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Conflicts over International Waters

International river basins have become breeding grounds for conflicts among/between riparian states. The major traditionally discussed factors of conflict around international waters have been the riparian structure associated benefits and disadvantages, sovereignty notions, upstream-downstream diverging interests and regional power hierarchy. However, these factors are fairly stable for a long period of time in a given basin. These geopolitical or "space" centric explanations allocate too much emphasis on locations, thus draw unilinear and almost permanent conclusions. The basin states, instead of being passive recipients, keep interacting over resources as self-seeking political units for maximising their net benefits. This paper analyses these interactions through the example of Ganga water dispute between the two co-riparian nations - India and Bangladesh.

Rivar watar sharing issuas

Conflicts over International Waters

International river basins have become breeding grounds for conflicts among/between riparian states. The major traditionally discussed factors of conflict around international waters have been the riparian structure associated benefits and disadvantages, sovereignty notions, upstream-downstream diverging interests and regional power hierarchy. However, these factors are fairly stable for a long period of time in a given basin. These geopolitical or “space” centric explanations allocate too much emphasis on locations, thus draw unilinear and almost permanent conclusions. The basin states, instead of being passive recipients, keep interacting over resources as self-seeking political units for maximising their net benefits. This paper analyses these interactions through the example of Ganga water dispute between the two co-riparian nations – India and Bangladesh.


nternational water refers to a watercourse or a water body parts of which are situated in different states (nations). There are about 261 major international river basins, covering 45 per cent of the land surface of the earth, excluding Antarctica. Altogether 145 nations include territory within the international river basins and 33 countries have more than 95 per cent of their total land are in such basins. Man has been utilising these international watercourses since ages for various purposes like drinking, household uses, irrigating fields, navigation, etc. In earlier centuries when population pressures were low and the idea of a sovereign state was not fully established, peaceful utilisation of these resources was being carried out. In present century, rapid population growth has not only increased the water consumption for irrigation and drinking, but also many new uses of watercourses emerged like hydroelectricity generation, industrial use, large-scale waterway transportation, etc. The intensification and diversification of uses have made international water resource a valued, sometimes strategic resource, where nations attach great importance in securing access and control over it. Inevitably it leads to conflict among basin states. Though there are few instances in history where nations went to military confrontation over water, but dispute over such critical resource definitely affects adversely the cooperative development of water resources, mutual trust and other areas of international relations.

This paper attempts to analyse processes of conflict over international water resource. Section I which is theoretical, aims to propose that traditionally discussed factors like comparative location of nations in the basin, associated privileges and disadvantages (together forming riparian structure), regional power hierarchy, etc, are not the prime determinants of conflict. These features are too stable to explain the dynamics of conflicts. The geopolitical analysis or “space” centric explanations allocate too much emphasis on locations thus draw unilinear and almost permanent conclusions. However, political geography of an international river basin itself is a dynamic entity. Not only riparian structure changes over time, different basin states, as self-seeking political units keep interacting over the resources for maximising their net benefits. We need to analyse these interactions in a processual framework.

Section I analyses peculiarities of issues in governing international waters, traditionally discussed factors and its limitations, and how the continual inputs affect interactions over international waters. Section II tries to illustrate these propositions through a case study of the long-standing dispute of India and Bangladesh over Ganga water. The processes of Indo-Bangladesh water conflicts have been discussed in four time frames (1) 1950-1971: emergence of the Ganga dispute and interactions between India and East Pakistan, (2) 1971-1988: creation of Bangladesh and cooperative efforts with India,

(3) 1988-1996: phase of discord to conflict resolution through 1996 Treaty, (4) this part deals with post-treaty processes and inputs to argue that treaties too are provisional in scope. New water resource development schemes can warrant fresh initiatives where the main challenge will be to renegotiate amidst the cumulative burden of history. Section III tries to sum up the discussion in the form of conclusion.

I Challenges of Utilisation and Governance

International water resources utilisation poses a slightly different challenge as compared to national water resource allocation. International water basins are usually of larger size than the national basins and they are less homogeneous in terms of socioeconomic and cultural conditions. Secondly, there is a significant degree of variability among laws, regulations, national policies and priorities. Even in the best of circumstances, joint use of water resource can give rise to ill feeling and political tension. Thirdly, in a national basin, the government of the country may have both authority and the facilities to deal with social, administrative and economic problems. There are supreme legislative and judicial institutions to lay out modalities of cooperation and resolve disputes among sub-national political units. But in international water resource sharing projects the situation is different. The governments, on whom it is incumbent to further their countries’ interest or at least guard, themselves become the claimants and disputants [Moigne, L G et al 1992]. If there are disagreements there is no higher authority to which they can refer. Along with these factors the usual political differences tend to aggravate rather than ease the problem of international water resource sharing. While national water resource planning is the domain of economic planning, regional development, law and governance; the international water resource inevitably assumes the overriding bearings of international relations, organisation and diplomacy. Different sets of factors influence the origin and growth of conflicts around international water resources.

Drivers of International Water Conflict

(a) Sovereignty – divergent upstream/downstream interests:

National sovereignty is the most important consideration at the country level and all the nation states jealously guard their sovereign powers to manage activities within their own borders [Biswas 1999]. States try to claim absolute right over, control and use of the natural resources located within or flowing through their territory (the rule of “Territorial Sovereignty” or “Harmon Doctrine”). The notion compels states to appropriate more and water before it crosses the boundary and share less and less with other basin states, automatically involving conflicts. On the other hand, the downstream countries claim the right of historical flows (the rule of “territorial integrity”). Gradually, the theory of “Restricted Sovereignty” has been universally accepted. It establishes that a state does not have the absolute right over international watercourses flowing through or located under its territory. But, it will be an unrealistic expectation from third world countries of Asia and Africa which got independence around middle of the last century to make a rapid and smooth shift or adjustment to the idea of restricted sovereignty. The idea of joint rights and obligations over shared watercourses itself evolved in the second part of the last century. The idea has grown parallel to independence, natural resource governance, development of large irrigation and power projects for food security and economic growth in the developing countries of Asia and Africa.

