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Water Scarcity and the Threat of Water Wars in South Asia – A Bangladesh Perspective
June 6, 2009, 6:29 pm
Filed under: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, SubContinent

Water Scarcity and the Threat of Water Wars in South Asia – A Bangladesh Perspective

MBI Munshi

mbimunshi@gmail.com

 INTRODUCTION

South Asia is known for many wonderful and beautiful things such as its varied cultures, languages, religions, landscapes and peoples but above all it is known for its volatility and sudden outbreaks of violence and often brutal and destructive conflicts. The Indian subcontinent, as it was once known, was partitioned on the basis of religion in 1947 according to the concept of the two-nation theory. Since then several wars have been fought over territory, sovereignty and in one case for independence which eventually led to the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 as an independent nation-state. As things now stand the next war in the South Asia region could well be over water. This appears almost inevitable unless India adopts a more accommodative attitude towards its neighbour’s claims for reasonable and equitable water sharing rights. Recent history has, however, suggested quite the opposite with New Delhi ignoring the just demands of Bangladesh which as the lower riparian nation is wholly dependant for its survival on the regular and sustained flow of water coming through India from the Himalayas.  

Since 1971 Bangladesh has generally adopted a defensive attitude in its relations with its large neighbour in recognition of the economic and military might of India. However, if New Delhi continues with its policy of draining the life blood of Bangladesh it is more than likely that this small but populous nation would be forced to take on a more assertive role in its relations with India and in realizing its just demands for water, as well as in addition to other contentious bilateral issues, could ultimately lead to conflict in the coming decade. Policy makers in Bangladesh are yet to wake up to this reality but as a new generation of leaders emerge faced with the calamitous consequences of the large scale withdrawal and diversion of water by India they may have few choices but to confront New Delhi in a more aggressive and confrontational manner. This may appear at first glance to be highly unlikely but with millions displaced by desertification and the numerous other adverse effects (some of which has wrongly been attributed to climate change to distract world attention to the actual causes of environmental damage in Bangladesh) of the Indian water withdrawal policy such a scenario cannot be easily dismissed. Fueling this growing animosity would be decades of mistrust caused by an arrogant and duplicitous policy devised and practiced by India’s politicians and diplomats in their dealings with Bangladesh.  

 BACKGROUND TO WATER SHARING DISPUTES

The very geographical location of Bangladesh makes it the lowest riparian country of more than 50 trans-boundary rivers. The waters of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and other trans-boundary rivers have been sustaining the life and living of millions of Bangladeshis. Without these waters, the livelihood of millions of Bangladeshis would come under severe stress. Unfortunately, since independence, Bangladesh has been observing with great concern, the gradual reduction of the dry season flows of the Ganges, Teesta and many other trans-boundary rivers due to anthropogenic interventions across the borders – primarily by India. Since its independence in 1947, India has made intensive efforts to harness and develop the water resources in the Ganges basin. The data indicates that India now has several dozen large barrages and other diversionary structures operating in the basin which are capable of diverting 100,000 cusec flows from the Ganges and its different tributaries. Moreover, India has constructed more than 400 major, medium and small storage dams in the basin area. Of these, the major storage reservoirs have a total capacity of 2221 billion cubic feet or 63 billion cubic meters (BCM). Bangladesh itself could not embark upon any such major development of the waters of the trans-boundary rivers including the Ganges in the face of uncertainties of its dry season availability from across the border. Moreover, the flat terrain of Bangladesh does not allow any storage of excess monsoon waters for use during the dry season and such projects would in any case be extortionately exorbitant for the country at its present stage of development and with its limited financial resources.

