Friday, September 23, 2011

The Conundrum Of Sharing Water Of Common Rivers

IT WAS ‘all froth and no beer’. We can probably use this old English adage to describe the outcome of the much-vaunted official visit to Bangladesh early this month by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh. It yielded next to nothing, neither for India nor for Bangladesh, the two countries euphemistically referred to as the two closest neighbours.

It is a historical fact that India lent unflinching support to Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 against Pakistan and gave shelter to millions of our people who had fled their homes during the nine-month war to escape the atrocities of the Pakistan army—but ties between the two countries evolved into a ‘love-hate relationship’.

Such a relationship derives from the day-to-day conflict of interest between them that can be likened in microcosm to two neighbouring households quarrelling over trifles of everyday life. Or we can compare it to a relationship between two brothers living on their ancestral homestead with their paternal property divided between them, but nurturing some kind of perpetual animosity rooted in the apprehension of Bangladesh becoming a permanent market for India’s burgeoning industrial growth and a virtual sphere of influence in New Delhi’s emergence as a rising global power.

Dhaka’s relations with New Delhi are thus characterised by intermittent political and diplomatic hiccups resulting from a series of continuing irritants that soured bilateral ties which proved difficult for the governments of the two countries to grapple with. Sharing of waters of the common rivers straddling through the two countries—Bangladesh being at the receiving end as the lower riparian country—has been the most nagging irritant hindering a healthy growth of relations, let alone other issues that historically spawned animosity between them.

Bangladesh is losing out while upstream India has been pursuing its water schemes unilaterally. It started with Farakka—the dam that India built in the early 1970s at close proximity to its border with Bangladesh to store and divert the Ganges water for irrigation and to flush water to make the Kolkata port navigable. They did it unilaterally without caring for consulting its lower riparian neighbour.

The result was that the two countries spent years deadlocked in a dispute over the dry-season flow of the Ganges (called the Padma in Bangladesh). The Ganges originates in the Himalayas in Nepal and meanders more than 2,000 kilometres through India before entering Bangladesh to end up into the Bay of Bengal.

Farakka brought untold miseries for the newly-independent Bangladesh. It eroded much of the goodwill and friendship forged through India’s unqualified support for Bangladesh’s independence earned through a bloody war against Pakistan.

Farakka deprived Bangladesh of its rightful share of the natural flow of the Ganges water, especially during the dry season. The resultant effects were agriculture production in Bangladesh suffered, the Padma and its tributaries were drying up giving rise to shoals and chars (sand islands in mid-river), affecting navigability of the rivers and massive salinity of land in southern coastal districts of Bangladesh. Other adverse effects like deforestation and depletion of fisheries followed.

The early 1970s saw the diplomatic wrangles between Dhaka and New Delhi in course of the Ganges water talks that continued for years, yielding only some piecemeal short-term accords until they signed the Ganges water sharing treaty in 1996. Though the treaty is for 30 years, and envisages a minimum guaranteed flow of water into Bangladesh, there are qualms on the part of the later that the minimum flow is not monitored and ensured. The dry-season flow of the Ganges appears to be still below the minimum level, given the fact that salinity continues to rise in the coastal districts and keeps advancing northwards, damaging agricultural land, fisheries and the ecosystem, particularly the mangrove forests of Sundarban.

Farakka is an old story; and perhaps we have learnt to live with the woes it has wrought on millions of people over a vast swathe of south-western Bangladesh. Let alone the Ganges, there are other river issues—the latest being the issue of sharing the waters of the Teesta in northern Bangladesh; and of course that of the Feni to the east.

What rendered Manmohan’s visit to Bangladesh a lacklustre affair was the failure to strike a deal on sharing the waters of Teesta. Press reports both in India and Bangladesh had given the impression that a deal on Teesta water sharing was very much on the cards with all the necessary groundwork already done to ink it. It was given to understand that both sides had worked out their respective shares of the Teesta flows. As envisioned in a draft deal, according to press reports and feelers put across the political and diplomatic circles, after allowing the natural flow of the river— i.e. some 20 per cent—the two countries would divide between them the rest: India would keep 52 per cent leaving the remaining 48 per cent for lower riparian Bangladesh.

That sounded to be a win-win proposition and our foreign office mandarins and the foreign minister herself appeared pretty complacent and sanguine that the long-awaited deal on Teesta water sharing would come through. It was ludicrous that till the last minute our foreign minister was so simply gullible to believe that the Teesta deal would be inked.

