Water Diplomacy: Skating on Thin Ice

Brahma Chellaney, The Economic Times, May 10, 2012

The Teesta River flowing through the northern part of India’s West Bengal state

With power in India shifting to the states due to an increasingly weak central government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose Calcutta as the first stop of her India tour to advance U.S. foreign-policy interests. In a televised interview before meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee, Ms. Clinton pushed for India permitting foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail and for an “amicable” water-sharing arrangement with Bangladesh on the Teesta River — issues stalled by Ms. Banerjee’s opposition.

The art of persuasion and co-option is central to leadership — a capability Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has failed to demonstrate, even as his politically precarious government lurches from one crisis to another. The result has been a series of delays on critical decisions as well as policy reversals — all conveniently blamed on allies, including powerful regional satraps. This tendency to pass the buck has prompted foreign leaders to directly woo key chief ministers.

Take the water issue. The Indian Constitution has left water as a state-level subject, rather than making it a federal issue. Yet Singh’s government has sought to dictate the terms of a Teesta water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh to West Bengal, although that state’s interests are directly at stake. Indeed, New Delhi first negotiated the terms of the pact with Dhaka — generously loaded in Bangladesh’s favour — and then sought to present West Bengal with a fait accompli.

Respect for states and their interests is the essence of federalism.  Yet this inclination to ride roughshod over states harks back to the days when the central government was exceptionally strong.

Jawaharlal Nehru ignored the interests of Jammu and Kashmir and, to a lesser extent, Punjab when he signed the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, under which India bigheartedly agreed to the exclusive reservation of the largest three of the six Indus-system rivers for downstream Pakistan. In effect, India signed an extraordinary treaty indefinitely setting aside 80.52 percent of the Indus-system waters for Pakistan — the most generous water-sharing pact thus far in modern world history.

In fact, the volume of waters earmarked for Pakistan from India under the Indus treaty is more than 90 times greater that what the U.S. is required to release for Mexico under the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty, which stipulates a minimum transboundary delivery of 1.85 billion cubic meters of the Colorado River waters yearly. While Ms. Clinton’s advocacy of a Teesta treaty is understandable, the U.S. hasn’t set a good example in the Colorado Basin. The  waters of the once-mighty Colorado River are siphoned by seven American states, leaving only a trickle for Mexico.

The Indus treaty was negotiated in a period when water shortages were relatively unknown in most parts of India. Nehru did not envisage that water resources would come under serious strain due to developmental and population pressures. Today, as the bulk of the Indus system’s waters continue to flow to an adversarial Pakistan waging a war by terror, India’s own Indus basin, according to the 2030 Water Resources Group, is reeling under a massive 52 percent deficit between water supply and demand.

Worse still, the Indus treaty has deprived Jammu and Kashmir of the only resource it has — water. The state’s three main rivers — the Chenab and the Jhelum (which boast the largest cross-border discharge of all the six Indus-system rivers) and the main Indus stream — have been reserved for Pakistan’s use, thereby promoting alienation and resentment in the Indian state.

This led the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature to pass a bipartisan resolution in 2002 calling for a review and annulment of the Indus treaty. To help allay popular resentment in the state over the major electricity shortages that are hampering its development, the central government subsequently embarked on hydropower projects like Baglihar and Kishenganga. But Pakistan — as if seeking to perpetuate the popular alienation in the Indian state — took the Baglihar project to a World Bank-appointed international neutral expert and Kishenganga to the International Court of Arbitration, which last year stayed all further work on the project.

The proposed Teesta pact suggests that India has learned no lesson from its experience over the Indus treaty. The Teesta originates in Sikkim state and meets the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. The long-term interests of northern West Bengal, for which the Teesta is a lifeline, must be protected.

Water, as an indispensable resource that is increasingly in short supply, tends to raise emotive and politically surcharged issues. Singh’s government has unwisely brought India under pressure by portraying Ms. Banerjee as the sole holdout on the Teesta treaty. It has also fed the media attacks on Ms. Banerjee over that issue. Meanwhile, seeking to up the ante by latching on Ms. Clinton’s comments, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has warned that Indo-Bangladesh ties “will take a huge hit” if India does not deliver on the Teesta issue.

India, which has just announced a decision to magnanimously write off $200 million of its $1 billion new loan to Dhaka, must continue to generously help Bangladesh — but on the basis of concrete reciprocity. India is already a party to a water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh involving a bigger river, the Ganges.

Its 1996 Ganges treaty guarantees Bangladesh minimum cross-border flows in the dry season — a new principle in international water relations. In fact, the treaty almost equally divides the downstream Ganges flows between the two countries. In concluding the treaty, India climbed down from its long-stated position that it needed a minimum of 40,000 cubic feet of water per second of time (“cusecs”) to flush silt from the Calcutta port. India settled for each side getting 35,000 cusecs of water in alternative ten-day periods during the driest period from March to May.

The treaty helped bury the hatchet over India’s diversion of water through the Farakka Barrage to a Ganges tributary, the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, to help flush silt and keep the Calcutta Harbour operational during the dry season. The treaty’s complex water-sharing arrangement is pivoted on joint oversight of flows to help build mutual trust. And unlike the Indus treaty, which was brokered by the U.S. and the World Bank, the Ganges treaty emerged without the involvement of a third party, despite a U.S. offer of mediation.

Bangladesh and India are also likely to sign — without any third-party role — a Teesta treaty in what will be the world’s first water-sharing pact of the 21st century. Bangladesh insists it get half of the Teesta waters, although most of the river’s waters are generated in India. Existing water-sharing treaties elsewhere in the world do not come anywhere close to allocating half of all waters to the downstream state. India has the dubious distinction of signing the most generous water-sharing pacts with downstream states, even as it has failed to get upstream China to  accept the very concept of water sharing.

India faces difficult choices on water. Unlike Bangladesh, it is already a water-stressed country. Whereas the per-capita water availability in Bangladesh is 8,252 cubic meters per year, according to United Nations data, it has fallen to a paltry 1,560 cubic meters in India.

(c) The Economic Times, 2012.