The consequences for Bangladesh of India’s policy of diversion and withdrawal of water have been both dramatic and devastating. Upstream diversion of the precious dry season flows of the Ganges has adversely affected the hydrology, river morphology, agriculture, domestic and municipal water supply, fishery, forestry, wildlife, industry, navigation, public health and biodiversity in large areas of Bangladesh dependent on the Ganges water. Western analysts have been duped into believing that these negative environmental affects are caused by climate change that will in a few decades result in the rise of sea waters that will inundate large areas of the country. However, the actual cause of increased salinity in the south-western region of Bangladesh has been India’s diversion and withdrawal of water which allows ingress of sea water from the Bay of Bengal due to the reduced natural fresh water flows in the opposite direction during the dry season. Another extremely serious but indirect consequence of this water diversion policy is the contamination of ground water with arsenic. With the reduction of water from India millions in Bangladesh are now forced to access ground water which if pumped continuously over a prolonged period assists a chemical reaction that oxidizes naturally occurring arseno-pyrites deep in the soil resulting in the release of arsenic into the water – a process which may properly described as almost akin to mass poisoning. This consequential alarming degradation of the environment and water supply in south-western Bangladesh has already forced thousands to leave in quest of survival elsewhere. In the face of deteriorating human health, reduced economic productivity and loss of amenities, life and living in this part of Bangladesh people are becoming increasingly vulnerable, insecure and resentful. These are probably the prime causes of conflict between states if history is to be any guide.

THE FARAKKA BARRAGE PROJECT AND DIVERSION OF THE GANGES WATER

 If we leave aside the period between 1947-1971 when Bangladesh was called East Pakistan and considered by India as a hostile entity the likelihood of agreement on water sharing was obviously limited. However, it was during this period that Indian diplomacy became a byword for duplicity and this approach was to continue in its relations with Bangladesh after it obtained independence from Pakistan with the help of the Indian military – which in hindsight had very little to do with altruism or kind hearted generosity and more to do with Indian geo-strategic imperatives. In any case, it was on October 29, 1951 that the then Pakistan government drew the attention of the Indian authorities to the report of a scheme for diverting large amounts of dry season flow of the Ganges. Four months later, on 8 March, 1952 India replied that the project was only under preliminary investigation and described Pakistan’s concern over probable effects as purely hypothetical. Again on May 22, 1953 India reassured Pakistan that the Farraka and Gandak projects (a tributary of the Ganges) were still being investigated and India would appreciate cooperative development of the water resources of the Ganges. Nine years after the issue was first mooted the Government of India announced that it was going ahead with the plan to build a barrage across the River Ganges at Farraka[i] and Pakistan was formally informed. Talks took place occasionally between 1961 and 1970 but real negotiation and consultations did not. By 1970 India completed construction of the Farraka Barrage. The 24 mile feeder canal was, however, not yet ready.

While the Indian government’s behaviour towards Pakistan during this 19 year period (1951-1970) is explicable on the grounds that both nations were inherently inimical towards each other having just fought two wars within just thirty years it is still not explainable why India would adopt the same negotiating tactics towards the new nation of Bangladesh which it had recently assisted in its liberation war? I have provided my own theory in my book ‘The India Doctrine’ where I draw attention to India’s policy of domination over South Asia and an underlying resentment over the 1947 partition which seemingly allows Indian policy makers to ignore the just grievances of its smaller neighbours and not merely in the area of water sharing but including the whole array of bilateral issues that now bedevil interstate relations in the region.

After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 relations with India gradually deteriorated and this was reflected in negotiations between the countries over water sharing rights. The Governments of India and Bangladesh decided in March 1972 to set up the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC). One of the major functions of the JRC was to maintain liaison between the participating countries in order to ensure the most effective joint efforts in maximizing the benefits from common river systems to both the countries. The question of sharing the water of the Ganges was, however, kept out of the purview of the JRC, to be settled at the level of Prime Ministers. In this regard, many in Bangladesh felt at the time that the Awami League government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was too compliant and would easily buckle to Indian demands which actually turned out to be the case. The Prime Minister of India and Bangladesh met in New Delhi in May 1974 and discussed amongst other things, the Ganges issue. Following this meeting, there was a Joint Declaration on May 16, 1974, wherein they observed that during the periods of minimum flow in the Ganges, there might not be enough water and, therefore, the fair weather (dry season) flow of the Ganges in the lean months would have to be augmented to meet the needs of Calcutta port and to fulfill requirement of Bangladesh. They also agreed that the best means of augmentation through optimum utilization of the water resources of the region available to the two countries should be studied by the Joint Rivers Commission. The two sides expressed their determination that before the Farakka project is commissioned; they would arrive at a mutually acceptable allocation of the water available during the periods of minimum flow in the Ganges. The JRC accordingly took up the issue of augmentation of the Ganges flows but was unable to reach any agreement.  

