Saturday, February 4th, 2023 01:15:54

Policy On Sharing River Water Between India And Bangladesh

Updated: May 2, 2015 7:25 pm

A majority of the rivers originate in the Himalayas and travel through India and Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. As the upper riparian, India has traditionally staked a prior claim to rivers flowing through its territory, and in so doing, has controlled the quantity of water flowing into Bangladesh. Due to its unique topography, lower riparian Bangladesh is prone to seasonal variations in river flows, and scarcity of water in the dry season

For centuries, natural resources have been a source of continual conflict between nations. Water remains a major cause of discord between India and Bangladesh. The two neighbours share 54 rivers between them. The prominent ones amongst them are the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghna and the Teesta.

There is much that unites the two countries—a shared history and common heritage, linguistic and cultural ties, passion for music, literature and the arts. With Bangladesh, India shares not only a common history of struggle for freedom from British Raj but also were strong allies during the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971.


Moreover, the two countries are common members of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation), BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectorial, Technical and Economic Co-operation), IOR (Indian Ocean Rim Association) and Commonwealth.

In spite of apparent synergy between two countries India and Bangladesh continue to face several challenges. One of them is over water sharing. A majority of these rivers originate in the Himalayas and travel through India and Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. As the upper riparian, India has traditionally staked a prior claim to rivers flowing through its territory, and in so doing, has controlled the quantity of water flowing into Bangladesh. Due to its unique topography, lower riparian Bangladesh is prone to seasonal variations in river flows, and scarcity of water in the dry season. Consequently, Bangladesh relies heavily on trans boundary river flows from India. Given this scenario, water sharing has frequently been a source of tension between the two neighbours.

The Ganga Water Agreement

It is important to briefly outline the geographical features of the Ganga that traverses a 2,500-km-long journey through India and Bangladesh. It originates in Gangotri, on the Southern slope of the Himalayan range in India and moves in the southeast direction towards Bangladesh. The mainstream of the Ganga bifurcates into two channels, which are known as Bhagirathi-Hooghly in India and Padma in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh after covering a distance of around 120 km, the Padma river moves towards the south-east and joins the Brahmaputra in the heart of Bangladesh and their combined flow then runs south to empty into the Bay of Bengal. This geographical feature divides India and Bangladesh as upstream and downstream riparian states.

The proposal to construct the Farakka Barrage in the state of West Bengal in India across the Ganga River had led the two countries to come to the negotiating table to discuss respective claims and justifications that date back in the 1950s. The liberation of Bangladesh marked a significant point of departure in the resolution of the Farakka barrage dispute, Bangladesh’s first President, appreciated India’s role in liberating Bangladesh and wanted to establish very friendly relationship with India.  As a result, the treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace was signed in March 1972. According to the treaty, the two nations established a Joint River Commission (JRC) to work towards the common interests in sharing of water resources, irrigation, floods and cyclone control.

The Farakka Barrage was built in 1974, to divert water from the Ganga to the Hooghly River by a 42-kilometre-long feeder canal.  The JRC sought to explore all possible options of augmentation for optimum utilization of their jointly available water resources in order to find a mutually acceptable formula for sharing water in the lean season. Despite intense negotiations from 1974 onwards, the JRC could not reach an agreement on this. The Farakka barrage started operation in 1975, since then the sharing and controlling of the Ganga water became the key source of controversy between these two nations.


With increasing demands for water in Kolkata for industrial and domestic use, and for irrigational purposes in other parts of West Bengal, dispute over the sharing of water was intensified. The objective behind the construction of the Farakka Barrage was to increase the lean period flow of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river branch of the Ganga to increase the water depth at the Kolkata port, which was threatened by siltation. In November 1977, the two countries proposed a five-year agreement on water sharing. However, the basic issue remained unaddressed, leading to its lapse in 1982. Finally, the Indian Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina signed a comprehensive bilateral treaty in 1996. This treaty established a thirty-year water sharing arrangement with guaranteed minimum quantities of water supply for Bangladesh, whose rights as a lower riparian country was recognized.

The 1996 treaty did not include any compulsory in-built safeguards for Bangladesh. There are, however, various provisions, which provided a limited security, for instance, there is a provision of 35,000 cusecs to either side in the alternate 10-day segment in the period from 11 March to 10 May. Another important aspect of the treaty is that when the flow goes below 50,000 cusecs, the treaty recognizes an emergency situation and provides for immediate consultations by the two governments. The treaty also provides for a conflict resolution mechanism by prescribing a joint monitoring of flows, which should eliminate or minimize the possibility of disagreement over the data.

The treaty faced its first test only a few months after it came into force because of the actual availability of the water at the Ganga at Farakka turned out to be far less than that had been expected.

The second issue pertains to the discrepancy between the quanta of water released at Farakka barrage in India and that arriving at the Hardinge Bridge. At Hardinge Bridge, the Ganga channels are very large and have a carrying capacity of 1.5 million cusecs, but bad load movement, sediment distribution and sandbar formation have made it difficult to measure the flow correctly.

There is yet another and more complex problem of the Gorai hump. Bangladesh’s grievance about diversions of water by India from the Ganga at Farakka has revolved around the acute distress caused in the South-west Khulna region on account of salinity ingress and a shortage of water for agriculture, fisheries, navigation and sustenance of the Sundari mangrove species. This area, because of the Gorai spill, which delivers upland fresh water supplies to the region, is left high and dry as the Ganga recedes. While this is so, it would be erroneous to attribute the problem mainly to diversions at Farakka. The entire Ganga system has been shifting East and North as a secular trend over the past century or more.

