Magazine article UNESCO Courier

South Asia: Sharing the Giants

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

South Asia: Sharing the Giants

Article excerpt

Three of the world's mightiest rivers flow through countries of the Indian subcontinent. Despite strife and war, several landmark agreements have been reached, but fresh disputes are looming

Regional cooperation appears difficult to come by in South Asia. There have been four conflicts between India and Pakistan since 1947, clashes on the Indo-Bangladesh border and accusations about India's overwhelming influence. When the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established in the 1980s to provide a forum for discussion primarily on trade, contentious topics like water resource negotiations were totally excluded from its brief. Yet, South Asia has a commendable record in the realm of watersharing, developed through a combination of civil society presure, political sagacity and technical cooperation.

Countries had one precedent in the field. The Indus Waters treaty, signed between India and Pakistan in 1960, is a landmark as far as water-dispute resolutions go. The dispute can be traced back to the Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. The Indus river begins in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir on the Indian side, flows through the arid states of Punjab and Sindh, before converging in Pakistan and joining the Arabian Sea south of Karachi. The source rivers of the Indus basin remained in India, leaving Pakistan concerned by the prospect of Indian control over the main supply of water for its farmlands. The newly formed states could not agree on how to share and manage the cohesive network of irrigation, which was impossible to partition.

Brokered by the World Bank, the treaty, which covers the largest irrigated area (26 million acres) of any one river system in the world, has survived two wars and provides an ongoing mechanism for consultation and conflict resolution through inspections, exchange of data and visits. The treaty demonstrates how functional cooperation on both sides is not impossible to achieve, though most other contentious issues remain deadlocked.

New breakthroughs were made in the 1990s over water-sharing in the region. In December 1996, recently elected governments in both India and Bangladesh decided to resolve decades of acrimony over the sharing of the waters from the Ganges, one of the most culturally and economically significant rivers on earth. The breakthrough came after years of political stalemate and bitter rhetoric at the public level, alongside quiet work behind the scenes by water specialists, politicians and scholars on both sides at the non-governmental level. The result was the 30-year India-Bangladesh water-sharing agreement, signed in 1996.

Bangladesh, being in the downstream and delta portion of a huge watershed, has been most vulnerable to the water quality and quantity that flows from upstream. The way rivers are used in one country can indeed have far-reaching effects on nations downstream.

When India built the Farakka Barrage in the 1960s, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan until its independence in 1971), watched helplessly as it wreaked havoc. In the dry season, the barrage blocked the natural flow of water into the country, causing drastic water shortages. And in the rainy season, sudden water releases caused floods and extensive damage, including the loss of property and human lives.

Early warning systems

The principal objective of the 30-year treaty is to determine the amount of water released by India to Bangladesh at the Farakka Barrage. The watersharing arrangements, primarily for the dry season, are specified to the last drop and depend on the rivers flow. It aims to make "optimum utilization" of the waters of the region, and relies on the principles of "equity, fair play and no harm to either party," with a clause for the sharing arrangements to be reviewed every five years. …

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