Water Under the Bridge? Int’l Resource Conflict and Post-Treaty Dynamics in South Asia

Water Under the Bridge? Int’l Resource Conflict and Post-Treaty Dynamics in South Asia

Fifty-four rivers traverse the border between India and Bangladesh. As such, these countries occupy a central position in the globally-critical discourse of international water governance and related issues, including global economic

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security, environmental migration, and natural hazards management. In particular, the Ganges River directly impacts the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people and has been a focal point of Indo-Bangladeshi relations since Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. After twenty-five years of frustrated negotiations, India and Bangladesh finally brokered a long-term agreement over the shared management and equitable distribution of the Ganges. However, a close reading of the treaty reveals negative hydro-hegemony, as evidenced by stipulations regarding the timing of water release to Bangladesh and the geographic scope of the agreement. The present analysis then extends beyond the scale of the nation-state to consider supranational and domestic drivers of vulnerability to shifts in water availability.

Typology of International Resource Conflict

The Earth’s water supply is sufficient to support the global human population, yet 1.8 billion people are anticipated to live in areas of absolute water scarcity by 2025 (UN Water 2006). This statistic captures the stark reality that water is unevenly distributed in space and time, leading to crises of both scarcity (drought) and excess (flood). The challenge of effectively managing water resources not only entails dealing with sometimes extreme variability in the face of competing demands (e.g., between household, industrial, and agricultural sectors) but often extends across geopolitical boundaries given that 263 transboundary rivers traverse the borders of 145 nations (Schmeier 2010).


Uneven distribution and access to water have underpinned international resource disputes for centuries. In the 1980s, long-standing and intensifying conflicts between co-riparians (nations adjacent to a common river) on the Nile, Jordan, and Indus Rivers spurred expectations that tensions over shared water resources would lead to war (Cooley 1984, Frey and Naff 1985, Kliot 1994). This so-called Water War Thesis predicts an escalating response to water scarcity in which anxiety over diminishing transboundary resources leads to conflict and ultimately culminates in violence.


While such predictions of violent conflict over water resources persist (e.g., Chellaney 2011), the Water War Thesis has encountered sustained criticism since the 1990s (Wolf 1998, Postel and Wolf 2001, Barnaby 2009). For example, an analysis of event data from 1950 to 2000 highlights an overwhelming record of cooperation between riparian nations; not only were the majority (67%) of events cooperative, but

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157 treaties were established during this period (Wolf et al. 2003). More extensive longitudinal analysis reveals that no war has been waged over water in 4500 years (Postel and Wolf 2001).


In addition to legal agreements, trade in so-called virtual water may also alleviate transboundary water disputes. Virtual water refers to the water embedded in grain and other commodities, which can be transported at a fraction of the cost of bulk water distribution (Allan 1998, Allan 2005). Food imports into Israel, Jordan, and Egypt have effectively compensated for the water deficits that have plagued these countries since the mid-twentieth century (Allan 2005, Barnaby 2009).


Reports of widespread cooperation between co-riparians have thus been used to argue that while diplomacy and trade may not necessarily prevent conflicts, they at least provide copacetic mechanisms for resolving hydropolitical disputes. However, the cyclical nature of conflict and cooperation belie the veracity of this assertion because even when agreements are reached, states may face additional conflicts with implementation and compliance (Mostert 2003). Additionally, the narrow focus on interstate violence reveals a pervasive tendency among political science and resource management scholars to conflate the absence of war with the absence of conflict (Zeitoun and Warner 2006). Zeitoun and Warner (2006, p.437) thus reiterate the call to recognize that:


“…a significant factor preventing war over water is that the actions of non-hegemonic states usually comply with the order preferred by the hegemon, whose superior power position effectively discourages any violent resistance against the order.” (Zeitoun and Warner 2006)


In other words, overt conflict is suppressed by power imbalances (vis à vis superior military strength and/or economic dominance) between riparian states rather than prevented through cooperation. Viewed through this Framework, legal instruments themselves can be used to exploit existing power asymmetries for control over transboundary water resources. Hydro-hegemony assumes multiple forms, ranging from dominant, in which a beneficial situation for the hegemon is sustained to the detriment of other parties, to mutually beneficial, in which all riparians benefit. Most cases fall somewhere between the extremes of purely positive or negative hydro-hegemony (Zeitoun and Warner 2006).


