[Commentary] Feni river agreement offers hope, but water sharing remains contentious

Sharing of river water remains fraught with controversy in South Asia (Photo by Toffael Rashid)

  • India and Bangladesh have agreed to share the water of the transboundary Feni River in the first such agreement between the South Asian neighbours in more than two decades.
  • The sharing of river water is contested among nations in the Indian subcontinent as Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh share the river basins of Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra, which are among the world’s largest.
  • India’s poor record of environmental protection and its proposal to build an export hub on the banks of the Feni in Tripura has raised concerns on the future ecological health of the river.

In the first transboundary river water sharing agreement in decades in South Asia, Bangladesh allowed India to withdraw 1.82 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the Feni river. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on October 5 in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when the latter was on a visit to India.

This not only comes as a relief to the people of Sabroom in southern Tripura because it will ease a severe drinking water scarcity in the border town, but also for the fact that two countries amicably reached an understanding to share water of a transboundary river in a region where allocation of this scarce resource has typically been bitterly contentious. India and Bangladesh share as many as 54 rivers and there’s only one agreement between them — to share the waters of the Ganga river that was signed in December 1996.

There have been discussions over the sharing of the waters of Feni river, which forms the border between India’s northeastern Tripura state and Khagrachari district in Bangladesh, for more than 50 years. It is expected that the 2019 water-sharing agreement will lead to closer ties between India and Bangladesh at a time when neighbourly relation amongst countries in South Asia is less than cordial.

Bangladesh and India also agreed to exchange data and prepare the frameworks for interim water-sharing agreements of six more transboundary rivers — Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, and Dudhkumar. The leaders of the two nations also held discussions on a feasibility study for the proposed Ganga-Padma Barrage Project in Bangladesh to optimally utilise the water Bangladesh receives as per the Ganga Water Sharing Treaty of 1996. The 1996 treaty is an agreement to share surface waters of the Ganga at the Farakka Barrage near their mutual border.

India is keen to build a bridge across the Feni so that the landlocked border town of Sabroom is connected to Ramgarh in Bangladesh. This will open up access to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s largest seaport on the Bay of Bengal. Presently, India’s northeast is connected to the rest of the country through a narrow corridor in West Bengal known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’. A direct road to Chittagong port will make trade with southeast and east Asia easier for India.

In June 2015, Modi and Hasina had jointly laid the foundation stone for the friendship bridge over Feni river when the Indian Prime Minister was on a visit to Bangladesh. The 150 m bridge is expected to cost Rs. 940 million, which will be paid for by India. The distance from Sabroom to Chittagong port is about 70 km.

Sharing stirs controversy

India withdrawing 1.82 cusecs of water from Feni is likely to have little impact downstream in Bangladesh, experts have said. However, there are concerns about how this withdrawal will be monitored. Some Bangladeshi experts are worried that if India withdraws more water, it may have an adverse impact on the Muhuri-Feni irrigation project that provides water to some 230 hectares of land. There have been earlier concerns that India was lifting water from Feni to irrigate farms.

Perhaps expectedly, the Feni water-sharing pact has raised heckles in Bangladesh. It was highlighted by the brutal murder of Abrar Fahad, a second-year student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the country’s top university. His murderers were allegedly members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of Bangladesh’s ruling political party, the Awami League. The attack was triggered by his Facebook post criticising recent deals with India, including water sharing with Bangladesh.

The horrifying murder led to protests at universities across the country. Many took to social media to demand justice for Fahad. Fahad had said that during Hasina’s visit to New Delhi, Dhaka had failed to defend its interests on issues such as the use of ports, water sharing, and export of energy resources.

Transboundary water sharing has traditionally been controversial in South Asia and is often bitterly contested. For instance, Bangladesh has always complained about the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga, which was built in 1975 to channelise more water to the Hooghly river in West Bengal to keep the Kolkata and Haldia ports navigable. This, Bangladesh says, leads to water scarcity in the lean season, has worsened water quality, and has affected the deltaic region adversely. Even within India, the upstream Bihar province complains that the barrage has resulted in increased flooding in the upstream reaches.