  • (b) Levels of development: The countries occupying an international river basin usually vary in their levels of economic development and technological capacities. Usually in each basin, at least one country is already a dominant regional power. These states place great strategic and economic value on the international water resources they share with their neighbours. The regional powers have the capacities to take proactive steps to take up projects which can alter allocation options. They can also veto or delay any multilateral water accord in their respective basins. When downstream countries are relatively less powerful than water controlling upstream countries, conflict may be less likely, but social and economic insecurity can lead to greater political instability [Sandra Postel 1997].
  • (c) Water scarcity: Resource consciousness among nations has increased tremendously. The importance attached to international water resources is a complex phenomenon, however, two most basic and omnipresent issues are shortage and scarcity. These concepts need to be elaborated. Water shortage may be said to exist when real demand (i e, need) exceeds the real supply. The
  • concept of water scarcity encompasses many discrete but interrelated features. The first factor is the climatic availability of water in real terms. For the arid regions, the issue of water sharing especially in dry season leads to conflict. In a sub-tropical monsoon region seasonal availability in river regimes in the wet summer and dry winter periods is the basic cause of water scarcity dispute. Other important factors include depletion of a source (like an aquifer) because of basin diversion or storage of water, redirection for other users to another place, consumption, spatial distribution of population and water resources, degradation of quality and stocks of water [Cotgrave 1982]. The efficiency, organisation and management of water resources, loss and wastage and policy decisions (national and sub-national level) of the riparian countries are also the major factors in determining the scarcity of water resources. These variants may differ in degree in one or another region. If the situation is accompanied by high population pressure, water scarcity promotes political tensions and interstate conflicts.

    International Water Conflicts: Capturing the Dynamism

    International water conflict is still a new field of enquiry where the theoretical ingredients are still growing. The determinants of conflicts are largely discussed in a discreet and exclusive manner. Moreover, none of the concepts have been able to capture the processual aspects and the dynamic nature of international water conflict. Riparian structure and riparian organisation: An international river basin links all the riparian states in a complex network of environmental, economic, political and security interdependencies. In this process, it creates the potential for interstate conflict as well as the opportunities of cooperation. The interrelationship of the basin states can be understood through two concepts – riparian structure and riparian organisation.

    Riparian structure refers to how the political units are arranged in the geographical space, or what the comparative location of political units in the given river basin are [Elhance Arun 1999]. Riparian structure explains the spatio-temporal aspects of water availability in the basin; which are the co-riparian[s], their relative proximity and distance from the resource, and degree of dependences of each riparian state on the river basin. The riparian structure is a static concept which allots almost permanent privileges and disabilities as far as access, utilisation and management of water resources are concerned.

    However, this is far from the reality. An international river basin is a politically dynamic entity. The concept of riparian organisation needs to be visualised to identify/analyse the dynamic/actional nature of international river basins. The riparian organisation is the summation of behaviours/approaches of states with each other over water resources in a given river basin at a given point of time. The advantages and disabilities which emanate from the riparian structure are neither permanent nor absolute or non-negotiable. The concept of river organisation acknowledges the interest-seeking nature of individual states. Different states of the basin are not passive shareholders/recipients but they actively engage themselves in increasing their benefits, protecting their interest (present and future). The states try to take control of the resources, attach strategic importance to sources and flowage, claims and counterclaims are made over water resources even alliances are made to further the interest[s]. The traditionally discussed factors like sovereignty notions, spatiotemporal variations in water availability and regional power hierarchy are fairly stable over a long period of time. They are not prime determinants of water resource sharing and allocation. The dominant regional powers may not prevail in all the situations; they have to accommodate the demands of comparatively weaker nations depending on their bargaining strength. The weaker riparian nations too exercise the negotiating tools provided by their geographical positions or they devise/innovate new tools like procrastination, internationalisation, non-cooperation, etc, and struggle hard to convert zero-sum (asymmetrical) arrangements to plus-some (symmetrical) arrangement. The negotiations act both as a process and a tool.

    Riparian Organisation: Continual Inputs

    Various factors contribute to the dynamism of international water conflicts which can function in different configurations in different basins:

  • (a) Nation state formation process: The mosaic of political boundaries keeps on shifting in an international river basin, creating new actors in the riparian organisation. The 20th century, particularly the second half, has witnessed the phenomenon of a fissioning of political boundaries. In most of the situations, growth of superimposed boundaries over the physical space occurred with little consideration of integrity of hydrological realities (e g, Aral Sea basin, south Asia). When the criteria of boundary creations are “ethnic” the international water issues are not seen in an isolation but they assume an identity posture.
  • (b) Ruling regimes: The riparian nations pass through different ruling regimes. This has a significant impact on the trajectory, pace and the nature of the water disputes. New regimes may chose to abrogate, freeze, ignore or modify the international treaties/ agreements creating altogether new challenges for negotiators and mediators. On the other hand, a new regime with an emphasis on regional cooperation may bring altogether fresh initiatives to resolve the disputes among riparians.
  • (c) Water security: Environmental security has become a major concern for the modern states as their economic and political wellbeing rests upon it. As the water resources have been attached with strategic value in many regions, water security is seen as an important aspect of national and regional security in such contexts. The concept of water security goes even beyond the water shortage and water scarcity to include discreet factors like
  • (1) the degree of scarcity, (2) location and reliability of source,
  • (3) the extent to which water supply is shared by more than one region or state, (4) the relative economic and technological capacities of the basin states, and (5) the access to the alternative fresh water resources, etc.
  • Water security has close links with food security and dependencies of macroeconomic aspects also. Consequently, the notion of water security can invoke nations to take a range of actions to protect their vital interests. Continual operational inputs of nations in a river basin and their reactions over need to be analysed in water security perspectives. Further water security issues often interact with factors like religious animosity, ideological disputes, border disagreements, economic competition, etc, and may turn into conflicts.

  • (d) Sub-national political processes: International water resources have essential links with the domestic political processes. In the countries where water security is a national concern, water becomes an emotive issue which can be utilised for political gains. Further, the international watercourse usually has differential importance for people within a country, particularly in a federal political structure. When the international agreements and accords are implemented, the benefit will go to some places and some people more than others. This spatial variability in a country in the costs and benefits of international cooperation may lead to severe disagreements between/among sub-national political units and the centre, particularly in a federal political structure.
  • (e) Deferred reciprocity: Nations negotiating over international water resources (quantity, quality, hydroelectric energy, etc) may demand/expect benefits which are neither of the same kind/value nor of immediate nature. They can accommodate vast deviations from stated claims based on prospective and diffused benefits like cooperation in regional security, trade benefits, transit routes, energy cooperation, resolution of boundary disputes, etc.
  • (f) Non-state actors: Lately three categories of factors have started exercising considerable influence on international water disputes/conflicts and resolution processes in a given basin
  • (1) The UN Convention of non-navigational use of international watercourse which function as referred principles of international waters sharing (2) the international funding agencies of the project and supra-national organisations (3) civil society initiatives from respective nations which can be from research institutions/forums/human rights or environmental campaigners. Thus the states not only engage in horizontal bargaining with coriparians, but they also have to accommodate vertical influences.
  • (g) Pre- and post-resolution processes: The international water conflict resolution requires considerable political will on all the sides as the negotiation involves trade-off and adjustments to the stated claims. It requires sustained motivation to take into confidence different parties (both inside and outside the nation). The riparian organisation as a concept can help us to capture the dynamics that continue even beyond the treaties. The politics (national or domestic) over water do not abruptly end with an international treaty; it just enters a new phase of inter- and intranation level scrutiny and criticisms. In nations where threats of water security are more apparent, or in a relatively weaker state (which strikes a deal with stronger states), there are dangers of negotiators – political parties/institutions/individuals – being labelled as villains who compromised over national well-being. Thus they also tread very cautiously. The strict adherence to the provisions of the treaty becomes a compulsion as well as a
  • Riparian Organisation: Actions and Options

    Upstream Downstream

    Comparatively Proactive operational Attach strategic/security Stronger action, emphasis on importance to water supply,Nation bilateralism, semblances suppresses upstream

    of regional action, strongly diversion schemes, military resist outside intervention, threats or action, offer against/abstain 1997 UN imbalanced reciprocity, Convention discourage upstream alliances


    Demand imbalanced Internationalisation, campaign Weaker reciprocity, delay as a tool for outside intervention, look Nation to bargain, non-for riparian alliances to

    cooperation for UN 1997 pressurise, non-cooperation Convention in other critical sectors, for UN 1997 Convention

    challenge. The task becomes much more difficult, if there are no provisions for institutional flexibilities inbuilt in the treaty.

    (h) Developmental cycles: Seen in a long-term perspective, it also implies that international water conflicts, instead of on a unilinear path, progress in the form of development cycles. They wax and wane at different stages depending upon the actions of the actors/ inputs. Further, in basins of history of water disputes more than one cycle can develop at one time, where the previous cycles function as reference for the successive ones. A fresh proposal of a giant scheme over international waters can upset existing pattern/equations and demand new negotiations (for example, the GAP project in the Tigris basin, Ethiopian diversion proposals in Nile basin, India’s river interlinking project proposal). In developing countries where it is difficult to shift to a scientific water management paradigm, water dispute and resolution both are analysed in a historical frame, where each riparian approaches the current dispute with an aim to undo past harm.

    The disputes related to international watercourses with multifaceted dimensions are distributed in different parts of the world

    – west Asia, south Asia, central Asia, south-east Asia, Europe, North America, etc – varying in nature and intensity. The dynamism in the international waters dispute can well be illustrated in the origin, growth, continuation and efforts to resolve the water dispute in the south Asian region, particularly between India and Bangladesh.

    II Water Conflict between Bangladesh and India

    India and Bangladesh share the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin which is the second largest hydraulic region in the world. The total drainage area of the basin is about 1.75 million square km. The basin is also one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The density of population is highest in the plains, especially in Bangladesh (740 per sq km, 1991 figures) and the adjacent Indian states of West Bengal (904 per sq km), Bihar (880 per sq km) and Uttar Pradesh 689 persons per sq km (2001 Census figures). India has a unique position in the riparian structure. It is both a downstream and upstream country within the larger Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. India and Bangladesh share 54 international rivers, in respect of all of which India is the upper stream.

    Post-Colonial: Political Geography

    The dispute over water has been influenced and accentuated by the factors arising out of the geographical location, nation state formation and political processes of the riparian countries, namely, India and Bangladesh. The political division of the subcontinent was done without much regard for the geographical integrity of the river basin. It has opened the doors to hydropolitics in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. Further, the second half of the 20th century was marked by the continuation of colonial legacies, evolution and diversity of political systems, expansion of agricultural and energy projects and rising concerns of food and environmental security. Simultaneously, notions of sovereignty, autonomy and national identity were also growing.

    India’s dominant position in the subcontinent in terms of size, population, economic and technology capacities and a stable political system have placed it in a potentially hegemonic relationship with other riparian states. The fear of domination and territorial sensitivities of smaller states lead to mistrust, reservation and delay about bilateral negotiations. Meanwhile, the smaller countries have also experienced a rising resource consciousness and pressures of economic development which urged them to exercise/innovate tools to protect their critical resource for the present and future. The complex domestic political structure also underwent frequent upheavals, where opposition parties utilised a fear psychosis against India for electoral gains. India and Bangladesh went through a long-drawn out dispute over sharing of Ganga water which was marked by upstream proactive action, big country insensitivity, the lower riparian’s water security fears, suspicion (real or exaggerated), legacy of mistrust and differential negotiation tools.

    Ganga Water Dispute

    The Ganga water dispute dates back to 1951, when Bangladesh formed the eastern province of the federation of Pakistan. India then planned to construct a barrage at Farakka, 18 kilometres upstream from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) border on the grounds of preservation and maintenance of Calcutta port by improving the regime and navigability of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system. However, Farakka barrage has been perceived differently among the water resource experts of Bangladesh. B M Abbas writes, “The real purpose of the barrage is to control the river for supplying Ganga water to the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar [Abbas 1982].

    India’s perspective can be seen in context. India got independence in 1947 with a strong national leader at the helm of affairs. The government aimed at rapid economic regeneration and selfreliance where large river projects were envisaged as the temples of modern India. The concept of rights and obligations over international waters was in the formulatory stage (Helsinki rules were established in 1966). Environmental security threats were still not a major concern for developing nations in Asia. Water resources were conceptualised in a national framework and thus the Ganga was seen as a national river of India. India for long perceived that the Ganga deltaic region had a problem of plenty of water rather than scarcity. Moreover, as B G Verghese puts it, “the idea that Ganga might ever run short of water had also quite genuinely not occurred to most Indians, such being the inspirational power of the nation” [Verghese 1990].

    Though it was decided in 1951 to construct a barrage at Farakka, the project was actually begun in 1961 and completed in 1975 The Ganga river dispute became pivotal in influencing the political relation between India and East Pakistan and later Bangladesh in coming decades. The period of conflict over the Ganga water was punctuated with changing political boundaries, regimes and their approaches and trade-offs. The entire period of negotiation over the Ganga water can be divided into two main phases and four sub-phases.

    Phase 1 (1950-1971): Ganga Dispute between India and Pakistan

    The Partition of India in 1947 and creation of East Pakistan caused the political division of the Ganga-Brahmaputra river basin. The superimposed political boundaries created diverging interests between nation over control and use over water resources of the Ganga. Both India and Pakistan and later, Bangladesh, approached the dispute from the point of their own national interests, which made solutions very difficult.

    The idea of constructing a dam at Farakka had been first mooted among official circles in India in 1950. The Pakistan government drew the attention of the government of India to the press reports of India that New Delhi had decided to construct a dam at Farakka in Murshidabad district. Pakistan apprehended that it might have adverse effects on East Pakistan and requested India in a letter dated October 29, 1951, to consult it before operating any such scheme. India replied on March 8, 1952, that the project was under preliminary investigation and described Pakistan’s concern over its probable effects as purely hypothetical [Crow 1995].

    Subsequently, a series of correspondence was carried out during the 1950s between India and Pakistan. In January 1961, the government of India formally informed Pakistan about its intention to go ahead with the plan to build a barrage across the river at Farakka. During the period of 1961-70, India and Pakistan had several meetings where exchange of data and other technical issues were discussed. The July 1970 meeting was significant in one sense – for the first time India recognised the Ganga as an international river and therefore, accepted the principle of sharing of its water. Thus, it took almost 20 years for an upstream nation to shift from the notion of territorial sovereignty to gradually accommodate restricted sovereignty. Some agreements on the quantity of water to be released were also expected in the next meeting. However, the next meeting was never held because of the emergence of Bangladesh independence struggle.

    The period 1950-71 was fruitless as far as cooperation on Ganga water sharing was concerned. Many reasons have been extended. There is a widespread belief that from 1950 to 1971 the Pakistan government deliberately neglected the Farakka issue. They often assert that the government in Islamabad was more interested in working on its own water sharing formula with India over the Indus river basin than in resolving the Farakka problem. That line of argument may be justified to some extent in the light of Islamabad’s overall policy of giving scant attention to East Pakistan interest [Hossain 1998]. B M Abbas’ view is that a major cause of the failure of talks was India’s refusal to acknowledge the international nature of the river. It has been also suggested that the issue of sharing the Ganga water did not take a serious turn because the Farakka barrage scheme was yet to be implemented and East Pakistan did not have a large-scale irrigation system at that time which would had been disrupted due to the construction of the Farakka barrage. Ben Crow states, “It seems reasonable to conclude that there was an Indian strategy of procrastination in force until at least 1971. One factor influencing India’s choice of that strategy may have been the perception by the India leaders of a general state of hostility between India and Pakistan” (op cit).

    Phase 2 – 1971-1996: Creation of Bangladesh to Signing of Ganga Treaty: Changed Riparian Structure and Organisation

    After 1971, the Ganga water dispute acquired a new dimension where new inputs of nation state formation, differential approaches of political regimes, domestic political processes, etc, played a crucial role to alter the riparian organisations at different points of time. Post-1971 era interactions over Ganga waters can be divided into four sub-stages.

    Sub-phase 1: Ganga dispute during 1971-76: Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign nation state in 1971. The emergence of Bangladesh opened up a new vista of political relationships in the south Asia region. The riparian structure and riparian organisation both changed in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. The government of Bangladesh and India tried to look bilateral issues in a new perspective, particularly under the euphoric atmosphere of independence, the active association of India in the liberation war of East Bengal paved the way for amity and friendship and close cooperation between the two neighbours. Initially, the cooperation in all major spheres between the two nations began to move faster than ever before.

    The most important step towards formulating a comprehensive plan was taken in 1972, when the prime ministers of both the countries agreed to establish the joint river commission (JRC) on a permanent basis. Its members were drawn from both countries and the commission was asked to carry out a comprehensive survey of the river systems shared by both countries in the projects of flood control and water resources development for the mutual benefits. The phase of bonhomie was, however, shortlived as India and Bangladesh had diverging interest and strategies for the development of the Ganga water resource. In 1974, at a ministerial level meeting with Bangladesh, India agreed that a mutually accepted solution would be arrived at before operating the barrage. Gradually, the Farakka issue became the single issue to dominate the relationship between the nations which no political leader could ignore. In May 1974, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the prime minister of Bangladesh visited India. During his talks with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, he demanded that the water issue be resolved quickly. In a joint declaration after the visit the two sides agreed on basic principles for the future agreement on Ganga water sharing issue, i e, (a) there was a need to increase the volume of Ganga during the minimum flow period to meet the full needs of both India and Bangladesh. (b) The augmentation of water would be through optimum utilisation of the water resources available to both the countries. The responsibility for finding a solution was left to the joint river commission. The commission accordingly took up the augmentation issue. However, vastly differing perceptions held by the two sides prevented the JRC from arriving at any agreed solution. Divergent views on augmentation: Both India and Bangladesh prepared two separate schemes to augment the dry season flow of the Ganga. The experts from Bangladesh proposed to augment the Ganga flows by building storage facilities in the upper Ganga basin. The reservoirs in India and Nepal would store monsoon waters for release during the dry season and thus could significantly augment the flow. The Indian side did not favour the Bangladesh proposal, as the plan would have required involving Nepal in the negotiation process. India perceived the Ganga water dispute as a purely bilateral one. The construction of dams in Nepal would naturally make the issue multilateral one. India proposed an alternative scheme of augmentation of the Ganga flow by constructing a Brahmaputra-Ganga link canal, to divert the water from the Brahmaputra to Ganga. This suggestion was unacceptable to Bangladesh on the ground that the link canal excavation will cause loss of fertile land as well as displacement of population in the country. Sub-phase 2: 1977-88: attempts of resolution: In April 1975 the Farakka barrage went on a test operation for 41 days under a temporary agreement. India, however, continued to withdraw water during 1975-77. After the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, there was a general reluctance on the part of the then Indian government to negotiate with the new military regime.

    After the March 1977 Indian parliamentary elections, Morarji Desai, who replaced Indira Gandhi, took special interest in resolving the major irritant in Indo-Bangladesh relation. A mission to Dhaka was led by the then defence minister Jagjivan Ram to push forward the negotiations on Farakka. It was followed by a series of ministerial and secretary-level meetings.

    On November 5, 1977, India and Bangladesh signed an agreement on sharing of the Ganga waters at Farakka and augmenting its flows. There were many important components of the agreement: (1) the treaty was to remain in the force for five years but was extendable by mutual agreement; (2) it defined the lean season flow period between January 31 to May 31; (3) the amount of water for Bangladesh was to be calculated from recorded flows of the Ganga at Farakka from 1948 to 1973. The agreement incorporated a guarantee clause under which during the leanest period (from April 21 to May 31) in case of exceptionally low flows (below 55,000 cusecs), Bangladesh was to be guaranteed at least 80 per cent (27,600 cusecs) of her stipulated share for the concerned 10-day period (Paragraph 11 of Article II). This provision was significant for Bangladesh.

    The treaty was politically significant on many accounts. Firstly, Bangladesh after unsuccessful attempts of internationalisation of the Ganga dispute resolved go back to bilateralism. The agreement firmly established bilateralism as the basic tenet of India’s south Asian international water diplomacy. However, the treaty invited criticism in India. Condemnation was heaped upon it for having compromised India’s national interest to Bangladesh’s advantage. It was cited as a case of poor diplomacy shown by the newly elected Janata Party government. Many experts thought India conceded more than it should have. The Communist Party of West Bengal complained against the centre for ignoring the state’s interest and lack of prior consultation with the state government.

    Bangladesh was the clear benefactor of the treaty. The treaty firmly established the right of Bangladesh over water of the Ganga as a downstream country. The amount of water allotted to Bangladesh was much beyond the expectations of negotiators from Bangladesh. Further, the inclusion of the guarantee clause meant that at least for the next five years India could not unilaterally withdraw water from the Ganga. The agreement also demonstrated India’s acceptance of the withdrawal of Farakka which had some adverse effects on Bangladesh. There was also commitment on the part of New Delhi for finding a long-term solution of problem of Ganga water. However, the treaty was criticised in Bangladesh for its temporary nature. Authors like Khursida Begum view that negotiators from Bangladesh were anxious for a treaty but they failed to take advantage from India’s liability for a reasonable solution of the bilateral negotiation. Though Ganga dispute was technical in nature, the problem turned out to be a matter of diplomacy and international politics.

    Criticisms apart, the agreement was welcome in that both sides recognised the need for a solution to the long-term problem of augmenting the flows of the Ganga. Both the countries realised that lean season flow could not be sufficient to satisfy all their needs. Downstream’s effective tool for pressures on the upstream: internationalisation: Bangladesh, while taking up the Farakka dispute with India tried to internationalise the issue by raising it at different international forums and seeking their cooperation to pressurise India. Bangladesh raised this issue at the Islamic foreign ministers conference at Istanbul in May 1976; at the Colombo Summit of non-aligned countries in August 1976. At the 31st Session of United Nations in September, 1976, Bangladesh argued that unilateral diversion of water of Ganga by India was a violation of rules and principles related to sharing of international rivers. India, however, maintained it was a bilateral, technical and legal issue; that internationalisation would further complicate and delay its solution. India had reservations on the stated adverse effects and felt that Bangladesh was politicising and internationalising the Farakka issue, and using it as propaganda against India. Bangladesh took the issue to UN for settlement in November 1976 [Khan Hossein Amjad 1994]. It argued for UN intervention in the issue on the basis of its security and the environmental implications of the dispute of the region. The UN special political committee consulted both the parties and suggested a bilateral solution based on consensus. However, internationalisation of the issue was taking a toll on India, which could not afford to be labelled as the big tyrant of the subcontinent. Thus to avoid any conflict, India and Bangladesh made attempts to restart the talks without preconditions. During the period of 1976 and 1977 several rounds of bilateral discussions took place.

    Sub-phase 3, 1988-96: Years of Discord and Signing of Ganga Treaty (1996): After the termination of the MOU’s period (1984-88) a void was created. There were no sharing arrangements during 1988-96 when India continued withdrawing water from the Ganga. Bangladesh protested this “unilateral” withdrawal and the harmful effects of the Ganga diversion. A vast amount of literature appeared on the claimed harmful effects of the Farakka diversion particularly during the 1988-96 period. These claimed harmful effects were used to pressurise India as well as to internationalise the Farakka dispute for more beneficial agreements.

  • (a) Claimed harmful effects: Bangladesh claims that Farakka diversion had brought harmful geographical changes as well as adversely affected the economic conditions of the people of the south-western part of the country. Some examples of the “claimed negative impacts” on various aspects were as follows: (1) impact on hydrology – owing to the Ganga diversion the minimum discharge of the river at Hardinge Bridge fell below the minimum ever recorded. The minimum discharge of the Ganga reached a record low of 23,000 cusecs as compared to the historical average of 64,430 cusecs. (2) impact on groundwater – In a white paper, the Bangladesh government claimed that the groundwater level in the highly affected area went down by five feet on average with a range of three to eight feet below normal in the 1976. The fall of groundwater level was highest in the districts of Rajshahi, Kustia, Khulna and Jessore. (3) increase in salinity – Bangladesh claimed that since the late 1970s, the south-west region had been facing the critical problem of salinity intrusion from the Bay of Bengal as a result of the drastic reduction of fresh water flows in the Gorai river – the major distributary of the Ganga. (4) impact on irrigation: Bangladesh also claimed that the reduced water flow and penetration of salinity in the fresh water was damaging in agriculture, the most important sector of the economy. Bangladesh reported that Indian diversion of water had resulted in a loss of rice output of 2,36,000 tonnes in 1976.
  • (5) 1987-88 floods – In 1987 and 1988 Bangladesh witnessed
  • an unusually severe annual monsoon with floods causing huge loss of lives, property and infrastructure [Khan and Nazem 1988]. The president described the flood as “a man-made curse” which resulted due to water mismanagement and asked for international assistance. He refused to accept help from India and tried to internationalise the water management issue by bringing it to the UN, the Commonwealth and SAARC. The president also visited the other riparian states, including China for talks about their cooperation. Bangladesh government continued to blame water mismanagement in India and diversion at Farakka for flooding.

  • (b) Upstream’s response: India’s response to these claims from the Bangladesh government has largely been defensive. The Indian government claimed that the adverse impact claimed by Bangladesh was not usually supported by facts and figures. That they were overestimated and scientific methodology had not been used for the evaluation. Both the countries documented their respective cases and there were several inter-governmental discussions on their respective claims and counterclaims. Later studies argued that there could be a direct link between declining navigation, disruption of Sunderban ecology and Farakka diversion, but in other cases like health, ecology, agricultural production, the causative chain cannot be established.
  • (c) Farakka in Bangladesh domestic politics: “Part resource, part politics and part agenda”: The Ganga water issues (construction of the Farakka barrage, the unilateral action of India, harmful impacts of the diversion, etc) have been recurrent themes in the domestic politics of Bangladesh. The political parties, whether in opposition or in the government, blamed and targeted the Indian actions and stands. The opposition political parties besides condemning India also criticised the government of Bangladesh for toeing the Indian line and failing to force India to give Bangladesh its due share. The Awami League leader used to criticise the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) during the latter’s 1991-95 tenure for its failure to reach any agreement with India for country’s legitimate share in the waters of the Ganga despite making noises about it before coming to the power. The Awami League always emphasised the fact that during its regime, under the 1975 agreement it managed to realise the maximum amount of water (40,000 cusecs) as compared to flows later (34,000 cusecs). However, the Awami League had to face the blame for consenting to the Farakka withdrawals in the first place. Subsequently, the Awami League always felt the pressure to undo the damage. On the other hand, the BNP leaders used the Farakka issue as an instrument to mobilise public opinion in favour of the party. Begum Zia even led a Farakka march on many occasions where she used to describe Farakka as an Indian conspiracy. Unfortunately the techno-political issue of Ganga water sharing became one of the major issues in the electoral politics of Bangladesh. The BNP projected Awami League as a pro-Indian party and used the water issue as an effective electoral campaign which played a major role in the victory of BNP. Thus, Indian action on the Farakka barrage construction and the withdrawal of water have caused and led to a growth of anti-India feelings in Bangladesh, which was fuelled and harnessed by political parties.
  • (d) The 1996 Ganga Water Treaty: The stalemate broken: In 1996 some unique circumstances developed and their historic alignment resulted in conflict resolution initiatives. In May 1996, the United Front-led coalition government came to the power in India with H D Gowda as the prime minister and Inder Kumar Gujral as the external affairs minister. In Bangladesh the Awami League
  • was voted back to power again after 20 years and Sheikh Hasina assumed office as the prime minister. The prime ministers of Bangladesh and India signed the historic treaty on the sharing the Ganga waters in New Delhi on December 12, 1996, during Sheikh Hasina’s three-day state visit to India. Various factors and circumstances facilitated the conclusion of the historic treaty. Firstly, both the sides realised the urgency of the matter. They conveyed to each other the political commitment to address and resolve the issue on a priority basis. Secondly, serious discussions for arriving at a solution to the problem began only after the change of government in the two countries taking place more or less at the same time. Thirdly, Sheikh Hasina showed the personal commitment to finding an acceptable solution to the Ganga water sharing issue. Her decision not to internationalise the issue pleased India. She took a major strategic risk by avoiding internationalisation of the issue. Fourthly, I K Gujral’s attitude towards India’s neighbours had already been soft. The Gujral doctrine that India should be prepared to give more and get less rather than insist on reciprocity with its smaller neighbour has evidently been at work in forging the Ganga treaty. Under Deve Gowda’s prime ministership, I K Gujral enjoyed vast freedom on foreign affairs issues. Fifthly, following the approach, Gujral provided a pleasant surprise during his September 1996 visit to Dhaka by telling the Bangladesh government that India no longer linked water to the transit issue. This was a major departure from Congress government’s longstanding policy to link water with a transit facility for Indian goods, which Bangladesh vehemently opposed.