The Framework of Hydro-hegemony was developed through an examination of the Tigris, Jordan, Euphrates, and Nile river basins (Zeitoun and Warner 2006) but has only been tangentially applied to South Asia (Zeitoun and Mirumachi 2008), which has the highest density of transboundary rivers in the world. Within South Asia, the hydropolitics of India and Bangladesh deserve special attention because an astounding 54 rivers traverse their shared border, and India is uniquely poised to behave as a regional hegemon.


Regional Power Asymmetries

With a population exceeding 1.2 billion people, India supports 17.5% of the global population in an area of 3.3 million km2 (USCB 2012). Bangladesh is dwarfed in comparison, with a population of 161 million and land surface of 147, 600 km2 (USCB 2012). Stark disparities between the two nations extend to measures of economic success, with India enjoying the third largest economy in the world and the economy of Bangladesh ranking 42nd (e.g., GDP in 2011 was US$4.47 trillion and US$278 billion, respectively) (IMF 2012). These and other socioeconomic indicators are summarized in Table 1.


Table 1. Socioeconomic indices for India and Bangladesh (COI 2011, IMF 2012, USCB 2012). Currency shown as USD.

Indicator India Bangladesh
Population size 1,210,200,000 161,080,000
Literacy rate (male, female)1 82.1%, 65.5% 60.0%, 49.8%
Land area (km2) 3,287,263 147,570
GDP – derived from PPP (purchasing power parity) 4,470 billion 278 billion
World ranking by GDP (PPP) 3rd 42nd
Military budget 41 billion 1.33 billion
Nuclear weapons? Yes No

1Bangladesh Literacy statistics from Trading Economics (2012).


In addition to its relatively robust economy, India maintains a unique military position with respect to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is bounded almost entirely to the west, north, and east by India, and to the south by the Bay of Bengal. Moreover, India provided critical assistance during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence against Pakistan, and India is one of only fourteen countries worldwide that possesses nuclear weapons. With regards to the abundant natural resources that it shares with India, Bangladesh’s negotiating power is noticeably circumscribed by the economic, political, and military disparities between the two countries.


The preceding discussion outlines how India is positioned to act as a hegemonic state. Yet, there must also be conflicting demand for water resources between countries for hydro-hegemony to exist in South Asia. Familiarity with the hydrological regime and political history in South Asia is requisite for understanding contemporary hydropolitics between India and Bangladesh. Following an introduction to these factors, the discussion will turn to an examination of hydro-hegemony in South Asia through a close reading of the Ganges water-sharing treaty.[1]


Regional Hydroclimatology

Bangladesh is comprised of a deltaic floodplain formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers. The rivers originate from Himalayan glaciers but are also recharged by heavy rainfall during the monsoon, which is fueled by seasonal, onshore winds from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.


Bangladesh’s unique geography and climate also make it susceptible to seasonal and occasionally extreme water-related hazards such as droughts and floods. In fact, 70–80% of the total rainfall occurs during the monsoon season of June to September, resulting in annual flooding of 30–70% of the country (Agrawala et al. 2003, Mirza et al. 2003, Mirza 2011). During periods of water scarcity, Bangladesh is subject to crop failure, depleted fisheries, salt-water intrusion, soil salinization, and loss of navigable trade routes (Adel 2001, Chowdhury 2010, Mirza 1998). When water is replete, the country can suffer debilitating floods that cause widespread property loss, fatalities, displacement, crop damage, and increased disease exposure (Adel 2001, Mirza 2002, Chowdhury 2010, Kartiki 2011). However, water availability in Bangladesh is as closely tied to water practices in India as it is to the monsoon cycle and glacial melting. Examining riparian dynamics between the two countries first requires an orientation to their shared history.


Regional History

The histories of Bangladesh and India are tightly interwoven, and for centuries they were governed with Pakistan as a single nation under myriad rulers until the Partition of British India in 1947. The geopolitical division was ostensibly intended to establish two countries based on their religious demographics: Hindu-based India and Muslim-based Pakistan. However, one noteworthy boundary resulted in the allocation of Muslim-dominated Murshidabad to Hindu-based India, which allowed the Indian port of Kolkata to maintain its vital link (via the Hooghly River[2]) to the Ganges River.


