Impacts of Trans-border Water Woes in South Asian Riparian Countries; Assessment and Analysis


Socioeconomic development in the riparian countries of South Asia, in absolute terms depends to a large extent on the floodplain ecology and distribution of transboundary river waters. The Indus valley basin in the North West, Ganga Basin in the north and Brahmaputra basin in the North East of India cater to countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. The focus of the paper would mainly hover around the Ganga basin which is located 70°-88°30’ east longitude and 21°-31° north latitude (Payne et al. 2003). The river Ganga rises in the Gangotri glacier in the Uttar Kashi district of Uttar Pradesh province in India, at an elevation of about 7,010 m above sea level. After leaving Uttar Pradesh the Ganga enters in Bihar in Rohtas district. As it enters in West Bengal province it swings round the Rajmahal hill ranges and starts flowing south. Nearly 40 km below Farakka it is divided into two arms. The left arm is called Padma and flows eastwards into Bangladesh and it right arm called Bhagirathi continues to flow south in West Bengal. The Bhagirathi flowing west and south west of Calcutta is called Hooghly. After reaching Diamond Harbor it attains a southward direction and it divided into two streams before joining the Bay of Bengal in Dhavlal. The rest arm known as Haldi river also joins the Bay of Bengal (Upteri 1993).

The combined course of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra takes the name of Padma, which joins the Meghna at Chandpur. From this confluence, the combined course of the three rivers continues as the lower Meghna into the Bay of Bengal. After entering Bangladesh completely, it flows for another 113 km before joining Brahmaputra near Goalanda. Downstream of Farakka, there are only two tributaries that join the Ganges- the Mohananda and the Baral. The Ganges has total length of about 2,600 km and the total drainage area is of about 1,087,300 km2. Major rivers of Nepal that feed the Ganges are Mahakali, Karnali, Gandak and Kosi. The rivers of Nepal contribute more than 40 % of the total flow of the Ganges and over 70 % of its dry-season flow. (Tanzeema et al 2001; Onta 2001 and Biswas 2001)

Table 1: Ganges basin area and population distribution


Basin area (km2)

Percentage of total area

Population (million)

Agricultural Practices and production










Tseri and Shifting cultivation, Wheat, Buck wheat, Pulses, Rice





Traditional and Mechanized farming, Mainly Rice, Pisciculture, sugarcane, Jute and Vegetables





Mainly traditional farming, Production is same as above





Sources: Shrestha and Singh 1996; Onta 2001

The integrated development and utilisation approach of Ganges basin’s huge natural resources have never been sought by the regional countries due to past perception differences, legacy of mistrust, lack of political vision, and lack of goodwill (Ahmed et al. 2001). As a result, Ganges basin is still among the poorest and most depressed floodplains in the world despite its rich natural endowments of land, water and people and the amount of water in Ganges basin is still enough to meet the social, economical and environmental requirements of the riparian countries. A large number of people of the area live below poverty line as land man ratio and per capita food grain availability are steadily declining.

This paper first outline short overview of existing bilateral water agreements and their impacts in conservation of this river basin and tries to analyses out the areas of potential fields of cooperation and benefits in Ganges Basin between three riparian countries. Integrated Ganges basin management has the potential to improve economical, socio-environmental, and overall situation of riparian countries dramatically. These will offer “win-win” situations for all riparian countries that would be reasonable and acceptable to be accepted by every country.

INITIAL Cooperation between riparian countries


An important factor in the context of managing Ganges water is the fact that Nepal controls the headwaters of the Ganges and regional development of the Ganges is being limited to bilateral talks and arrangements and this approach may adversely affect each of the riparian states. Recently, although bilateral, a climate of mutual trust and confidence has been created through the signing of the Mahakali treaty between India and Nepal (January 1996) and the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty between Bangladesh and India. 

Bangladesh-India Cooperation

According to the first water sharing treaty between Bangladesh and Nepal water was distributed based on a schedule on 10- day basis in the dry season (January-May). After 14 years, an agreement between Bangladesh and India on Sharing the Ganges water “Ganges Water Sharing Treaty” signed in 1996.  As per treaty the two countries are to have equal shares if the water available at Farakka is 70,000 cusecs or less. However, in case the availability of water at Farakka is up to 75,000 cusecs, Bangladesh share will remain fixed at 35,000 cusecs while India will get the balance of flow. In case the water available at Farakka is in excess of 75,000 cusecs, India will get 40,000 cusecs and Bangladesh the balance of flow. But according to the Joint Rivers Commission, Bangladesh, during the first ten days of January the shortfall in Bangladesh’s share was nearly 13,000 cusecs. But all of these have been found to be approximately 50 % less than the pre-Farakka average flow at Hardinge Bridge point of Bangladesh, which means that signing of the Treaty in 1996 is unlikely to make any noticeable difference in solving the water crisis in the dry season in the south-western part of Bangladesh (Tanzeema & Faisal 2001).