    Sub-national politics also contributed in the conclusion of the Ganga treaty. West Bengal was the Indian state that would be most affected by an agreement. Thus it was imperative for it to support any agreement over the Ganga waters. Sheikh Hasina strategically involved Jyoti Basu; the then chief minister of West Bengal, in the negotiation process. He also made a personal visit to Bangladesh in November 1996. He visited the Ganga dependent areas and held critically important discussions with politicians and officials. His party was a supporter of Deve Gowda’s United Front government in New Delhi. Bangladesh, India and West Bengal governments worked collectively to conclude a treaty in December 1996.

    (e) 1996 treaty – major shift: (1) gains for both countries: The terms of the treaty have many beneficial features for both the countries. It has various outstanding features favourable to Bangladesh – long duration validity which will help Bangladesh in long-term water resource planning and management; water sharing provision has been delinked from augmentation; the fail-safe arrangement safeguards Bangladesh’s interest in case the two sides fail to arrive at an arrangement at the end of the review period, a better deal in the term of amount of water for Bangladesh in comparison to previous treaties. As far as the Indian benefits are concerned, the sharing between the two countries when the total flows reaching Farakka is 70,000 cusecs or below will be in the proportion of 50:50 and not 62.7:37.3 as provided in 1977 agreement. There is an arrangement for the diversion of 35,000 cusecs during the three 10-day period of the lean season. These provisions will have a cumulative effect of better protecting the Calcutta port than was possible under the 1977 agreement.Another advantage for India is that it can undertake projects for upstream utilisation, but justice and fairplay would warrant that India should not unilaterally reduce the total flows reaching Farakka.

    (2) 1996 Ganga treaty: the growing maturity: The treaty on the sharing of the Ganga can be viewed in the conflict management perspective that aims to resolve the international dispute between India and Bangladesh. The treaty in many ways forms a watershed in bilateral relations. The 30-year validity gives a stability, which denotes a sea change from the short-term MOUs. To meet the concerns of Bangladesh, India as the upper riparian country has undertaken to protect the flows reaching Farakka; thus it has taken the responsibility of regulating upstream uses. The treaty has institutional mechanisms for joint monitoring of flows and mutual consultations.

    If seen from an overview perspective in the post-colonial period, the Ganga treaty reflects growing maturity about the tenets of sharing of an international river. The treaty comes close to the established principles of international laws on non-navigational use of international waters. India formally recognised the rights of the lower riparian over a shared river system, a right which is still being strongly contested in many interstate water disputes within India [Biswas and Juha 2000]. Water sharing has been done more or less on a 50:50 sharing formula. The internationally acknowledged principles of “fairness”, “equity”, and “no harm rule to either side” are mentioned three times in the treaty. India also expects a “deferred reciprocity”, i e, goodwill generated by the treaty will also have a positive impact on other bilateral issues/irritants like illegal immigrants, Chakma refugees, insurgency operations, border demarcation, transit, energy cooperation, etc.

    The treaty apparently accommodated two external influences for the first time. First, committed Track II exchanges were going on since the beginning of the decade with research organisations from these two countries meeting concurrently to reach a consensus as well as to provide policy inputs to the negotiators. Secondly, by this time, the negotiators had reference material ready in the form of draft of UN convention of non-navigational use of international water course (1996) to draw broad principles of sharing of international waters. Even though India has decided against signing the UN convention of non-navigational use of international water courses due to reservations about certain clauses, there has been a general appreciation and accommodation of its basic principles in Indo-Bangladesh Treaty (1996) as well as in Indo-Nepal Mahakali Treaty (1996). Sub-phase 4: Post 1996 Ganga treaty processes: The Ganga treaty of 1996 resolved the dispute over Ganga water sharing during the dry season. But it will be wrong to assume that interactions or riparian organisation over international waters will come to halt with a treaty. In fact, a post-treaty phase can become more critical as not only implementation part gets tested, but also gaps and inadequacies of the provisions get exposed. This may start a fresh round of disagreements and consultations. Some of the post-treaty interactions are as follows:

    (a) Sharing extreme low flows: Unfortunately, some of the inadequacies of the treaty were exposed the next year. The treaty does not have a provision for sharing extremely low flows (below 50,000 cusecs). In the 1997 January to May lean season, the actual availability of water was far less than the average flow of the Ganga for the period 1949-88, as reiterated in the indicative schedule under the treaty. The first reports of a decline in the flows of the Ganga started circulating during the last 10 days of February 1997, when the flow was supposed to favour Bangladesh. India confirmed that the flow at Farakka had slowed down but attributed this situation to the normal hydrological cycle that occurs every four to five years. India further argued that it was fulfilling its obligation under the treaty by agreeing to immediate consultations [Salman and Chazournes 1998]. Several reports argue that the frequency of extreme low flows is going to increase in future.

