Water Games – 3: India’s self-defeating generosity

By | March 12, 2018
The Baglihar dam on Chenab.

The Baglihar dam on the Chenab river in Jammu & Kashmir. (Photo: ICIMOD)

India dominates the South Asian landscape, stretching across the Himalayan range from the west to the east. On the other side of the Himalayas in the north lies Tibet – the “Water Tower of Asia” – from where most of the continent’s important rivers flow. As discussed in the previous article, Water games – 2: China’s intransigent hold over Asian rivers, China has been controlling the headwaters of most of Asia’s transboundary rivers after it annexed Xinjiang and Tibet in mid-20th century. By virtue of its size and location, India too holds the key to the major rivers flowing into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some minor rivers too flow into Bangladesh and Myanmar from India.

After Partition in 1947, the control of the Indus river system in the north and the Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems in the east remained with India. Therefore, both the eastern and western parts of Pakistan were at the mercy of India’s possible manipulation of the rivers. West Pakistan was particularly vulnerable because the Indus and its tributaries passed through gorges in Jammu & Kashmir, which could be dammed.

After failing to annex J&K through an invasion in 1948, Pakistan demanded India give it sovereign rights over the waters of the rivers forming the Indus river system. When East Pakistan won its independence from Pakistan in 1971 and became Bangladesh, it too started demanding more water from the Ganga; it later expanded the demand to more water from the Teesta as well.


In 1960, following protracted negotiations, India and Pakistan signed a water-sharing agreement – Indus Water Treaty (IWT) – with the World Bank as a party to it. The Bank’s mandate was to keep the process of dispute settlement moving in the event of either country not following the arbitration procedure laid down in the treaty.

Two points may be noted here. One, although the Indus originates from Tibet, China was kept out of the treaty, which left the possibility open for a future Chinese manipulation of the river. This has already started [pdf]. And two, impact of climate change [pdf] on these rivers was overlooked. At that time, climate change wasn’t as big an international issue as it is today. (More on these two points later.)

The IWT deals with the Indus river system, comprising the Indus and its five tributaries – Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi and Sutlej. The system is classified into eastern rivers (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej) and western rivers (Indus, Chenab and Jhelum).

The IWT, signed by the-then prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the-then president of Pakistan, General Ayub Khan, gave India the right to govern the eastern rivers while Pakistan got the right to control the western rivers. Although the Indus and its five tributaries flow from Indian territory, the treaty gave India the right to use less than 20 per cent of the river system’s water while giving Pakistan the right to use the rest. This made the IWT the most lopsided water-sharing pact in the world.

It wasn’t long before India realized the enormity of the blunder it had committed by agreeing to the terms of the treaty, which at that time Nehru, to the world’s applause, declared as a “goodwill gesture” towards Pakistan.

Although the treaty allowed India to use the western rivers for “non-consumptive” needs like irrigation, storage and electricity generation, India has not utilized its rights fully. This has left large parts of J&K and Punjab deprived of water for irrigation and made it tough and expensive for India to provide power to the water-starved parts of the two states. When India tried to assert its rights, Pakistan cried foul and took it to international arbitration.

Pakistan objected to India’s use of Indus waters for the Baglihar and Ratle dams on the Chenab, and the Kishanganga dam on the Jhelum – all run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects. Under the provisions of the IWT, India is allowed to build such dams.

In 2005, after the failure of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan over the Baglihar project, Islamabad took the dispute to the World Bank. In 2007, while upholding a couple of minor objections, the adjudicator appointed by the Bank gave its verdict in favour of India. Later, in 2010, the two countries “resolved” the issue.

Perhaps the most serious of these water disputes is the one over the Kishanganga project. Pakistan objected to the project saying the dam would divert a portion of the Neelum river from Pakistan, which will reduce power generation at the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower plant in the country. It took the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague arguing that the dam violated the IWT.

The court rejected Pakistan’s application but asked India to stop all permanent constructions that might hamper restoring the river to its original state. However, it upheld India’s right to use the water in a non-consumptive manner to generate power. In December 2013, following appeals and India’s presentation of new technical details, the court gave India the go-ahead to build the dam. In October 2016, however, Pakistan raised new objections and demanded that the World Bank set up a court of arbitration to hear its case.

This time, Islamabad included the Ratle hydroelectric plant, which India planned to build on the Chenab river. New Delhi, on the other hand, asked for the appointment of a neutral expert to look into the objections raised. In August 2017, after talks between India and Pakistan in the presence of its representatives, the World Bank said India could build the two dams with some restrictions.


India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers, big and small, including the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, which flow into Bangladesh from India. Also, some major tributaries of these two rivers flow into Bangladesh from India, like the Teesta, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The main branch of the Ganga in Bangladesh is known as Padma, which joins the Jamuna river – the biggest distributary of the Brahmaputra. Further downstream, the Meghna river – Brahmaputra’s second-biggest distributary – joins it and is called as Meghna from there onwards. It eventually branches out and drains into the Bay of Bengal.

For a country of its size, Bangladesh is arguably the most riverine nation on earth. Yet, it asks for more water from India because of its failure to optimally use its surplus water resources.

In March 1972, the-then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, and the-then prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, signed the wide-ranging Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace, which included joint action in the fields of flood control, hydroelectricity, irrigation and river-basin development. This led to the setting up of the Joint River Commission between the two countries later that year.