Indo-Nepal Cooperation

The Sarada barrage on the border river Mahakali was constructed by India in 1920 after exchanging some land between Nepal and India. In 1954 (subsequently revised in 1966), India and Nepal signed an agreement to construct the Kosi barrage at Bhimnagar. The agreement to construct the Gandak barrage at Baisaltan was signed between Nepal and India in 1959 (subsequently amended in 1964). These barrages are wholly financed by India and mostly benefited India. These early Indo-Nepal water resources co-operation were seen as “sell-out” by many in Nepal, although it was considered reasonable from India’s viewpoint. India’s water resources development in the international river close to the border of Nepal has been perceived as “not-so-friendly activities” by Nepal. This acute mistrust even led to adopt article 126 (2) in the Nepal constitution, which requires that any “treaty” pertaining to natural resources and certain other matters to be ratified by a two-thirds majority by the country’s parliament (Onta 2001). The Mahakali Treaty was signed on January 1996 between Nepal and India concerning the integrated development of the Mahakali river including the Sarada barrage, Tanakpur Barrage and Pancheshwar Project (Malla et al. 2001).

Views of riparian countries in Ganges Basin Development

Socio-economics of Hydrology

Bangladesh has suffered from severe water shortage in the past and will continue to rely on Ganges in the future as its main supply of water. Bangladesh strongly advocates implementation of large dam projects upstream reaches of Ganges at appropriate sites under a comprehensive regional plan to be chocked out jointly by the co-basin country. Bangladesh wants Nepal to construct large storage dams to regulate the lean season flow of the Ganges and augment the Ganges water so that the needs of both India and Bangladesh in lean seasons could be catered for. The total storage capacity of high dam projects in Nepal’s of the order of 88 bcm of live storage that would regulate over 95% of the total annual flow. The storage reservoirs can hold the vast monsoon runoff within Nepal and they will play a very significant role in mitigating adverse flood in India and Bangladesh. Augmentation potential in Nepal during the dry season can range from 2,400 to 4,950 cumecs. These incremental flows alone are over four times the present lean season flows in the Ganges at Farakka. A single storage facility such as the Karnali project alone has the augmentation potential to more than double the existing flow low flow of the Ganges (Huda 2001).

On the other hand India wants to develop inter-basin transfer of water from the Brahmaputra basin to the Ganges Basin through a link canals as the Brahmaputra has plenty of water mostly untapped. India highlighted that this inter-basin transfer of water would be feasible to minimise the flood hazards as the floods in the Brahmaputra came in advance of two months compared to the Ganges. But Bangladesh showed negative views about this proposal, as it would create the same problem like Ganges in Farakka. India doesn’t want to construct large dam projects in Nepal, as there are possibilities to be dependent on Nepal for water.

Nepal wants to sell hydropower to India and Bangladesh and also wants to be benefited from enhanced/ developed inland waterways in one of its major rivers, mainly the Kosi, to have access to the sea for its export trade. In the case of augmentation of low flow in the Ganges at the Farakka barrage, the Kosi high dam would be an appropriate scheme because of its proximity to Farakka, and Nepal should seek access to the sea by developing a navigation channel from Nepalese territory. Nepal wants to get reasonable share from the proposed high dam projects and wants that those high dam will be fully constructed in Nepalese territory. In Nepal, opinion is that “no deal” is better than a bad deal. Nepal hopes that sooner or later India will listen to Nepal’s concern (Onta 2001).

