NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high level meet on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) has sparked divided reactions. A key point that has gotten lost in the din is that the IWT remains one of the most successful international water treaties, even five decades after it was first signed in 1960.

A point of comparison that demonstrates just how effective the IWT has been in regulating India-Pakistan relations over the Indus river is India’s contentious relationship with Bangladesh over the sharing over the Brahmaputra. While the Indus river system originates in Tibet, flowing through India into Pakistan, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges river systems flow through India and merge in Bangladesh to form the world’s largest delta. In both cases, a major problem is that the rivers flow through Indian territory before making their way to Pakistan and Bangladesh, giving India the upper-riparian status and enabling it to control river flow as key flood control points lie in its boundaries. This, not surprisingly, has exacerbated the insecurities of the latter two states as a bulk of their development and irrigation needs are met by the two river systems respectively, with the flow affecting both floods and famine conditions. Bangladesh and Pakistan are continuously involved in negotiations and talks with India, with concern being expressed over Indian activity on these rivers, such as the Farakka barrage in West Bengal and the Baglihar hydroelectric project in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Indus system can be divided into three eastern rivers – the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, and three western rivers – the Jhelum, Chenab, and Indus proper. This clear demarcation in the flow of the river facilitated the negotiation and acceptance of the Indus Water Treaty, which with minor exceptions, gives India exclusive use of the eastern rivers and Pakistan of the western rivers. Thus, ‘the Indus dispute was resolved by the separation of the rivers rather than by a joint development of the river system’ (Bhatnagar).

In the case of the Ganges-Brahmaputra, no such clear division of the rivers is possible; the Brahmputra and Ganga flow through India and merge in Bangladesh to form the Sunderbans delta, and then split into two: the Padma and the Meghna.

An attempt to quantify what factors enable a successful negotiation on river water issues is no easy task, as literature on the subject is largely descriptive and theoretical. However, for the purpose of this article a starting point can be Le Marquand’s (1977) influential study that states:

  • riparians are better able to resolve problems if win-win situations are created
  • economic optimization is less crucial to cooperation than non-economic factors
  • cooperation is more successful when social concerns and objectives are evaluated and defined in the planning process
  • reciprocal interests are useful, whereas upstream-downstream problems are the most difficult to solve, with third parties being particularly useful in such cases (as summarized in Bernauer).

1. Riparians are better able to resolve problems if win-win situations are created

The first criteria for successful river water negotiation is the condition of a ‘non zero sum game’, where benefits that accrue to one riparian do not necessarily imply losses to the other – in other words, the creation of some sort of ‘win-win situation’. This has partly been achieved in the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, where India, in addition to having exclusive use of the eastern rivers has some limited use of Pakistan’s river water for agriculture, domestic purposes, and development projects, provided that there is no obstruction of flow of waters into Pakistan (Sinha). Pakistan in turn, with these minor exceptions, gets exclusive use of the Western rivers which account for 80% of the total flow. This arrangement creates ‘win-win’ situations, as Pakistan, which is entitled to a majority of the river water, isn’t adversely affected by India’s limited use of the eastern rivers thereby resulting in a ‘non-zero sum game’. The two major instances where Pakistan has objected to Indian activity in alleged violation of the IWT are the Tulbul navigation project (Pakistan refers to it as the Wullar barrage), and the Baglihar hydropower project – Pakistan objected to both projects on grounds of affecting the flow of river water into its territory.

The lack of a ‘non-zero sum game’ or the absence of ‘win-win situations’ can partly explain the difficulty in reaching a consensus acceptable to both India and Bangladesh in regard to the Ganges-Brahmaputra. The seasonal fluctuations in river flow are the root cause of the problem as adequate water supply is offset by a lean season. India, which needs to maintain the Calcutta port with a certain supply of water year-round, found a solution in the construction of the Farakka barrage, which has spelt adverse consequences for Bangladesh as it directly affects the lower riparian. It is estimated that 40,000 cusecs of water need to be diverted to keep the port in operation – for which purpose the Farakka barrage was conceived and constructed, a move which has direct repercussions on Bangladesh as it leaves only 15,000 cusecs of the Ganga flow – which Bangladesh believes would adversely affect its own development projects, its transport networks, and estuarine fisheries.

It has been this inability to reach a sustainable compromise by being unable to create ‘win-win situations’ that has prolonged negotiations between India and Bangladesh, with interim agreements being reached in 1975, 1977, 1982, 1984, but none culminating in a long-term treaty. For instance, India and Bangladesh disagree on possible solutions, with the Bangladeshi’s advocating the creation of twelve dams in Nepal that would raise the dry season flow of the Ganges from 55,000 cusecs to 180,000 cusecs, a proposal rejected by India, which in turn had suggested the construction of a barrage across the Brahmaputra, a long link canal across Bangladesh, and the construction of three dams in Arunachal Pradesh. The Bangladesh plan is unacceptable to India for reasons including the involvement of Nepal – as it may extend this involvement to other upper riparians including China, and that Nepal might make its involvement conditional to negotiations on other issues; Bangladesh opposed the Indian plan as it would result in the loss of 20,000 acres of land, and that the Brahmaputra itself was in need of augmentation in the dry season. Therefore, the absence of any conclusive ‘win-win’ situation has hampered negotiations between India and Bangladesh.