That the deal would not be signed became obvious when Mamata Banerjee—the gung-ho new chief minister of Paschim Banga—opted out of the official delegation of the Indian prime minister. There were reports that the Indian union government had a series of meetings with Mamata on the proposed Teesta deal which apparently failed to yield any outcome. For Mamata, the firebrand leader of Paschim Banga, it was probably a question of protecting the interest of her constituency which she was not ready to compromise for the sake of fostering ties with a neighbouring country that shares historic affinity, culture and language. That is politics!
By giving her veto to the Teesta deal, Mamata ‘Didi’ certainly disappointed Bangladesh; and maybe she has embarrassed the Indian government as well. Her ‘no’ to the Teesta deal has touched off a diplomatic glitch that will certainly affect India’s bilateral engagement with Bangladesh. It will delay the realisation of India’s geopolitical objectives of securing a transport ‘corridor’ or what they euphemistically call ‘transit’ through Bangladesh and, probably also, disrupt the move for ‘transhipment’ of goods and commodities through Bangladesh’s ports of Chittagong and Mongla. They need them to meet the exigencies of not only their geo-political interests but also to ensure economic development and business of their landlocked ‘seven sisters’.

Sharing of river waters will continue to be the crux of diplomatic irritants between Bangladesh and India with 54 common rivers flowing through the two countries. India has some grandiose projects for harnessing river waters for irrigation and massive river-linking projects to divert waters for resurrecting their dying rivers. They also have scores of projects for constructing dams for water conservation and producing hydel-power that pose great threats to the lower riparian Bangladesh and its ecology.

If New Delhi goes ahead with all those projects unilaterally without consulting the lower riparian country, it would be really difficult for Bangladesh to survive as a sovereign nation. International law is scantily helpful in guiding nations on the development and use of shared rivers. Over the last century, nations have signed scores of treaties dealing with non-navigational uses of water, but most of them lacked any enforcement mechanism or perfect monitoring provisions (like in case of Farakka).

In 1997 the United Nations General Assembly approved a convention on non-navigational uses of international watercourses. It is based on draft articles developed over 20 years by the UN International Law Commission. Although the convention is a positive step, experts say it is too vague to be of much practical help in resolving water sharing issues. The convention established two key principles to guide the conduct of nations over shared rivers—a) equitable and reasonable use of water and, b) the obligation not to cause ‘significant harm’ to neighbours.

The convention lists a number of criteria for nations to consider in deciding what is equitable and reasonable, taking into account issues like climate, geography, hydrology, population, existing and potential uses of the river, and the available alternatives. But it offered no formula for weighing them.

Nonetheless, international acceptance of ‘equitable and reasonable use’ of water as a guiding principle in shared river basins made it difficult for dominant upstream countries to completely ignore the needs of small downstream countries. That gives smaller nations like Bangladesh the strength and right to negotiate or raise voice against any inequitable arrangements for sharing waters of common rivers.

There are, of course, instances where big and powerful countries that cared a fig for the needs or woes of smaller neighbours. One recent example is Turkey which refused to meet the demands of its neighbour Syria. 

Way back in 1992, Turkey turned down Syrian request for more water of the river Euphrates. In response to Syrian demand for Euphrates water, the then Turkish prime minister Suleyman Demiral reportedly remarked: ‘We do not say we should share their oil resources. They cannot say they should share our water resources.’
That was, of course, a crude utterance on the part of a politician, devoid of diplomatic niceties. Or, at best, Turkey simply invoked a now maligned principle called the Harmon Doctrine. Named after former US attorney general Judson Harmon for an opinion he had rendered in a US-Mexico dispute over the Rio Grand in 1895—when the age of imperialism still persisted—the doctrine espoused that nations have absolute sovereignty over water within their borders and no obligation to share it with downstream neighbours.

Luckily though, India is not probably pursuing the Harmon Doctrine. But water sharing issues will continue to dominate the ‘love-hate relations’ between our two countries in the days ahead. Of late, we are apprehensive over the hydroelectric projects and dams that India is planning at Tipaimukh and Myndu-Leska. For now, we are at least buying New Delhi’s repeated assurance that they would not take up any river engineering project that would harm their little neighbour.

Postscript: India is worried over a Chinese move to build a dam across the Brahmaputra in Tibet, apparently to divert its water, which India apprehends would adversely affect its interests. ‘China is always opaque on hydro-engineering plans. It also has a habit of beginning work quietly on large dams,’ The India Today quoted Brahma Chellaney, an Indian strategic affairs analyst, as saying.

BY : Roushan Zaman.