A multilateral framework for river water sharing

A small report on the back page of this paper sometime ago drew the attention of this writer. The report had enough significance for it  to be in the national limelight. Besides, it should be a matter to concern not only Bangladesh. It has very serious implications for India as well as it stated that China is moving ahead with a mega project involving the massive diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra river at its source in Chinese controlled Tibet.
Understandably, the news has very great importance for both India and Bangladesh. Both countries depend on the Brahmaputra as the major supplier of surface water or river waters. Denial of such waters from diversion  activities upstream  by China could be catastrophic  for the economy and  environment of both India and Bangladesh.
It appears from reading reports from various sources that China is embarking on a grand project of diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra from where it originates — the Chemayangdaha glacier in Tibet.  The name of the Brahmaputra in Tibet is Sangpo. After flowing northeast direction  from Tibet, it  takes the name of Dihing and enters the Assam province of  India from where it flows into Bangladesh. It is known as the Brahmaputra in the greater part of Assam and in Bangladesh.
According to one assessment, the waters received by Bangladesh in the wet season from rivers, some 51 per cent of this water is delivered by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. From Ganges and its tributaries, Bangladesh gets about 28 per cent of its supply of surface water and from Meghna and its tributaries some 14 per cent in the wet season. The rest 7 per cent comes from rain. In the dry season, Brahmaputra  and its tributaries are the source of  90 per cent of surface waters for Bangladesh. Thus, the Brahmaputra is seen as the main source of surface water in Bangladesh throughout the year.
This scenario is nearly the same in India. Although India is not so utterly dependent  like Bangladesh on the Brahmaputra for its surface water, nonetheless its dependence is considered to be  close to the Bangladesh situation. For India also the Brahmaputra is a very major source of surface water and any decline in  the supply of water from this source  will likely came as a great blow to its economy and ecology.
The Chinese are planning massive withdrawls of water from the Sangpo. It is planned to be an irrigation cum power project. The hydel project that China has planned on the Sangpo  is projected to produce some 40,000 mw of power. It would be  the largest such project in the world. The irrigation part of the project based on water withdrawls from the Sangpo aims to bloom Tibet with fruits, trees, crops and vegetation. Another  aim of the irrigation cum hydro electricity project is  reversing the desertification of a large area  by diverting river waters to it on a very large scale.
Once this Chinese project is implemented, waters of the Brahmaputra would veritably cease to flow into Assam and then into Bangladesh. Almost overnight, the Brahmaputra could turn into a thin canal in Assam and Bangladesh.
So, the Chinese plan has created a rare  situation where both India and Bangladesh are potential co-sufferers. Indian leaders are now more likely to have more sympathy for the deep worry in Bangladesh centering on India’s plan to build the Tipaimukh barrage. The common threat to both countries from the Chinese plan  could lead them to more understanding on issues related to river waters.  Thus, this situation is not only one of apprehensions. It also creates opportunities. The unacceptable conditions to be created from the Chinese plan to withdraw the waters of the Brahmaputra will inexorably create the basis for a joint stand on the part of India and Bangladesh in demanding that the Chinese authorities should give up this plan or carry out to only that extent that would leave enough waters  in the Brahmaputra to flow downstream to be equitably shared by  India and Bangladesh.
Thus, whether any co-riparian of the Brahmaputra wants it or not, the basis for an equitable water sharing or water management plan on a regional basis  will be created. It is also known that bilateral water sharing arrangements are often inequitable with the stronger party forcing its intention on the weaker. But these risks are less in a multilateral framework where pressures are distributed  from having multiple sharers in the sharing arrangement. Thus, in a multilateral framework, each sharer may enjoy the possibility of getting well responded to its needs as the emphasis remains on ‘equitable’ sharing among all.
For Bangladesh, such a regional framework for equitable sharing of river waters  or a regional water management plan  involving China, India and Bhutan, holds out much better prospects of getting fairer deals in water sharing  in comparison to its bilateral moves for such water sharing with India. Besides, such  a regional water management plan would be also unlocking the potentials of huge hydro electricity generation for sharing by the member countries of the region.
Therefore, Bangladesh authorities should  waste not a moment in throwing their total support to such a plan as well as taking the initiatives to float such a plan along with India. In fact, the ensuring of such a regional water management plan ought to become a cornerstone of Bangladesh’s external policies. As for  the Chinese, they are likely to eventually  negotiate with their neighbours in relation to their mega project on the Sangpo and embrace a collective sharing formula on the basis of a regional plan if the other co-riparians of the Brahmaputra maintains their relentless pressure to that end. China would not be able to ignore international opinion to surely go against it if it decides not to yield on this issue. Apart from the risks  of adverse international reactions, it will also have to take into account the consequences of quiet but shattering aggression to result on the economy and environment of  two of the world’s most populous countries . Specially, they have to ponder the reactions of  India which is a nuclear armed regional power. Considering  all of these things, China which wants to be seen at the world stage as a responsible and responsive emerging superpower, will very probably  come on board to become part of the regional water management plan to play its part in it.
What Bangladesh needs to do is keeping itself very well engaged to  work for maintaining  the momentum towards the formation and ultimate implementation of such a plan.