On 29th September, 2022, the Union Cabinet of India approved the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Government of India and the Government of Bangladesh on the withdrawal of water from the trans boundary Kushiyara River.

As one of the major outcomes of the recent visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India, this MoU is expected to benefit the farmers of south Assam in India and those in the Sylhet division in Bangladesh. It will allow withdrawal of up to 153 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water each by both countries from this common river for their consumptive water requirement.

The MoU was finalised at the 38th meeting of the ministerial-level Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) of India and Bangladesh. It has been welcomed by the people of both countries, including the media and development practitioners as it was for the first time a water-sharing treaty has been signed between the two countries after the Ganges treaty in 1996.

Earlier, in 2019, India and Bangladesh agreed for developing a draft framework for the interim water sharing agreements for the rivers Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gomati, Dharla and Dudhkumar. Though an MoU was signed allowing India to withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni River to ensure drinking water supply for the people of Sabroom in south Tripura, it is yet to be implemented. The finalisation of the design and location of the water intake point at Sabroom was done in the recent JRC meeting.

Water sharing – A bone of contention

The Kushiyara treaty has come up at a juncture when the demand for the Teesta water-sharing agreement remains unsolved. The need for an agreement on the Teesta River has been a long-standing demand of Bangladesh, as insufficient water flow in this river, particularly during the lean season, affects millions of farmers downstream in Bangladesh and their livelihoods. Given this, every visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to India raises hopes for a positive outcome from negotiations on the Teesta agreement.

Teesta is also a lifeline for the farmers in northern West Bengal. Back in 2011, India agreed to share 37.5 per cent of waters during the lean season between December and March, but the deal stays unclosed owing to the opposition from local stakeholders.

Even the purpose of the Ganges treaty was to share the dry season water flow between the countries as per a formula, which did not work many times during lean seasons..As the treaty tenure is coming to an end in 2026, it is time to review its performance taking into consideration climate variability and changes in consumptive use of water over time.

In the recently held JRC meeting, the two sides agreed on the formation of a Joint Technical Committee to conduct a study for optimum utilisation of water received by Bangladesh under the provisions of the Ganges treaty, which is the right step.

‘Boro’-ing the water

The lean season water demand is highly influenced by the cultivation of ‘boro’ rice from November to May under irrigated conditions, which is quite popular in Bangladesh and eastern India including Assam, Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. Conventionally, this cultivation was practised to make use of the residual moisture in low-lying areas. Its profitability has led to its wider adoption even in non-traditional areas where irrigation facilities are available and has become a critical component for the food security of both countries.

High water demand in the transboundary river basins of the Ganges, Teesta, Brahmaputra and smaller rivers like Kushiyara in this region can be attributed to the dynamics of water flow due to climate variability, construction of water storage/diversion structures upstream, changes in the cropping pattern and increasing urbanisation.

Growing water-intensive crops (for instance, boro rice) by lift irrigation has further depleted the groundwater levels. While transboundary aquifers are yet to be mainstreamed in the policy discourse on transboundary water management, the current usage of groundwater, both upstream and downstream, is alarming.

Therefore, it is pertinent to look for long-term sustainable solutions backed by climate modelling to determine future water requirements of a particular basin and promoting, climate-resilient agricultural practices buttressed by a suitable policy framework. Providing incentives for growing climate-resilient crops and disincentivising water-intensive crops in a phased manner are initial steps to be taken toward this end.

Managing (mis)perceptions

On sensitive matters like water-sharing, ground-level perceptions are as important as scientific realities. For instance, local apprehensions as expressed by different communities and also border security forces at the Sabroom-Ramgarh border along the Feni River mainly arise from a perception that India may extract water for irrigation purposes, not just for drinking as agreed.  Concerns regarding the ecological impact of the upcoming special economic zone at Sabroom are also in the air.

Therefore, in line with the recent Kushiyara treaty, a Joint Monitoring Team may be set up to monitor the withdrawal of water from the Feni River and to check water quality parameters in the backdrop of the upcoming industrial zone.

Here it is important to mention that the implementation of the Kushiyara treaty will rejuvenate the eight kilometres long Rahimpur canal in Sylhet’s Zakiganj sub-district, which can provide support to local agriculture, particularly winter vegetables on about 10000 hectares of land including haors and beels (marshy lands, which are also used for cultivation during the winter).

Though the dyke and other infrastructure were completed in 2016, the Indian authorities objected to the withdrawal of water citing security concerns. The recent agreement outweighing the economic benefits to the farmers in Bangladesh and Assam over the security concerns can be an effective enabler for trust-building.

Beyond the ‘cusec’s

The water agreements between India and Bangladesh are always about the volume of water to be shared; be it the case of the Ganges or the Kushiyara or the Feni or even the discourse around the Teesta. Other than water, transboundary rivers carry energy, sediments, pollutants, fish and other bioresources downstream. Inland navigation through India Bangladesh Protocol routes is also gaining importance as a means of trade, transport and tourism between the countries.

Thus, going beyond the quantum of water to be shared, both should work together for ensuring a healthy river ecosystem for the benefit of upstream and downstream dwellers that depend on ecosystem services provided by these rivers.

In this context, it is important to recall their joint statement following the recent visit Prime Minister Sheil]kh Hasina to India: “both leaders also directed the officials to work together to address issues such as pollution in rivers and to improve the riverine environment and river navigability in respect of common rivers”.

Now that the commitment is there from both sides, there must be joint initiatives towards addressing river pollution, sediment management and navigability.

In short, during the past few years, several meaningful initiatives for enhancing bilateral cooperation on trade, connectivity and energy have been taken by the leadership of both countries. Taken together they truly represent a Shonali Adhyaya (golden period) of bilateral relations.

Going forward and particularly for taking the fruits of this golden period to the people at the grassroots, India and Bangladesh should work toward sustainable solutions to transboundary water resource management, covering all 54 transboundary rivers and by upholding the principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation, no harm and protection of ecosystems of the UN-Water Courses Convention, 1997.

In the next quarter of a century when India will celebrate the Centenary of its independence and that of the Platinum Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence, shared and sustainable management of transboundary rivers should become a significant pillar of ensuring their peace, security, stability and prosperity, which will, in turn, reinforce their strategic position in the Bay of Bengal region of the Indo-Pacific construct.

Bipul Chatterjee is Executive Director and Veena Vidyadharan is Fellow, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance.

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Bipul Chatterjee

Executive Director, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance

Veena Vidyadharan

Veena Vidyadharan is Fellow, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance.