Bangladesh is a country where the lives of a considerable part of the population are directly connected with its rivers. As a result, shared watercourses are a matter of great concern in this region. Bangladesh has 57 trans-boundary rivers flowing through it, whose flow, when disrupted, brings about a considerable amount of environmental deterioration. Of these river courses, the Ganges is perhaps of the utmost significance. The Ganges basin shared by India, Nepal, China, and Bangladesh, supplies 37% of total river water of Bangladesh, and is the primary source of livelihood for the population in the adjacent areas.
The Ganges Basin has been a subject of contention between Bangladesh and India for decades. The dispute first arose when India decided to build a barrage on Ganges in 1951 in order to divert water flow to the Hooghly Port in Kolkata. India first took the initiative to design Farakka Barrage in 1950-51, wherein, they stated the decline of Kolkata port as the main reason, along with concerns about the agricultural well-being of the West Bengal as reasons for the building of a barrage while Pakistan was consistently apprehensive of the consequences of the barrage on the then East Pakistan. However, due to the huge political turmoil that followed, the discussions between the two countries did not conclude in a proper understanding.
Following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, India and Bangladesh decided to form an agreement under Joint River Commission, where the amount of water to be diverted during the lean seasons was decided. Examining the amounts, it was clear that India was receiving less water than their needs and allowed a sufficient flow of water into Bangladesh, which was to the advantage of the latter. However, the political climate changed after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and an overall period of turmoil followed. After 1975, India unilaterally diverted water for a long time until another agreement was signed in 1977, which expired in 1982, following another MoU lasting till 1985. No other agreement was signed from 1986 to 1996, when The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty was finally signed. (Political history of Farakka Barrage and its effects on environment in Bangladesh MA Kawser & Md. Abdus Samad, 2016)
The treaty was insufficient to meet the growing demands of both the countries for multiple reasons. Firstly, the schedule of percentage of water to be diverted in the lean season was decided on the basis of the 40 years (1949-1988) 10-day period average availability of water at Farakka (Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, Article 2). This proved to be problematic because the increased upstream draws have significantly lowered the discharges and statistical analysis indicates that neither Bangladesh nor India will be able to withdraw their respective allocations (The Ganges water-sharing treaty: risk analysis of the negotiated discharge. International Journal of Water, 2 (1), pp. 57-74, Mirza, 2003). Secondly, the conflict resolution mechanism suggested by the treaty involves the Joint Commission formed with equal representatives of both government, and the Joint Rivers Commission. (Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, Article 4-8). This is hardly a reasonable mechanism, as Bangladesh and India are politically unequal entities. The treaty fails to involve any neutral, third party as an arbitrator, which is a method that has proved to be efficient in other trans-boundary river settlements, like, the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan.
Moreover, the scheduled division of water does not take the effects of the opening of the barrage in Monsoon into consideration. The opening of the barrage, during the rainy season, has brought about excessive flooding and river erosion in the Padma basin, and caused great harm to livelihood.
The diversion of water flow by Farakka Barrage brought about disastrous consequences for both the countries. The increased discharge during monsoon and decreased flow during dry seasons have affected the livelihood of the river basin area. It has been found in a study held in Bheramara Region of Bangladesh that 65% of crops were destroyed due to climatic and ecological consequences of disrupted river flow. The rivers of Bangladesh, besides being vital to agriculture, are the source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of fishermen who have suffered terrible loss over the years. It was also found that 65% of the fishermen, 24% of boatmen, 3% of businessmen and 8% of the farmers have changed their livelihood pattern during post Farakka period (Impact Assessment of Farakka Barrage on environmental issues at Bheramara Upazila, Bangladesh, M Y Mia, M U Hossain, M S Hossain, and S Farzana, 2009).
