A Proposed Framework for Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin Compact

Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman, Dr. Zahidul Islam, and Kazi Saidur Rahman

Only six years left before the 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (the Treaty) expires. It may appear that six years is a long time to negotiate a mutually agreeable treaty, especially when there exists a long-term treaty and both Bangladesh and India agreed that “it shall be renewable on the basis of mutual consent”(Article-XII). However, for multi-lateral discussion, which we are envisioning through this article, time is of the essence. The authors of this article are of opinion that a bi-lateral treaty falls short of sustainable solution to Bangladesh; it is important to strive to achieve an integrated water-sediment-biodiversity-landuse management compact involving all co-riparian nations in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin. Besides, the lessons learned from implementation of the existing Treaty should be taken into account in formulating a new integrated basin-scale negotiation. A critical evaluation of the Treaty will help formulate a more pragmatic and sustainable compact in the future.

Before going into the details about the proposed framework for a new agreement, let us have a closer look at the issue at hand. Since the operation of the Farakka Barrage (the Barrage), which initiated in 1975, India started diverting water from the Ganges to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River. The average lean seasonal flow (January-May) of the Ganges at Hardinge Bridge location in Bangladesh during the pre-Farakka period (1949-74) generally ranged between 58,000 and 132,000 cubic foot per second (cusec). In contrast, after the operation of the Barrage, the lean season flow at Hardinge Birdge reduced to between 25,000 and 75,000 cusec during the post-Farakka period (1975-96). This unilateral diversion of the Ganges water in the lean season caused serious environmental, social and economic consequences in Bangladesh, especially in the Southwest region of the country. After more than 20 years of bi-lateral discussions, Bangladesh and India signed the 30-year Treaty in 1996. It is worth mentioning here that, there were some interim memorandum of understating and agreements signed before the current Treaty (notably, the 1977 Agreement). The current Treaty remains active from January 1 to May 31 of each year, and water-sharing calculations are based on the average flow of fifteen 10-day cycles. As per the Treaty, if the flow is greater than 75,000 cusec at Farakka, then India will receive 40,000 cusec, which is the capacity of the diversion canal, and the remaining will be allocated for Bangladesh. If the flow ranges between 70,000 and 75,000 cusec, then Bangladesh will receive 35,000 cusec and the remaining will be allocated for India. If the flow is less than 70,000 cusec, the share between Bangladesh and India will be at the rate of 50:50. However, India and Bangladesh each shall receive a guaranteed 35,000 cusecs of water in alternative three 10-day periods during the period in March 1 to May 10. Although the Treaty is the only result of a successful bi-lateral negotiation between Bangladesh and India, Bangladesh’s interest was curtailed in the Treaty by not including any guarantee clause and by basing the Treaty on historic flow for the period of 1949-88, part of which is characterized by average low flow at the Barrage following the operation in 1975. The Treaty also omitted the provision to work towards finding ways to augment the flow at the Barrage during the lean seasons. In the Treaty, the Ganges River was treated as a mere conduit of water flow that needs to be shared by two countries. In reality, the Ganges River supports a myriad of ecosystems and carries sediments that is deposited on GBM floodplains and coastal plains to build the land in the face of rising sea level. In addition, the water carried by the river is used for agriculture, industries, and domestic purposes. Therefore, it is also important to address the sediment and water quality issues in the future integrated basin-scale negotiation.

The Ganges flow data at Farakka and at Hardinge Bridge for the post-Treaty period (1997-2020) clearly indicates that the Treaty is not implemented properly, and that Bangladesh did not receive her fair share as agreed upon in the Treaty. The water sharing calculation of the Treaty was designed based on indicative flows, which are fifteen 10-day cycles, and were determined based on the historic average flows that reached Farakka during 1949-88 period. As per the Treaty, the indicative flow amounts served as the basis for the treaty, and it was expected that India deliver that agreed amounts to Bangladesh. However, majority (55.5%) of the time during 1997-2016 period Bangladesh received less than the indicative flows. This is a clear negligence by India to honor the agreed upon amounts to Bangladesh. The indicative flow amounts are lower than the pre-Farakka average flow for the period of 1949-74 for each of the fifteen 10-day flow cycles, except for the month of May. In addition, the actual flows at Farakka during the post-treaty period (1997-2020) are substantially lower than the indicative flows for more than half of the times, which indicates that there was not much concerted effort by upstream India to maintain the agreed upon indicative flow amounts. A recent study by a group of scientists from Canada, Netherlands, and Bangladesh concluded that Bangladesh did not receive the guaranteed flow 65% of the times (39 out of 60 events) during the alternate 10-day flow cycles from March 11 to May 10. The study also found that Bangladesh did not receive its guaranteed flow of 35,000 cusec for 10 out of 12 alternate events between 2008 and 2011. Rates of failure to comply the treaty by India during the critical periods and during the guaranteed periods varied between 43% and 65%, respectively. Bangladesh did not receive her fair share of flows that were released from Farakka to be received at the Hardinge Bridge during 12 out of 15 (80% of the time) 10-day cycles during the 2012-2016 period. The authors of this article note that the pre-Farakka lean season average flows of the Ganges at Hardinge Bridge (presumably at natural state) in Bangladesh were approximately 16% higher than the historical lean season average flow at Farakka. The higher flow is attributed by the tributary inflows from the Mahananda River located between Farakka and Hardinge Bridge, a larger basin area of the Ganges at Hardinge Bridge compared to Farakka, local rainfall, and base flow contribution by groundwater. However, lower flow at Hardinge Bridge compared to Farakka indicates that either there is additional withdrawal by India took place between Farakka and the border between India and Bangladesh, or there might have been discrepancies between the reported amount of release and the actual amount received at Hardinge Bridge.

