Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 23, 2022 Updated 30 Days ago
Although Bangladesh and India have excelled in cooperation on several fronts, water sharing remains a bone of contention.
Bangladesh-India hydro politics: Sweet deals and contentious issues

The recent visit of Bangladesh Prime Miniter H.E. Sheikh Hasina during 5-8 September 2022 to India found profound and prolific coverage in the media in Bangladesh with profuse questions and concerns on Bangladesh’s gain out of this visit. Water remained an  integral item been on the agenda for any such meeting between the two parties. This is not surprising as Bangladesh and India share 54 transboundary rivers. As India is  an  upstream controller in the major streams,  this has become the root cause of many contentious issues. Quite as expected, in the “India– Bangladesh Joint Statement during the State Visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India”, water found a good amount of mention.

Although water remains a contentious issue often to the extent of determining Bangladesh–India relations, there are some sweet deals in the joint statement. The joint statement acknowledges a deal in the context of the 38th Ministerial Meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission of India and Bangladesh that was held during 23-25 August 2022, where the MoU on water sharing on the Kushiyara river was signed between the water ministries of the two governments. It is envisaged that this MoU will help the irrigation cause of Bangladesh while facilitating water projects for South Assam.

Given the urgency of the irrigation needs of the state of Tripura, the joint statement also mentions India reiterating the need to conclude the signing of the interim Feni water-sharing agreement early.

On 9 March 2021, “Maitri Setu”, the bridge on the transboundary Feni River shared between Bangladesh and India was inaugurated by the Prime Ministers of the two riparian nations. Given the urgency of the irrigation needs of the state of Tripura, the joint statement also mentions India reiterating the need to conclude the signing of the interim Feni water-sharing agreement early. In the process, the statement notes India’s acknowledgement of Bangladesh’s role in helping it construct infrastructure to implement the 2019 MoU between the two countries on withdrawal of 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni river for drinking purposes.

The decision of the Joint Rivers Commission on widening the area of cooperation by including an additional number of rivers for prioritising the exchange of data and formulating the framework of the interim water sharing agreements finds a laudatory mention in the joint statement. Interestingly, the statement welcomed the formation of a Joint Technical Committee to conduct a study for optimum utilisation of water received by Bangladesh under the provisions of Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, 1996.

Ganges Water Sharing Treaty 1996: What happens after the agreement ends? 

So far so good. All the above are the mutually beneficial  deals in the water relations in the joint statement. However, one needs to note that even within these deals there are underlying contentious issues that cannot be overlooked. History bears ample testimony of such issues. This includes the construction of the Farakka barrage, located around 16.5 km upstream of the Bangladesh border. The fundamental objective of constructing the barrage was to resuscitate the Kolkata Port by flushing out sediments by enhancing the flow of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly channel (a distributary of the Ganges) through a feeder canal. The barrage became operational in 1975. Downstream, Bangladesh always contended that this diversion will cause significant harm to their dry season agriculture by reducing the dry season mainstream flow.

To escape this hydro-political impasse, the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (GWT) between Bangladesh and India was signed in 1996. The treaty can be termed as successful as India strictly complied with the schedule of flows during January-May of a year from the Farakka barrage as mentioned in the treaty. On the contrary, recent data suggests that Bangladesh receives 10-15 percent more water at Hardinge Bridge than what is released from the Farakka barrage. This implies nothing but good news.

The treaty can be termed as successful as India strictly complied with the schedule of flows during January-May of a year from the Farakka barrage as mentioned in the treaty.

The concern lies elsewhere with the GWT as the agreement will end in 2026. The question then is: what will happen after that? How should the Farakka Barrage be looked at then? How will the water be shared? At the very outset, it needs to be recognised that both the Farakka barrage and the GWT are epitomes of a reductionist engineering paradigm that has ingrained “arithmetic hydrology” (looking at water through its quantity only, by ignoring all other parameters of a flow regime) in water governance in south Asia. As such, Himalayan rivers like the Ganges carry high levels of sediments along with water. These sediments perform important ecosystem services like soil formation and enhance soil fertility. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) delta is formed by the sediments brought by the rivers—something that the treaty fails to acknowledge.

