India and Bangladesh recently signed an agreement to share water from the Kushiara river, and water management experts have derided it as “a drop in the ocean.” There are 54 rivers that flow between the two countries, and Kushiara River is one of the minor waterways.
In a recent visit to India, Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina signed a memorandum of understanding with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in which both governments agreed to withdraw the equivalent of 4.3 cubic meters (153 cubic feet) per second of water from the Kushiara during the off-monsoon season from November to May.
“Bangladesh will irrigate 5,000 hectares [12,400 acres] of arable land with this water,” said Malik Fida A. Khan, a member of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC), a technical body that advises the Bangladesh government on the management of transboundary rivers and water.
Transboundary water experts in Bangladesh, however, say the new agreement is a “drop in the ocean” and that India should consider the interests of downstream Bangladesh when it comes to sharing of water from the major rivers flowing from the Himalayas down to the Bay of Bengal.
“I personally do not consider the MoU for Kushiara a special one,” said Ainun Nishat, a former technical member of the JRC and professor emeritus at Bangladesh’s BRAC University.
“Both countries are already withdrawing water from the middle of the river — which is an international border—for irrigation. While formalising an existing consensus is good, there are several other major issues on transboundary rivers that Bangladesh has raised for a long time, which are not getting priority in India.”
Bangladesh is an active delta formed by sediments carried through the rivers flowing from the Himalayas. The two countries share at least 54 such rivers (pdf), according to the JRC, the most prominent among them being the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Agriculture, navigation, inland fisheries, and keeping saltwater intrusion at bay are all heavily dependent on the flow of water of these rivers.
Treaties for major rivers
To date, the only ongoing long-term agreement on river management between the countries is the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (pdf) of 1996. During PM Hasina’s recent visit to India, both governments agreed to conduct an assessment of the optimum utilisation of water received by Bangladesh under the provision of the treaty, which ends in 2025.
“We are looking at this as an ongoing process of getting the treaty prolonged,” said Malik Fida, who also serves as executive director of the Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) and was part of PM Hasina’s entourage during the India visit.
“This assessment should have been done right after the agreement was signed in 1996, as per the treaty,” said Nishat, who played a key role in bringing about the treaty. “But it never took place. It is good to see that it is finally going to happen.”
Bangladesh has been seeking a treaty to share the water of the Teesta river, another major common river, for several years.
But while India’s national government has been keen to arrive at an agreement, there’s been resistance from the state government of West Bengal, through which the Teesta flows before entering Bangladesh.
The two countries did reach a provisional agreement in 1983 to share the water of the Teesta during the lean pre-monsoon period, under which Bangladesh would get 36% of the water and India 39%, while 25% would remain unallocated. That agreement ended in 1985 and was extended to 1987, but there’s been no progress since then on reviving it.
Role of the JRC
Activists and experts say the Joint Rivers Commission, the body that’s supposed to facilitate discussions on sharing water between the countries, has been ineffective.
The JRC is meant to arrange a regular meeting at least once a year between officials from the two countries. But the latest JRC meeting, held on Aug. 25 this year, came 12 years after the previous one, held in March 2010.
“The gap between the meetings should tell you how effective JRC is and what kind of priority it receives from the government,” said Sheikh Rokon, general secretary of the Riverine People, a river conservation group. He added the JRC in any case is only a facilitator, with no decision-making authority.
“It is the government’s role to discuss and solve the crisis, not the JRC’s,” said Rokon, also a former JRC member. “The meeting is supposed to be held between the governments at the bureaucratic level.”
Nishat said he believes the lack of action on shared water management will lead to a crisis at some point as demand for water rises in both countries.
“We need a comprehensive management plan for the entire basin area by conserving the monsoon water,” he said.
This post was originally published in Mongabay India.