  • (b) Farakka-Hardinge bridge discrepancy: There was an intricate and baffling discrepancy between the quantum of water released at Farakka in India and the quantum arriving at Hardinge Bridge (170 kms downstream) in Bangladesh. The releases at Farakka which swelled with regeneration at Hardinge Bridge, the other point of joint flow observations under the treaty, began to show a substantial deficit for some weeks after March. However, both sides seem to agree that the observations at Farakka and Hardinge Bridge were reasonably reliable. These generated undesirable emotions and heat in Bangladesh and heightened political opposition to the treaty, reflecting deep-seated mistrust and suspicion.
  • (c) Augmenting the flows of Ganga: Both nations agree that the long-term solution lies in the augmentation of dry season flows. However, they decided to bypass this difficult question and concentrate on sharing the available flows. In future, the available flows of Ganga are going to be severely inadequate for both the riparian states. The matter has been handed over to the joint technical committee for study.
  • (d) Sharing other common rivers: Article IX of Ganga Treaty makes reference to equitable and fair sharing of other common rivers (total of 54). However, the treaty does not provide any time frame or method. There is no priority list for immediate attention for rivers like the Teesta, Barak, Monu and Muhuri, which should be taken on a priority basis. In this regard there are some contradictory provisions in the treaty. The preamble of the treaty states that the desire of India and Bangladesh for finding a fair and just solution for the Ganga river should not be considered as “establishing any general principles of law or precedent”. On the other hand, Article IX says that guided by the principles of equity, fairness and no harm to either party, both countries agree to conclude water-sharing treaties/agreements with regard to other common rivers. These propositions are somewhat contradictory since provisions of the treaty are bound to be referred/cited while discussing other international rivers.
  • The rivers like the Teesta demand immediate attention. Both India and Bangladesh have pursued their respective Teesta projects and both are now in an advanced stage of completion and development. Both are based on the natural flows of the river, but the lean season flows are insufficient for their combined needs, thus the potential for a conflict of interest is obvious. Past efforts at arriving at an agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta were not successful.

    The Teesta issue has not reached a conflict stage so far mainly because the development of the canal system is taking longer than planned. As a follow-up to the treaty [Article IX], the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission agreed in July 1997 to set up a joint committee of experts (JCE) to work out arrangements for sharing the waters of other common rivers, giving Teesta the highest priority. In March 2004, India and Bangladesh concluded water talks, in which they agreed on setting up a joint scientific study group to assess the availability and demand of waters and to draft an interim agreement and formulae for water sharing of Teesta river. Hopefully, sharing of other rivers will not take such a long period of dispute, mistrust and discord as the countries have the principles of Ganga water sharing to refer to. However, new developments on the water resource management front already have stimulated the dynamics of international water conflicts.

    (e) India’s river interlinking programme: another cycle?: India proposed a programme of interlinking of its rivers (a quintessential “hydraulic mission of the nation”) in December 2003. The pressures of water scarcity and security have driven the nation to take up such a gigantic task; and construction of a large number of multipurpose projects has given the country confidence. Under this programme, dams are being conceived upstream on the Manas and Sunkosh rivers in Bhutan under the Manas-SunkoshTeesta-Ganga link. India has planned a proactive diversion scheme, taking advantages of the upstream position and higher economic and technogical capacities. What are the options for Bangladesh as a lower country which has high water insecurity but cannot choose to have a direct conflict? It has vociferously protested the plan. Different avenues/routes of protest are being utilised. Already there is a lot of media focus in Bangladesh on India’s plan to interlink rivers. Some Bangladeshi professionals have written to the Supreme Court to scrap the interlinking programme. The plan has already entered the domestic politics lexicon where the spectre of Farakka is being reinvoked. The Bangladesh state minister of water resources Gautam Chakraborty has said, “Bangladesh will become a desert” if India implements its river interlinking project (The Daily Star, April 12, 2004). The diplomatic channels are following the state positions. The Bangladesh government is reported to have taken up the issue with the Indian government and has been assured that international laws on water sharing would be adhered to in the interlinking programme. The senior officials in the Indian ministry of water resources said none of the projects were likely to affect Bangladesh in a manner that was being projected in the media.

    In this dispute, there is even a larger participation of non-state actors. The academicians, environmentalists, technocrats have taken different stands (for, against and neutral). The noted water resources expert from India, B G Verghese, argue that interlinking of rivers should not be seen as a monolithic project but as a dynamic concept; the recommended links can be realigned, telescoped or even dropped, while reconciling to the divergent views and trade-offs. The environmentalists have rejected the proposal outrightly.

    Options for India and Bangladesh

    Bangladesh can internationalise the issue and demand outside intervention. The stated claims of a disastrous impact can enhance its bargaining position on its share as the interlinking of river will augment lean season availability in the Ganga. Any negotiation on the issue will have the Farakka dispute and resolution as the reference point, as it serves domestic politics as well as the bargaining strength over waters. As in the past, both the nations are advocating their respective actions and options, to protect their present and future interests.

    III Conclusion

    The riparian structure, regional power hierarchy and sovereignty notions are too static as well as limited concepts to explain transactions over water in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. The conflict around water sharing between India and Bangladesh has acquired a dynamic nature on account of processes of nation state formation, international relations and domestic political processes. They have responded to growing water and economic security as well as pressures of development, but simultaneously accommodated inputs like different approaches of the changing political regime, international agencies, expectations of future reciprocities and non-state actors, etc. Instead of being passive recipients, India and Bangladesh exercised the negotiation tools available (or improvised them) to utilise geographical privileges and undo disadvantages. Thus, it is not the riparian structure along with the regional economic/power hierarchy, but the riparian organisation which is actually determining who gets where, what and how in this international river basin.

    The 1996 Ganga Treaty provides a provisional resolution of the dispute that too of limited scope. The riparian organisation (interactions) continues even in the post-treaty period. New developments on shared water resource utilisation have already disturbed the equilibrium and a fresh cycle of transactions has already started. The water resource sharing is going to carry the cumulative burden of history. Any static or atomistic view can be misleading.



    [The views expressed here are of the author and not the organisation of current affiliation.]


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