Bangladesh, has a complex deltaic and estuaries systems, which is located in the floodplains of three prominent rivers- the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna (GBM). The water resources of the river systems highly influence the agrarian economy of Bangladesh.
On the contrary, a crucial part of the river basins and more than 90% of the yearly freshwater resources originates in India. Therefore, Bangladesh is highly dependent on its water resources in India and has less control over these transboundary rivers. Consequently, if India does any activities in these rivers, it becomes a matter of concern for Bangladesh.
In the early 1970s, India-Bangladesh transboundary water conflict was going on due to controlling and sharing supplies and demand of water resources both up and downstream. Hundreds of millions of people are dependent and living their livelihoods and cultural lives around the bank of the shared rivers.
The primary conflicts between India-Bangladesh started after the Ganges Water Treaty (GWT) that was signed in 1996 between Bangladesh and India. The treaty was over the building of 'Farraka' dam on the Ganges river near the border of Bangladesh with the objective of diverting water from the GBM basin. Since the barrage operation started, Bangladesh has been facing low water flow resulting in serious drought problems and saltwater intrusion in the southwestern part.
Since Bangladesh is a downstream riparian country, the availability of freshwater is dependent on upstream India. Ever since the 'Farakka' barrage, Bangladesh is facing a 50% decrease in the water flow amount during the dry seasons. There were many objections and negotiations from Bangladesh over 'The Ganges treaty' considering the adverse impacts of the barrage but withdrawing the bilateral negotiations about the water sharing, India continued to use the water unilaterally.
Furthermore, India has started to construct several dams, barrages from many transboundary rivers, such as, Gumti, Khowai, Dharla, Teesta, Monuetc, Dudhkumar and blocked many rivers like Fulchuri, Kachu, Muhri, Chagalnaiya as well which flow from India (Tripura) to Bangladesh that is severely threatening the food security of Bangladesh.
Recently, Indian high court has approved a river diversion project in which India will be allowed to link Brahmaputra and Ganges River through a canal to store the excess water of Brahmaputra to the Ganges. This River linking project is highly controversial and a matter of concern for Bangladesh. Because, from the experience of the Farakka barrage, it is obvious that any reduction in The Brahmaputra and Ganges water flow will deteriorate almost the entire river system and water resources inside Bangladesh.
Consequently, this water diversion by India will affect groundwater resources, reduce the surface water availability and 25-50% of the current the river flows in the major and other smaller rivers of the joint Ganges-Brahmaputra (GB) basin. Furthermore, water flows will be reduced in Padma and lower Meghna river. As a result, salinity intrusion will affect almost 50% of the total drainage basin.
Due to shortage of irrigation water, depletion of soil moisture, salinity intrusion and depletion of groundwater table, the national crop production will drastically reduce and in the worst case, permanently damage the biodiversity and ecology of the wetlands of the Meghna basins. In addition, the recent construction of 'Tipaimukh' dam in the Barak River of Mizoram, Manipur and Assam has added a new exhilaration to this long transboundary river conflict between India and Bangladesh.
From the perspective of international law, this is a complete violation of the 'No harm principle'. Because, according to it, no state or country is allowed to harm their national territory by their developmental activities. In the case of Bangladesh, India has been violating this law through constructing hydrological dams on transboundary rivers sharing with Bangladesh.
The geographical position of India has a strategic advantage over Bangladesh. As a lowest riparian country, Bangladesh doesn't have the power to influence watershed management policies. Thus, India takes the opportunity of its higher military and economic strength to act unilaterally in water-sharing scenarios. There are substantial scientific studies and evidence that, due to developmental activities of India on transboundary rivers, Bangladesh is facing floods and water scarcity, salinity intrusion in the southwestern part, reducing fish productivity and yield production, reduced navigation and an ecological imbalance in estuarine areas.
'No harm principle' was established and adopted by all countries to protect, conserve and sustainably manage the transboundary or shared resources between countries. But in the case of shared water resources between India-Bangladesh, this law hasn't been practising properly and the resources haven't been managed as per laws. Rather, there has been going on a significant violation of international laws. However, negotiations for water sharing in this region are based on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence.
Consequently, Bangladesh is in a conundrum for managing its vital freshwater resources and fragile ecology with latent implication in planning medium- and long-term Integrated water resources management (IWRM).
India took advantage of being the upper riparian country and shared the transboundary river according to their will. There is a lack of integrated water-sharing management in the existing water sharing policy.
According to stakeholders, India disobeys the International River Law and shows no attitude of concession to Bangladesh. While the Farakka barrage is reducing salinity in Kolkata, the Ganges river diversion has been increasing salinity in the rivers of Bangladesh.
Due to lack of regional co-operation and the conventional sagacity of policymakers, the existing water sharing issues between these countries are not working well. Lack of political and national harmony, poor water governance, selective foreign policy are the reasons behind this lack of consensus between India and Bangladesh about the transboundary river issues.
Again, lack of trust, communication and expert independence between countries, policymakers and experts has been a major obstacle to effective co-operation on the shared rivers management.
Many interviewees highlighted the tendency of giving priority to political gains of policymakers of Bangladesh also the fact that Bangladesh takes a poor stand vis-à-vis their Indian counterparts. Since India tends not to share information related to diversion or dam projects with Bangladesh, international support, and involvement of third parties like UN Bodies and the World bank are needed.
Furthermore, river water information gathering and monitoring need to be reviewed to enhance public participation and share information with affected communities to prepare more comprehensive management of integrated river water. Since India disobeys and violates the obligations of 'No harm principle' and hasn't been any other internationally accepted binding agreements to follow, the UN Convention on the "Non-Navigational Use of International Watercourses Law" may be exercised as a mutually acceptable starting point.
The water-sharing treaties between India-Bangladesh viewed as weak and inadequately implemented that doesn't consider a holistic 'watershed approach' which includes aspects of water issues such as Flooding, water scarcity and quality rather only looks at sharing water available at the border.
Thus, more research on transboundary rivers hydrology is needed as a tool to equip the govt. of Bangladesh for future negotiations on the sharing of Teesta waters and other transboundary water sharing. Access to information needs to be increased for both states and the public as well.
During negotiations, states have to acknowledge that basins are more important in economic and ecological perspective than a fixed use of it. Donor organisations should come forward in the negotiation process as non-state actors to provide support and capacity building.
Governments of both countries should command the developers of transboundary river infrastructures to conduct EIA and SIA in all project-affected communities of state borders and share the report so that preventive and precautionary measures can be taken.
To avoid a further environmental stress and to promote more sustainable, comprehensive and integrated co-operation between India-Bangladesh on transboundary river water management in the GBM Basin, Bangladesh government and policymakers should be bolder enough in their efforts to initiate re-negotiation of The Ganges Water Treaty with India thus, the potential for conflict will be reduced.