When the world is shaken by one of the worst pandemics in history, India is experiencing a challenging time regarding a handful of unsolved issues with the bordering countries.
An estimation revealed that the length of India's land borders is about 15,106.7km with Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Afghanistan.
There was a clash between India and China near the Himalayan border running along the Ladakh area of Kashmir. Another part of the Himalayan border that India shares with Nepal, has been facing ongoing land disputes after Nepal published its revised map showing the disputed areas within the country, vexing India in return.
To make it worse, recent media reports from the India-Bhutan border stated that Bhutan has obstructed the flow of channel water along the Assam border which was supplied to the Indian farmers through a man-made channel (locally known as a dong) since 1953.
It has been reported that hundreds of farmers from the Baksa district in Assam have staged a demonstration where they thanked the Bhutanese government for their contribution so far and demanded the continued arrangement of "Dong" like the previous years. However, the Bhutanese officials have denied the allegations of stopping the water supply and said that they have been doing repair works in the canals to ensure a smooth flow downstream.
Neighbouring countries not only share a line of barbed wires but also share natural resources like surface and groundwater bodies, reservoirs and landforms that are inseparable and codependent. Freshwater, as we realise, is one of the most important commodities that we cannot do without and an extensive amount of ecological and human crises is caused by the inappropriate management of transboundary freshwater resources.
The countries bordering India are also sharing giant catchments of major rivers which directly and indirectly have affected the lives of millions and numerous ecosystems formed around these major channels of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) delta system.
The growing competition over natural resources among neighbouring nations for industrialisation and development have overshadowed the future of these intricately linked transboundary rivers and the resources they carry.
The GBM delta system has formed from millions of years of sediment transportation and deposition through the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. These major rivers travel a significantly long path after originating, cut through the heart of Bangladesh and finally dump the sediments and nutrients onto the Bay of Bengal.
Consequently, the major rivers of Bangladesh are transboundary, meaning if there is a barrage, or, a dam upstream then the water is being barred from flowing downstream at a specific time of the year, or, maybe throughout the year. For example, if the rivers are obstructed somewhere at an upstream location to store water for irrigation during the dry period, then the riparian regions downstream face extensive water shortage and suffer a huge crisis for their domestic, agricultural, fisheries and other water-related activities.
These water bodies also carry large amounts of sediments to support economic activities that have substantial national and global significance.
In 1996 India and Bangladesh signed the Ganges Treaty on Riverine Water Sharing to minimise the longstanding dispute over sharing of the Ganges waters after India constructed the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal about 10 miles (16 km) from the Bangladesh border.
The Farakka barrage which was built for the welfare of the upstream region disturbed the natural flow of the river, affecting Bangladesh in the lower riparian part creating a massive water shortage during dry season and floods during monsoon. It has also disrupted the natural sediment inflow amount which can adversely affect Southern Bangladesh as sedimentation rate and local sea-level fluctuations go hand in hand.
Bangladesh is remarkably vulnerable to climate change and the changing weather patterns along with the sudden catastrophic events such as cyclones and tropical storms have significantly affected the country over the years. To top it off, there is a shortage of freshwater supply due to reduced flow in the major rivers which in turn is one of the major causes of increased salinity in the Southern part of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is particularly dependent on these channels to meet her agricultural needs as a result of her downstream riparian characteristics. Being among the world's largest and most populated river basins, the water resources of these catchments are already pressured by anthropogenic and environmental changes. Some challenges and conflicts evolve from an inequitable share of water that demand collaboration and goodwill. There are also opportunities for international cooperation for sustainable water use and management.
It is of supreme importance that these transboundary rivers, water bodies, channels, streams are managed properly to ensure equitable share of water for all and to restore river health through international collaborations, negotiations and governance. It is high time for these nations to realize that we cannot divide natural forces for our profits, we have to work with the forces and make our way around them. Now that India is facing their irrigation water crisis, maybe they will realise how it feels when you desperately need irrigation water and not a drop comes in.
Image reference: Baten, Mohammed Abdul and Titumir, Rashed Al Mahmud, 2016, Environmental challenges of trans-boundary water resources management: the case of Bangladesh, Journal of Sustainable Water Resources Management, 2, p. 13–27.
Haniyum Maria Khan is a lecturer of the Department of Environmental Science and Management at North South University.