Water management experts have derided as “a drop in the ocean” an agreement between Bangladesh and India to share water from the Kushiara River, a minor waterway out of the 54 that flow between the two countries.

In a recent visit to India, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed a memorandum of understanding with her Indian counterpart, 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 and India share 54 rivers that flow down from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, chief among them the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.
  • Managing the flow of water both upstream and down is crucial for agriculture, navigation, inland fisheries, and keeping saltwater intrusion at bay in Bangladesh, but is undermined by a lack of water-sharing agreements.
  • The Bangladeshi and Indian prime ministers recently signed an agreement on sharing water from the Kushiara River for irrigation, but experts say this is nothing special in the grand scheme of things.
  • They’ve called on the governments of both countries to push for securing long-term treaties on water sharing from major rivers like the Ganges and the Teesta, which in the latter case has been hobbled by local politics in India.

“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.” They expressed frustration that India, sitting upriver, is unwilling to 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.

Experts have expressed frustration that India, sitting upriver, is unwilling to consider the interests of downstream Bangladesh when it comes to sharing of water from the major rivers. Image by Abu Siddique/Mongabay.

“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 formalizing 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 neighboring countries share at least 54 such rivers, according to the JRC, the most prominent among them being the Ganges 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 of 1996. During PM Hasina’s recent visit to India, both governments agreed to conduct an assessment of the optimum utilization 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.”

Boats on the Padma River. Managing the flow of water both upstream and down is crucial for agriculture, navigation, inland fisheries, and keeping saltwater intrusion at bay in Bangladesh. Image by Marufish via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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.

In 2011, both the governments were ready to sign an agreement during a visit by then-PM Manmohan Singh of India. But it was canceled at the last minute after the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, pulled out of the visit.

Since then, the issue has been stuck in “discussions.”

“The chances of getting a concrete decision on Teesta water share is very little because of political complexities in India,” Nishat said. “The West Bengal ruling party does not want to lose votes by agreeing to share the water, and at the same time, the ruling party in the Indian central government does not want to antagonize West Bengal voters as they are looking to increase their political stake in the state.”

India and Bangladesh share at least 54 rivers that flow from the Himalayas. Image by Abu Siddique/Mongabay.

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 article by  Abu Siddique was republished from Mongabay

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