Sharing water resources

WATER SHARING has been an important element in the India-Bangladesh ties ever since the latter was created in 1971. It also holds lessons for all those engaged in bitter conflicts over water sharing. The way the issues have been tackled by the two countries shows it is possible to work out mutually acceptable water sharing arrangements, particularly during summer or the lean season.

India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers. Broadly, they come under the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna family. Bangladesh is the lower riparian. The sharing of Ganga waters occupied the top of the agenda ever since the East Pakistan days.

The dispute can be traced to India's decision to construct a barrage across the Ganga at Farakka in the late 1940s for diverting 40,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water into the Bhagirathi-Hooghly system to prevent clogging of the Calcutta port. By the time the Farakka Barrage project was commissioned in 1975, the dispute acquired greater dimensions.

Two years later, India and Bangladesh entered into an agreement on sharing the water flow during the lean period. This pact lasted five years and subsequently some arrangements were made on an ad hoc basis. The two nations signed the Ganga Water Treaty in December 1996 for 30 years, renewable by mutual consent.

Essentially, the treaty pertains to sharing Ganga water from the Farakka Barrage for the 150-day dry season beginning from January 1. The average of actual flows from 1949 to 1988 was taken as the basis for working out the sharing formula. Though the agreement has laid down details of the formula, an important aspect is that the two countries are entitled to 35,000 cusecs of water during the peak dry season (March 1 to May 10) in alternate 10-day cycles. In January-February, India retains 40,000 cusecs, giving a larger share to Bangladesh.

Taking into account the concerns of the lower-riparian Bangladesh, the agreement states that every effort would be made by the upper riparian to protect flow of water at Farakka, as indicated by the reference period. More importantly, the governing principles of the agreement are "equity, fair play and no harm to either party." It was difficult to stick to the arrangement in 1997. Since then, the treaty has been progressing well.

There are critics of the treaty on either side. But what is significant is that the agreement has set an example for others to emulate. That two countries with other differences could arrive at an understanding on water-sharing itself is commendable.And, this treaty is for a long period — 30 years.Secondly, it has been accepted by the ruling Bangladesh National Party, which, as an Opposition party, had opposed it at the time of signing.

Bangladesh wants agreements with respect to all other rivers. Talks on the Teesta have been going on for seven years. The prolonged nature of the negotiations has been criticised by a section of the Bangladesh Press. The Indian Government says the agenda for water sharing talks has been set on the basis of collective decisions by the two countries. Though an agreement on the Teesta is elusive, the two sides have reached a convergence of opinion on several aspects. The point of water release, the site of measurement of flows, the period of sharing and cropping pattern are among them.

But the two countries are yet to agree on the specifics of an interim agreement and terms of reference for a five-year-long scientific study that will form the basis for a final agreement. Once the Teesta question is sorted out, agreements on other rivers will be facilitated, India hopes.

(Last month, the Water Resources Secretaries of the two nations met at Dhaka to discuss the sharing of Teesta waters and decided to refer the "pending technical issues" to the joint technical group). The Ganga Water Treaty has a clause (Article IX), which says "guided by the principles of equity, fairness and no harm to either party, both the Governments agree to conclude water sharing Treaties/Agreements with regard to other common rivers."

Another issue that is exercising Bangladesh is India's plan to interlink rivers. Dhaka's apprehension is that such a programme will lead to salinity intrusion towards the north, affecting several sectors such as agriculture and fishing. It also fears it will lead to migration of millions of people. Several Indian water experts feel that India not only cannot but also should not proceed with any such proposal without the consent of other riparian countries.

The position of the Indian Government is that the National Common Minimum Programme adopted by the United Progressive Alliance Government attaches priority to southern rivers, that too with regard to a "comprehensive assessment of the feasibility of the linking of rivers." So there is no need for Bangladesh to feel concerned.

There are other issues too such as flood control and water quality. Since arsenic is present in the aquifers of both West Bengal and Bangladesh, a collaborative programme can be evolved to solve the problem on a permanent basis. As water issues affect every section of society, the Governments of the two nations should encourage more of a Track II approach, involving farmers, academicians and non-governmental organisations and other members of civil society.