• India is facing water disputes not only among its states but also with its neighboring countries.
  • Water remains a politically contested issue in much of South Asia. The region is facing water shortage and agrarian difficulties, and it will continue to face increasing demands on energy and water with rapid industrialisation.
  • Over-extraction of groundwater is of particular concern, with an estimated 23 million pumps in use across Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.
  • Moreover, salinity and arsenic contamination affects over 60% of groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
  • Combine these factors with the impact of climate change that’s reducing the amount of water in the Brahmaputra basin and changing the patterns of water flow.
  • Under such circumstances, the increasing need for power and stable water levels could prompt reconsideration in bilateral water-sharing treaties in future.

India-China Water Dispute

  • Both Brahmaputra and the glaciers that feed Ganga originate in China. As an upstream riparian region, China maintains an advantageous position and can build infrastructure to intentionally prevent water from flowing downstream.
  • Owing to previous tendencies where the Chinese have been reluctant to provide details of its hydro-power projects, there is a trust deficit between the two neighbours.
  • China’s dam-building and water division plans along the Brahmaputra (called Yarlung Zangbo in China) is a source of tension between the two neighbours, despite the two having signed several MoUs on strengthening communication and strategic trust.
  • As lower riparian countries, India and Bangladesh rely on the Brahmaputra’s water for agriculture.
  • China has now plans to build four more dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet. Both India and Bangladesh worry that these dams will give Beijing the ability to divert or store water in times of political crisis.
  • India, for its part, has built dams on the Teesta River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, to utilise the flow of the Teesta during the dry season.
India-China Water Dispute

