Ganges water dispute india bangladesh

Water is an ever-present resource which is crucial for life, human well-being and economic development as well as vital for peace and security. It is our sustenance and played a vital role in the field of history, religion, mythology and art. It is considered as a celestial gift to mankind by all holy books. Water is greatly trans-boundary by character as a result makes it a possible cause of conflict. There are about 261 international river basins covering half of the total land surface of the globe (Wolf et al, 1999). Over 40 percent of the world’s population lives within trans-boundary basins and without doubt the sharing and utilization of it creates dilemma and anxiety for the countries involved. The location of Bangladesh is in south-east Asia and is bordered by India to the east, north, and west and shares a short border with Myanmar (Burma) in the southeast. The country lies within the flood plains of three most significant intercontinental rivers – The Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna (GBM) all of which run throughout the country and drains into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh lies in the lowest riparian of the region, a unique location for 57 trans-boundary Rivers among which 54 are united with India. As estimated, agriculture on dry season provides half of the GDP of Bangladesh. So, the interference with flow-regime of the rivers can hugely affect the progression of the country. India’s plan of inter-basins huge water transfer has become a key controversial issue to debate in the global area. A treaty has been signed by both countries to resolve the water dispute in 1996 but has not been effective enough. If India moves on with their mega river-linking project then the agony will be immense. Any further diversion of water in the GBM basins, as claimed by the researchers and environmentalists, would cause an ecological catastrophe in Bangladesh and would intimidate the livelihood of 240 million people in the region. [1] 

The Background Fact:

The GBM basin encompasses approximately 1.7 million sq km, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Tibetan China [2] . The average runoff is around 1200 cu. The region lays 64% in India,18% in china, 9% in Nepal, 3% in Bhutan and only 6% in Bangladesh [3] . Although India holds much of the power of the river basin, the three major rivers fall into Bay of Bengal through a single passage, known as Meghna Estuary. It is the easternmost sector of the Ganges delta and the catchment area is 1,520,000 sq km [4] .

As soon as the British India was divided in 1947, the struggle started as Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) was in the lowest riparian in the GBM system. In order to improve the navigability of Calcutta port Farakka Barrage was built in 1951 to redirect 40,000 [5] causec of water from Ganges into Hoogly-Baghirati River to flush silt and keep Calcutta harbor operational during the dry season, which consequently started the conflict. On October 29, 1951, Pakistan first officially called for India’s attention on regards of the building of Farakka Barrage. Indian government responded on March 8, 1952 that the project was only under preliminary investigation, and that the concern was “hypothetical" [6] . The following years several meetings took place in the alternative capitals of both countries and on 1960 an Expert level meeting held between India and Pakistan which brought no success. In 1968, with no course of action Bangladesh (then ,the East Pakistan) took the matter before the United Nations General Assembly and till 1976 the discussions continued in that forum [7] . As located in the lower riparian, East Pakistan showed necessity to have positive talks for a motion of the fair sharing of the Ganges water between two countries. But India has always been argued for lack of sufficient and correct data and denied the proposal of Wide-Ranging agreement.

India finished the construction in 1970 by Hindustan Construction Company Ltd. But due to the unfinished feeder canal, India was unable to run it. Bangladesh became independent in 1971 against Pakistan with the aid of India and formation of a better relation between India and Bangladesh was expected. However, India’s persistent plan regarding the Farakka plan led to a souring relationship between two countries. An Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission was established in 1972 for studying the flow and using the river water in a cooperative basis. Finally the Barrage was fully completed in 1975 and a short term agreement was signed between the countries to conduct a 40 day trial in testing of it throughout the dry season. Unfortunately, the President of Bangladesh was assassinated four months later by a group of the armed force that found him too supportive with India [8] and the country was unstable for few months in lack of leadership.

Hence, in 18th April 1977 a successful signing of Ganges Water Agreement took place. The issues covered in the Agreement were: 1. sharing the water of the Ganges River at Farakka, and, 2. finding a long term resolution for increase of the dry season flows of the Ganges. However, Bangladesh lodged a formal protest against India in January 1979 in the United Nations General Assembly and both parties were urged by the General Assembly to hold more meetings to arrive on a just agreement on that issue.

The issues covered by the agreement however failed to pass any resolution over the five years period. Furthermore, the treaty ended in 1982 and two additional short term agreements were concluded on water sharing till 1988 and after that India began the one-sided diversion at will [9] .

On 12th December 1996, the recent treaty was signed regarding the sharing of Ganges water in dry season (1st of January to 31st of May [10] ). The treaty is valid for 30 years. Unlike the previous treaties, it was severely criticized over its unclear dispute resolution mechanisms and does not include any arrangement for long-term solution of the dry season water scarcity. Moreover, countries like China, Bhutan and Nepal who share the same flow of water and have their own development plans that could have an impact on the sustainable approach to the treaty. But these countries weren’t included in the agreement. So soon after the agreement was established in which Bangladesh requested a review of the watershed status and found out the water flow dropped below the minimum agreement level.

In recent years, the relation between two countries became rigorous because of India’s Mega River linking process. India aims to connect all major Rivers by interlinking canal systems and many Barrages and dams. To materialize the project Indian government employed a highly powered political task force and the Indian Supreme Court also passed ruling that the whole process has to be finished within 10 years [11] . As estimated the project would have a minimum cost of $120 billion and would be powerful enough to combine water flow in the famine affected areas during dry season and reducing India’s acute power-shortage [12] . Moreover, the implementation would lead to whole diversion of 173 cubic metres of water, therefore no flow for Bangladesh.

The Aftermath of Water Diversion on Bangladesh

The history teaches us about the civilizations who have vanished trying to endanger the nature. Building big dams and barrages has always been a debating issue [13] . Environmentalists have always warned nations about short term benefits of building dams [14] .

Bangladesh is named “The Country of Rivers" for its 230 interweave rivers. Additionally, the whole ecological and socio-logical system is greatly relying on the GBM basins. As located on the lowermost part of the GBM basin, it encounters high flows on the rainy season and low flows during dry season. Among the rivers, 57 are international and 54 of theme originated in India and 3 in Myanmar [15] . As a result, any interference with the flow can cause havoc in the countries water supply.

As found in the reports India is working to divert several rivers and 30 upstream constructions [16] for diverting water is on process. Farakka Barrage [17] is the major one which is built for diverting the water of Ganges River. The transferring of water through Bhagirati River with a twenty-six mile long feeder canal has endangered the natural flow of Ganges River in Bangladesh territory causing various kind of harmful effect in Bangladesh. Various studies have shown the effects which is explained below:

The impact on the Environment:

The supply of water in the Bangladesh part of GBM basin has substantially decreased since 1975. The minimum discharge of water is now 135 cusecs where it used to be 1460(1100% less) in the pre-division phrase. The essential flow for the purpose of agricultural activities and industrial activities is around 55,000- 66,000 cusecs and is also vital for sustainable navigability ecology and proper salinity intrusion [18] .

In the past decade the level of surface water has dropped 4 meter lower than the wet season level [19] and for the south-western region the only source of fresh water is Garai, where the discharge dropped from 1500 cusecs to 10 cusecs [20] . Additionally in recent years insufficient water flow causing an increase in the soil porosity has been increased and as a result arseno-pyrite air gets into the ground water. The Ground Water Task Force conducted a survey which reports that 7 out of 12 most arsenic contaminated regions are located in ganges basins and 70% of tube-wells on the areas exceed the acceptable arsenic limits as a result 50 million people are under threat of severe water born disease [21] .

The water flow has been decreased dramatically since 1975 and the rate of sediment has decreased radically. Instead of being flushed into the sea the sediments stay on the riverbeds causing astonishing river bank erosion. For example the river course has been reallocated directly to 11km south near Faridpur [22] .

Moreover the long time undesirable water diversion has caused a negative effect on the ecology, climate, navigation, species and economy. Research shows that the minimum wintertime climate has gone down from 8 to 4 degree Celsius in post-dam period where the summertime maximum temperature has risen in pre-dam period from 37 to 43 degree Celsius [23] . The world’s largest mangrove forest ‘The Sunderbans’, which is criss-crossed by number of Ganges born rivers, is largely affected. Various aquatic species are in threat because of saline intrusion [24] . The national fish of Bangladesh namely, Hilsha is in extreme danger with other 109 kinds of fish as the production process is hugely barred by the low flow level. Even species like Turtles, snails, frogs, reptiles, dolphins (present population 1200-1500 [25] ) etc are about to vanish due to the upstream water withdrawal.

Large amount of Rivers has made a wonderful waterway of travel in Bangladesh. But due to the exceptional lack of Ganges water flow 391 km waterway has lost it navigability causing a negative effect in people’s life [26] . In addition the fertility of the soil has rapidly resulting in a significant amount of economic loss. According to the figure published by the Bangladesh government the amount is US$876 million and BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology) estimated the loss to be about US$ 625 million as compared to the pre-Farakka period [27] . Environmentalists and scientists have also cautioned that the scarcity of water is enormously expected to transform the region into a sub-human ecosystem resulting permanent economical damage.

International Law and Water Dispute

One of the longest durable international trans-boundary disputes has been between India and Bangladesh in relation to the Ganges River. The relation between those two countries has also turned severe. The ways to solve the dispute can be- unilateral, bilateral and multilateral. The physical power of India as a big state and geographic location has given it the chance to deal unilaterally in favor of its economy. So far, the steps taken to solve the dispute by both countries have been bilateral and have gained limited success. So in this regard, the only possible way left to resolve it is multilateral approach.

To resolve more than 500 international trans-boundary water dispute [28] International Water Law was developed. The law and its applications largely comes from i) International conventions ii) state practices iii) the rulings of international courts. The two most important international treaties in this regards are The Madrid Declaration 1911 and the Helsinki Rules of 1966, as largely contributed by renowned institutions like the International Law Association (ILA) and the Institute of International Law (IIL)

The Madrid Declaration 1911

The declaration discourages harmful modification or unilateral alterations of Rivers and promotes creation of commissions [29] .

Barcelona Convention 1921

This significant Convention establishes the priorities in using and managing of water resource. Article 10 restricts any kind of unilateral actions [30] which was followed by Pakistan in protesting of constructing Farakka Barrage [31] and in 1950 Nepal recommended Ganges should be declared as an international river by India under the Convention [32] .

The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers (1966)

This is one of most important legal tools for organizing international drainage basins [33] . As stated by the Article IV, “Each basin State is entitled, within its territory, to a reasonable and equitable share in the beneficial uses of the waters of an international drainage basin" [34] . The dispute settlements are mainly dealt with these rules.

The 1997 International Watercourses Convention

This UN convention is considered as a landmark in accomplishing the codification and progressive development of rules of international law regarding global watercourses. Article 7 subsection1 [35] is very applicable in regarding Ganges water dispute.

Berlin Rules on Water Resources 2004

Established in August 21, 2004 in Berlin is an important law for modern time. It is the most updated form of all International water laws and includes sustainability to minimize environmental harm.

State Practice

States can play a great role in resolving the dispute between them by following the framework provided by UN Convention. The project case of Gabcikovo-Nagymaros [36] (25th September 1997 by the International Court of Justice) can provide Bangladesh a good chance of resolving the dispute as the case establishes the principle of fair utilization as well as a major restriction in process that can damage the environment.


To meet the enormous challenge of balancing economic demand against environmental realities in every part of the world, the international community has a duty to assist and to ensure that using of resource is sustainable and the degradation of the environment is stopped. A fair and workable agreement between India and Bangladesh can bring peace, trust, friendship and benefits to not only for both countries but also for the whole South East Asia region.

This part of South Asia has always been a victim of political turbulence due to linguistic, ethnic and religious sentiment. Even though having a great source of natural resources still it is badly developed and neglected. The history shows people in this region have always used the diversity to their own benefit by managing and exchanging the natural resources equitably. However, under the influence of colonial rules of ‘divide and rule’ the relation among the nations got worsened. Environmental degradation is nothing but a negative effect on the economy of state and solving of this can lead to a mutual development.

The application of international law with the development of stronger clauses and action plan is needed for the ultimate protection of humanity and ecology. Many states containing international basins have followed the United Nations Convention, though some has opposed to comply. It can create mistrust among nations. Establishing access to water as a universal human right can ensure people of the region sharing international watercourses the right to have water of sufficient magnitude. This can benefit Bangladesh if it can apply the Art 25 [37] of Universal Declaration of Human Rights considering health and well being of human kind. It is also very essential to ensure that the utilization of the resources is sustainable for the future. Otherwise the problem will stay alive.

Moreover, Bangladesh should remain hopeful in considering the resolved international disputes such as; Mekong Basin Agreement [38] agreed by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia in may 1995. National sovereignty should not be an issue of defence in this kind of dispute. Despite of being the smallest country in the region Bangladesh has a great development growth and a great economic possibility which can be vanished if the dispute continues. Needless to say, it is prime time for Bangladesh to use proper international law and an effective agreement to spare itself from the catastrophic environmental disaster.


The flexibility of choosing a research topic was one of the main attractions in choosing this module. The module is itself very stimulating and as I was free to choose the title, I was really keen to research on any environmental issues regarding Bangladesh as the country has been facing severe environmental difficulty over the last few decades. That is how, I came to know about the scarceness of water in Bangladesh as India has built dams and barrages to divert the water flow of Ganges River. The acuteness of the problem really surprised me as variation of rare species including fishes and aquatic plants are facing the extinction. My approach to the topic was to find a peaceful way to resolve the problem.

I started my research by reading Silas Beckwith’s Environment Law (Text Book) as I was familiarizing myself with the Environmental Law. Then after being able to choose the topic I started to read the book of Sultana, R., and Chadwick, M.T. Human Health and Industrial Pollution in Bangladesh which I followed mostly on my writing. I also took help from the book of Rahman A. A., Huq S. and Haider R, Environment & Development in Bangladesh. I came in touch of a book written by Birnie P, Boyle A entitled ‘International law and the Environment’ to be very useful in regards to international law concerning international watercourses.

The beginning of my writing was a bit difficult as it was really tough for me to find relevant materials. However, after being able to do a structure, I found it comparatively easy to write. I tried to spend time in the university library and the local library in Whitechapel in looking for relevant books and journals to gain specific knowledge about the impact of water in the whole environment including human, animal and aquatic life. By the time, I was able to know the around 98% of the national fish of Bangladesh named ‘Hilsha’ has been extinct.

Furthermore, I focused in looking for several reports and comments on various newspapers in Bangladesh for accurate and recent data. A journal named ‘India: Farakka Barrage - An Environmental Mistake’ [39] which was written by Muhammad Javed Iqbal helped me acquiring data about the Farakka Barrage. I also went through several journals and websites about the political issues regarding the dispute.

The research has given me the scope to test my logical skills to a great extent and I really enjoyed the challenge as I learned a lot from it. I tried my best to include all the important data and hope my writing has explained a lot about the environmental issue.