South Asian Water Conflict

India Water Portal. Disputes over river water sharing are common among neighbouring countries

by Ashok Bala  11/5/2018


South Asia is a macro-geographical region wherein various countries in close geographical proximity share certain commonality of interests. These interests could incorporate a whole gamut of historical, geographical, economic, political, social and cultural aspects. In fact, it is a region where geography, history, politics, and culture are truly intertwined and a realm of one of the oldest civilizations in the world where people from all races and religions have coexisted over a long period [1]. This mosaic of different cultures has given it a unique identity that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

Nations of the South Asian subcontinent are understood as a single geographical unit which shares three major river basins viz. the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. These rivers are the largest single economic resource of this region, especially when considered in conjunction with the population. Although Great Mountain chains of the region are the largest freshwater house in the world, many experts believe, the biggest constraint on the future growth of the world’s economy is not would be a shortage of oil but water. As regard subcontinent, all the countries are mainly agrarian and their agriculture is dependent on the use of river water. It is also the key to their hydropower and industrialization. However, owing to the rapid growth of industrialization, agricultural development and domestic usage, water resources are declining rapidly which in turn give way to political, economic and regional conflicts.

Water Resources of South Asian Subcontinent

South Asia is a region of both abundance and scarcity of water. It is fed by the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain system which is one of the largest storehouses of freshwater in the world. As per the report of World Bank, there are 20 rivers originating from this mountain chain. [5] Out of the total, the four major rivers are the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Barak (Meghna), also known as IGBM basin. The Indus River takes a westward course towards the Arabian Sea while the Ganges and the Brahmaputra make a journey towards the Bay of Bengal east of the sub-continent.

Table 1: Sharing of South Asian Subcontinent River Basins


Basin Name

 Total basin


( in sq km)


Country name with sharing area           (in sq km)

      Indus 1,138,800 Pakistan 5,97,700
China 76,200
Nepal 10
India 3,81,600
Afghanistan 72,100
Chinese controlled claimed by India 9,600
Indian controlled claimed by China 1,600





Ganges- Brahmaputra Mehgna







Bangladesh 1,07,100
India 9,48,400
 China 3,21,300
Bhutan 39,900
Myanmar 80
Nepal 1,47,400

These rivers extend over six South-Asian countries viz. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and China. These four river systems drain an area about 27, 73,700 km2 stretching over about 3000 km2 in an east-west direction and 800 square km in a north-south direction. The IGBM basin has extensive water resources with an overall runoff more than 1500 billion cubic meters per year. The Brahmaputra river system carries the highest volume of water with 585 billion cubic meters per year followed by the Ganges and the Indus with 525 billion cubic meters and 181 billion cubic meters respectively. The Indus drains the territories of India and Pakistan while the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Mehgna drain Bhutan, Nepal India, and Bangladesh in some parts of China as well. The basins of these rivers conclude the rest of the two, Myanmar and Afghanistan. The distribution of water is a serious issue all over the world. The major conflicts are accruing over some of the mightiest rivers where 40 percent of world’s population lives on waterways crossing through several countries, i.e., the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates the Brahmaputra and the Indus. When these rivers flow in an arid region, there is a heightened risk of inter-state and intra-state conflict between upstream and downstream countries. Each upstream and downstream country wants to use maximum water from shared rivers. Thus the distribution and utilization of water from shared rivers is the main cause of disputes between upper riparian and lower riparian countries. In fact, this problem is one of the major causes of the strained relationship among the users.

Water Disputes between various Countries of South Asian Subcontinent

South Asia sub-continent is such region where a geopolitical entity provides a base for conflicts. Since major economic activity is agriculture and water being the most important determinant of agriculture and also for other activities. “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” aptly describes the problem of water in South Asia – a problem of scarcity amid abundance.[3] However, water is a most crucial element of the South Asian subcontinent has fuelled a lot of heated discussion and conflicts among the countries of the region. Water disputes are not a new issue in the South Asian subcontinent, even before independence there were water disputes among and between provinces and princely states

Water dispute between India and Pakistan

The partition of Punjab etched a hard border between India and Pakistan and cut the Indus river system and disrupted its well managed integrated irrigation canals network.[6] Many of the canals were served from their headwork’s fell in India, while the land is irrigated by their waters fell in Pakistan, which led to dispute immediately after the partition of 1947.

