Nation.
Having 54 rivers coming from India and three from Myanmar, handling of transboundary rivers like the Ganges has always been a sensitive political agenda for Bangladesh. But transnational water sharing soon went beyond being a mere partisan agenda defining the country's major political fronts. It became an environmental issue as well. Reduced water flowing from the upstream via the Ganges impacted the Sundarbans mangrove, shared between Bangladesh and India, changing this unique ecosystem badly.
Since the Ganges Treaty was signed, we have come to know that due to climate change, rains are now falling quite oddly on South Asian soil causing unusual flooding. Our seas are continuously rising, our coastal areas are being hit by surges and storms more frequently and strongly, and our coast is much saltier than it used to be three decades ago. So, whatever we do or do not with the rivers flowing from Bhutan, India, Nepal, and China has a significant impact on the survival of the 170 million people of Bangladesh. But the harshest fact is, despite so much concern and discussion over transboundary water sharing, not a single bilateral treaty has been signed between Bangladesh and India over the last quarter of a century.
Following numerous talks, an interim deal to share the water of Teesta River has been gathering dust since 2011. In India, the largest democracy in the world, the state governments' say on the transnational water sharing issue is more crucial than the central government's intentions. That leaves Bangladesh at the mercy of how Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Sikkim play their parts to share the rivers, like the Ganges and the Teesta, within India before they cross the border into Bangladesh.
Being on the receiving end, Bangladesh continues to be positive towards the transboundary waters, demonstrating its willingness not just by issuing occasional optimistic statements but also through actions. In October 2019, for example, it signed an MoU with India to supply drinking water to a township of 7,000 people in the Tripura state.
However, despite the painful sluggishness at the state level on this issue, there have been some interesting developments and interventions in the non-political, non-governmental arenas involving these two countries since 2010.
For example, the Dutch, who first visited the Bengal delta about 400 years ago, have shown genuine interest in the waters and coasts of Bangladesh over the last five decades—be it through coastal protection, long-term development initiatives like the Char Development and Settlement Project (CDSP), and most recently, supporting a century-spanning planning process called "Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100".
In 2010, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands took a notable step. It supported a five-year project to bring together non-governmental actors, both individuals and organisations, from Bangladesh and India to create a space to talk about the shared river ecosystems and the peoples, and to help improve the management of these ecosystems between the neighbours. This project was called "Ecosystems for Life" (E4L), implemented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The E4L took a soft approach and implemented softer activities. It organised numerous meetings, workshops, and sessions with all possible stakeholders discussing a wide range of issues in Dhaka, New Delhi, Bangkok, and other cities of the host countries. It supported individual and joint studies by academics, enabled NGOs to take field actions, and organised media campaigns. Studies on the biology and management of hilsa fish were particularly notable due to their direct policy implications and transfer of experience from Bangladesh to India. The project benefitted immensely from the advice of reputed ex-diplomats, notable scholars, and experts from both countries. The E4L did create a momentum of enthusiasm over transboundary water governance or "hydrodiplomacy" in both countries at different tiers and in different sectors, especially when conversations between the national governments were slow.
Despite an unprecedentedly generous investment in soft activities, like networking and knowledge creation around regional water governance, it was rather difficult to see the tangible milestones this initiative eventually achieved. The Dutch embassy was not seen to support any follow-up activities beyond the E4L. This may indicate that the Dutch might have expected rather concrete outcomes from this well-invested regional water governance venture.
It was not an end on the IUCN side, however. IUCN in Asia capitalised its global experience, drawn from programmes like the Building River Dialogue and Governance (BRIDGE), and tried to put together smaller transboundary water diplomacy activities involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal. Since 2015, it has been trying to follow the same approach it tried in the E4L partnering with The Hague Institute for Global Justice and Asia Foundation, for example. Government officials from both countries did continue attending meetings and workshops, frankly expressing their opinions on issues on the table. These were indeed important incremental changes while dealing with sensitive issues like hydrodiplomacy. But focusing on individual events, rather than comprehensive ones, failed to regain the momentum of the E4L lost in December 2014.
One of the on-going regional water governance programmes that has been supportive to IUCN's E4L legacy is Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA). Since 2017, Oxfam has been implementing this project in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, and the Salween River basin in Myanmar with funding from the government of Sweden. Oxfam, given its people-oriented rights-based vision, has defined this project in its own way.
The TROSA has been essentially focusing on local, small river basin level interventions involving two countries, promoting stronger youth and women engagement in water governance, rather than region-wide, high-level policy influencing actions. Aligning with the TROSA, IUCN Asia is currently focusing more on institutionalising a vibrant regional Civil Society Organisation (CSO) platform engaged in regional water governance—a realistic, focused initiative, but far from the all-encompassing dreams that the E4L showed.
Over the last few years, these non-governmental initiatives have gained another dimension as international research organisations are often seen to focus their regional initiatives not on countries but on deltas, given the huge populations these harbour and the vulnerability they face under climate change.
Led by the Newcastle University, UK, the Living Deltas Hub project has brought together more than 30 organisations to gather knowledge on three Asian deltas—the Red River, the Mekong, and the GBM. The CGIAR's global Two Degree Initiative (2DI) for a climate-smart food system also focused on three mega deltas—the Mekong, the Irrawaddy, and the GBM—to understand the Asian context. These initiatives are creating space to take the conversation around shared waters at an apolitical, non-governmental level. The interests in delta are growing fast. The first virtual Gobeshona Global Conference, to be held on January 18-24, 2021, is expected to have discussions on delta as one of the mega themes throughout the week. Bangladesh is, and will always be, a core part of such conversations in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.
But we really cannot talk about Bangladesh's water without talking about its transnational rivers. The civil society organisations of this region lack conveying power when it comes to regional water governance. Initiatives by international organisations with convening authority often fail to be impactful due to their inherent donor dependency. Regional research initiatives may help us understand what a delta means, show us connectivity among ecosystems beyond political boundaries, and also offer us a shared vision for collaborative environmental governance. But these conversations and knowledge mean nothing unless our governments talk.
December 12, 2026 seems to be far way, when the Ganges Treaty expires. But is it really that far?
Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems.
His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah