India’s Water Issues with Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan


By Muhammad Nawaz Khan :-

The principal South Asian trans-boundary rivers are, in fact, a lifeline for over 1.721 billion people, i.e. about one-quarter of humankind. The South Asia (SA) is faced with water scarcity, with possible water conflict in the future. The challenges in the water sector largely relate to disputes and difficulties arising from unequal flow distribution of trans-boundary rivers, as well as engineering interventions like dams, barrages and storages, with complete disregard for the agreements signed bilaterally between various states. India is a source of conflict in the water-sharing arrangements with its co-basin countries. Low riparian states have been raising concerns over India‘s tendency to use water of common rivers unilaterally without taking into account its human, social, economic and ecological cost. It is, indeed, unfortunate that the SA, known as the ancient cradle of the principles of ecological harmony and sophisticated water management system, as evident through its civilisations, now faces dire ecological imbalance and a grim water outlook. The region only holds about 6.8 per cent of the world‘s annual renewable water resources. The paucity of water is a big challenge for the South Asian riparian countries during the dry season, especially for the downstream ones, whereas South Asia‘s per capita water availability has dropped by 70 per cent since 1950.

Bangladesh is a delta, formed by the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna system. As the country only gets the leftover water flow after upstream consumption, the consequent water shortage during the arid season always raises grave concerns in water-sharing dialogues with India. The India-Bangladesh water clashes are about judicious allocation, flood control, and famine mitigation in both countries, particularly Bangladesh. The first dispute is about constructing large dams in the basin to increase the dry season flow of the Ganges. The Indian proposal calls for building a canal across Bangladesh to link the Brahmaputra with the Ganges, at a site above the Farakka Barrage. Bangladesh‘s US $ 20 billion counterproposal is the construction of reservoirs and dams in the Himalayan foothills in India and Nepal to store flood waters, for controlling salinity, and generating hydroelectricity in Nepal for domestic use and export purposes. Bangladesh‘s proposal — which was more pragmatic as compared to the Indian proposal for addressing issues like floods, land formation at Bay of Bengal due to silt and sediment deposits, electricity shortages, salinity challenges, etc. — could not be realised due to Indian interest in its own proposal. Therefore, Nepal and Bangladesh were not even brought to the table to discuss the matter.

The second dispute is about an ad-hoc water-sharing agreement over Teesta River, which was signed in 1983 between the two countries through which 39 per cent and 36 per cent water flow was allocated for India and Bangladesh, respectively. It was

anticipated that this ad-hoc treaty would be concluded in 2011 through which both countries were likely to get share of water on equal footing, but due to inappropriate opposition by Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, this could not achieved. She held that sharing water would not be in the interest of West Bengal‘s people and farmers. The third dispute is about India‘s decision of unilaterally building a dam at Tipaimukh, over the international river, Barak, while ignoring voices of the people of the lower riparian Bangladesh, who consider it a clear violation of the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International watercourses.

Nepal-India water affairs reflect growing suspicion and reservations. Nepal faces a lot of challenges in building its water reservoirs owing to persistent Indian opposition. Nepal‘s mistrust has deepened due to the discriminatory treaties that were concluded with India from the Sharada Dam construction (1927), Treaty and Letters of Exchange of 1950 and 1965, Koshi Agreement (1954), Gandak Agreement (1959), Tanakpur Agreement (1991) to the Mahakali Treaty (1996). The Koshi, Gandak and Mahakali projects were controlled through bilateral agreements. According to Clause 9 of the Gandak Agreement, no project likely to cause reduction in the volume of water can be operated by Nepal. Thus, attempts have been made to impose checks on the country‘s independence and its economic development aiming to obstruct projects put forth by Nepal or reached with the assistance of foreign countries through loan and grants. Invoking this clause, India, hampered construction of the Marshyandi-1 hydro project leading to a confrontation between King Birendra and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The agreement signed was beneficial to India at the expense of more than one quarter of the Nepali population.

Another way of obtaining Nepal‘s water resources is by persecution at seaports and custom points, the illegal use of water resources by district and states of India and grazing in Nepali territories, especially in the eastern and western mountains and hill areas. India capitalises upon Nepal‘s unstable political scene, its fragile administration and economic disorder to advance its interest over the county‘s water resources. Considering that 400 million people are settlers of Meghna, Brahmaputra and Ganges, India should help Nepal to fulfill its electricity requirements by optimal regulation of water. This Indo-Nepal water dispute is critically important since it is adjacent to the Indo-China border.

India‘s approach towards Bhutan is similar to Nepal. However, in this case, India is tactfully able to persuade Bhutan for signing hydro-electric power agreements in its favour because the latter has no democratic political system. Their hydro-electric power cooperation started more than five decades ago. Initially, the cooperation was based on the development of small-scale hydro projects such as Tala, Chukha and Kurichu. Bhutan has the potential to generate 30,000 MW of hydro-power. In 2006, both countries inked a Power Purchase Agreement for thirty five years that would allow India

to generate and import 5000 MW of hydro-power from Bhutan, the quantum of which increased to 10,000 MW in 2008. On the other hand, the people of Bhutan raised objections by highlighting the issues that such projects are likely to cause in the long run. For instance, if Bhutan ever decides to construct storage projects, issues will get intense and more problematic when it comes to dealing with India. The internal challenge in Bhutan is water accessibility. Households across the country face drinking water issues. Bhutan also needs water storage capacity, which is subject to its lower riparian, i.e. India‘s will.

The water problem in the SA is aggravating due to Indian hegemonic behaviour, violation of existing water co-operative regimes and unilateral diversion of water, creating regional tension and mistrust. The co-riparian countries blame India for turning a blind eye to international laws and practices, which are generally observed by others in the region. Consequently, the conflicts over the trans-border rivers have negatively impacted relations between India and other South Asian countries for several decades. Moreover, the harmful effects of water disputes are likely to shrink economic development, and gradually damage the social fabric of the affected countries that may evoke violence when security and welfare of the masses are endangered by interruptions in the ecosystem.

The writer works for IPRI