For many years, water has been one of the most commonly contested bilateral and multilateral issues between and among the countries of South Asia. Conflict over water has, for example, strained India’s relations with three of its neighbors: Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal. The rapid retreat of the Himalayan glaciers, increasing effects of climate change, deteriorating river ecology, and growing urbanization of the region have all impacted flows of fresh water in South Asia. India’s unilateral approach to the problem has also made maintaining good relations among South Asian countries more complex. As a result, major trans-boundary rivers including the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra, which straddle international boarders and support the lives of an estimated 700 million people, are in desperate need of improved water governance.
Water-sharing conflicts among the countries of the region have a long and torrid history. Bangladesh and India maintain a tense relationship over issues of water management, one that has grown increasingly strained by the diversion of the Ganges River by India, the Farakka dam, the proposed Tipaimukh Dam, and the Teesta water-sharing predicament. India’s hydroelectric projects — and the devastation they inflict upon the environment — have also created a bone of contention between the two countries. India’s decision to divert the Ganges has created undesirable salt deposits in Bangladeshi farmland, negatively impacting fishing and navigation in Bangladesh. The Farakka Dam has prevented fresh water from reaching the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Indo-Bangladesh relations are also strained over the proposed Tipaimukh Dam in the state of Manipur, which, if it is built, will generate 1,500 megawatts (MW) of hydropower and enhance flood control. Building the dam, however, would also lead to the drying up of two main rivers, the Surma and the Kusiyara, which fulfill much of the irrigation needs of northeastern Bangladesh. The dam would also have an adverse impact on the environment and bio-diversity of the lower riparian areas of Bangladesh. The construction of a dam by China on the Brahmaputra River has created further problems that will affect India and Bangladesh devastatingly. Environmental experts say that roughly 60 percent of the Brahmaputra River’s total water flow will drastically fall, if China is successful in constructing this dam.
Indo-Nepal relations have also been plagued by issues regarding the region’s four trans-boundary rivers, the Kosi, the Gandaki, the Mahakali and the Karnali, that include unfair compensation packages, an inequitable distribution of water for meeting irrigation needs, and unfair power sharing arrangements that disproportionately benefit India.
Several complexities, in particular a generalized lack of political trust, currently exacerbate the water sharing conflicts between the countries of South Asia. Specific to the India‐Bangladesh case are issues related to illegal immigration, Chakma refugees, insurgency operations, border demarcation disputes, and conflicts over trade. Similarly, water issues between India and Nepal have been affected, to a major extent, by historical misunderstandings and a continuing state of mistrust between the political parties of both countries.
Institutional arrangements to solve India’s water-sharing conflicts have also proved insufficient. The Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) is the only cooperative structure between India and Bangladesh that is dedicated to water planning. Yet, this body cannot effectively formulate and implement solutions, as the political leaders of India and Bangladesh ultimately determine its powers. As a result, the flow of information within the body lacks transparency, and the institution itself cannot sufficiently resolve unsettled water issues. Similar limited cooperation persists between India and Nepal. For instance, an official report on the Pancheswor project, which plans to irrigate huge swathes of land and generate more than 6,400 MW of shared hydropower, has yet to be prepared for dissemination and review, even though 18 years have passed since the signing of the Mahakali Treaty in 1997. The writers of the agreement originally intended the whole project to be completed within eight years, and yet, not even a report has been filed on its construction.
Weak water management systems have also created impediments to solving the South Asian water crisis. The secrecy surrounding the Ganges Water Treaty, for instance, is one of the biggest issues in this regard. The Indian and Bangladeshi governments do not have a shared database of information on the Ganges River. Because data dissemination between the two respective governments is not coordinated and systematic, key aspects of their dispute over the river remain unresolved. The absence of shared information has, in turn, fueled political suspicion between the two countries and made it more difficult for civil organizations, academics, scientists, and media outlets to get a sense of the issues at large.
Working Toward A Trans-Boundary System of Water Governance
Enhancing cooperation between the nations of the South Asia is essential to improving water governance in the region. Such collaboration could include sharing information on water and environmental issues, routinely running and documenting hazard assessments, and creating jointly managed infrastructure facilities. These measures would help create new ways for civil society to engage with and participate in solving regional issues. Cooperation, for instance, in managing the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers through a new regulatory body would enable all four countries in the region – Bangladesh, India, Nepal and China – to tap into expertise that otherwise might not have been available under a nationally-driven framework.
Indeed, there is a need for multi-national institutions and consultative bodies in South Asia. A framework other than the JRC, for instance, should be formed to help oversee agreements over trans-boundary rivers, and represent the interests and needs of the peoples living in this region. Such an organization should even involve nations that are not commonly thought of as having water-sharing issues, such as Bhutan and China. There is also a need for new water-sharing treaties. India and Bangladesh have only the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996, in spite of sharing access to 54 rivers. The bureaucratic complexities regarding the signing of the Teesta water sharing treaty, which would become the second, bilateral, water-related agreement between the two countries, have continued for years and need to be cleared up.
New water sharing treaties should be more integrative in scope than they have been in the past, covering domains such as flood control and irrigation. Chinese-Indian water sharing treaties are particularly lacking in this regard, for they do not address the full scale of issues related to China’s constructing of a dam on the Brahmaputra River. Furthermore, the parties to every treaty should be more careful about properly implementing doctrine, as the Indo-Pakistan Indus Treaty (1960), the Indo-Nepal treaties regarding the Kosi (1954), the Gandaki (1959), and the Mahakali rivers (1996), and the Indo-Bangladesh Ganges Treaty (1996) have markedly suffered during implementation.
A regional information-sharing network among the Himalayan River countries is also crucial, as many of the aforementioned issues are interlinked across the four countries of the region. Information sharing would ensure transparency, as well as help non-governmental and civil organizations participate in solving water-sharing issues. Groups such as these can play an important role in this process, since they too conduct research and development work on water security predicaments. By organizing inter-sectorial dialogue and coordination between the agricultural, water, and energy industries, they can help organize the participation of relevant stakeholders in resolving water-related conflicts.
The governments of South Asia should also move toward minimizing bureaucratic obstacles to cooperation by enacting reforms on their information sharing policies. As a conglomerate, they need to more effectively implement checks and balances so as to limit the decision-making powers of any one country. These measures would ultimately ease the way toward improved trans-boundary water governance, and mollify political and social tensions in South Asia.
Water is an increasingly scarce resource, and the search for it will always be competitive. Countries must realize that everyone has the right to access fresh water, and no one has the right to deprive others of doing so. Countries in South Asia need to place a greater emphasis on regional cooperation founded in international law, in order to overcome water-related disputes.