Large components of the sediments of the Ganges are getting trapped upstream of the Farakka barrage and have been allegedly stated to be inhibiting the delta’s soil formation. On the other hand, in the Indian Sundarbans part of the delta, sea-level rise and salinity ingression are resulting in land losses without simultaneous land resuscitation that the sediments used to perform. Furthermore, sediment accumulation, upstream of the Farakka has also been allegedly stated to be responsible for aggravating flood damages in Bihar due to backwater effects. This can happen when high flows from the Koshi river in Bihar and the mainstream Ganges converge, and are unable to get a passage through the sediments. Therefore, it becomes imperative for the proposed Joint Technical Committee (mentioned in the statement) to bring in the concern of sediment and the delta in their study without limiting the scope of the study to water allocation only. The concern of sediment must feature as one looks at 2026.

The Teesta imbroglio

Another bone of contention between the two countries is the Teesta river. This becomes apparent from the joint statement which states: “…Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reiterated Bangladesh’s long-pending request for concluding the interim agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta River, the draft of which was finalised in 2011.” The problem here is similar to what prevailed for the Ganges Water sharing: dry season flows from January to May of a year. During these months of the year, irrigated boro rice is grown in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Bangladesh-India Teesta Water Sharing Agreement of 2011 could not be implemented due to objections from the state of West Bengal.

While Bangladesh has complained of low flow from upstream negatively affecting their agriculture, there remains a questionable contention from West Bengal that the overall dry season water productivity of Teesta in West Bengal has declined.

While Bangladesh has complained of low flow from upstream negatively affecting their agriculture, there remains a questionable contention from West Bengal that the overall dry season water productivity of Teesta in West Bengal has declined. However, one can also witness increasing water use in West Bengal through a diversion channel in form of the Teesta-Mahananda link canal from Gajaldoba (in Jalpaiguri district in Northern West Bengal) to meet the needs of drinking water and irrigated paddy cultivation. Of course, the pricing mechanism in both nations (including the MSP regime in India) has been historically responsible for shifting terms-of-trade and acreage in favour of irrigated paddy that consumes 8-10 times more water than the millets. The process has been further facilitated by water resource development projects thereby increasing dry season water demand manifold.

However, one keeps on ignoring another layer of this problem. A succession of around 30 operational, non-operational and planned hydropower projects—with 80 percent of them being in Sikkim—are located on the Teesta. Though claimed to be “run-of-river” projects, all these projects (located at short intervals) have upstream storage mechanisms where water is stored due low flows during the lean season, and is then released for the turbines to generate hydropower. This disrupts the flow regime; dries up the downstream flows; fragments the river; arrests sediments; results in a loss in the horizontal integrity of the river; and leads to losses in fisheries and biodiversity.

A succession of around 30 operational, non-operational and planned hydropower projects—with 80 percent of them being in Sikkim—are located on the Teesta.

A semi-polycentric negotiation approach

Water is a state subject in the Indian Constitution. One cannot ignore the fact that the federal structure of India is a very important determinant of Bangladesh-India hydro-political relations. It needs to be reiterated here that during the Ganges Water Treaty, West Bengal played an enabling role, while for the Teesta it is just the contrary! If the Teesta imbroglio needs to be resolved, taking West Bengal into confidence in the negotiation table is imperative. However, given that Teesta is also an inter-state river, simply bringing in West Bengal along with New Delhi and Dhaka will not resolve the situation. With the problem emanating from Sikkim, the latter should also be a party in the negotiation process. This brings in a semi-polycentric approach (not a fully polycentric one that talks of a complex form of negotiation with multiple centres of semiautonomous units) to the resolution mechanism. The present equilibrium of “conflictual federalism” with divergent views of the Centre and the state may be circumvented when various players opt for demand management modes. Therefore, the 2011 Teesta agreement (mentioned in the joint statement) is untenable at this moment, and new thinking in terms of a semi-polycentric approach is required.

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Author

Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in India, where he leads the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) and ...

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