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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
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View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

Standing in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra

By Asit K. Biswas, Mikiyasu Nakayama and Juha I. Uitto

Bangladesh is the nation last in line to receive water from the Ganges - which rises in the Himalayas in Nepal and then flows through India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The scene is complicated by the Brahmaputra River, which also rises in lofty mountains, in tiny Bhutan, and joins the Ganges in Bangladesh, after flowing through the nearly cut-off Indian state of Assam. The tortuous hydropolitical scenario is a legacy of the 1971 war, which brought Bangladesh into being.

In the early 1970s, India completed the Farraka Barrage, a dam that diverts Ganges water to Calcutta. An agreement with Bangladesh to share the dry-season flow of water expired in 1988; since then, the two countries have been deadlocked, leaving Bangladesh with no guarantee of water for its irrigation needs in the annual lean season, from January to April. In 1993, the dry-season flow into Bangladesh was the lowest ever recorded.

Against this backdrop of geopolitical tension, the UNU, in March 1998, organized the Ganges Forum, with co-sponsorship of the Government of the Netherlands, in association with the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), which brought together scientists and policy makers from the involved countries. A volume on the forum, to be published by the UNU Press, is now in preparation. The following report on the Ganges Forum was prepared by Prof. Asit K. Biswas, Past President of IWRA, with the collaboration of Dr. Mikiyasu Nakayama of the Faculty of Agriculture, Utsunomiya University, Japan, and Dr. Juha I. Uitto of the UNU programme staff. - Editor

Increasing population and accelerating economic development activities in the basin of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra river system have made the sustainable water management of the region even more critical than in the past. Historically, water has always been regarded as a very important resource in South Asia, and it is also considered to be a main entry point for economic development of the region.

The sharing of water resources of the Ganges-Brahmaputra system has long been a matter of dispute among the four countries which share the basin: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Following the construction of the Farakka Barrage in the Indian Ganges in the mid-1970s, sharing of water downstream has become a highly contentious political issue between Bangladesh and India. (It also highlights the manner in which urban concentrations can compound water problems; one of the major purposes of the Farakka diversion is to supply badly needed water to Calcutta.)

The Ganges is one of the world's mighty rivers that no longer reaches the sea every year. The upstream diversions and other water demands do not leave enough water for the river to reach its natural outlet in the Bay of Bengal. The lack of freshwater flowing out to sea has caused the rapid advance of a saline front across the western portion of the river delta, threatening agricultural production in one of the most densely populated regions on earth. The region is plagued by national boundaries reflecting past political tensions. The basin of the Brahmaputra, for example, is largely in Assam, the Indian state in the far northeast, all but cut off from the rest of the country at the time when Bangladesh was created in 1971.

For more than three decades, the development of the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system has been a hydropolitical bone of contention in the region. However, two recent treaties on the Ganges (between Bangladesh and India in December 1966) and on the Mahakali (signed between Indian and Nepal in 1977) have dramatically changed the political atmosphere of the region in terms of water management.

The main purpose of the Ganges-Brahmaputra forum, like three other earlier such meetings, was to provide the countries concerned with an independent platform where senior policy makers and experts could quietly and objectively explore genuine potentials for cooperation in the sustainable development of the water, land and biotic resources and come to understand and appreciate each other's resource needs.

Participation in this very high-level but low-keyed forum was strictly restricted, by invitation only, to some thirty senior policy-makers and experts. They were all invited in their personal capacities for free and frank exchange of ideas, opinions and facts on this complex hydropolitical issue. Because of the position of the participants, the meeting refrained from drawing any formal conclusions or making any specific recommendations.

Eight backgrounds papers were specifically commissioned for the forum. These analyzed the historical background of the conflict as well as the collaborations among the four co-basin countries; future potential for water resources development in the basin; consideration of flow augmentation in the "lean" (or "dry") season; review of social, environmental and political conditions; and discussion of possible legal and institutional frameworks for future collaboration between the countries concerned.

Among the range of topics discussed, a major discussion was devoted to overall water resources requirements for the region. If total annual flow is considered, the Ganges has abundant water resources. The main problem is water scarcity during the lean season - from January to April - which affects both India and Bangladesh. Only 5% of the total annual flow of the river would be sufficient to solve the downstream scarcity problems during the lean season. But ways will have to be found to somehow store water in catchments to be used when the flow diminishes. Thus, the possibility of low flow augmentation should receive high priority in management of the water resources of the region.

While the lean season scarcity problem is easy to resolve conceptually, problems arise when attempting to select a way to do it that would be acceptable to all countries concerned. Historically, Bangladesh has preferred to have reservoirs constructed upstream, in Nepal. Though several participants backed such a concept, it was noted that only a very large scheme, such as the planned Kosi High Dam, could be effective in augmenting lean season flow in Bangladesh.

India, on the other hand, has supported construction of a 300 km long canal - through Bangladesh territory - to transfer water from the relatively water-rich Brahmaputra to the water-scarce Ganges basin. The plan has not met with favour in Bangladesh for a variety of reasons. It would involve resettling a large number of people in Bangladesh. Many serious environmental and social problems would likely arise. A canal through Bangladesh, which could also be used for navigation from one part of India to another, could have serious socio-political implications for both countries.


Scenery of a flood in Bangladesh. (Source: Floods in Bangladesh, Institute of Geography, University of Berne, 1997)

However, the idea of a Ganges Barrage constructed exclusively within Bangladesh was generally appreciated by the Forum participants. Such a barrage would have very few political implications since it would be a national project. International funding organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have initially been somewhat reluctant to finance any project on the Ganges, primarily due to the absence of any agreement between the countries for the sharing of its waters. The Forum participants overwhelmingly felt that the feasibility of the Ganges Barrage in Bangladesh should be given serious consideration by external funding agencies, particularly in light of the existing Ganges Treaty between Bangladesh and India.

Information Flow Problems

One major problem identified at the forum was lack of information sharing. Water experts in one country had surprisingly little access to information from other co-basin countries. Even information freely available in one country is often not available in others.

Participants agreed that an operational mechanism needs to be established for wider sharing of meteorological, hydrological, economical and environmental data. Considering the sensitivities associated with data and information sharing, it may not be an easy task - but it is essential to the long-term sustainable development of the region.

There were various suggestions on how best to promote sustainable development of the region, and how to further enhance the existing collaborations between the co-basin countries. It was generally agreed that a holistic approach is desirable, but it was felt that trying to integrate various sectors and involve all parties concurrently might unnecessarily complicate the overall scene -and thus only contribute to delay a solution. However, small-scale development activities should be promoted even in the absence of a basin-wide master plan. New types of investment possibilities should be looked into, such as cost sharing between private sector and donor agencies. A review of similar investment practices currently being used in countries like Turkey or Brazil should be made. Also, the idea of a supra-national institution for regional collaboration, like the Mekong River Commission, should be thoroughly explored.

Needed: Macro-vision for the Future

As a follow-up activity of the forum, it was proposed that the International Water Resources Association, in cooperation with the UNU, convene a small working group, made up of experts from Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The group would be charged with preparing a macro-vision for the future of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Meghna basin as a whole. The vision would be discussed by decision makers and concerned experts of the region, most probably in Dhaka in late 1999. The revised and finalized version could subsequently be presented at the World Water Forum, which is being organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands in The Hague in March 2000.