Water is a source of conflict, mistrusts, and disputes between the three riparian states of Ganges basin. Indian diversions of Ganges water through Farakka barrage, is a long-term source of tremendous political tensions, mistrust and non-cooperation between India and Bangladesh (Beach et al. 2000). In case of Sarada barrage (1920), Kosi barrage (1954) and Gandak barrage (1959), was seen as a no friendly activities in Nepal (Onta 2001). India’s recent $125 billion River Interlinking Project already creates tension in the region. Environmentalist fears that this unilateral plan may create a long-term crisis in the region (The Guardian, 24 July 2003). Recently Bangladesh Government placed an official note to India claiming that this plan will create a serious water crisis in Bangladesh. Bangladesh fears that diversion of water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, which provides 85% of the country's fresh water flow in the dry season, would cause an ecological disaster (BBC, 2003). Integrated development of Ganges Basin can ease tensions over shared waters, regional relations, and political economy impacts and it has the potential for shifting policy to cooperation from disputes, and a policy shift to food and energy security away from self-sufficiency. All previous water management approach in Ganges basin was bilateral. If Ganges basin can be managed by an integrated plan with the participation of all riparian countries, it will reduce the risks for conflict and even in some cases, reduce military expenditure. Coordinated international approaches in any multilateral water project will relief this kind of tension between countries. 

Other Environmental Impacts

Co-operation with regards to share water in Ganges basin definitely strengthen relations between riparian countries and catalysing broader co-operation, integration, and stability. Cooperation in shared water resources between countries will enhance the cooperation and integration in other fields beyond the river. However, non structured water distribution not only has its impact on the socio-economy or hydrology of the basin but also impediments the vegetation dynamics and biodiversity of the floodplains. An impact assessment study on habitat evaluation shows erratic Raunkier’s Curve, biodiversity loss and degradations in edaphic factors. Silt stratification in pre and post flood periods and vegetation dynamics patterns have been studied in an attempt to suggest alternative farming policies and adaptive environmental management practices to save the ecology of these wetlands and manage the water resources.


In the upland areas of the basin in Nepal, the greatest impacts are said to be due to erosion and increased sediment load from deforestation and from the need to impound water for hydropower generation. The extent of forest removal and increased erosion, however, seems to be short of real information. There is evidence that deforestation is a long-term, historical process which may not have accelerated greatly in recent times (Messerli and Hofer 1995). It has also been shown that for a basin the size of the Ganges, the sediment delivery ratio is less than 10% and that consequently the main channel carries only a modest amount of sediment from the mountains and that, consequently, anthropogenic influences in the mountains have only a limited impact on the plains (Hamilton 1987). It is possible that most of the sediment in the main river comes from storage places and channel erosion (Messerli and Hofer 1995).

The other feature of upper basin use is the harnessing of the rivers for hydropower. Nepal has a great potential for hydropower but as yet only 0.27% of its assessed potential is being employed. The rather scattered nature of its own population renders micro projects and run of-the river schemes good options for domestic generation. Under ideal circumstances run-of-the river projects can avoid many of the environmental disadvantages of storage dams but cases can be seen in Nepal where all the water of the river passes down the adduction tunnel with negligible flow remaining between inlet and outlet. This can provide as much a barrier to fish and navigation as a dam wall.

It is, however, difficult to substantiate in this dynamic fluctuating tidal environment with great annual variations, mainly because of a lack of historical, baseline data. This indicates the importance of good pre and post implementation studies around such structures. Alike Bangladesh in most of the parts of Kosi floodplains the principal process of compartmentalization is not of the river itself but of the floodplains to facilitate the cultivation of rice. Some 40% of the floodplain has been modified by empolderment for flood control or flood control with irrigation. This has led to a compartmentalization of distribution of aquatic and wetland biodiversity. A systematic investigation of the impacts of flood control and irrigation schemes on fisheries showed that there is a reduction in bio-diversity within polders of 19-25% but, most significantly, a reduction in migratory species up to 95% with the main emphasis being on the small floodplain resident species or black fishes (de Graaf et al 2001).

An exercise in habitat restoration which focused on the clearing of silted channels connecting floodplains to the main river channel increased the proportion of migratory species caught subsequently, including major carp for 2% of the catch to 24% and increased the yield 926 Kg. ha¯¹ per year (CNRS 1995).

The control of water is the control of livelihood. The control of Ganges river has become a source of tension and dispute and an issue of sovereignty, strategic necessity in the region. Past bilateral efforts have not been conducive to the balanced development of the resources, and have been source of antagonism between the riparian countries. The four types of benefits, i.e. benefits to the river; benefit from the river; benefit because of the river; and benefit beyond the river offers “win-win” situations for each riparian state. It will provide environmental, economic, political and indirect economical benefit for the riparian countries. It has the potential to reverse the conflict to cooperation.


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