The Indus River system was the main source of irrigation for Pakistan’s agricultural land. But after partition, the source of the river of Indus remained with India which became insecurity for Pakistan. India asserted that Pakistan being a lower riparian country could not claim any property rights on the river water of the Indian Punjab. But Pakistan argued with strong principle of international water law that all the co-riparian countries had an equal right to the share of water in proportion to area, population and agricultural utilization. Thus, a strong hostility had risen over the water use after partition. To resolve this issue, an inter-dominion agreement was signed between India and Pakistan in 1948 to serve as an ad-hoc agreement for considering both sides’ claims to share water. The negotiation process was continued for twelve years until a landmark agreement—the Indus Water Treaty was signed on 19 September 1960 under the auspices of the World Bank. [4]

Water dispute between India and Nepal Origin of the dispute

The history of a water dispute between India and Nepal is long-standing. There are about 6,000 rivers and streams in Nepal but shares with India a total of 264 tributaries and rivers which all form a major part of Ganges system. The origin of the conflict between the two countries is over the Mahakali River an important tributary of Ganges River. The use of the Mahakali River to demarcate the border between the Nepal and India, and is the source of dispute between the two countries. In fact, the very origin of the river is a source of contention, the Kalapani region which encompasses an area of about 400 km2 is recognized as an internationally disputed border region. It occupies 13 percent of the Ganges Basin and supplies almost 47 percent of its water.

History and factors leading to the treaty

The recorded history of a water dispute between India and Nepal became active since British time over the sharing of Mahakali River. Mahakali is not just a tributary of Ganges but also demarcates the boundary line between India and Nepal. In the geographical context of Mahakali, Nepal remained an upper riparian country while India is lower riparian country. In 1816, during the time of British East India Company, an issue came up over the use of Mahakali between British Government and the Kingdom of Nepal. It was resolved by the signing of Sugauli Treaty between two countries. At the time of this treaty, Mahakali River was officially declared as a border river between India and Nepal

The Mahakali Integrated Treaty, 1996

Mahakali treaty deals with the integrated development of Mahakali River which took notice of Sarda barrage dispute, Thanakpur barrage controversy and Panchswar project. It is a great achievement for development of principle over sharing water. The treaty was signed on 12 February 1996 in New Delhi [10]. Trilochin Upreti, water resource expert from Nepal is of the view that As a result of this treaty Nepal water rights were recognized for the first time; furthermore, it also gave equal status to Nepal over sharing of water with India.

The main provisions of this treaty given are below

The treaty recognizes the Mahakali as a boundary river on the major stretch between the two countries.

Sarada Barrage: Nepal to have the right to the supply of 1,000 cusecs of water from the Sarada Barrage in the Wet Season (May 15 to October 15), and 150 cusecs in the dry season (October 16 to May 14). India is required to maintain a flow of no less than 350 cusecs downstream of Sarda Barrage in the Mahakali River to maintain and protect the river system.

Thanakpur Barrage: Nepal to continue having sovereignty over the land (2.9 hectares) needed for building the eastern afflux bund, as well as a hectare of the poundage area. In exchange, Nepal has, free of cost, 1,000 cusecs of water in the wet season and 300 cusecs in the dry season, and 70 million Kwhrs of electricity (as against the earlier agreed figure of 20 million Kwhrs from the Thanakpur power station, with the transmission line to its border. Half the incremental power generated at Thanakpur after augmentation of river flows with the commissioning of the Panchswar dam, to be supplied to Nepal at half the operational and any additional cost. India also constructs an all-weather road connecting the Thanakpur barrage to Nepal’s East-West Highway, including bridges en route. There is provision for the supply of 350 cusecs of water for the irrigation of Dodhara Chandni area.

Panchswar Project: A joint Indo-Nepal hydroelectric project on Mahakali River by a 50:50 cost-benefit split, which remains the most controversial part of the treat Water dispute between India and Bangladesh

Bangladesh shares 54 rivers with India. It is a lower riparian include three major rivers, Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. Bangladesh major is too much water in the monsoon and drought in the dry season. The rapid growth of population, economic activities and climate change putting are stress on water resources. Water dispute between India and Bangladesh is almost as old as the partition of the sub-continent. Division of India in 1947 was neither by geographical lines nor by cultural differences. The dispute over the waters flowing naturally into Bangladesh erupted on India’s running plan to divert the water of Ganges River to augment its Hugli River, which Bangladesh vehemently opposed and demanded an equal share of Ganges River water.