The Hooghly River once served as the main course of the Ganges River, but by the early 1500s, the Ganges had shifted course away from the Hooghly and east toward the Bengal Delta (Begum 1988). Although the British were aware of the change in river morphology, they established a port near the mouth of the Hooghly at Kolkata in 1690 (Begum 1988). Kolkata later served as the capital of British India from 1757–1931 and became an indispensible economic, cultural, and political center (Van Schendel 2009). However, increasing sedimentation rates threatened to choke the port with silt and ultimately catalyzed India’s construction of the Farakka Barrage (a 2.25 km-long diversion) in 1962 to redirect Gangetic water to the expiring Hooghly River during the dry season (Begum 1988, Hossain 1998). The cost of sparing Kolkata from its natural fate was thus deflected to the Ganges River’s downstream users in Bangladesh.


A Brief History of Transboundary Water Governance

Soon after gaining independence from Pakistan, Bangladesh took early steps to establish accord with India by signing the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship in March 1972. By 1975, the Farakka Barrage was completed and ready for commission, but India and Bangladesh failed to agree on how to augment the Ganges volume to meet their demands, as well as how much water to allot to Bangladesh (Begum 1988, Crow et al. 1995, Hossain 1998). Divergent perspectives on these points, coupled with political instability in Bangladesh, impeded resolution of the issue for two years, during which India unilaterally withdrew water at Farakka (Begum 1988, Crow et al. 1995, Hossain 1998).


Ganges water-sharing negotiations resumed in 1977 when the governments signed a five-year treaty assuring Bangladesh of a fixed, minimum water supply during the dry season (Begum 1988, Crow et al. 1995, Hossain 1998). Memorandums of Understanding signed in 1982 and 1985 extended the terms of the treaty for three years each, but bilateral efforts to establish a long-term agreement during this period continued to be thwarted (Crow et al. 1995, Hossain 1998, Nishat 2001). Finally, after decades of conflict over the watershed and over 100 meetings between Bangladesh and India over water allocations, the Ganges Water Treaty was signed in December 1996. The 30-year Treaty establishes the quantities of water that each country can extract during the dry season of January to May.


Couched in terms of fairness and equity, the Treaty emulates the principles laid out in the 1966 Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers, an internationally accepted guideline for regulating how transboundary waters may be used (Rahaman, 2009). As such, the Treaty acknowledges the rights of both India and Bangladesh, providing that neither country’s use of the Ganges results in harm to the other party. Notably, the Treaty prohibits India from making unilateral withdrawals from the system at Farakka and allocates a larger share of the flow during the dry season to Bangladesh (Hossain 1998).


Hydro-hegemony in South Asia?

Hailed for “remov[ing] one major irritant affecting Bangladesh-India relations”, the Ganges Water Treaty represented a new phase of cooperation between the two countries (Hossain 1998). However, as noted earlier, treaties themselves can be deployed to serve one party’s interests to the detriment of its co-riparian(s). Presently, the Treaty will be used to test the hypothesis that a hegemon has determined and maintains the terms of shared resource governance in the Ganges River Basin.


The analysis focuses on the following key tenets of the Treaty (emphasis added):

  1. “Being desirous of…making the optimum utilization of the water resources of their region in the fields of flood management…” (Preamble)
    1. “Being desirous of finding a fair and just solution without affecting the rights and entitlements of either country other than those covered by this Treaty…” (Preamble, also Article II, iii.)
    2. “The quantum of waters agreed to be released by India to Bangladesh will be at Farakka.” (Article–I)
    3. “The sharing between India and Bangladesh of the Ganga/Ganges waters at Farakka by ten day periods from the 1st January to the 31st May every year will be with reference to the formula at Annexure I and an indicative schedule giving the implications of the sharing arrangement under Annexure I is at Annexure II” (Article–II, i.), [which] “is based on 40 years (1949–1988) 10-day period average availability of water at Farakka.” (Article–II, ii.)
    4. “…based on principles of equity, fairness, and no harm to either party…” (Article–X)
    5. “This Treaty shall…remain in force for a period of thirty years…” (Article–XII)


Flood risk

Kolkata optimally receives 40 000 cusecs of water every ten days to mitigate siltation and sustain navigability. The schedule in Annexure–II of the Treaty establishes flows to Kolkata ranging from 28 180 to 40 000 cusecs during the months for which the Treaty is effective, from January to May. These represent the driest months of the year and thus exclude the monsoon and post-monsoon seasons, during which over 85% of the annual rainfall occurs (Mirza 1997, Chowdhury 2010).