The historical climate data from the Ganges basin area indicates that the average precipitation during the lean season has increased during the post-Farakka (1975-96) period compared to the pre-Farakka (1951-74) period. However, the flow reaching at Farakka during the same time has actually decreased. On the other hand, the average precipitation decreased during the post-Treaty (1997-2014) period, yet the average flow at Farakka increased during the same period. To the contrary, the flow reaching at Hardinge Bridge decreased during both post-Farakka and post-Treaty periods. The reason for this discrepancy is not well understood and more research, preferably in collaboration with Bangladesh, is needed to understand the relationship between the average precipitation and the flow in the Ganges River.

There are number of regional bilateral treaties exists in South Asia, notably, the Indus Treaty (1960) between India and Pakistan, the Kosi Agreement (1954), the Gandak Project Agreement (1959), the Karnali River Project (1968), and the Mahakali Treaty (1996) between India and Nepal, and Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty (1949), Indo-Bhutan Treaty (1972, 1995) between India and Bhutan. Our assessment reveals that some of those treaties are working relatively well compared to the Ganges Treaty due to inclusion of specific provisions and scopes. For example, the allocation of three eastern rivers to India and three western rivers to Pakistan, and the implementation mechanism of ‘unrestricted use’ of these rivers, the Indus Treaty remains as a successful treaty between India and Pakistan. The Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal, on the other hand, specifically focused on benefit sharing through the development of hydropower, flood control and irrigation projects, which represents the sharing of benefits from water uses rather than sharing of water. Both the Indus Treaty and the Mahakali Treaty included conflict resolution and arbitration mechanisms, in case there are difference in opinion or disputes among the signatory parties. However, these provisions of benefit sharing and in-built mechanism of dispute resolution may not be enough to resolve future issues, especially in a world of changing climate and increasing water demand. Our analysis suggests that a mere bilateral water sharing treaty may not always bring meaningful cooperation and sustainable water governance. As the Ganges Treaty mainly focused on water sharing through volumetric allocation of the river flow, and did not include any clear and specific conflict resolution and arbitration mechanism, it further complicated the conflicts between India and Bangladesh, and failed to generate substantial contribution to enhance regional cooperation.

A potential solution to resolve any dispute in relation to unmet provisions of the Treaty, India and Bangladesh should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997). The other countries within the GBM basin should also ratify the Convention. Furthermore, several national and regional organizations, including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Forum, South Asian Water Initiatives (SAWI), World Bank, Global Water Partnership, Civil Society Organizations, Academicians from the SAARC region, representative of people can act as catalysts in the preliminary negotiation process. Other successful basin scale initiatives, such as the Mekong River Commission, Rhine River Basin Commission, Mackenzie River Basin Board, Nile River Initiatives, and International Commission on Danube River Protection can be explored during the preliminary negotiation process to learn from their experiences.

The authors of this article are of view that a mere water sharing treaty between Bangladesh and India is not a sustainable solution. A more holistic basin-scale compact need to be formulated involving all co-riparian nations. Water resources in the GBM basin should not be viewed a commodity for sharing, instead they should be managed as a common resource that benefit all stakeholders, as well as the biodiversity and ecosystems that these resources support. Furthermore, there are concerns that potential climate change could exacerbate the water scarcity in the basin. Scientist have predicted that impacts of climate change will affect the intensity, frequency and magnitude of precipitation in the basin, and there are projections for reduced lean season flow across the basin. Therefore, a proper scientific study of the impacts of climate change and anthropogenic activities should be carried out to project the reliable future flows in the basin. With proper coordination among all co-riparian countries, it will be possible to use the water for multiple benefits that include flood and drought mitigation, food security, hydropower production, augmentation of lean season flow at Farakka Barrage, sediment management, improved water quality, improved navigation, and regional peace. According to some researchers, the Koshi sub-basin, which belongs to the Ganges basin, shows potential for multi-purpose water use projects through building water storage at several locations, including on River Tamur, River Arun, River Dudhkoshi, River Tamakoshi, and River Sunkoshi. For such multi-faceted projects to be implemented, a bi-lateral treaty between India and Bangladesh is not enough, Nepal will also have to be a party to such basin-scale initiatives. Although the details of such projects warrant an independent environmental and social impact assessment, the possibility to implement basin-scale integrated water resources management is worth pursuing by Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. All countries will have to agree to share the financial responsibility as well as any environmental and social consequences for such projects. Adopting one such sub-basin scale project will pave the way for more widespread adoption of integrated water resources management for the entire GBM basins in the future. The time is ripe, as the renewal for the Treaty will enter a new phase in the near future. It is the call of our time to look beyond bilateralism and embrace multi-lateral compacts that are based on holistic management of water, sediment, landuse, energy, food security, regional peace issues for the GBM Basins, as all of them are intertwined and will contribute to the implementation of the UN’s 2030 Vision for the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Authors Bio:

Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman is a Professor of Geology at Lock Haven University (USA)

Dr. Zahidul Islam is a Hydrology and Water Resources Specialist (Canada)

Kazi Saidur Rahman is a Senior Scientific Officer at Water Resources Planning Organization (Bangladesh)