At a subsequent minister level meeting in April 1975 the Indian side proposed a test-run of the feeder canal of the Farakka Barrage for a limited period during that dry season. On good faith, Bangladesh agreed to India’s request and allowed it to operate the feeder canal with varying discharges in ten-day periods from April 21 to May 31, 1975, ensuring the continuance of the remaining flows to Bangladesh. Although India was supposed to divert limited quantities of water from the Ganges for the said test-run up to May 31, 1975, it continued withdrawals from Farakka to the full capacity of the feeder canal during the dry season of 1976 without entering into any understanding or agreement on sharing the flows despite Bangladesh’s repeated requests. The consequences of India’s actions had been tragic. The unilateral Indian withdrawals throughout the dry seasons of 1976 caused a marked reduction in the dry season Ganges flows in Bangladesh. This sudden change in the flow pattern caused an alarming situation in the south western region of Bangladesh.

To cut a long story short, Bangladesh repeatedly requested India to stop the unilateral withdrawals but this bore little fruit. Bangladesh then took the issue to the United Nations in 1976 and the General Assembly urged both sides to seek an immediate solution. Between 1977 and 1988 Bangladesh and India signed several temporary agreements but no permanent understanding could be reached. Between 1988 and 1996 there was no instrument for sharing the dry season Ganges flows between the two countries. In the absence of any agreement, India again started unilateral withdrawals from Farakka. It was not until the Awami League returned to power in 1996 in Bangladesh under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina (daughter of the slain leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) that a treaty between the countries was signed on the sharing of the Ganges Water at Farakka. This treaty has not been viewed favourably in Bangladesh as it was felt to be a subservient arrangement without the usual safeguards and guarantees and contrary to norms of international law. It appears these apprehensions were well founded as recent reports suggest that the quantity of water flowing down from the Farakka point has been declining due to the withdrawal of water by India through various canals in violation of the water sharing agreement.  

The treaty is now under legal challenge in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on the following grounds amongst others –

  1. That Bangladesh has been receiving lesser amounts of flows at Farakka as its share compared to the quanta it should be receiving as agreed between the contracting parties set out in the schedule contained in Annexure II of the Treaty.
  2. The instruments signed by Bangladesh and India do not provide entitlement to the former to participate or to become party to negotiations on any water course or in any consultations thereof e.g. Bangladesh cannot participate in the bilateral negotiation between India and Nepal which aim to implement projects on major tributaries of the Ganges river emanating from the Nepalese territory like the Pancheswar and Saptkosi High Dam Projects.
  3. Over the last three decades the Bangladesh government has repeatedly requested India for upstream hydro-meteorological data of the Ganges, Brahamputra and other rivers. The Indian side has declined to supply or exchange such upstream data and information. The 1996 treaty and other Indo-Bangladesh agreements are totally silent about the provisioning of this information.
  4. India either unilaterally or bilaterally with Nepal and Bhutan are undertaking planned measures for harnessing and regulating water resources of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna and some of their tributaries without informing or providing notification to the downstream riparian country of those rivers which is Bangladesh.
  5. The 1996 Treaty and other Indo-Bangladesh do not provide for any third-party arbitration on settlement of disputes.  

These are only a few of the grounds that are claimed by the petitioner to be in contravention of customary international law and in particular the provisions of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the Berlin Rules on Water Resources[ii] which both contain internationally accepted safeguards and guarantees that were omitted from the 1996 treaty. In particular, India’s withdrawal of waters in an unreasonable and inequitable manner and the terms of the 1996 treaty appear to be in violation of Articles 7,8,13,17,29,56,57,58,59,60,68,72 and 73 of the Berlin Rules but most importantly and significantly Article 12 which states –

1. Basin States shall in their respective territories manage the waters of an international drainage basin in an equitable and reasonable manner having due regard for the obligation not to cause significant harm to other basin States.

2. In particular, basin States shall develop and use the waters of the basin in order to attain the optimal and sustainable use thereof and benefits therefrom, taking into account the interests of other basin States, consistent with adequate protection of the waters. 

And Article 16 which provides –  

Basin States, in managing the waters of an international drainage basin, shall refrain from and prevent acts or omissions within their territory that cause significant harm to another basin State having due regard for the right of each basin State to make equitable and reasonable use of the waters. 

