Conclusion of bilateral arrangements on sharing common water resources will banish a constant source of misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between India and Bangladesh, writes Amb Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd) for South Asia Monitor
Sharing the waters of the 54 transboundary rivers between India and Bangladesh in the dry season has been one of the most vexed and intractable issues in their bilateral relations since 1972. Bangladesh, comprising largely a low-lying alluvial delta with high seasonal rainfall, suffers annually from a water surplus/shortage situation because it is unable to store enough freshwater to ensure stable supply round the year.
In all these years, only one agreement was finalized with India on sharing waters of the Ganga, which is due to expire in 2026. An agreement on sharing the Teesta river waters was reached in 2011, but its signing is held up because the West Bengal government refuses to release water from the river on the grounds that its lean season flows are only one-sixteenth of what is required by the two countries between February and May and any sharing will have an adverse on farming.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has proposed sharing the waters of the Torsa, Jaldhaka and Raidak rivers instead but this has not been considered seriously as they are tributaries of the Brahmaputra. Diverting water from other rivers will mean river-linking, to which Bangladesh strongly objects, apart from their possible adverse ecological impact. Bangladesh, however, has signed an MoU in 2019 to allow India to withdraw 1.82 cusecs from the Feni river to supply drinking water to Sabroom town in Tripura in northeastern India.
Core areas of cooperation
There are real areas for cooperation in the sharing of water resources, flood mitigation and adapting to climate change. Both countries can form committees of experts to study and implement the agreed basin management approach and also use the principles mutually agreed in the finalized draft Teesta accord to quickly reach an agreement on sharing the waters of the transboundary rivers during the lean season.
They must also soon begin to review the Farakka accord of 1996, which expires in 2026, and achieve an updated accord. Conclusion of bilateral arrangements on sharing common water resources will banish a constant source of misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between India and Bangladesh. India must, therefore, urgently evaluate the proposals made on such water sharing by the border states of Bangladesh such as West Bengal to prepare its negotiating offers to Dhaka.
Some misconceptions persist in public opinion and media of Bangladesh that needs to be addressed and dispelled. It appears that the Bangladeshi public is still concerned about the effects on their country of the operation of a non-existent dam at Tipaimukh. The Tipaimukh dam proposal was made by India in response to a request from Bangladesh during a meeting of their bilateral Joint Rivers Commission to suggest ways of mitigating frequent flooding of the Barak river valley. However, Bangladesh objected to this Indian proposal, which was then promptly dropped.
Remove irritants in ties
All Bangladeshi opposition leaders, however, over the years have done fear-mongering among their local audience, with active support from some sections of the Bangladeshi media. Both governments must, therefore, cooperate to show up the falsity of this canard, used to generate unproductive anti-India sentiment.
Another continuing but false apprehension in Bangladesh seems to be about India's proposed plans to inter-link some of its rivers. India needs to convince them that there are no plans to link rivers that would affect Bangladesh without their consent since projects under consideration are in other parts of India.
A short canal system from the Jamuna through northern Bangladesh debouching into the Teesta upstream of the barrage could provide water to the Teesta within Bangladesh, irrigate their dry northern areas and reduce the continuing depletion of groundwater there. This will nullify the bilateral dispute and also avoid the ecological disaster predicted from a proposed linkage with the Teesta in India of the Manas river via the Sankosh river.
Flood mitigation in Bangladesh will be dependent largely on their own efforts to identify potential water reservoirs in their country. India may help in this by offering its remote-sensing and satellite–mapping capabilities. River training works can then be undertaken accordingly. The long-standing Bangladeshi request to hold water in Himalayan areas will need a BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal sub-group) approach and clearance by geologists and seismologists.
Act to protect houses
An affordable solution is required also for the desilting of reservoirs and maintaining the carrying capacity of rivers. Bangladesh may have to adopt an open floodplain approach rather than the current control one to use floodwaters to fill lowlands and recharge groundwater for use in the lean season. Since a lot of rural housing is now washed away and needs to be rebuilt every time, architects on both sides may consider designing low-cost flood and weather-resistant high-plinth or high-rise housing with modern technology in flood-prone areas to replace traditional mud and thatch huts.
This will save a lot of the drain on the national exchequers by the repeated need to evacuate people into storm shelters and provide rescue and relief operations. It will also save the meager resources and energy of the affected people. Coastal afforestation and windbreak planting in agricultural areas can also mitigate weather havoc.
BBIN countries must put their heads together to collectively seek basin-based solutions to water resource management and climate change. With changing rainfall patterns, deforestation and depletion of Himalayan glaciers, water shortages may become a major problem for growing populations. Cooperation is the only way to mitigate the increasingly adverse effects of climate change in the next 50 years. Each country is a lower riparian to another, so they must collaborate to protect their realistic and adequate access to this most precious natural resource of the planet.
(The writer is a former Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal)