Water Management on the Brahmaputra and the Applicability of the UNECE Water Convention

By Biggs, Stephanie | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Water Management on the Brahmaputra and the Applicability of the UNECE Water Convention


Biggs, Stephanie, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


TABLE OF CONTENTS  I.     INTRODUCTION                           556 II.    BACKGROUND                             559           A. The Brahmaputra                  559           B. Transboundary                    562              Water Law III.   CURRENT WATER        RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN        THE        RIPARIAN STATES                        566           A. China--India Relationship        567           B. India--Bangladesh Relationship   569           C. China--Bangladesh Relationship   575 IV.    EXPANDING THE UNECE WATER              577        CONVENTION           A. Benefits of Transboundary              Water Cooperation                577           B. Lessons from the                 579              Brahmaputra Basin           C. Applying the UNECE              Water               Convention to the               580               Brahmaputra           D. Addressing Riparian              587              State Concerns V.     CONCLUSION                             589 

I. INTRODUCTION

The Brahmaputra River (1) is a major waterway in Central and South Asia. Its basin covers an expanse of 223,939 square miles, about the size of Arizona and Nevada combined, and its waters provide resources for China, India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. (2) The river originates in the Chemayundung Glacier, traverses 1,800 miles of Tibet, India, and Bangladesh, and coalesces into the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, which discharges into the Bay of Bengal. (3)

The Brahmaputra is the fifth largest river in the world, by flow, and at 1.84 billion tons per year, the Ganges-Brahmaputra system has the largest combined suspended sediment load in the world. (4) The river system experiences massive flooding in the north due to summertime glacial discharges, while summer monsoons also prompt heavy flooding in the lowlands. (5) River embankments, which are meant to provide flood protection, are often inadequate and can exacerbate flood damage. (6) Every year, these floods destroy life, property, and valuable farmland. (7) Deforestation has also led to increased landslides and erosion, which adds to the river's sediment load and increases the ferocity of its floods. (8) An estimated 64,000 people in Bangladesh alone are displaced yearly as a result of riverbank erosion. (9) Despite these environmental challenges, millions of people, most notably in Bangladesh, rely on the water's resources for fishing, farming, and commercial transportation. Yet unlike the other major waterways of the world, there is no comprehensive water agreement managing the basin. (10)

The last century of diplomatic maneuvering over the Brahmaputra has primarily occurred through bilateral diplomacy, a mechanism ill-suited to handle a river that flows through multiple states. Although Bangladesh, the country most dependent on the river's physical upkeep, has repeatedly tried to negotiate agreements with the upper riparian states, neither China nor India has made a sustained effort to work towards a long-term apportionment of the river's resources, or a framework for coordinating its well-being. Climate change is likely to add significant stressors to these riparian states generally, but also to the regions around the Brahmaputra specifically: the river is forecasted to experience more frequent and longer-lasting floods, a problem exacerbated by inadequate river infrastructure and a growing population that is increasingly settling in flood-prone land. (11)

This Note argues that a robust multilateral agreement should be implemented to protect each riparian state's interests in the river and to protect the physical well-being of the Brahmaputra's waters while the window for cooperation still exists. Part II provides background on the Brahmaputra in both physical and political terms, and discusses international water law applicable to the river system. Part III describes and analyzes the relationships between each riparian state to provide the context necessary to understand how a multilateral agreement might be reached. …

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