In 1975, India commissioned the Farakka barrage on the Ganga in West Bengal, which is 16km from the international border with Bangladesh. The main objective of the barrage was to divert adequate water from the Ganga to its distributary system – the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system – through a 38km-long feeder canal for flushing out silt to preserve and maintain the Kolkata port without the need for regular dredging and significantly improve its navigation channels during the dry season. The other objective was to reduce the salinity of the Bhagirathi by infusing more water from the Ganga’s main branch into it for the consumption of Kolkata and neighbouring areas.

Besides, the rail-cum-road bridge built over the barrage linked India’s northeast to the south. This made the Farakka barrage one of the most important infrastructure projects in the country.

In 1974, before the Farakka barrage became operational, India and Bangladesh made a joint declaration to resolve water-sharing issues that might arise because of the barrage. Following this, the two countries signed an interim agreement, in 1975, to test the barrage’s impact on Bangladesh for 40 days during the dry season. Bangladesh claimed that rivers on its side were drying up as a result of India’s drawing of “excessive” water from the Ganga.

After the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1976, the ties between the two countries deteriorated and India withdrew from the interim agreement. Bangladesh raised the issue at the Non-Aligned Movement and the United Nations. International leaders urged resumption of talks, but without any result.

In 1977, the-then Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, and the-then president of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman, signed a five-year water-sharing treaty, which expired without being renewed. Bangladesh again raised the issue at the South Asian Association for Region Cooperation (Saarc) and the UN, but nothing happened.

Finally, in December 1996, the-then Indian prime minister, HD Deve Gowda, and the-then Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, signed a comprehensive 30-year treaty [pdf] on water sharing. However, the Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh Awami League’s main opposition, the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party, attacked the treaty as unfair, although it didn’t withdraw from the treaty when Khaleda Zia came to power in 2001. The BNP, which is in the opposition now, and some other groups continue to oppose the treaty, calling it unfair, despite India relinquishing its rights to large volumes of water that its own people need so desperately.

Later, Bangladesh expanded its demand and asked for more Teesta water. According to an Asian Foundation 2013 report [pdf], the Teesta’s floodplain covers about 14 per cent of Bangladesh’s total cultivated area, which provides direct livelihood opportunities to approximately 73 per cent of its population. However, for India, almost a dozen districts with a total population of 15 million in West Bengal’s north depend on the river.

In 1983, India and Bangladesh signed an ad hoc treaty on Teesta, which expired in 1985. Bangladesh wanted 50 per cent of the Teesta’s water in the lean season between December and May every year. It said the barrage it built on the river at Lalmonirhat for irrigation was getting inadequate water from upstream in India.

After protracted talks, the two countries came close to signing a comprehensive 15-year Teesta water-sharing treaty, in which India was supposed to get at least 42.5 per cent and Bangladesh 37.5 per cent of the river’s water during the lean season. Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, opposed the treaty citing “global warming”. This was not without basis. There are reports of climate change affecting the Sikkim glaciers where the Teesta originates.

Because river waters come under states’ domain in India, with Banerjee’s veto the treaty was left unsigned. However, chances remain that the two countries will finally sign the Teesta treaty after general elections in both the countries in 2019.


The Indus Water Treaty now looks like a self-induced, festering wound for India. With Islamabad unwilling to cease its four-decade-long campaign of aiding and abetting terrorism in India, New Delhi can cite many reasons to withdraw from the treaty and start harnessing the waters of the Indus river system for its domestic needs.

China, which uses its “all-weather friend” Pakistan against India to keep the latter engaged on its western front, has slyly built a dam on the Indus in Tibet, where the river originates, near Demchok in India’s Ladakh. Alice Albinia, a British journalist, discovered the dam by chance while tracking the source of the Indus in Tibet. According to an Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization report [pdf], the dam has apparently stopped most of the river’s flow. That’s not all. China is helping Pakistan build two mega dams – Diamer-Bhasha dam and Bunji dam – in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Gilgit-Baltistan region over the Indus despite India’s objection.

These are reasons enough to declare the IWT null and void. So far, India has refrained from linking the treaty strongly with these dams.

After the September 2016 Uri terror attack in J&K, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said “blood and water cannot flow together”, hinting at leveraging the IWT to make Pakistan pay for training and sending terrorists into India. Later, he reiterated that Indus waters belong to India and Indian farmers more than to others. Reports suggested that the prime minister held talks with officials to weigh India’s options on this matter.

However, India has taken no steps in that direction and officials from the two countries continue to hold talks under the provisions of the IWT. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to bleed India through its terror proxies.

When the IWT was signed, climate change was mostly an academic topic. The effects climate change would have on rivers in the future were not known. However, in the 21st century, it has become a major political and security issue the world over. The drastic effects of global warming are seen on rivers everywhere and the rivers originating from Tibet are no exception [pdf].

India is yet to wake up to this ground reality, let alone push for a renegotiation of the IWT based on the threat the Indus river system faces from global warming.

India must also take into account the effects of climate change on its rivers in any future negotiation on sharing waters with Bangladesh. India must also include an assessment of the depletion of water in its internal rivers that might force it to draw or divert more water from the rivers it shares with its eastern neighbour.

Although India has had excellent relations with Sheikh Hasina’s government, in 2001, when Khaleda Zia came to power, Bangladesh started supporting anti-India insurgents and Pakistan-backed jihadist groups. An angry New Delhi called off all high-level talks with Dhaka. In future talks, India must leverage its transboundary rivers and link the sharing of their waters with Dhaka’s efforts to contain insurgent and jihadist groups.

So far, India, as an upstream country, has been pursuing a self-defeating policy on its transboundary rivers. The time has come for it to adopt a policy that serves its domestic and strategic interests best.

Water Games – 1: Rising thirst in Asia
Water Games – 2: China’s intransigent hold over Asian rivers

I tweet as @goldenarcher

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