Formed by a deltaic floodplain, Bangladesh faces even greater risk of flooding than drought. Between 1954 and 2004, Bangladesh sustained 32 flood events that inundated 20 000 to 100 000 km2 (corresponding to 14–68% of its total area) (Hofer and Messerli 2006). While floods serve essential ecosystem functions (e.g., groundwater recharge, soil fertilization, fish stock renewal; Mirza et al. 2003, Chowdhury 2010), they can also precipitate catastrophic economic and social losses. In times of water surplus, India claims the optimal 40 000 cusecs, and the remaining quantity is left for Bangladesh; however, this withdrawal of 40 000 cusecs maximum occurs whether the flow is 75 000 cusecs or 2 000 000 cusecs, at which point the river breaches its banks (Hossain 1998, Parua 2001, Brichieri-Colombi and Bradnock 2003).


Compounding the diversions of excess flows to Bangladesh is the rapid rise in silt deposition rates since the Farakka Barrage was erected. For example, one study reported a 20m shoaling of the river bed within the 22-year period from 1975–1997 (Adel 2001). Such sedimentation substantially reduces the river bed’s storage capacity and further increases flood risk (Mirza 1997, Mirza 1998, Adel 2001).


By diverting no more than 40 000 cusecs per 10-day period, regardless of substantially increased flows during the monsoon, India is certainly “making optimum utilization of the water resources [regarding] flood management” in its own jurisdiction. However, by amplifying sedimentation rates through its upstream practices, India “affect[s] the rights and entitlements” of Bangladesh to similarly mitigate flood impacts.


Restriction to sharing at Farakka

At India’s insistence, Treaty negotiations were restricted to flows at Farakka and limited to data from 1949–1988, but flow volumes declined precipitously after 1988 due to lift irrigation projects upstream of Farakka (Hossain 1998, Adel 2001, Islam 2004). Although the Treaty expresses India’s assurance of protecting flows at their historic levels (Article II, iii.), there is no explicit obligation to do so nor any legal restrictions on upstream extraction given the limited geographic scope of the agreement. However, the upstream withdrawals may be interpreted as interfering with “the rights and entitlements” of Bangladesh to the extent that the natural flow of the Ganges through its territory is impeded.


Data exclusion

The exclusion of data after 1988 attenuated the accuracy of scenarios and allocations outlined in Annexures I and II, effectively overestimating the likely flows at Farakka during the dry season. Instead of assuring Bangladesh a minimum allotment (e.g., 80% of its stipulated share), the Treaty mandates that the countries must enter renewed negotiations should the flow “fall below 50 000 cusecs in any 10-day period”. This requirement may result in time-consuming debates that fail to address exigent circumstances (Islam 2004, Rahaman 2009).



Limited duration

The Ganges Water Treaty is only in effect for 30 years, which is significantly shorter than India’s 75-year long Mahakali Treaty with Nepal and its perpetual Indus Rivers Treaty with Pakistan. Establishing a renewal date of 2026 instead of 2071 (for equivalence with the Mahakali Treaty) or beyond (as with the Indus Treaty), places Bangladesh at a distinct disadvantage.


It took India and Bangladesh more than 100 meetings over a 25-year period to arrive at the Ganges Water Treaty, and the proposed explanations for why Bangladesh was successful in securing the Treaty at all are all based on diplomacy (Hossain 1998, Nishat 2001). These consist of 1. Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina’s personal commitment to finding a solution with India; 2. PM Hasina’s decision not to internationalize the Farakka issue at the 1996 UN General Assembly; and 3. PM Hasina’s invitation to the chief minister of West Bengal to participate in the negotiations (Hossain 1998). Viewed through the lens of hydro-hegemony, it is noteworthy that Pakistan, with its relative wealth and strategic military position, was able to secure an indefinite treaty that guides the management of three rivers in half the time that it took Bangladesh to secure a 30-year treaty for one river.


