03/06/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Indian Water Policies Unsettle Neighbors

In the final report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), published in 2000, the authors noted that worldwide, an estimated 1,700 large dams were being built, and India accounted for 40 percent of those structures. The report noted:

The top five dam-building countries account for nearly 80% of all large dams worldwide. China alone has built around 22 000 large dams, or close to half the world's total number. Before 1949 it had only 22 large dams. Other countries among the top five dam building nations include the United States with over 6 390 large dams; India with over 4 000; and Spain and Japan with between 1 000 and 1 200 large dams each.

A follow-up report in 2010, "WCD 2000+10," commented that countries such as India and China (which, by the time of the study's publication, together accounted for over half of the dams in the world) continued to reject "the report for the fear that it could bring dam construction to a halt."

This is unsettling neighboring Bangladesh, one of Asia's poorer nations.

The situation is increasingly coming to resemble the U.S. and Mexico, where a prosperous, First World nation nevertheless shares a border (and river) with its poorer neighbor. Rio Grande water issues occasionally rankle relations between Washington and Mexico City, and pushing the analogy further, Bangladesh and rising BRIC nation India nevertheless share the waters of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers before they eventually debouche into the Bay of Bengal via the Ganges Delta.

Professor Mohamed Khalequzzaman of Pennsylvania's Lock Haven University, in his publication "Dams in NE India Implications for Bangladesh," published in 2006, noted that India has built dams on at least 30 common rivers, with Bangladesh being particularly concerned about India's construction of its Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur, the Teesta Dams in Sikkim, the Subansiri and Kemang Dams in Arunachal, the Myntdu-Laishka Dam in Meghalaya, and the Kopili, Jadukata, Someswari Dams in Assam.

The Indian dams and barrages increasingly concern Bangladesh, as its agriculture and environment is largely dependent on those rivers, especially the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.

Brac University Vice-Chancellor Ainun Nishat observed, "If they divert water from the Brahmaputra, even Dhaka would be affected by salinity. Now the most important thing is to think about what we should do if India really implements the project."

So, where do Dhaka and New Delhi go from here?

One possible solution is the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in May 1997, whose Article 5, "Equitable and reasonable utilization and participation," states:

1. Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, an international watercourse shall be used and developed by watercourse States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits therefrom, taking into account the interests of the watercourse States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of the watercourse.

Sounds like an eminently reasonable place to start discussions, except that India is not a signatory to this convention. Furthermore, poverty-stricken Bangladesh has few axes of power to wield against its giant neighbor.

But it does have moral authority in its corner, and the weaker U.N. states will doubtless be sympathetic to their plight. Bangladesh could ally with India's other neighbors to press for New Delhi to finally ratify the U.N.'s Convention on the Law of the Non Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, whose Article 7, "Obligation not to cause significant harm," would have a resonance for many states seeking a peaceful resolution to transboundary water issues, as it states, "Watercourse States shall, in utilizing an international watercourse in their territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse States."

Bangladesh's moral argument for New Delhi to do the right thing might seem to be weak against money and politics, but India is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, after all. Unfortunately for Dhaka, they have few other possibilities at this point in time.

John C.K Daly is the chief analyst at the energy news site Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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