The long-standing conflict of Farakka and tortuous negotiations over decades for resolving this issue underlines the importance of understanding water conflicts in the social and political context. The technical aspects of the problem, deciding the quantum of each party’s share of common waters and finding ways of augmenting the water flows need to be looked into. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s handling of this issue has also determined the fate of its top political leaders and considered to be the single most important yardstick for judging the performance of its successive ruling regimes. In spite of above conflicts from time to time, the Ganga River Treaty between India and Bangladesh has been functioning well for more than 19 years. Active involvement of the then West Bengal chief minister in negotiations helped in making the treaty viable. The Ganga water treaty is cited as one of the important examples of peaceful negotiations between upstream and downstream neighbours in South Asia.

Teesta Water Sharing Agreement

The Teesta is a perennial river, fed by both rain and snow-fed lakes. It originates in the Himalayas from Cholamu (Tso Lhamu) Lake in Sikkim at an elevation of around 5,500 metres above the sea level and travels roughly 315 km before merging into the Bay of Bengal.  Of this, about 130 km is through Bangladesh. This rapid descent of the river over a very short distance makes the Teesta one of the fastest flowing rivers in the world and as a result offers a huge potential for hydropower generation, especially before it debouches on the terai plains at Sevoke.

The Teesta is the next most important river after the Ganga out of the 54 rivers that both India and Bangladesh share.  The Teesta is very important for both countries, more so for Bangladesh. Large tracts of land in northwest Bangladesh, predominantly rice-cultivated area, depends on irrigation. This common river originates from India and enters Bangladesh near Nilphamari district and traverses 45 kilometres through the districts of Rangpur, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha before meeting the Brahmaputra River in Kurigram. During the dry period beginning from September to March, Bangladesh requires the Teesta waters to help organize its agriculture-related activities. It is dependent on the Teesta for its irrigation project covering 750,000 hectares of land in Rangpur. Rice is important crop in this region. The region faces acute water shortage every year during the dry season.

West Bengal and Sikkim are two states in India that depend on the Teesta River for irrigation and hydropower generation. Even without formal agreement on river water distribution between the two countries, two barrages, one in India and the other in Bangladesh, have been constructed for diverting the available flow to provide irrigation facilities.


The Teesta River barrage at Gozaldoba in India controls the flow downstream to Bangladesh. In order to increase irrigation potential of the northwest region, Bangladesh constructed Dalia barrage on the Teesta River in Lalmonirhat district to provide irrigation water through a canal network. The Dalia barrage becomes non-functional during the dry season because of inadequate flow. During the rainy season, it works in reverse. Sudden release of excessive water through the Gozaldoba barrage causes floods and bank erosion. This damages crops downstream. Bangladesh has long argued that India’s construction of the Gazaldoba Barrage upstream of Dalia has significantly reduced the availability of water in the dry season. Furthermore, the release of water during the monsoon season causes flooding and bank erosion downstream. The availability of water for irrigation, particularly in the lean or dry season, has been at the crux of the longstanding dispute between the two countries. Bangladesh wants 20 per cent of the river’s total natural flow for the stream itself and the rest should be shared between the two countries equally at Gazoldoba.

The Teesta River has been a longstanding issue between India and Bangladesh since 1952 when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. India and Bangladesh went for serious discussion in 1971 when Bangladesh became an independent country. During 1980s both countries revived the modalities by which India and Bangladesh could share the waters of the Teesta. During the mid-1980s, a temporary agreement between the two countries was reached and since then, nothing substantive has been achieved.

Sheikh Hasina in her visit to India on 10 January 2010 exchanged draft agreements on the Teesta water sharing issue with India, after a two-day ministerial-level meeting of the Joint River Commission was held. While Bangladesh presented a draft on an interim agreement, India presented a draft of a Statement of Principles on the sharing of river water during the dry season. The immediate achievement of this meeting was the decision that, within a year, an agreement over the Teesta River water sharing would be signed. It would provide key support to agricultural production in the northwest region of Bangladesh. One question that remained unanswered regarded the amount of river water likely to be shared between the countries. During the 37th Joint River Commission (JRC) meet in March 2010, while Bangladesh proposed a draft ‘interim agreement’, India offered a ‘statement of principles’ on sharing of the

Teesta. At the end of the talks, both sides for the first time exchanged drafts on the Teesta River.

Water is a state-subject in India. Both West Bengal and Sikkim governments should be included in negotiations over Teesta River between India and Bangladesh. The accord would likely have been signed by now had Mamata Banerjee not put her foot down and refused to visit Bangladesh with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012. She had claimed that West Bengal’s opinion had not been sought in the matter as the Teesta flows through her state.

With the precedent of the Ganga River Treaty between India and Bangladesh and with pragmatic governments in both the countries at present, signing of the Teesta water sharing agreement and fine-tuning the Ganga treaty seems to be possible. Provided Mamata Banerjee co-operates this time. It will not only will benefit both the countries but also India and Bangladesh will be able to sort out the more important issues of land border and conclave settlement, boundary dispute, maritime border settlement and transit rights. After all never before have we had a better environment—A strong BJP government with charismatic and pragmatic Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, and liberal and pro-India  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. According to Mr. Modi, I quote “Bangabandhu founded Bangladesh and his daughter Sheikh Hasina saved it.”


By Madhumanti Sen Gupta

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