The regulation of Farakka Barrage has been the cause of degraded agricultural production, salinization of water and tremendous flooding in the river basin areas of Bangladesh over the decades. Moreover, not only many environment conservation activists but also the Chief Minister of Bihar, India himself has expressed concerns over flooding in Bihar due to the Farakka Barrage, and have proposed that the two countries should come together for a bilateral meeting and renegotiate the terms of the Ganges Treaty and take immediate steps to mitigate the losses by keeping the barrage open at all times.
As seen in The Ganges Treaty, regulations of international waters is a complex matter that requires an extensive research based legal framework that takes into consideration all geographical and climatic factors, and has a well-structured dispute resolution mechanism. An example of such a mechanism can be seen in the Indus Water Treaty(IWT) between India and Pakistan. By the mediation of World Bank as the third party, Indus Water Treaty 1960 was introduced as a comprehensive trans-boundary water treaty. The treaty dictated the proper usages of respective rivers in the basin and laid out a systematic approach to conflict resolution by terming them as ‘questions’, ‘differences’ and ‘disputes’. The questions are to be resolved by a Permanent Indus Commission, the differences are to be resolved by a neutral expert selected by the World Bank, and the disputes are to be settled by an arbitration court consisting members from both countries and relevant institutions.
Many refer to the IWT as an example of successful water resources cooperation even though in recent times the two nations have seen some conflicts in this front. In 2005, Pakistan submitted a six-point objection to World Bank regarding the construction of Baglihar power plant and a neutral adjudicator was consulted, who directed India to lower the dams. But the verdict hasn’t completely removed Pakistan’s concerns and therefore they further sought the counsel of the arbitration court in 2011(Trans-boundary River Basins in South Asia: Options for Conflict Resolution, Dr. Gopal Siwakoti ‘Chintan’, 2011).
As settlement regarding international waters is a complicated issue, the countries should prioritize mutual benefit while formulating agreements. They may seek out neutral assistance from relevant experts when it deems prudent. The United Nations adopted the United Nations Convention for the Non Navigational Uses of International Watercourses,1997 with a view to mitigate international water disputes by providing the necessary legal framework. It aims to assist nations in utilizing shared water resources properly in order to minimize pollution and international dispute. The convention originally aimed to work towards goals compatible with attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) regarding Environment Conservation.
However, the MDGs were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals recently, which also emphasize on the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas, and marine resources. The Convention came into force upon its ratification by 35 states. It encourages cooperative management systems between nations in order to preserve and utilize water bodies while keeping in mind the consequences of climate change. The UN Watercourses Convention recognizes, in depth, all the possible factors that need to be considered while making policies, such as, the preservation of environmental stability, the lifestyle of the population directly affected by the water-bodies, the socioeconomic conditions of the states involved etc. (UN Watercourses Convention, Article 6).
On the other hand, The Ganges Treaty only states the necessity of cooperation of the states and declares that the sharing will be based on the policy of equity, fairness and no harm. Furthermore, the UN Convention poses special emphasis on the protection of ecosystem of the river basin area and prioritizes the prevention of pollution(UN Watercourses Convention, Article 20, 21).
As rivers are intricately linked to the lifestyle, environment and economic stability of a rather large population of the country, the sharing and distribution of such cannot be decided on the basis of mere calculations, as done in the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty. Any decision regarding river flow should be taken with proper scrutinization of the effects it may bring about significant and crucial changes to the wellbeing of sharing countries as espoused in UN Watercourse Convention.
Hence, taking the vast impact of the Ganges water sharing on the environment of the involved states into consideration, along with the undeniable harm suffered by the populations of the river basin areas, few remarks can be drawn in this conclusion. Firstly, it can be said that the UN Convention is a much more comprehensive and suitable agreement for the countries to ratify, as it encompasses issues of utmost importance that the Ganges Treaty overlooked. Secondly, even if bypassing the convention both the countries can revisit the provisions of the impugned treaty for making it a timely and sensible one. In fact, it is in the mutual interest of both the countries to revise the terms of water sharing, and reach a decision better suited for a longer, more sustainable solution. That can relent the sufferings of people directly and indirectly affected by it.