India and Bangladesh

  • India and Bangladesh have 54 rivers in common, most of them originating in India or in Nepal. Much of the discord over river waters between India and Bangladesh relates to the Farakka barrage.
  • The Farakka dispute goes back to 1951, when India unilaterally announced plans for a barrage 18 km upstream of the border to flush the rapidly oversilting Calcutta port. This drew a strong protest from Pakistan (at that time Bangladesh was called Eastern Pakistan and was a part of Pakistan).
  • India countered that Farakka was only under “preliminary study” and Pakistan’s fears were “hypothetical”. However, India proceeded with the project, starting construction in 1961. It also dismissed the apparently reasonable objection that excessive diversion of water at Farakka would adversely affect East Pakistan’s agriculture, fisheries, and ecology Pakistan’s frustration grew as its efforts to internationalise the dispute Failed, India insisted that in the January-May lean season, with total flows as low as 55,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second), it would need 40,000 cusecs to flush Calcutta port. Pakistan objected that what was left would be too meagre.
  • The barrage to dam the Ganga needed to be built because the river had swung away in the 16th century from its main channel the Bhagirathi-Hooghly-to the Padma in East Bengal. That till the beginning of the 16th century the Bhagirathi-Hooghly was the Ganga’s main outlet to the sea is evident from the number of Hindu pilgrim centres such as Nabadwip, Tribeni, and Ganga Sagar on this channel. The Padma has no such centres.
  • After the Ganga deserted the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, other rivers in West Bengal also suffered a decline. In 1770, the Damodar suddenly changed course in high flood and joined the BhagirathiHooghly about 60 miles further down south. This diversion sealed the fate of the upper and middle reaches of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly. Up to 1770, the Damodar used to replenish these portions to make up at least partly for the diminishing quantity of water it was . receiving from the Ganga. After the Damodar moved south, the upper and middle reaches became even more shallow- and dependent on tidal waves from the sea.
  • A breakthrough in ending the water dispute came with the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971* But it still took four years and commissioning of the barrage – for India to reach a short-term water-sharing agreement for the last 40 days of that year’s lean season. This apportioned 11,000 to 16,000 cusecs to India, and 44,000 to 49,000 cusecs to Bangladesh. However, following Mujib’s killing, India refused to extend the accord and started unilateral withdrawals at Farakka. The advent of the Janata government, committed to improved neighborly relations, produced a five-year agreement in 1977.
  • In 1977 Agreement provided that if the actual availability at Farakka of Ganges water during a particular lean-day period was higher or lower than the quantity shown in article II(i), it was to be shared in the proportion applicable in that period. In the event of a lower availability, the article protected at least 80 percent as the minimum share of Bangladesh.
  • It further provided that if during a particular Ten-day period the Ganges flow at Farakkacame down to
    such a low level that the share of Bangladesh was lower than 80 percent of the quantity shown in article II (i), the release of water to Bangladesh during that Ten-day period should not fall below 80 percent of that quantity.
  • Thus Bangladesh was assured of at least 35,500 cusecs of water in a normal year, and in the event of lower availability in any particular year, at least 80 percent of 34,500 cusecs i.e. 27,600 cusecs of water. The Agreement was for five years but there was provision for extension of the Agreement by mutual consent.
  • That opened Pandora’s box: India proposed a link canal from the Brahmaputra, through Bangladeshi territory, which Bangladesh termed as ‘Legally unjustifiable, technically impracticable and economically arid ecologically disastrous”. Dhaka proposed upstream dams in Nepal that would augment water flows and generate power. India rejected this as violative of strict {but arbitrary)- bilateralism. The Indian plan banked on an Aeomorphologically unstable river with already poor lean-season flows. It also posed problems because both ends of the canal would be controlled by India. The canal would involve no net addition but the mere transfer of water. Strangely, India also refused to bring Nepal a major Ganga basin state, into a comprehensive agreement. This was justified on the short-term concern with somehow keeping Calcutta port going with Farakka’s oxygen. By contrast, Bangladesh’s plan was economically more attractive, ecologically more sound, and politically fairer.
  • A long-term solution eluded the Joint Rivers Commission. The 1977 agreement lapsed and was extended ad hoc. In a major departure, Rajiv Gandhi, at last, agreed in 1986 to bring in Nepal but the talks failed.
  • In 1996, the then prime minister of India, MR. H.D. Deve Gowda signed an agreement with his Bangladeshi counterpart, Ms. Sheikh- Hasina, to end the water disputes between the two countries. The agreement contains a Preamble, 12 Articles, and Two Annexures.
  • Under Annexure 1, it is provided that when the availability of water at Farakka is 70,000 cusecs or less, the share of India and Bangladesh shall be 50 percent. When the availability would -be 70,000 to 75,000 cusecs, Bangladesh will get 35,000 cusecs and balance to India. When availability would be 75,000 or more, India will get 40,000 and the balance to Bangladesh. This, however, is subject -to the condition that India and Bangladesh each shall receive guaranteed 35,000 cusecs of water in alternate three 10-day periods during the period, March 1 to May IO. Under Annexure 2, a formula has been included showing the sharing of waters at Farakka between January 1 and May 31 every year. “If actual availability corresponds to average flows of the period 1949 to 1988, the implication of the formula in Annexure 1, for the share of each side is ….” According to this formula, Bangladesh will gt 29,688 cusecs during March 21-31 and 27,633 during April 11-20. Although some sections in both the countries objected to the agreement, the governments of the two countries have been making efforts to implement the accord.
India–Bangladesh Water Dispute

India and Pakistan

  • India and Pakistan are embroiled in the Indus water dispute since the partition of India in 1947. In 1948, the Eastern Punjab (India) refused to allow the flow of water in the Upper Bari doab until western Punjab (Pakistan) denounced all its claims over the Indus water. But in the same year, a treaty was forged which restored the supply of water. However, the water disputes between the two countries continued.
  • The Indus Water Treaty was signed in 1960 and negotiated under the aegis of the World Bank. The treaty allocated the three eastern rivers of Satluj, Beas, and Ravi to India and the Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum to Pakistan. The agreement came about as a comprehensive plan for the use of the waters of the Indus system of rivers.
  • Under the 1960 treaty, India and Pakistan have created two permanent ports of commissioner for Indus waters, one each in India and Pakistan, who are the representatives of the respective governments for all matters arising out of the treaty and serve as a regular channel of communication in regard to implementation of the treaty. Under the treaty, J and K state’s ability to divert the waters have been curtailed and Pakistan has objected to any proposal for use of river waters in the state: whether it is the Balgiar hydroelectric power project on Chenab finalized in 1992 or the Kishen Ganga hydroelectric plant that is under construction. The Tulbul navigation project has also been hanging fire for several years on the objections raised by the Pakistani government even though the proposal is a run-of-the-river project and does not block the river flow.
  • Though the Indus treaty was hailed as a satisfactory settlement of the largest river basin dispute, in recent years there has been some criticism that the treaty favors Pakistan by allocating the larger river flows to that country and deprives India of the main benefit of being the upper riparian state.
  • Some gyre even suggesting that India should withdraw from the treaty, especially in view of Pakistan’s involvement in cross-border terrorism. But abrogating a treaty is not a matter that can be taken up lightly. Cutting off Pakistan’s supply of water may sound a befitting response to Pakistani obduracy but scrapping the treaty will not stop water flows to Pakistan; at least not until India builds storage reservoirs and plans what it is wants to do with the river water.
  • Scrapping a treaty, especially one guaranteed by the World Bank, would set a precedent that would mar India’s record as a responsible nation. Other nations have gone back on long-standing agreements, but scrapping the Indus Water Treaty would be held against India by each one of its neighbours (such as Nepal and Bangladesh) who have river water treaties with India.
  • It would mean the death of any overland gas pipeline proposal that travels across Pakistan. If a 42-year-old treaty can be unilaterally abrogated by one of the contracting parties, any agreements on an overland gas pipeline would have little sanctity.
India–Pakistan Water Dispute

