Although India and Bangladesh share 57 trans-boundary rivers, the Ganges Treaty signed in 1996 is the only water sharing treaty between these two neighbouring countries. Proper implementation of the treaty is important for both Bangladesh and India. Water-flow and sediments carried by the Ganges River are essential for economic activities for more than 40 million people living in the southwestern coastal region in Bangladesh, and for environmental functioning of the Bengal delta, including the survival of the Sunderbans – a World Heritage site. The Ganges’s watershed encompasses Nepal, India and Bangladesh. From an integrated water resources management perspective, all stakeholders in co-riparian countries need to make plan for optimal uses of water resources while safeguarding the environment and ecosystems that the rivers support. However, watershed-scale planning and management schemes do not exist for any shared river in South Asia.
The Joint River Commission (JRC) is charged with implementation of the treaty and evaluation of the success and failure of the treaty every five years. As per the initial agreement, the treaty is subject to critical review every five years by the JRC based on field observations. It has been 15 years since two countries signed the treaty, but no review of the success and failure has been carried out by the JRC. If no further review is made then the agreement should remain unchanged until 2026. After the expiration of the treaty, its renewal will depend on mutual agreement between the two countries.
Since its inception during the lean season in 1996-97, the news media in Bangladesh has been reporting on the success and failure of the treaty as it pertains to the interest of Bangladesh. As per the print and electronic news media, Bangladesh did not receive its fair share of water during 12 of the last 15 years. However, in most cases, the media reports are not based on the actual data and critical analysis of the existing condition of the treaty. The proper implementation of the treaty has a bearing on Bangladesh-India bilateral relationship. Therefore, it is important that the success and failure of the treaty is evaluated based on field data.
Before going into the main discussion, let’s have a look at the existing water-sharing equation of the Ganges Treaty. The agreement remains active from January 1 to May 31 each year, and water sharing calculations are based on 10-day average flow. As per the treaty:
- If the flow is greater than 75,000 cusec (cubic feet per second) at Farakka Barrage, then India will receive 40,000 cusec, and the remaining will be allocated for Bangladesh.
- If the flow ranges between 70,000 and 75,000 cusec, the Bangladesh will receive 35,000 cusec and the remaining will be allocated for India
- If the flow is less than 70,000 cusec, the share between Bangladesh and India will be at the rate of 50:50. However, India and Bangladesh each shall receive a guaranteed 35,000 cusecs of water in alternative three 10-day periods during the period March 1 to May 10.
It should be noted that, the water-sharing equation has been formulated based on the availability of the historic average flow of 10-day period during the past 40 years, spanning from 1949 to 1988 at Farakka Barrage (Annexure II of the Ganges Treaty).
We have used the last four years of flow data (2008-11) of Ganges both at Farakka Barrage in West Bengal and at Hardinge Bridge in Bangladesh that are available on the official website of JRC (http://www.jrcb.gov.bd/press_release.html). The Ganges Treaty is operational between January 1 and May 31 each year, and each lean season is divided into 15 time-intervals with 10-day in each interval. In analyzing the flow data, we paid particular attention to the following two points:
a) During how many of the 15 intervals Bangladesh received her fair share of the Ganges water as per the treaty.
b) During how many of the 15 intervals Bangladesh received the right share of water as per the historical average flow as included in the treaty.
Bangladesh’s share of the Ganges has been verified at Hardinge Bridge. Hardinge Bridge is located downstream of the Farakka Barrage, and there is no distributary channel between Farakka Barrage and Hardinge Bridge that diverts water from the main stem of the Ganges River. A tributary named Mahanada channel is located between Farakka Barrage and Hardinge Bridge that augments the flow of Ganges River, which means that the amount of water measured at Hardinge Bridge should be more than the amount released at Farakka Barrage. Also, the amount of water that India is allowed to withdraw between Farakka Barrage and India-Bangladesh Border is limited to 200 cusec (Article 3). Consequently, we assumed that the flow of the Ganges River must be greater at Hardinge Bridge as compared to the amount released at Farakka Barrage. The historical average flow recoded at Hardinge Bridge also supports this assumption.
The analysis of flow-data revealed that, in 2008, 2009 and 2011 Bangladesh received the right share of the Ganges water during 12 out of 15 intervals. In other words, during those three years, 20% of the times Bangladesh received less water at Hardinge Bridge than is prescribed in the treaty. In 2010, the situation was worse, as Bangladesh received the fair share during 9 out of 15 intervals, indicating a clear violation of the treaty for 40% of the time. Based on the analysis of the flow-data, we concluded that, on average, 25% of the time during the last 4 years, Bangladesh received less water at Hardinge Bridge than was presumably released at Farakka Barrage to enter Bangladesh.
While considering the data for historical average flow for the years 2008 and 2009, only during 2 out of 15 intervals the flow at Hardinge Bridge reached the historical average flow as recorded in the Annexure II of the treaty. In 2010, during none of the 15 intervals the measured flow reached the amount that was equal or exceeded the historical average flow for the respective time intervals; and in 2011, during 5 out of 15 intervals Bangladesh received the right share of water that was comparable to the historical average flow. The analysis of flow data revealed that during the years 2008-11, 85% of the times, the flow at Farakka Barrage was below the respective historic average flow that was recoded for the period of 1948-88. The analysis of flow-data indicates that the lean season’s flow during the last four years (2008-11) has declined substantially declined when compared to the respective historic average flow at Farakka Barrage, which can be considered to be a violation of the treaty on the part of India, as the amount of water allocated in the treaty was based on the historic average flow during lean seasons.
The Ganges Treaty can serve as harbinger of water sharing among all co-riparian countries within the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. Proper implementation of the Ganges Treaty is important for bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh. The economic wellbeing and environmental functioning of riverine ecosystems both in Bangladesh and India depend on proper implementation of the treaty. Currently, the treaty is not being implemented fully as was originally intended. Despite of the treaty in action, 25% of the time during the last 4 years Bangladesh received less water at Hardinge Bridge than was presumably released at Farakka Barrage to enter Bangladesh.
The basis of the Ganges treaty is the historic average-flow in the Ganges River at Farakka Barrage. However, since the implementation of the Ganges Treaty in 1996, the amount of water-flow at Farakka Barrage hardy ever reached the historic average flow. Part of the reason can be attributed to upstream diversion of water from various tributaries of the Ganges River before they reach at Farakka Barrage. It is expected that India will identify the factors that act as hindrance to proper implementation of the Ganges Treaty, and will take initiatives to formulate an integrated water resources management plan that protects the interests of all stakeholders and the ecosystems that are supported by all shared rivers in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.