Origin of the dispute

The history of water dispute between India and Bangladesh dates back to 1951, which emerged over the sharing of water of the Ganges River, when India decided to construct a barrage known as Faraka across the Ganges River in West Bengal about 16 miles above the border of Bangladesh, to divert the water of Ganges into the Hugli River. The main purpose of Faraka barrage was to flush the Hugli River channel and keep the port of Calcutta navigable and improve drainage, sanitation, and supply of water for industrial use in the metropolitan city of Calcutta.

Attempts to settle the dispute

In 1972, both countries agreed to establish a joint river commission and several rounds of negotiations were held but all in vain [7]. Failure by the two nations to resolve the issue peacefully led Bangladesh to raise the issue of Ganges water sharing in the United Nations General Assembly session in 1976. Confronting adverse international opinion, India finally signed an ad-hoc agreement for five years on Ganges water sharing in 1977. The 1977 Agreement expired in 1982 and India refused to extend it.

Ganges Water Sharing Treaty

Under this treaty, a new formula for sharing the Ganges water at Faraka Barrage during the dry season was established. It was guaranteed that below Faraka Barrage the water is not to be reduced further except for “reasonable use” in a limited quantity. This was also determined that the amount of water to be released by India to Bangladesh at Faraka would be for 30 years. 50,000 cusecs both countries will enter into immediate consultation to adjust on an emergency basis.

Table2: Water allocation in the 1996 Ganges Treaty

Flow at Faraka barrage              Share of India            Share of Bangladesh
75,000 cusecs                              40,000 cusecs            Balance of flow
70,000 to 75,000 cusecs             Balance of flow         35,000 cusecs
50,000 to 70,000 cusecs             50%                            50%

Teesta Disputes between India and Bangladesh

Teesta is the most important river in the northeast of Bangladesh and is the 4th largest river of the country. It originates in the Sikkim Valley of the Himalayan Range within India. Sikkim reportedly has built five dams and is building 31 more on the upper region of the Teesta River. [9]
The flow comes down to West Bengal where India has built a barrage at Gazaldoba reportedly to draw 85% percent of water to irrigate an area of 9.22 lakh hectares of land. India is reported to have increased withdrawal of water from the Teesta at a huge rate which will further deplete water for Bangladesh.

The plan adversely affects about 21 million Bangladeshi people who live in the basin of river Teesta, while only 8 million live in the basin in West Bengal and half a million in Sikkim state. The population ratio is 70 for Bangladesh 30 for India. When Bangladesh needs water in the dry season, it does not get it, but when it does not need water during summer and monsoon, it gets enough to the point of flooding, which destroys houses, roads and river banks and embankments. Accordingly, sharing of water of the rivers is necessary for Bangladesh in the dry season.


India’s water relations are stress-free and unproblematic with Bhutan. Bhutan’s water abundance contributes to the country’s hydropower production. Bhutan’s dams have been developed with foreign aid, primarily from India, and India is the largest customer of Bhutanese hydropower. India is connected to the Bhutanese through Chukha project, Kurichu project, 2nd Chukha stage projects, and Tala Dam. [8]


South Asian subcontinent, which is home to one-sixth of the world population, is one of the conflict-ridden regions in the world. The roots of conflicts among the countries of South Asia sub-continent are rooted in the soil of this region. Some problems have been traced which are at the base of conflicts. 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.

Historically, the roots of water disputes among the South Asian subcontinent countries are in the British times. After the partition, the division and sharing rights overflowing water between newly created nations engendered conflicts at political level which fortunately culminated in the landmark agreements, treaties and memorandums of understanding for a peaceful solution such as the Indus Water Treaty, the Mahakali Water Treaty and the Ganges Water Treaty. After signing of these mutual agreements, the countries concerned maximized their benefits by way of harnessing the resources of the region. Considerable progress has been made in the field of water development and in maintaining relations. Though some critical debates have taken place on agreements mentioned above by the active participation of regional organization and mutual understanding among shareholders, these issues could be addressed in the light of experience.


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  1. I have been trying to reach you Ashok Bala for a story. Could you pls comment here so we could connect for a story, please?

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