India and Nepal:

  • India has also been embroiled in the water controversy with Nepal. Tanakpur and Pancheswar projects are the two major contentious issues relating to sharing of water between the two countries.
  • In 1996, India and Nepal signed the historic treaty on the integrated development of the Mahakali river to share Water and electricity. The treaty comprised of a decision on the long-pending multi-purpose Pancheswar project as well as the Tanakpur barrage project. Under the treaty, India has agreed to give Nepal an additional 50 million units of power and an additional 150 cusecs of water from the 120 MW Tanakpur project in return for the 2.9 hectares of Nepalese territory on which the eastern bund of the Tanakpur barrage has been constructed.
  • Despite this treaty, which is more beneficial for Nepal, the sharing of water and power from the Tanakpur barrage which is on a stretch of the Sharda or Mahakaii entirely in India, the issue has remained a sticky point in Indo-Nepal relations.
  • Apart from the above-mentioned inter-state and international disputes over water sharing, there have been many other types of disputes relating to water resources, such as big dam controversies, local water disputes, rural and urban water supply, and water pollution. Thus what we need today is to evolve a unanimous solution for equitable distribution of a resource as important as water. We will also have to check the misuse of water.


  • India and Bhutan hydro-electric power cooperation started more than five decades ago.
  • Initially, the cooperation was based on the development of small-scale hydro projects such as Tala, Chukha and Kurichu.
  • Bhutan has the potential to generate 30,000 MW of hydro-power.
  • In 2006, both countries inked a Power Purchase Agreement for thirty five years that would allow India to generate and import 5000 MW of hydro-power from Bhutan, the quantum of which increased to 10,000 MW in 2008.
  • On the other hand, the people of Bhutan raised objections to such projects on their long run effects in the country.
  • For instance, if Bhutan ever decides to construct storage projects, issues will get intense and more problematic when it comes to dealing with India.
  • The internal challenge in Bhutan is water accessibility.
  • Everyday policy concerns like water sharing and usage often receive less attention, are combined with larger security or border concerns, or are dealt with only when natural disasters occur. Yet water politics has far-reaching consequences for the prosperity and security of countries.
    • While this transboundary issue is integral to the national development policies of these countries, it needs better analysis and understanding on the part of the countries involved in transboundary water sharing agreements.
  • The water disputes in South Asian subcontinent deal with the complex orientation of the rivers of the region that cut across some countries in the region complemented by a tense and uncompromising geo-political situation amongst the fellow riparian countries brings out the strategic role played by water in the region.
  • Through some critical debates on these agreements and by the active participation of regional organization and mutual understanding among shareholders, these issues could be addressed in the light of experience.
  • Near-term hydro diplomacy in south asia could start with less sensitive areas like
    • managing flooding by sharing forecasting data
    • collaborating on navigation, electricity generation, and water quality
  • If successful, these types of less formal cooperation might eventually make countries more willing to consider an official multilateral forum, which (despite some limitations) could help them further build trust, resolve grievances, and manage shared waterways.
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