Water is often an issue among neighbouring counties that have to share resources flowing from one country to another. The same holds true for India and Bangladesh. The issue is likely to become more contentious with the population in these countries set to increase further and the effects of climate change in the region. The best option is for these two countries to arrive at arrangements bilaterally and optimise the use of resources optimally.
Statistically, the earth’s total water volume is about 1,386 cubic kilometres in diameter, of which only 2.5 per cent is freshwater. Further, only 0.76 per cent of the total freshwater water volume is useable since over 68 per cent of freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers. The per capita availability of water in Bangladesh is 7,568 cubic meters. The neighbouring countries hold just 150-200 cubic meters compared to it. However, regarding water availability, Bangladesh suffers from geographical inequalities, especially between its North and South.
In addition, while during monsoon, Bangladesh has plenty of water, it has very little during the lean period. Because of low storage capacity, almost 80 per cent gets drained into the Bay of Bengal. This results in heavy dependence on groundwater during the dry season, which triggers arsenic groundwater contamination. It has been reported that almost 36 million people in 61 districts of Bangladesh are at risk of arsenic exposure. That makes the case for additional surface water to quench the thirst of teeming millions.
As far as India is concerned, based on the study titled ‘Reassessment of Water Availability in India using Space Inputs, 2019’ conducted by the Central Water Commission, the average annual per capita water availability for the years 2021 and 2031 has been assessed as 1486 cubic meter and 1367 cubic meter respectively, which means India is also inching towards getting into the category of water-stressed countries. Also, because of reduced water availability, navigation in Bhagirathi- Hooghly, on whose banks Calcutta port is located, is becoming difficult.
It is noticeable that because of the burgeoning population of both countries (The current population of Bangladesh in 2023 is 172,954,319, with a growth rate of 1.03 per cent over 2022. For India, figures for the same period are: 1,428,627,663, and a growth of 0.81 per cent over the population of 2022) water availability per capita per year is progressively reducing. To make matters worse, due to climate change, water availability is declining.
In its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC suggests South Asia’s average temperatures will climb 1.56 to 5.44°C by 2099. Dry-season rainfall will drop by 6 to 16 per cent, while wet-season rains will increase by 10 to 31 per cent. Such temperature and precipitation pattern shifts could trigger major repercussions for India’s freshwater resources. Some parts of India will face shrinking water supplies, while others will face rising seas.
Average global sea levels are projected to rise at a rate of 2 to 3 mm per year over the coming 100 years. Low-end scenarios estimate that Asia’s sea levels will be at least 40 cm higher by the end of the 21st century. The IPCC calculates that this would expose 13 to 94 million people to flooding, with about 60 per cent of these in South Asia. It will result in many coastal areas getting submerged and an increase in the salinity of the existing water resources, both groundwater and surface water. It is needless to add that the vulnerability of Bangladesh on this account will be far more than India. By 2050, almost 17 per cent of Bangladesh will come under the sea.
All this suggests that the gap between depleting resources and increasing demand is widening. Therefore, very efficient water management has to be thought of so that available resources are not only optimally utilised but are also augmented by better conservation techniques. It also needs to be noted that India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers. Almost all of Bangladesh’s rivers have their source in India or pass through India. Seven rivers have been identified earlier for developing the framework of water-sharing agreements on priority. Ideally, both countries need to share the common resources in a manner which should be within the scope of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997 and Sustainable Development Goal 6, adopted by members of the United Nations In 2015, which ensures availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
There were three disputes between the two countries:
- Sharing of Ganga water
- Sharing of Teesta water and thirdly
- The construction or otherwise of Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River
Regarding sharing of Ganga waters, India and Bangladesh went in for an accord in 1996 for the next 30 years in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Both countries are adhering to the Accord. The Accord will come in for review in 2026. Some sections in Bangladesh think that the Treaty underestimated the impact of climate variability and possibly increasing upstream water extraction. It is hoped that the two countries will find a solution keeping in view the new realities of climate change and the interests of the two countries.
Both countries also cooperate to share the waters of many other common rivers. Two examples will suffice in this connection. First is the case of Kushiyara – a distributary of the Barak River, where both India and Bangladesh agreed in September 2022 to share the river’s water which will benefit Sylhet in Bangladesh and facilitate water projects in South Assam in India.
The second example pertains to the Feni River. In 2019, Bangladesh had agreed to let India withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni River for drinking purposes, meant for the people of Sabroom town in Tripura.
The issue of sharing Teesta River water is far more complicated. While an ad-hoc arrangement arrived between the two countries in 1983, India was to receive 39 per cent of the water and Bangladesh 36 per cent. No decision could be reached for the balance of 25 per cent. Later the Government of India revised the ratio to 42.5 per cent for India and 37.5per cent for Bangladesh in 2011. But the proposal was opposed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal on the ground that it would dry out about one lac hectare of land at least in five districts in the northern region of West Bengal and hurt Indian farmers. It is where the matter rests. It is necessary to find a solution at the earliest because Bangladesh is attempting to cultivate China and was “considering a proposal from China to plough in $1 billion to dredge and embank large portions of the Teesta River so that it formed a single manageable channel.”
India opposes the project since it does not want Chinese technicians close to the “Chicken Neck” corridor near Siliguri that links the rest of India to its northeast. It would be detrimental to India’s national security. India also needs to strengthen the hands of the current govt of Bangladesh, which has facilitated good relations between the two countries.
The hydro resources in South Asia are so intertwined that their optimal utilisation can only be done cooperatively and collaboratively. We already have a highly workable model in front of us in the form of energy cooperation, which has helped the entire region of Bangladesh- Bhutan- India- Nepal collectively prosper by sharing resources. A similar exercise needs to be done in the case of Hydro resources. Here too, we have two examples of cooperation in the form of the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, which has been held for more than six decades and the Indo-Bangladesh Ganges Accord of 1996, which has been there for nearly 27 years.
Tipaimukh Dam is a proposed embankment dam on the River Barak in Manipur state of India. It is meant to be a flood control measure for the Cachar plains, whose idea was conceptualised first in 1926. India and Bangladesh also discussed the barrage on the Barak River at the first meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission held in New Delhi in June 1972. The proposed site of the dam was finalised as the Tipaimukh village in Churachandpur district in Manipur in 1974. It was decided in 1978 that “the concerned Superintending Engineers of the two countries should jointly examine the scope of the Indian scheme of storage dam on Barak River at Tipaimukh.” After decades of deliberation on how to control the flooding of the Barak and meet additional needs of energy generation, in 1999, the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project was approved.
The proposal of the dam and reservoir created concerns over the availability of water for fishing and agriculture, especially in the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh as well as the sustenance of the Haor ecosystem, which is a Ramsar site. It would be prudent if a via media is found by both countries through mutual consultation so that concerns of Bangladesh are addressed, and power generation for the northeast is ensured – one of the project’s objectives. And flood control measures are put in place, and the project is taken to a logical conclusion at the earliest.
Maj Gen Ajay Chaturvedi (Retd)