Bridge over troubled waters - India and Bangladesh have quarrelled over rights to water from the Ganges for more than two decades. Can they finally agree a deal that would benefit millions?
By Tara Patel Dhaka IT IS a grim irony that the highest concentration of poor people live on the fertile plains of one of the world’s largest river basins. The Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers feed rich lands in Bangladesh, Bhutan, northwest India, Nepal and Tibet, yet most of the region’s 550 million inhabitants suffer from poor health, are illiterate and exert extreme pressure on the farmland. Although the basin takes up just 0.12 per cent of the world’s landmass, it is home to 10 per cent of its population. The area is prone to floods, drought and cyclones, but most development officials agree that living conditions could be vastly improved if the countries cooperated to develop their water resources. For more than two decades, India and Bangladesh have quarrelled over rights to extract water from the Ganges during the dry season. While the two sides have tried many times to reach a lasting agreement, their failure has hindered badly needed irrigation projects and created huge environmental problems in parts of Bangladesh. Now, in a process that could eventually change the lives of millions, Delhi and Dhaka are again locked in negotiations over water rights. But this time, say officials from both countries, there is genuine optimism that a deal will be signed before January, when the next dry season begins. The heart of the dispute is the amount of water flowing through a dam across the Ganges at Farakka in the Indian state of West Bengal, just 18 kilometres from the Bangladeshi border. India began operating the barrage in 1975 to divert water through a feeder canal to the Bhagirathi river which flows to Calcutta. Its main purpose is to improve access to the city’s port by flushing silt out to sea. During the rainy season, when silting is not a problem, India opens the dam gates to allow the swollen Ganges, carrying as much as 2.5 million cubic feet per second (cusecs) of water, to flow freely to Bangladesh (1 cusec = 0.028 cubic metres per second). But during the critical dry period between January and May, when total flow often falls to as little as 55 000 cusecs, India siphons off water to Calcutta through the dam, which can divert 40 000 cusecs. Bangladesh says the dam has led to serious water shortages and environmental degradation in the southwestern part of the country. The reduced dry season flow “has produced adverse impacts in almost every sector of life in the Ganges-dependent area in Bangladesh”, says a seven-page government briefing on the dispute. “Changes in river morphology and saline intrusion are severe,” says Mohiuddin Farooque, secretary general of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association. “This has devastated one part of our country.” Minimal flows Bangladesh maintains that India is diverting much more water than it is entitled to. Bangladeshi government statistics show the minimum Ganges flow this year, measured downstream from Farakka at Hardinge Bridge, was 14 691 cusecs compared with almost 73 500 before the diversions began. The flow fell to as little as 9217 cusecs in 1993 and was just 12 819 cusecs last year. The decreased water flow in the Ganges causes the drying up of the River Gorai, a tributary of the Ganges and the most important source of fresh water to the southwestern Khulna division of Bangladesh. During the dry season, according to one government hydrologist, flow in the Gorai is “like a sheet of water on the riverbed”. The lack of water has also increased the salinity of rivers, groundwater and soil, as tides from the Bay of Bengal creep farther up the river when the flow is reduced. Water salinity in the River Rupsa-Pussur, a tributary of the Gorai, at the city of Khulna has increased 78-fold since 1974. Khulna, which is about 150 kilometres inland, has major jute and paper factories which cannot function with highly saline water. The sea’s “salinity front”, defined at a concentration of 500 micro-siemens per centimetre, has advanced from 150 kilometres inland on the Rupsa-Pussur estuary to 219 kilometres, according to the Bangladeshi government. Higher salt concentrations are killing trees in the coastal Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. Bangladesh claims that lack of water and increased salinity across 27 000 square kilometres of its territory caused the loss of 7.5 million tonnes in grain production between 1976 and 1995. Inadequate irrigation means that farmers plant crops later in the rainy season and risk them being damaged by flooding. Fisheries and navigation have also been hurt by increased salinity and decreased river water, while human consumption of water with a high salt concentration has caused outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera. Overall, Bangladesh claims that damage directly attributed to the Farakka dam affects one third of the population and has cost the country $3.5 billion. In the past, Bangladesh has been