Legal Rights of Rivers in Bangladesh
Syeda Warda Ahmed : The Ganges and Mighty Teesta are two major transboundary rivers that originates in India and flows through our downstream country of Bangladesh. Both Bangladesh and India have been involved with water sharing disputes, as Bangladesh has been struggling to negotiate with India for employing, evolving and equitably sharing transboundary river waters. Water being a natural resource is often the subject of international conflicts, and India being the upstream usually gets to determine the volume of water that is available and in what time period, to downstream Bangladesh, which is often unjustified.
Farakka Water Sharing Treaty
The mighty Ganges river originates in Northern India and flows into Bangladesh, causing a long standing issue of conflict since 35 years over proper allocation and distribution of water resources of the river. However, in December 12th 1996, the Prime Minister Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina and the Prime Minister of India, H. D. Deve Gowda got together in the Indian Capital of New Delhi, to sign a comprehensive bilateral treaty, that recognized the rights of Bangladesh as a lower riparian country and established a 30-year water resource sharing endorsement.
The Farakka Barrage is a dam built in 1974, on the Bhagirati river in West Bengal, India, and is located about 10 kilometers away from the Bangladeshi border. The dam is primarily used by the state of India to control the volume of water that flows through the Ganges, which is usually always used on India’s favor. The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty was established after Bangladesh faced inconsistent availability of water, as the country’s rivers were drying up due to excessive withdraw of water by India in dry seasons, and the equally excessive discharge of water by India during rainy seasons, which would result in threatening flash floods in Bangladesh’s lands. After the expiration of a few temporary agreements, the 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty aimed to escort to the following legal framework:
On a similar note, we have Teesta, a 315-kilometer-long river that also originates in the Indian States of Sikkim and West Bengal in the Himalayas, and passes through Bangladesh, where its flood plain covers about 14% of the total cropped area of the country and provides direct livelihood opportunities to approximately 73% of its population. Correspondingly, several major disputes over the uniform and justified allocation and distribution of the water resource between India and Bangladesh has been a concerning issue since over 35 years; along with the rise of many bilateral draft treaties and agreements, which eventually failed to produce peaceful results.
The sharing of the Teesta water resource have been negotiated for several years with a lot of failed implementations with the earliest being in July of 1983, when Bangladesh and India entered into an ad hoc treaty that agreed on 36% of the Teesta water being allocated to Bangladesh, while 39% would be offered to India. In 2010, Bangladesh and India decided to sign a draft agreement again, which stated that 40% of the water flow would go to both the countries each, reserving the rest 20% for environmental flow, which was eventually opposed by the Chief Minister of India. However, Bangladesh has been tenacious in chasing the signing of the treaty as it is an absolute right of the nation.
Being the upper riparian country, India always had the upper hand in calling the shots of how much water Bangladesh would be receiving, whether that flows through the Ganges or the Teesta. As mentioned previously, the lack of proper agreements and morality has caused India to be unfair in terms of sharing this very important natural resource with Bangladesh.
With millions of Bangladeshi population depending on these rivers, they have to suffer months of dryness when India decides to hold back water. In parallel, during rainy months, India lets go of excessive amount of water, which washes away floodplains located around these rivers in Bangladesh; either ways it’s always Bangladesh that has to suffer. While India enjoys most of the share of the water now, Bangladesh demands a higher share than it gets now; at least 50 percent of the Teesta’s waters between December and May every year, because that’s when the water flow to the country drops drastically, affecting the livelihood of the country.
After the declaration of Bangladesh in 1971, India and Bangladesh established the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) with the aim of “working together in harnessing the rivers common to both the countries for the benefit of the peoples of the two countries”, however, it is a safe bet to say that India is still trying to act as a big brother in the region and exploiting the less powerful Bangladesh. The typical insight is that, with regard to water sharing with India, the existing policies are not working for lack of political and national solidarity in both countries and for absence of regional collaboration.
Why aren’t existing policies working with regard to water sharing disputes between India and Bangladesh? This is purely the lack of wisdom and political harmony between the two neighbors, including the lack of regional correspondence. Other reasons may include Bangladesh’s poor governance and diplomatic incompetency, while India’s big-brother like attitude and unwillingness to go by the rules.
Water is a natural resource and an absolute right to every single human being, both Bangladeshis and Indians. It’s high time for Bangladesh to stand up for their basic right and establish a well comprehend treaty with legal consequences if not followed. While India should consider the importance of the lower riparian and take proactive steps to reach tranquility. Equity and fairness must be practiced by both parties, in this matter, while Bangladesh must ensure strong diplomacy.
On the development front, cooperation has deepened, with India extending three lines of credit to Bangladesh in recent years. This should be a good excuse for India and Bangladesh to sign a better established sustainable and meaningful agreement in hopes of achieving geopolitical destiny through effective transboundary water diplomacy.