Access to water is considered a condition for the enjoyment of the 'right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being,' as stipulated by Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The clearest definition of the human right to water was issued by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which stated: "The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses."
Although universal access to water is essential, it has been politicised from time immemorial. Political commentators very often opine that the third world war could happen only because of water crises. If we consider the local, regional and global levels, water issues are indeed found to be the bone of contention among many nations.
Freshwater is vital for everyday survival, but only 2.53 percent of the available water on the planet is fresh and it is believed that two-thirds of the globally available freshwater is locked in the glaciers.
The demand for freshwater is rising every day due to the increasing global population, change of lifestyle, industrialisation, and so on. The trend of global water use is pushing it to become the most scarce resource.
As the demand for freshwater is increasing globally, Bangladesh is not out of the list. Bangladesh is a riverine country and the agrarian activities, fisheries, water transportation as well as biological conservation are dependent on river water.
There are more than 230 rivers in Bangladesh of which at least 57 are transboundary. Out of 57 rivers, 54 are common with neighbouring India and three with Myanmar. Three mighty transboundary rivers like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna have created the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin and around 80 percent of the total floodplain of the country lies within this basin.
Bangladesh covers only 7–8% of the total basin area of these rivers and the remaining catchment area is located in China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. As a living delta, Bangladesh is a blessing of the GBM basin and mostly dependent on and susceptible to run-off from upper-riparian states, with 92.5% of the country's surface water provided by out-of-country sources.
These rivers not only carry water but also bring a huge amount of sediments during the flow. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra together carry about two billion tons of silts from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal and during the monsoon it becomes two million tons every day.
This huge amount of sediments settle down on the bottom of the river on its way to the sea, reducing the depth of the river and its water-carrying capacity and resulting in flooding during the monsoon. However, in the dry season, most of the rivers remain dried up.
The water management practices of neighbouring upper riparian countries, including planned interventions like withdrawal of water through barrages, anthropogenic activities like building infrastructure, create water crises in the dry season and flooding in the monsoon.
Farakka barrage in the Ganges is always considered as the cause of water shortage in Bangladesh. Millions of people are living in the catchment areas of the shared rivers like Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Teesta, Monu, Khowai, Dharla, Dudhkumar, Gumti, Muhuri and so on in Bangladesh and depend on them for their livelihood.
So, any intervention in the natural course of these rivers can make the beneficiaries aggrieved. The resentment and disputes concerning the distribution of water in the long run can augment political, social and economic tensions.
Dispute on water sharing between Bangladesh and India received momentum after the Farakka barrage came into operation in the mid 1970s. After that, India has unilaterally built many dams and barrages on the trans-boundary rivers such as Teesta, Gumti, Khowai, Dharla, Dudhkumar, Monu and also blocked many rivers such as Muhuri, Chagalnaiya, Fulchuri, Kachu and many others, which flow from Tripura (India) to Bangladesh.
In 1996, after a series of negotiations (The Ganges agreement in 1977, Memorandum of understanding in 1983 and 1988), India and Bangladesh signed a 30 years Ganges water-sharing treaty. Both parties in the Agreement of 1977 and the Treaty of 1996 agreed that the quantum of Ganges water to be released at Farakka and the sharing agreement would be effective for the fifteen 10-day periods of the dry season (January 1 to May 31).
The Ganges flow that Bangladesh receives during the dry season under the 1996 Treaty, is only half of which formerly entered Bangladesh before commissioning of the Farakka barrage. The flow is not adequate to support the ecosystem as well as normal agricultural and relevant development activities.
Bangladesh implemented a number of projects on Teesta, Manu and Muhuri River to meet the demand of water but inadequate water flow from the upstream during the dry season hinders the proper functioning of those projects.
At a time when the rivers of Bangladesh are in scarcity of adequate flow in the dry season, India proposed a river linking project to resolve its internal water crisis.
Experts believe that the execution of such a project by India would cause a huge adverse impact on the ecosystem of Bangladesh and even in West Bengal. Bangladesh is a victim of the scarcity of freshwater in its territory; most of the rivers and canals are dying and agricultural activities are severely hampered.
Understanding the severity of the situation, during the Hasina-Manmohan Summit in 2011, both parties committed to signing the Teesta water sharing treaty, which never happened.
Though very often the Indian government tries to convince us that the treaty will be signed very soon, the auspicious moment does not come. The thirsty rivers, canals, moribund ecosystems are eagerly waiting for the flow of water for their sustenance.
Though Bangladesh has included water in the list of the rights of the people in its constitution, it is not possible to ensure it on its own. This requires effective management of water resources where every citizen of the country has to avoid wastage of water, stop pollution and thwart river encroachment.
International human rights laws always demand more attention to marginalised people. It also promises to reduce discrimination in the areas of water and sanitation for those who are deprived or marginalised. Therefore, it is also the duty of the United Nations to bring the states to the table to resolve disputes over water and ensure the rights of the people.
Dr ASM Saifullah is a professor of the Department of Environmental Science and Resource Management at Mawlana Bhashani Science and Technology University. E-mail: email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.