24 March 2017, Fri, 12:08

What Bangladesh should demand from India

The upcoming visit by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India has generated a lot of excitement and expectations among the people in both Bangladesh and India. Although it is not clear if any issue pertinent to water resources management will be discussed or if any treaty on the Teesta River will be signed during this visit, it is certain that various issues related to river and water sharing agreements will be on the mind of Sheikh Hasina. As per news reports, the people of Bangladesh want an immediate resolution to the issue of Teesta water sharing. The Farakka Barrage issue has resurfaced both in India and Bangladesh following the demand by Bihar's Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar to demolish it. The Ganges Barrage issue has been in the news following the objection raised by West Bengal's CM Mamata Banerjee. The question that begs an answer is how should PM Sheikh Hasina and her team deal with these water and river resources management issues during her visit.
Teesta water-sharing agreement

Given the strong opposition from Mamata Banerjee to reach a water-sharing agreement, it is highly unlikely that a treaty will be signed during this visit. The central government of India has been using the argument that water resources belong to states and without reaching an agreement with the government of West Bengal, it will be impossible to reach and implement such a treaty. This is unjustified as Article 253 of the Constitution of India gives the central government and the parliament “the power to make any law for whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country.” Therefore, if the central government wants to sign a treaty on Teesta water-sharing, it will be next to impossible for the state government not to comply.
The Indian River Linking Project, of which Teesta water diversion to other watersheds is an integral part, is dictated by the Indian Supreme Court and is being implemented by the central government. The proposed Tipaimukh dam project is another example of central government managing water resources of a trans-boundary river that flows through several states and downstream Bangladesh.
However, the question remains, what is a fair treaty for Teesta water-sharing? As per the international norm, Bangladesh has established “prior uses” of the Teesta water to support ecosystems and the economy of a large region. Besides, the number of people living within the territory of Teesta watershed in India and Bangladesh is about 50:50. The Teesta treaty should be based on the interests of three stakeholders, namely the ecosystems, people living in West Bengal/Sikkim, and people living within Bangladesh's portion of the watershed. Any treaty should be based on historic flow of the Teesta that existed prior to both Gozaldoba and Dalia Barrages. Several studies showed that at least 3,200 cusec of water flow will be necessary to support the ecosystems in the river, which should be allowed to flow at any time throughout the year. The remaining water should be divided proportionally to the need of the people living in Bangladesh and India. In addition, no treaty will bring any fruit if a guarantee clause is not included.
Farakka Barrage

It is an established fact that the Farakka Barrage has not served the original purpose of de-silting the Kolkata Port. Rather, it has caused siltation on the riverbed and has resulted in riverbank erosion in upstream locations. CM Nitish Kumar has blamed the Farakka Barrage for increase in frequency and duration of flooding in upstream Bihar. Another study by South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers, and People has reported that about 328 million tonnes of silt are deposited upstream of the barrage each year, which is about 40 percent of the river-borne sediments that otherwise would have entered Bangladesh and could have contributed to the delta building process in coastal areas. Another study by the New York Times reported an annual loss of USD 4 billion to Bangladesh due to water diversion by the Farakka Barrage. Since the Ganges Treaty exists between Bangladesh and India, it is unlikely that the Farakka Barrage will be on the agenda. However, in light of the recent demands within India to demolish the barrage, Bangladesh should raise the issue and demand its complete demolition too.
Ganges Barrage

If the Farakka Barrage is demolished then there will be no need for construction of the Ganges Barrage inside Bangladesh. However, even if the Farakka Barrage remains intact, Bangladesh should not build the Ganges Barrage for the same reason the Farakka Barrage is criticised. The viability of the Ganges Barrage will depend on the availability of water from the Farakka Barrage, which has not been the case in recent years. One study shows that during 2008-12, Bangladesh did not receive its fair share of water about 25 percent of the time as per the Ganges Treaty from the Farakka Barrage. This amount is much higher (85 percent) when the received amount of water is compared against the historic flow at Farakka point. Besides, the Ganges Barrage will cause waterlogging, riverbed siltation, and riverbank erosion at upstream locations of the barrage the same way Farakka Barrage has caused these problems. The Ganges Barrage will trap sediments at upstream locations, resulting in reduction of the delta-building process in the Meghna Estuary. While the diversion of flow towards the Sundarbans may provide some relief to salinity intrusion in southwestern regions of Bangladesh, the equal amount of salinity will ingress through the Meghna River in the western part of the active southern delta. In essence, the Ganges Barrage will become a double-edged sword for Bangladesh as it will not solve the water scarcity issues but will have twice the impact on coastal areas in the face of climate change and sea level rise.
Other trans-boundary rivers

During the last few decades, most of the 54 trans-boundary rivers that originate in India have either been diverted or dammed upstream by India. All of these hydro-developmental projects have left a profound impact on Bangladesh as it is located at the receiving end of the fluvial regime. The agriculture, fisheries, and human health sectors and wellbeing of ecosystems and the environment are reported to have been significantly affected by the disruption of natural river flow. Section IX of the Ganges Treaty calls for resolution of disputes over water sharing in all trans-boundary rivers between the two countries. In fact, creation of a greater compact for all trans-boundary rivers is needed to tackle water, sediment, land use, and climate change issues under the concept of integrated water resources management plan in the future. Most importantly, Bangladesh, being the lower riparian country, should adopt the UN Convention on the Uses of Non-Navigational Water Courses (1997) and encourage all co-riparian nations in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) Basin to sign and ratify this important law. If all countries agree – in the spirit of settlement of the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh – all water, sediment, land use, and climate change related issues can also be settled following the UN Convention. Future peace, security, and prosperity will depend on the peaceful settlement of river and water issues in the sub-continent.

The article written by: Md. Khalequzzaman, Professor, Department of Geology, Lock Haven University, Lock Haven, USA.