The New Horizon

A new world explored with a rational view

Towards Equitable Water Allocation in South Asia

with 4 comments

This is the last of my series of articles on river water and international laws. I have heard many comments on equitable water usage among the countries. While there are no real explanation of the term “equitable” and it doesn’t necessarily evolve into a formula of water distribution among nations, it could be considered as the framework of sharing river and groundwater.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin

The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin

The picture above is the map of Ganges-Brahmaputra basin. It is my topic of discussion. Let me first clarify why the whole of the region is considered as a single unit and not as two different river basins. The Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses says in definitions :

““Watercourse” means a system of surface waters and groundwaters constituting by virtue of their physical relationship a unitary whole and normally flowing into a common terminus;”

As per the laws of the watercourse, all these rivers flow into a common terminus and are connected as a unitary whole. Hence, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin is considered as a single unit of watercourse. Even the damodar basin in West Bengal would get added to this.

The equtable distribution of water resources would depend on a few key statistics. As directed by the law they are –

(a) Geographic, hydrographic, hydrological, climatic, ecological and other factors of a natural
(b) The social and economic needs of the watercourse States concerned;
(c) The population dependent on the watercourse in each watercourse State;
(d) The effects of the use or uses of the watercourses in one watercourse State on other watercourse
(e) Existing and potential uses of the watercourse;
(f) Conservation, protection, development and economy of use of the water resources of the
watercourse and the costs of measures taken to that effect;
(g) The availability of alternatives, of comparable value, to a particular planned or existing use.

I tried to prepare a chart for Bangladesh, India and Nepal with a few key statistics to determine the equitable distribution.

Factor Bangladesh India Nepal
Population (density/km2) 153 million (1045) 1.14 billion, approx half in catchment area) (349, double in the basin) 29 million (184)
Catchment Area 7% 64% 8.5%
Availability of water (Renewable Water Resource – including groundwater) 8090 cu.m. per year per capita (2% groundwater) 1750 cu.m. per year per capita (22% groundwater) 8170 cu.m. per year per capita (10% groundwater)
Existing Use of water 7% 34% 5%
Availability of Alternatives – Water None for agricultural and domestic use None for agricultural and domestic use None for agricultural and domestic use
Availability of Alternatives – Others Gas for electricity Coal for Electricity None
Geography Mostly plains Plains and hilly Mostly hilly
Hydrography & Climate Tropical; 80% river flow in 3 months during monsoon Tropical; 80% river flow in 3 months during monsoon Tropical; 80% river flow in 3 months during monsoon
Land under irrigation (efficiency) 3.75 million hectare (25%) 57.2 million hectare, 33m hectare in catchment area (54%) 1.17 million hectare (25%)

I kept Bhutan and China out of the list since they both have significantly low population in the catchment area. However, non-consumptive use (such as Hydropower generation or navigation) should not cause much problem to the riparian states. The data for water availability and water usage has been taken from UNESCO database, reproduced as a list at Greenfacts website. The irrigation statistics is collected from fao database (link1, link2).

There are various approaches towards equitable allocation of water resources among riparian states. Some of them are found in the website of Some of these needs based criteria are noted here –

Treaty Criteria for Allocations
Egypt/Sudan (1929, 1959, Nile) “Acquired” rights from existing uses, plus even division of any additional water resulting from development projects
Johnston Accord (1956, Jordan) Amount of irrigable land within the watershed in each State
India/Pakistan (1960, Indus) Historic and planned use (for Pakistan) plus geographic allocations (western vs. eastern rivers)
South Africa (Southwest Africa)/Portugal (Angola) (1969, Cunene) Allocations for human and animal needs, and initial irrigation
Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement (1995, shared aquifers) Population patterns and irrigation needs

Irrigation and population pattern are the two key criteria of equitable consumptive useage of water resources.

Here are a brief summary of water resource potential use and cooperation by different countries. (source – UNESCAP)

Countries Involved Potential fields of cooperation River basin
1. Nepal and India a) Construction of storage reservoirs
b)  Flood mitigation
c)  Irrigation
d)  Hydro-power genration
The Ganges and its tributaries
2. Bhutan and India a) Construction of storage reservoirs
b)  Flood mitigation
c)  Hydro-power generation
Mahananda, Tista and their tributaries.
3. India and Bangladesh a) Construction of storage reservoirs
b) Flood mitigation
c) Hydro-power generation
d) Irrigation
e) Inter-basin transfer
f)  Guaranteed minimum flow
The Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghana and all their tributaries.
4. International expertise (in case of extreme necessity) a) Technical expertise
b) Financing
c) Arbitrating dispute if any

As I mentioned earlier, water resources are getting scarce day by day. The population pressure in the subcontinent is growing. Before the situation gets out of the hand, multilateral treaties are required to assist water development and stop unilateral water planning.

Some Related news on disputes around the world :

  1. Turkey-Syria-Iraq dispute over Euphrates
  2. Ethiopia-Sudan-Egypt dispute over Nile
  3. China-Thailand-Laos-Myanmar-Cambodia over Mekong
  4. China-India-Bangladesh over Brahmaputra (Chinadaily News confirms dam construction)

The point to add here is the upper riparian Turkey, Ethiopia, China do have the right to build hydropower (or for equitable share of irrigation) even if that causes some damage to the lower riparian. The lower riparian does not have a veto power to stop them, neither they can claim that any use of water upstream would damage their stability. They definitely need to exchange sufficient data with lower riparian and ensure them an equitable share of the benefits and water resources.

Further Reading :

1. Why does the current International law for water-sharing harm Bangladesh?

2. Why India should continue with Indus water sharing treaty?

3. India’s problems with UN water treaty.

4. Possible co-operation in South Asia.


Written by Diganta

June 17, 2009 at 2:15 am

4 Responses

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  1. nice over view


    June 17, 2009 at 8:43 pm

  2. […] Towards Equitable Water Allocation in South Asia […]

  3. […] solution is an equitable distribution of water.  But what does that mean?  Diganta tries to answer.  My view is that the the answer will vary from case to case, with each specific upstream project […]

    Indo-Bangla relations « Mukti

    September 24, 2009 at 3:16 am

  4. […] water in terms of equity. The concept of equity is a bit complex and I discussed it at length in another post. There are 7 or more factors to be taken into account when measuring what an equitable share should […]

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