Regardless of the outcome of the case, relations between Bangladesh and India are likely to deteriorate as agreement on water sharing in an equitable and reasonable manner appear a distant and forlorn prospect making conflict a more likely scenario. In some respects, a low level conflict has already begun as there are frequent and bloody skirmishes between the two countries border security forces and occasionally fighting has occurred over construction of groins and spurs on the Indian side intended to divert the course of rivers so that they encroach further into Bangladesh territory while supplementing the Indian side.

RIVER LINKING PROJECT

 If the Farakka Barrage dispute had been the only bone of contention between the two countries then some minimum resolution to the dispute may have been forthcoming but with India (in total disregard of the environmental harm that would be sustained by Bangladesh) now undertaking the massive River Linking Project (RLP) a further serious deterioration in relations is inevitable. Quite astonishingly, the RLP concept was conceived not by an expert committee or by the relevant government department but instead by the Indian Supreme Court which ruled (in relation to a Public Interest Litigation hearing) that there should be interlinking of rivers to offset drought and flooding in various parts of the country. Justice Kirpal set a 10 year deadline for implementation of the project. A brief six-page order passed on October 31, 2002 formed the basis on which the Indian government set up a high powered task force which devised a Perspective Plan comprising two components –

  1. Peninsular Rivers Development; and
  2. Himalayan Rivers Development

The Peninsular Rivers Component envisages the inter-linking of several major rivers at several different points along their course. The Himalayan Rivers Component which poses more serious difficulties for Bangladesh envisages construction of storages on the principal tributaries of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Also, canal systems are to be inter-linked to transfer surplus flows of the eastern tributaries of the Ganges to the West apart from linking the (main) Brahmaputra and its tributaries with the Ganges and the Ganges with Mahanadi.

The effect of the RLP on Bangladesh has been variously described as devastating, catastrophic and also causing incalculable and irreparable damage to the country’s environment and ecological balance. This unfortunately is not mere exaggeration since the Brahmaputra and the Ganges provides more than 85% of the total surface water available in Bangladesh during the dry season. Of the two, the Brahmaputra provides 67% of the water. The diversion and withdrawal of these waters under the RLP would constitute a similar proposition to Bangladesh as the Iraqi WMD program did (under the Saddam Hussain regime) for the United States and the United Kingdom. In the present context the threat to Bangladesh is not hypothetical.

In the face of this looming crisis the Government of Bangladesh has already lodged protests to the Government of India expressing serious concern over the RLP and has urged India to refrain from implementation of the plan. The Government has also communicated Bangladesh’s serious concern over the Indian plan to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and requested them to desist from providing any support to India relating to this plan. The matter was also raised during several meetings of the JRC where India was urged to desist from such a move without the consent of Bangladesh. It appears, however, that the Indian political leadership is committed to go ahead with this plan at the cost of its neighbours. The feeling is intensifying in the minds of the general public in Bangladesh against the Indian plan and their voice of protest is growing louder with the passage of time.

Considering that the Farraka Barrage and the RLP are only two of the many projects being undertaken by the Indian Government to divert and withdraw waters from the common rivers indicates that water sharing disputes with Bangladesh will progressively increase and naturally lead to growing tensions between the countries. The other major disputes on water sharing now include the Teesta, Feni, Meghna, Mahananda, Monu, Khowai, Gumti, Muhuri and Kodla Rivers and also construction of the Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur district of India. This last mentioned project has had the effect of eroding a large portion of Sylhet district in Bangladesh with almost 5000 acres drifting towards the Indian side following erosion of the riverbanks due to an artificial change in the course of the rivers Surma and Kushiara. All these water sharing disputes and the continued disregard for the concerns expressed by Bangladesh about these projects and the continuation of diversion and withdrawal of water in an unreasonable and inequitable manner is being viewed as an attack on the sovereignty of the country which if not restrained and outstanding issues settled amicably could lead to conflict in the coming decades.    

THIS PAPER WAS WRITTEN AS A SPEECH AND HEAVY RELIANCE WAS MADE ON CERTAIN EXPERT PAPERS THAT WERE NOT NOTED AT THE TIME OF WRITING. THE NOTES AND REFERENCES BELOW IS THEREFORE PARTIAL AND IF ANYONE RECOGNISES ANY ELEMENT OF THEIR WORK IN THIS PAPER PLEASE INFORM THE WRITER SO INCLUSION MAY BE MADE IN THE REFERENCE SECTION. ANY OMISSION ON THE PART OF THE WRITER WAS COMPLETELY INADVERTANT. THE PAPER IS BEING RELEASED MERELY FOR INFORMATION PURPOSES AND NOT FOR PROFIT.   