The Treaty’s relatively short lifespan could be viewed as advantageous to both India and Bangladesh by allowing the parties to adapt the agreement to reflect changes in climate and population size. However, population growth is likely to augment India’s water demands and may be used to justify claims to water upstream of Farakka, while an earlier treaty renewal date places greater pressure on the prerequisite that diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh are conducive to a bilateral arrangement.


Socio-economic Impacts of Upstream Withdrawals

The foregoing examination of the Treaty’s central tenets reveals some of the actual and potential implications for the timing and magnitude of water delivery to Bangladesh. As we will now see, human-mediated changes in water supply pose distinct socio-economic challenges in Bangladesh. Challenges pertaining to navigation, groundwater supply, and salinization, for example, have widespread impacts, which are magnified by inadequate mechanisms for enforcement and adjudication through the Treaty.



Provincial boats exceed the carrying capacity of trucks by 20 times, which is reflective of both the lower cost of transportation by water and the poor road networks in remote areas of Bangladesh (Chowdhury 2010). However, dry-season flows reduce navigable waterways by more than 50% (Chowdhury 2010), threatening this critical form of transportation and the regional economies that rely upon it. This situation is only exacerbated by unilateral withdrawals upstream of Farakka and correspondingly reduced flows into Bangladesh.



Diminished and increasingly variable surface-water supply simultaneously impedes groundwater recharge and augments dependence on groundwater for household and agricultural uses. Nearly all drinking water and two-thirds of irrigation water are currently supplied by groundwater, driving the resource towards overexploitation (Adel 2001, Chowdhury 2010). In addition to increasing the population’s exposure to naturally occurring arsenic, the attendant depression of the water table has made the water more difficult to extract and also facilitates saltwater intrusion (Adel 2001, Chowdhury 2010).


Saltwater intrusion

Saltwater intrusion is especially problematic in the southwestern, Ganges-dependent region of Bangladesh, which is tidally-influenced (Frederick 1997, Kartiki 2011). Diminished flows of the Ganges during the dry season reduces the system’s ability to flush the saltwater, which damages crops, threatens delicate mangrove ecosystems, decreases the amount of arable land, and further reduces the freshwater available for household consumption, agriculture, and industry (Mirza and Sarker 2005).


Dispute Resolution

The Treaty specifies that neither party should inflict any harm on the other party through their respective uses of the river. The preceding discussion examines only a subset of the socio-economic impacts of altered hydrodynamics at Farakka, and it suggests that the principle of no-harm is not sufficiently enforced. However, such enforcement is problematic because the Treaty does not define what constitutes harm nor how a given harm may be attributed to the other party’s actions (Rahaman 2009). Furthermore, the agreement inadequately prescribes how such disputes may be resolved (Adel 2002, Rahaman 2009).


Articles IV–VI guide the establishment and administration of a Joint Committee, which according to Article VII is responsible for investigating any disputes. However, should a dispute remain unresolved, the issue is passed on to the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission, and then on to the central governments. No clear arbitration mechanism or protocol is identified (Rahaman 2009), which means that any dispute in which both parties are sufficiently invested could be mired indefinitely in gridlock. Such a scenario would likely have little impact on India, but could have grave consequences for Bangladesh:


“A fundamental of relations in the basin is the advantage enjoyed per se by an upstream country (upper riparian), a structural element that is particularly important to Bangladesh and to India…the upper riparian (India) has first access to a scarce resource…[and] can externalize a disadvantage and pass it down river.” (Rogers et al. 1990, p.19)


Hydro-hegemony Beyond the Treaty

Negative hydro-hegemony is not only evident within the Treaty itself but is also conveyed through newspaper and peer-reviewed articles:


“…continued diversion of water upstream of the Farakka Barrage put[s] the allocation arrangement of the 1996 Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty between India and Bangladesh at risk.” (Mirza 2005, p. iiv)


“Though a 30-year water treaty has been in effect between the two countries since 1996, recent water flow analysis revealed that Bangladesh is being deprived of its due share during lean season. However, wet season flows of the Ganges have been on the rise in recent years.” (Dewan for The Daily Star 2010)


“Bangladesh is never given a warning of potential floods by the neighboring country [India], forcing it to face the flood without preparation.” (Adel 2001, p.365)


“…the Farakka Barrage is not only disrupting irrigation and causing environmental hazard but also posing a serious threat to navigation, fisheries, forestry and livestock in this region.” (Correspondent for The Independent 2011)


These statements communicate several important themes in the continued conflict over water, including power inequities, environmental and economic impacts, and vulnerability to the twin threats of drought and flood, all framed with respect to India and the Farakka Barrage. Coupled with the central tenets of Treaty outlined above, such academic and popular accounts provide additional evidence of negative hydro-hegemony in South Asia. The Framework of Hydro-hegemony thus paves important inroads to understanding how water conflicts between India and Bangladesh persist in spite of, and because of, the presence of a bilateral agreement. However, consistent with other theories of resource conflict, hydro-hegemony maintains the focus of analysis and intervention at the scale of the nation-state.


While state-level analyses are indeed critical to addressing problems of hydropolitics, it is important to avoid distilling complex riparian dynamics down to a binary of an upstream aggressor and downstream victim given the combination of supranational and national drivers of vulnerability to variability in water supply. Therefore, this paper builds upon the existing literature by briefly considering the impacts of global drivers of climate change and domestic practices within Bangladesh.


Unpacking Hydro-hegemony

India has been charged with a litany of grievances pertaining to water problems in Bangladesh (see http://theindependentbd.com/ and Adel 2001). Such accusations serve to both construct and reinforce perceptions of a victim-aggressor dichotomy between the two countries. Myriad practices along the length of the Ganges River undoubtedly have important ramifications for water quantity and quality in Bangladesh, but placing the blame on India alone oversimplifies the complex factors that contribute to Bangladesh’s socio-economic and environmental problems. A detailed examination of the full range of these factors is beyond the scope of this project, but a few examples serve to illustrate how climate change may amplify existing water variability, as well as how domestic practices within Bangladesh exacerbate the negative externalities of upstream practices.



Climate change: Glacial dynamics

The Ganges River begins its 2525km long descent at the Gangotri Glacier in Uttar Pradesh, India. Meltwater from the glacier provides only 3–4% of the total volume of the Ganges, but it supplies up to 70% of the river flow during the dry months (Bagla 2009, Barnett et al. 2005, Mall et al. 2006, Rahaman 2009).


Under a warmer climate regime, less snow is generally produced in the winter and melting is initiated earlier in the spring (Frederick 1997). Once glaciers melt, they are not replaced, and as such they can be regarded as reservoirs of fossil water (Barnett et al. 2005). As predicted by climate change models, progressive and accelerated melting of non-renewable glaciers depicts a trajectory of enhanced flows for several years to decades, followed by abrupt water shortage (Barnett et al. 2005). However, this generalized picture does not map directly on to every glacier.


Consistent with prevailing climate models, the Gangotri Glacier retreated at an average rate of 22m per year from 1935 to 2003, but the rate of retreat dropped unexpectedly to 12m per year for 2004 and 2005, and melting has practically ceased since 2007 (Bagla 2009). Non-linear, asymmetric responses of glaciers to global warming have revealed the limited capacity of existing climate models to predict glacier-specific accretion and ablation dynamics. Nonetheless, continued glaciology and hydroclimatology research will eventually improve parameterizations of the Himalayan glaciers and their responses to climate change. As such, it will be important for scientists and policy-makers in South Asia and beyond to periodically review emerging climate models to assess their utility in management applications.


