Non-traditional security issues have taken a center stage sooner than expected in the sub-continental politics of south Asia. The countries of the region are now finding it difficult to provide even basic necessities like water and food to their burgeoning population. Due to increasing pressure on water and its decreasing per capita availability, India will face a situation like Egypt or Saudi Arabia by the year 2025. The situation is more or less the same for other neighbouring countries, forcing them to plan optimum use of this natural resource. But what is optimum for one country is not the same for others. Herein lies the possibility of conflict over water.
River Brahmaputra is a major source of fresh water for countries like China, India and Bangladesh. This river traverses 2,900 km through China, India and Bangladesh, covering an area of over 606,000 square km. A number of reports in recent times have indicated that China has plans to divert the course of Brahmaputra river at its source and wants to make a huge hydroelectric plant, a huge storage dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and divert the water to northwestern China which is expected to affect India, Bangladesh and Tibet very adversely. These reports have caused concern in India, which has asked its embassy in Beijing to provide an update on the “factual position”.
Tensions have also arisen between India and Bangladesh over the Indian plan to interlink major rivers flowing from the Himalayas and divert them south to drought-prone areas. India believes that this multi-billion project if successful is likely to create 35 million hectares of additional irrigation and about 35,000 megawatts of electricity, develop waterways and increase agricultural production by 40-50 million tonnes. But this proposal has caused apprehension not only among the neighboring countries but also among a number of Indian states.
This proposed project has received its strongest protest from Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers among them and have a long history of disputes over water sharing. Water resources ministry of Bangladesh says that Bangladesh depends on the water flow of the Ganges and Brahmaputra for 85 percent of its water in dry season. Out of this 65 percent of water is provided by the Brahmaputra. Dhaka claims that the withdrawal of water from the Brahmaputra and Ganges will have a detrimental impact on its agriculture, ecology, morphology, navigation, fisheries, and the entire natural geological features. To safeguard its interests Bangladesh wants to be associated with all discussions regarding this project taking place in India right from the start.
Despite being an upper riparian country in south Asia, Nepal too appears worried. It fears submersion of vast areas within its territory along the Indo-Nepal borders in case big dams and reservoirs are built across the border as envisaged by the project.
To overcome disputes over this project, India is negotiating with all the stakeholders like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. It has tried to explain that the river inter-link project is at conceptual and pre-feasibility study stages. It is of the view that an accord cannot be arrived at unless adequate work has been done at the experts level, especially on the quantum of water available in these rivers during various seasons. Suresh Prabhu who heads the Indian task force on the interlinking of rivers says that this project will benefit all stakeholders. The senior most member of the Indian government-constituted RLP Taskforce, BG Verghese, is of the opinion that an optimized regional water management, holistically considered, could guarantee win-win outcomes and offer opportunity to revisit older plans and concepts within a new framework of regional cooperation.
However, keeping in view the concerns of Bangladesh, India has agreed during a recent meeting of Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) not to proceed with its ambitious river-linking project without prior consultation with Bangladesh. Both countries have also agreed to hold the next Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) meeting in Dhaka in January 2003 to discuss this matter further.
The raging controversy over the sharing of water has underlined the importance of fresh water as a scarce resource. An agreement among diverse interest groups is possible only when it is a win-win proposition for everyone. At the same time any unilateral action will vitiate the relationship among neighbouring countries. The success of this project will depend on how India is able to convince the countries and states involved. But given the political environment in the subcontinent and the prohibitive costs involved pushing ahead with this project will not be an easy task.