Water sharing: Beyond economic concerns

It is important to look at rivers from an ecological point of view to solve transboundary water issues amicably.
The lower Ganga, just upstream of Farakka, displays bank cutting and erosion. (Source: India Water Portal)
The lower Ganga, just upstream of Farakka, displays bank cutting and erosion. (Source: India Water Portal)

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin is the third largest river flow system in the world with an annual runoff about 1,150 billion cubic meters (BCM) and the peak outflow of 1,41,000 cumecs. The basin has a total area of just over 1.7 million square kilometres, distributed between India (64 percent), China (18 percent), Nepal (9 percent), Bangladesh (7 percent) and Bhutan (3 percent).

This paper, Hydro-Political Dynamics and Environmental Security in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin: The case of Bangladesh-India Transboundary Water Relations published in Research Journal Social Sciences, informs that the GBM basin achieved its international transboundary characteristic after the partition of India and the consequent emergence of Bangladesh. Although, the transboundary water relations between the two countries have largely focused on the sharing of the Ganges and the Teesta, 54 other rivers and streams that cross the boundary are counted as transboundary rivers.

The paper says that the transboundary water of India and Bangladesh has posed a threat to environmental security mainly due to our perception of rivers as mere 'stocks of water' that can be extracted and shared. Such reductionist thinking based on a quantitative understanding of hydrology focuses exclusively on the volume of the flow of the river without any consideration to the eco-hydrology, fluvial geomorphology, sediment dynamics or  associated ecosystem services, and related issues. This has restricted the scope of joint management of shared waters to just the volume of the water without any consideration for broader environmental security concerns.

The paper discusses three contested issues while presenting the interventions in transboundary rivers between India and Bangladesh--the Farakka barrage, the proposed transfer of water from the Brahmaputra and tributaries through the interlinking of rivers, and the prospects of cooperative management of the Sundarbans.

The Farakka barrage

The construction of a barrage at Farakka across the Ganges was a crucial decision that has affected the hydro-political relations between Bangladesh and India. Farakka is located at the point where the main branch of the river Ganges enters Bangladesh and a smaller branch, Bhagirathi-Hooghly, reaches the Bay of Bengal and flows within the Indian state of West Bengal. The barrage was planned to improve the flow of Bhagirathi-Hooghly to revive the port at Calcutta, that was rapidly getting silted up and losing navigability.

The government of Bangladesh has been concerned that this would reduce the dry season flow of the Ganges-Padma into Bangladesh which, if happens, will have serious implications for environmental and food security in the country. Although a treaty was signed between the two countries in 1996 on the sharing of the dry season flows at Farakka, it turned out to be merely an arithmetical exercise as it was not based on the ecological perspective of river flows.

The barrage continues to be blamed for water scarcity and salinisation in the lower parts of the GBM delta. Even in India, the drying up of the Indian Sundarbans Delta (ISD) and the consequent saline water ingression in the delta region and the rise in sea levels have been attributed to the streamflow depletion due to the sedimentation in the Farakka.

In Bangladesh, the Farakka barrage has been widely politicised and media discussions often portray it as a symbol of India's evil intent to flood Bangladesh. The evidence, however, shows that it’s not true and the barrage is unequipped for storing huge quantities of water that could flood Bangladesh.

Although the decline in the navigability of the port at Kolkata in India has not been reversed by the Farakka barrage, it has helped in improving the flow in the Bhagirathi-Hooghly during the lean season, thus reducing the water problem in the densely populated areas of West Bengal.

River-interlinking plan of the government

As part of its river-interlinking project, India plans to link the tributaries of the Brahmaputra namely Manas, Sankosh and Teesta with the Ganges (MSTG Link). Many experts and civil society groups in Bangladesh have expressed opposition to the project which could turn out to be a cause for further disputes over environmental security between the two countries. This project has also drawn criticism because of the ecological and economic impacts it may have on Bangladesh.

The Sundarbans ecosystem

Another critical transboundary issue related to water is the ecosystem of the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans is located at the southern end of the GBM delta and the freshwater flows from the Ganges, Yamuna and Meghna are needed for its ecological stability. The reduction in the freshwater flow due to the Farakka barrage is resulting in salinity ingression in the Sundarbans delta regions of both the countries.

This has led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Conservation of the Sundarbans on September 6, 2011, between the two countries. This is a non-binding agreement, with an initial tenure of five years, and a provision of automatic renewal unless terminated by mutual consent by either party with a 90-days written notice.

Although this form of cooperation is different from the agreements on water sharing, this is a positive step towards ecosystem regeneration expressed in the agreement that can greatly influence and pave the way for further cooperation in the two countries on water sharing.

Away from economics and towards ecology

The traditional approach in water engineering has been very narrow and has focused on technological and quantitative indicators. There is thus a need to conduct research that addresses the knowledge gaps in the understanding of the GBM river basin from the following perspectives to aid the diplomatic thinking and help environmental security in the region:

  • The ecological perspective: Understanding the river as a collection of ecosystems that influence the livelihoods of numerous stakeholders living around it.
  • The concept of economic valuation: To understand that all products and processes of the ecosystem make invaluable contributions that cannot be valued in economic terms.
  • The institutional perspective: This includes the understanding that there are multi-level factors and a range of actors or stakeholders that depend on the river ecosystem who also influence and are involved in maintaining it. There is also a need to move beyond conventional diplomacy and expand interactions among different levels of stakeholders to maintain the environmental security of the region.

The paper ends by arguing that the transboundary water relations between Bangladesh and India should be viewed through the lens of ecosystem processes and services rather than from the point of view of traditional engineering. This can provide an opportunity for changing the mistrust and suspicion that the two countries have towards each other to cooperation and dialogue in the basin level management of the rivers. Research and knowledge are very important to bridge the critical knowledge gaps and encourage this dialogue at the policy level.

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