The agreement that allows India to withdraw water from the transboundary Feni River has stirred controversy in Bangladesh. Photo by Hafiz Azad.

Another contentious issue between the two countries in the sharing of water of the Teesta river, which originates in the Himalayas, flows through Sikkim and West Bengal to merge into the Brahmaputra in Assam and Jamuna river in Bangladesh. The river covers nearly the entire floodplains of Sikkim, while draining 2,800 sq. km of Bangladesh. Teesta is equally important in West Bengal because it is the lifeline of districts in northern Bengal.

Bangladesh has always sought an equitable distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996. The water of Teesta is crucial for northern Bangladesh, where farmers have to depend heavily on groundwater during the lean season. During her visit to India, Bangladesh premier Hasina expressed hope that there would soon be an interim agreement over the sharing of Teesta water.

In 2011, there was a near breakthrough on the issue, but an agreement was scuttled at the last moment because the West Bengal government refused to be a party on any water-sharing pact. The management of water resources is a state issue in India, which means that the federal government cannot make a decision without having the concerned states on board.

Water conflicts

Even as India signed a sharing agreement with Bangladesh, Prime Minister Modi said in an election rally in Haryana that India will not allow its share of Indus water to be used by Pakistan. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960, brokered between India and Pakistan by the World Bank, regulates the use of water in the river basin between the two countries.

“For the last 70 years, the waters that belonged to India and farmers of Haryana were going to Pakistan. Modi will stop it and bring it to your households,” the Prime Minister said at the hustings. Although experts have dismissed this as election rhetoric that might not be technically feasible, the fact remains that water is an emotive issue in Haryana, a predominantly agrarian state that is part of India’s bread basket.

Passions are easily roused when it comes to sharing of river water, even within India. A prime example of this is the Cauvery river dispute in southern India, where Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been at loggerheads for decades over the sharing of waters of Cauvery, which is considered a lifeline in the two southern provinces. Water tribunals set up by the central government have failed to resolve the conflict.

These conflicts, between countries and within states, will not go away any time soon as water becomes scarcer across the subcontinent due to a variety of reasons, including overuse and effects of climate change.

Environment given short shrift

There are many concerns on the environmental front as well. This is particularly true about the Feni. Since India and Bangladesh have agreed to build a bridge over the river, providing access from Tripura to the Chittagong seaport, India proposes to build a special economic zone (SEZ) in Sabroom that would operate as an export hub.

The SEZ will host rubber-based industries like tyres, surgical threads, textile and apparel industries, bamboo industries, and farm-based processing industries. It is well known that concentrated industrial clusters like an SEZ can have a significant ecological impact, particularly on patterns of water use.

According to experts, there could be three kinds of impacts that an SEZ can have on access to water for the people in the area. “First would be due to the diversion of water for use within the SEZ. The second impact would be the impact of the release of effluents from the SEZ. Thirdly, the conversion of land to SEZ would mean the destruction of groundwater recharge systems,” according to river expert Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, a non-profit.

There are also fears that the setting up of rubber-based industries in the SEZ would encourage a further spread of water-guzzling rubber plantations rather than discouraging them in favour of other eco-friendly alternatives. This could have a telling impact on the water regime in and around the Feni river.

These fears are not entirely misplaced. There are many examples of overexploitation of rivers, for instance, downstream of the Farakka Barrage, which is a bone of contention between India and Bangladesh. Given India’s poor record of environmental protection, which is matched by its neighbours, any pact on sharing of river water also carries with it concerns of riverine degradation and threat to the region’s ecological balance.

[Soumya Sarkar is a journalist based in New Delhi]


Banner image: Sharing of river water remains fraught with controversy in South Asia. Photo by Toffael Rashid.

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