Climate change: Precipitation

Like those for glaciers, projected changes in precipitation based on general circulation models are variable, probabilistic, and scenario-dependent, but the models do have some predictive convergence. First, the onset of the monsoon in South Asia is an important variable for agriculture and groundwater recharge (Mirza 2002). The pattern of air mass movement over the Bay of Bengal precipitates an earlier onset of the monsoon in the Brahmaputra-Meghna basin than does that of the Arabian Sea, which triggers the monsoon in the Ganges basin (Mirza 2002). This asymmetric onset of rainfall staggers the peak flows of rivers in the respective basins, both distributing water delivery over a longer time frame and reducing the likelihood of simultaneous flooding. However, climate change may shift the onset and cessation of the monsoon, thus increasing seasonal variability in water supply and flood risk (Mirza 2011). Second, several climate models agree that increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will increase both overall precipitation and incidence of extreme rainfall events in South Asia (Frederick 1997, Mirza 2011; though see Adel 2002 for a notable exception).


Domestic practices: Rice production

With respect to practices within Bangladesh, food production has significant consequences for water-related vulnerability due to its majority claim (>80%) on existing water supplies and its central role in the economy.


Agriculture is dominated by the cultivation of three varieties of rice, which are rotated based on temperature and rainfall (Mirza 2002). Farmers can reduce their water needs by synchronizing their crops with the monsoon (Sharma et al. 2010), but then they risk crop losses due to flooding (Mirza et al. 2003). Therefore, while the wet season (rain-fed) aman rice is the predominant variety, farmers have been increasingly been planting the high yielding boro variety (Chowdhury 2010). Boro grows in the dry season and requires irrigation, thus placing greater pressure on water supplies during the period of lowest availability (Mirza 2002, Chowdhury 2010).


Domestic practices: Shrimp cultivation

Another major source of water-related vulnerability is shrimp farming for export markets, which is one of the most lucrative, and thus popular, occupations in Bangladesh. It is an important revenue source but promotes environmentally-damaging practices such as appropriating wetlands and building unauthorized sluices. Shrimp are grown in brackish ponds, and sluices allow farmers to regulate flows of coastal saltwater into their ponds, but they weaken embankments that protect the land from floods and cyclones. Moreover, saltwater from the shrimp ponds percolates into groundwater and adjacent lands. This diminishes both local sources of freshwater and the area of arable land, thus forcing farmers to abandon cultivating crops and in some cases to start shrimp farming themselves. This domino effect compounds the effects of salinating the surface soil and groundwater. (On the foregoing, see Kartiki 2011.)



A landmark bilateral agreement between India and Bangladesh has provided critical assurance of flow to Bangladesh during the dry season and prohibits India from unilaterally diverting water to Kolkata, but there is also evidence of negative hydro-hegemony in the Ganges River Basin. A close reading of the Ganges Water Treaty illustrates how power asymmetries between India and Bangladesh underpin on-going conflicts in Bangladesh over the Ganges River. For example, limiting sharing at Farakka allows India to make unlimited withdrawals upstream of the barrage, while restricting the Treaty to the dry season relieves India of any responsibility for excess flow during the monsoon. Therefore, the Framework of Hydro-hegemony has some explanatory power regarding hydropolitics in South Asia. However, a brief examination of practices within Bangladesh highlights the need for greater attention to the sub-national, multi-actor nature of water management. Identifying which practices augment or erode domestic resilience to environmental variability is critical for Bangladesh’s social and economic well-being. Finally, understanding post-treaty dynamics is critical to informing the current rounds of negotiations over joint management of other rivers that intersect the two countries, for example the Teesta and Feni Rivers. This analysis reveals how treaties themselves can engender international resource conflict, therefore the Ganges Water Treaty can be used to circumvent analogous pitfalls in future river-sharing agreements.




Literature Cited

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Adel, M.M. 2001. Effect on water resources from upstream water diversion in the Ganges Basin. Journal of Environmental Quality. 30:356–368.


Agrawala, S., T. Ota, A.U. Ahmed, J. Smith, and M. van Aalst. 2003. Development and climate change in Bangladesh: Focus on coastal flooding and the Sundarbans. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Paris. 70pp.


Allan, J.A. 1998. Virtual water: A strategic resource. Ground Water. 36(4):545–546.


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[1] The official title of the agreement is “Treaty Between the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Government of the Republic of India on Sharing of the Ganga/Ganges Waters at Farakka”. For brevity it will appear as the ‘Ganges Water Treaty’ hereafter.

[2] Alternatively known as the Hugli River.

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