NOTES


[i] India constructed the Farakka Barrage on the Ganges to divert the water flowing through Bangladesh to maintain navigability of the Calcutta Port 260 km away, whereas Crow et al. support that stagnation of the Port of Calcutta was due to the decline of the industrial activity and overall economic activity, and that a minimum research efforts or unfinished investigations for possible alternative to the construction of Farakka Barrage was performed. The growth of the Calcutta Port was one-fortieth of the growth of other Indian ports. It was at the acme of development during the British rule in India (1870-1947) when the port carried 40-50% of India’s exports and imports. The port growth had declination of 23%, 11%, and 10% in the mid-sixties, late seventies, and in the late eighties of the last century, respectively. Dredging of the port was the best solution since the port failed to demonstrate convincingly the importance of the Farakka Barriage.

[ii] The Rules present a comprehensive collection of all the relevant customary international law that a water manager or a court or other legal decision maker would have to take into account in resolving issues relating to the management of water resources. These Rules set about to provide a clear, co-gent, and coherent statement of the customary international law that applies to waters of international drainage basins, and to the extent that customary international law applies to waters entirely within a State, to all waters as well. These Rules also undertake the progressive development of the law needed to cope with emerging problems of international or global water management for the twenty-first century.

REFERENCES –

Dr. Miah Muhammad AdelUpstream Controller’s Dual Benefits at the Cost of Downstream Drainer’s Double Trouble (NFB – August 13, 2007)

Megh Barta – River linking project of India (4-August-2007)

International Law Association – BERLIN CONFERENCE (2004)  WATER RESOURCES LAW (

The Daily Star – Rivers dying as Ganges project remains in limbo (January 26, 2008)

The Daily Star – Tipaimukh dam to destroy ecology in Meghna basin (October 28, 2007)

The Daily Star – Unilateral withdrawal of Brahmaputra waters? (June 8, 2007)

The Daily Star – We can’t assure availability of water due to climatic reason (May 29, 2007)

The Daily Star – New courses of frontier-rivers changing Bangladesh’s map (May 7, 2007)

The Daily Star – Bangladesh loses land due to erosion by Sylhet border rivers (July 5, 2008)

New Age – Debunking the ‘NASA’ doomsday climate prediction for Bangladesh (July 5, 2008)

New Age – India’s violation of water sharing deal hampers irrigation (April 5, 2008)

New Age – Water should be used to unify South Asian people: experts (July 13, 2008)

The BD Today – Natural catastrophe apprehended along river Padma (May 23, 2008)

The BD Today – Unilateral withdrawal of waters threatens ecology in Padma basin :Indo-Bangla treaty grossly violates water sharing (November 14, 2007)

The News Today – River navigability in southern region on decrease (June 13, 2008)

The News Today – Death of the Rivers (May 23, 2008)

The News Today – Indian Tipaimukh dam to be death trap for Bangladesh (February 12, 2007)

The New Nation – Structure on other side blamed: Ichhamati shifts into Bangladesh (July 6, 2008)

The New Nation – Indian HC’s remark repudiated: Bangladesh deprived of dry season river flow (May 8, 2008)

The New Nation – Damned hearings on Tipaimukh Dam (May 5, 2008)

India Express – River sutras :The river interlinking project is another disaster waiting to happen (April 26, 2005)

John Vidal – India’s Dream, Bangladesh’s Disaster (The Guardian – 24 July, 2003)

Shailendra Nath Ghosh – Interlinking Rivers -The Millennial Folly (Countercurrrnets.org- 15 May, 2003)

Abdur Rahman Khan – Bangladesh drying up as India withdrawing Ganges water (HOLIDAY – April 1, 2008)  

NFB – India provides less Ganges water for Bangladesh : Dhaka’s protest remains unheeded  (February 17, 2008)

NFB – River Linking Project of India- Expectations (May 16, 2008)

Priyo – Bangladesh drying up as India withdrawing Ganges water (April 3, 2008)

 http://groups.yahoo.com/group/dhakamails/message/3596

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