2. Economic optimization is less crucial to cooperation than non-economic factors

Game theory accounts for trade-offs between two political entities that extend beyond economic outcomes. The gains of one player can be assessed in non-economic terms as well, and the economic concessions made can be balanced by non-economic gains. This understanding is particularly relevant in explaining effective river-water negotiation, whereas the realist school would assert that the upper-riparian has nothing to gain with conflict forcing states into zero-sum competitive mindsets where cooperation and positive sum outcomes are seen as improbable (Ackerman). Why then has some river water negotiation been successful, if competition and anarchy routinely impede cooperation? The answer can perhaps be located in non-economic gains to the upper-riparian. For example, the primacy accorded to the India-Pakistan dispute and the need for relative stabilization in fear of exacerbating already precarious relations can partially explain the need for a conclusive treaty on the Indus. Bangladesh however is not of the same crucial political significance; its ‘share in the power structure is too small… [India’s] response in the two cases has been determined by its strategic interest’ (Bhatnagar). Therefore, the economic concessions made to Pakistan are balanced in terms of non-economic gains including peace, stability, and geo-political security. Bangladesh isn’t as prominent on the bargaining table as it is strategically of relatively less importance to India.

3. Cooperation is more successful when social concerns and objectives are evaluated and defined in the planning process

Costs and benefits are not limited to economic attributes; they can be in the form of displacement, migration, resettlement, employment, and deforestation and hence linked to social concerns. It is imperative that these costs and benefits are included in the planning process. For instance, one of Nepal’s major contentions with bilateral negotiations with India on water use follows the Indo-Nepalese projects on the Kosi and Gandak, ‘which have left Nepal dissatisfied with what it perceives to be disproportionate benefits going to India. The costs of submergence, displacement, and rehabilitation, are in its estimation not compensated by the low employment and irrigation benefits for Nepal’ (Bhatnagar). Therefore, for sustainable negotiations and to avoid ill feeling and disillusionment, these costs need to be accounted for.

For India-Bangladesh negotiations to be successful social concerns have to be taken into account – costs involving dam construction have to planned keeping in mind submersion and displacement, deforestation and soil erosion. Benefits can be in the form of employment opportunities to local populations, in addition to irrigation and electricity output.

The Indian proposal for a link canal was dismissed by Bangladesh on not just financial and economic grounds, but in terms of human and social cost as well – as it would ‘… invite siltation and all manner of other troubles. The link canal would impede drainage and accentuate flooding over 1.09 million hectares and condemn 7,000 hectares of fertile land in northwestern Bangladesh to permanent water-logging (Verghese). For any successful negotiations, these concerns have to be taken into account.

4. Reciprocal interests are useful, whereas upstream-downstream problems are the most difficult to solve

Absence of reciprocal interests, or ‘zero- sum’ games where the benefits of one player leads to the losses of the other are a major factor impeding river water negotiations; these are also most pronounced in upstream-downstream riparians as the actions of the former directly affect the latter. For instance, even though the IWT has been largely successful, conflict has arisen when the actions of one player (India) are seen to adversely affect the gains of the second (Pakistan) – specifically in regard to the Tulbul and Baglihar projects. Taking the specific case of Baglihar to elucidate this point further, Pakistan has objected to the height of the project, the creation of a reservoir, and the provision of a gated spillway – all of which it believes will affect the flow of water into Pakistan. India is resilient in its stand that the proposed height is essential to produce the required output of electricity i.e. 900 megawatts, and that the project is not in any way violating the IWT (Sinha). In the absence of a ‘non-zero sum’ game a Neutral Expert has been called upon under the arbitration clause of the IWT to review the issue – a fact that, in addition to the IWT being negotiated under the aegis of the World Bank in the first place, lends credence to Le Marquand’s assertion that third party intervention is particularly useful in resolving disputes between upper and lower riparians.

In regard to India-Bangladesh – India’s upper riparian status is further complicated by the fact that the Ganges-Brahmaputra is prone to seasonal fluctuations, nor can the river system be clearly separated between the two countries, thereby increasing the dependability of the lower riparian which is directly affected by the actions of the former. India’s insistence on bilateral negotiations may be seen as an impeding factor to successful resolution, as Bangladesh is keen to introduce Nepal in a tripartite equation, a move resisted by India, in effect partially because of reservations on the involvement of China as the upper-most riparian (Bhatnagar). There has been International concern in regard to flood-prone Bangladesh, as evidenced in the Group of Seven Summit in Paris in 1986, and the World-Bank sponsored meeting of the Bangladesh Aid Group in London, 1989 – ‘India should not ignore this global interest but would rather have much to gain by associating itself with what could grow into an internationally aided effort of regional flood and water resource management’ (verghese), an involvement that thus far has not made much headway.

South Asia is one of the most densely populated regions in the world - a feature problematized by the large dependence on irrigation and river water systems. For instance, over half of Pakistan receives less than 8 inches of rainfall per year, India’s per capita water supply is about a quarter of the global average (Pomeranz); and water availability is rapidly decreasing - between 1950 and 2005 India’s per capita water availability has decreased from 5000 cubic meters to 1800 cubic meters, and Pakistan’s from 5600 cubic meters to 1200 cubic meters (Blankeshship). Bangladesh, a primarily agricultural economy, dependent heavily on irrigation, is affected by seasonal variations – with excess water and routine flooding interspaced with a difficult lean season with water scarcity; a dynamic where India’s upper-riparian status and own water-scarcity is particularly relevant.

While river water has been a feature long present in India’s relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively, it is today that the issue is at the peak of its prominence. In conclusion, any move to alter the terms of the Indus Water Treaty not only risks the involvement of China, which can respond by diverting river water of both the Indus and the Brahmaputra, but also jeopardises one of the most successful treaties in international water sharing and management.