accused of exaggerating the damage caused by the dam. In 1976, Bangladesh took the dispute to the UN and sought international support. During this period, government claims were based on the effects of Indian water diversions in 1975 and 1976. While some of the claims were substantiated by a 1977 World Bank-funded study, no comprehensive independent assessments have been carried out since. Now, however, the long-term effects of a reduced flow of water to the region have started to bite. Q. K. Ahmad, chairman of a Dhaka-based think-tank called the Centre for Research and Action on Environment and Development, admits there was a lot of hype in the past. “But even India has now recognised there is a problem,” he says. Subinay Nandy, a representative of the UN Development Programme in Dhaka, agrees. He says that even if Bangladesh starts receiving substantially more water “it will take a long time to reverse what has happened”. But despite the optimism over the current talks, doubts remain. The dispute has a long history and inspires strong national feelings in both countries. Ramaswamy Iyer, a research professor at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi and former secretary at India’s Ministry of Water Resources, says he is worried about all the “euphoric promises” that have been made. “At this point I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Iyer, who remains a close adviser to the government. India’s controversial decision to build Farakka was opposed by East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. Good relations between the newly formed country and India quickly soured because of the dam. In 1975, an agreement was reached permitting India to divert between 11 000 and 16 000 cusecs over a 40-day period during the driest months in April and May. After it expired, India began diverting much more water and relations between the two countries further deteriorated. UN pressure resulted in the Ganges Waters Agreement of 1977, which guaranteed Bangladesh an average of about 60 per cent of the Ganges water flowing through Farakka. Under the deal, the January to May dry season was broken up into 10-day periods. For the leanest period at the end of April, Bangladesh received 34 500 cusecs and India 20 500. A guarantee clause in case of reduced Ganges flow ensured Bangladesh 80 per cent of its scheduled share during the driest period. When the 1977 agreement expired, it was replaced by short-term deals which lasted until 1988. Since then, there has been no sharing arrangement. Critics say part of the problem was that the endless rounds of talks were dominated by technical experts. This time, though, negotiations are being steered by the Bangladeshi and Indian foreign ministries. “For twenty years we went around the mulberry bush getting bogged down in technical details and it was all beside the point,” says B. G. Verghese, research professor at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “This is not an engineering problem, it’s a political one.” In Bangladesh, “Farakka politics” are part of the nation’s psyche and anti-Indian sentiment whipped up around the issue has been used by successive governments to consolidate power. “The perception of the people of Bangladesh is of wrongdoing by India,” says Ahmad. “This is true among journalists and even rickshaw pullers. It will take a sea change in political perception to change this.” The current attempt to resolve the dispute came after changes of government in both countries. In Bangladesh, the Awami League under prime minister Sheikh Hasina is regarded as more pro-Indian than previous regimes, and the new coalition in India as more conciliatory than previous Congress Party rulers. However, the negotiations will be hard fought. Bangladeshi officials say that settling for anything less than the 1977 terms would be political suicide for the government. In contrast, Indian officials insist that the 1977 agreement was too generous and propose equal sharing of the Ganges dry season flow. Privately, Indian officials admit that the importance of Farakka for the port of Calcutta has not been convincingly demonstrated and that dredging is probably the only effective solution to silting. But they say that dry season Ganges flow is needed to keep the city’s drinking water from becoming saline. And demand for irrigation water from the Ganges has risen in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. “Bangladesh can’t ignore the fact that there are people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” says Iyer. “Are we going to release more water so their government won’t fall?” It is in the interests of both sides to reach an agreement for reasons other than water. Delhi wants Dhaka to allow it transit to its northern states from West Bengal, something Bangladesh currently forbids. And flood control programmes in Bangladesh would be more effective with Indian cooperation. A Bangladeshi government official says: “Finding a solution to this water problem has become a test case. If we can’t get this out of our hair there is a real danger relations will bog down again,