Water sharing: An opportunity cost dilemma in South Asia

Dhaka,  Monday,   2016-09-19
Published : 19 Sep 2016, 19:25:23

Water sharing: An opportunity cost dilemma in South Asia

The July 15-16 Asian Confluence River Festival - NADI 2016, held in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya in North-East India, can truly be called a paradigm shifting event. Although issues such as tourism and trade were discussed, the primary agenda ended up becoming the pressing need to revive riverine transport, writes Muhammad Abdul Mazid

Over the past few decades, many of the 54 rivers in Bangladesh that originate in India have been either diverted or dammed upstream, inside India. All of these hydro-developmental initiatives have left a profound impact on the ecology of Bangladesh as it is at the receiving end of the Himalayan fluvial regime. Anthropogenic as well as environmental changes bring pressures on the basin's water resources and the riverine ecosystem itself, presenting unprecedented challenges and potential conflict [Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) 2013: 77]. Soon after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India took initiative to construct a barrage on its side of the Ganges and commissioned it in 1975. In particular, Bangladesh's agriculture, fisheries, and human health and wellbeing are reported to have been significantly affected by the disruption of natural water flow in its rivers. 

No wonder South Asian environmental historians are anxious about policymakers' inability to appreciate the formative historical developments that the natural hydrological system of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna had promoted before the impact of capitalist modernisation was fully felt in the region (Iqbal 2007: 18). Even though politically all seven countries of South Asia have their independent territories, much of the natural resources are shared by two or more political boundaries. Such situation is extremely delicate for flow resources like rivers where demarcation is difficult. The issue becomes important in cases like Bangladesh and India since they share 54 common rivers. 

Water sharing of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna could not come to a stable point between Bangladesh and India, despite having a long history of negotiation. A gradual shift has been observed over the years in the definition of environmental issues from an early focus on incorporating environmental and related concerns to a new focus on searching the cause of conflict due to environmental change. It is assumed that this shift is influenced by recent technological development in identifying inherent causes of problem vis-à-vis a growing list of environmental problems and their associated risks to human beings. 

Under the above state of affairs, it is rare that a jaded water expert feels elated after the July 15-16 Asian Confluence River Festival - NADI 2016, held in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya in North-East India. It was different and very pleasantly so: it was one that can truly be called a paradigm shifting event. Hosted by the Meghalaya government with support from the Indian Central government, as well as established outfits of NGOs and academia such as Asian Confluence, Aaranyak and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Institute, it saw a shift in water discourse that was almost euphoric. Too often over the last half century, transboundary water meetings have been rather dismal, zero-sum games primarily because the underlying ethos has been allocation of scarce dry season flow, primarily for supplemental monsoon irrigation through diversion barrages in the Ganges, Kosi, Gandak, Sarda, Teesta and many other Himalayan rivers.

The Shillong meeting saw the participation of several chief ministers of Indian North-Eastern states, a 148-member Bangladesh delegation led by two ministers, Bhutan's led by the redoubtable former home minister Dago Tshering as well as a delegation from Myanmar. Although issues such as tourism and trade were discussed, the primary agenda ended up becoming the pressing need to revive riverine transport. During the British rule, goods from abroad came up from the Bay of Bengal along the Brahmaputra all the way up to Tejpur and Dibrugarh. The same was true of the Ganga deep into United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). However, this cheap and ecologically sensible means of transport was slowly smothered post-British rule by truck and railway interests.

Water-sharing meetings are bound to be rife with suspicions because what one gets, the other automatically won't. Attempts to shift to increasing the dry season flow in the rivers by building reservoirs that store the monsoon rains went nowhere primarily because of the inability of Nepali hydrocrats to see any beneficial use other than hydropower and Mughlani ones acting too-smart-by-half, playing along Nepali egos and discussing only hydropower while hoping to become free-rider beneficiaries of flood control, irrigation, etc. from regulated reservoir flows.

The case for inland navigation for regional development has been quite compelling. First, no major continental-sized region of the world has developed economically without developing inland riverine transport. The Rhine is navigable all the way from the North Sea and Rotterdam to land-locked Switzerland, the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and Canada, the Volga-Don river system from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and the Danube from the Black Sea to the inner heartland of Germany, and indeed via the Rhine link all the way to Rotterdam. China began to earnestly restore its inland waterways in 1984 after its road and rail system started to be congested with fast economic growth; and today it enjoys the same commercially significant length of navigable inland waterways as the US and EU combined.

According to Dipak Gyawali, a Pragya (Academician) of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and former minister of water resources, the regional imperative to develop inland riverine transport stems from overall energy economics and efficiency (how much weight of cargo one horsepower engine can move). It is 150kg for trucks on road, 500kg for railway and 4,000kg for inland water transport! In terms of energy, inland shipping consumes 230 mega joules/1000 tonne-km while rail transport consumes double that (430) and truck a further double of that (920). When one calculates the savings in the transport of bulk goods such as coal, grains, iron ore, construction materials, etc. over an entire region such as the Ganga or the Brahmaputra basin, even rough ball park figures can be immense and mind-boggling.

Dipak Gyawali, elaborates, unless a region such as South Asia can take advantage of such energy (and hence cost) efficiencies, competitive economic growth will only be a pipe dream. India does less than 4.0 per cent of its trade via this economically efficient transport mode of inland waterways: in China, by contrast, the figure is 47 per cent, and the global consequences are obvious - one is an actual power house of economic growth, the other is primarily bombast with still the largest number of poor people in the world.

The second compelling reason is environmental: the current policy of South Asian hydrocrats is "not to let a single drop go waste to the sea", meaning sucking the river dry and filling it with sewerage backflow. Bringing navigation onto the policy front burner means two things: at least a decent amount of water has to be there in the river and it has also to be relatively clean lest the bargemen choke and die from methane and carbon monoxide poisoning and ships and barges corrode rapidly. What South Asia currently badly needs is an environmental movement that sees the alliance of environmentalists keen to clean up the rivers and a consumer lobby that wants to see the price of products reduced. It is a movement waiting to be born. 

The third compelling reason, as reflected by Gyawali,   is transboundary water politics. Major storage projects in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basins have stalled these last six decades primarily because the highlanders do not see much benefit in drowning their villages to build those reservoirs. If Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Uttarakhand can see that containers from Europe or Japan can come to their doorsteps at Chatra or Chisapani and similar places elsewhere - and they could benefit from reduction in the cost of their goods - there would be that much more reason for them to agree to building the  Ganges, Kosi, Karnali, Pancheswar and other water storage facilities that would also provide flood control, electricity and other multipurpose side benefits. Indeed, the backwardness of UP, Bihar, Nepal and the Indian North-East can be traced to their landlockedness made worse by the Marxist trade union-controlled Calcutta port and the extortionist policies that hold sway there.

According to the Wire (September 14, 2016 issue) India's passing of the National Waterways Act for 111 of its large and small rivers is a landmark game-changer provided it is followed up with significant political will. A start in this direction was made in 1997 when Nepal's doyen among its hydro-technical engineers, Ananda Bahadur Thapa, led the negotiations on the Kosi High Dam project. He was able to get the agreement to include inland navigation as part of the framing of this mega project; but almost two decades have since passed without much progress on this front. South Asia is still waiting for leaders who can re-think its regional economy in broader global and strategic terms.

Muhammad Abdul Mazid, PhD is a former Secretary to GoB and Chairman, NBR.


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