Bilateral water treaties lack negotiation mechanisms

Himalayan glaciers melt threat to downstream of Ganges, Brahmaputra, says ICIMOD report

Shahidul Islam Chowdhury, back from Kathmandu | Published: 01:25, Feb 07,2019


The major river systems in the region including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra flowing through Bangladesh will be adversely affected by the melt of one-third of Himalayan glaciers by the end of the century due to climate change, threatening surface water sources for 1.9 billion people even if current efforts to reduce climate change succeed, scientists and experts warned in an assessment released in Kathmandu.
Bilateral water treaties in the region ‘are often inflexible and lack adequate mechanisms for negotiation of inter-party conflicts,’ the assessment said.
They stressed the need for urgent actions and avoid huge cost for inaction by the governments to protect people in general, poor and people living on mountains and hills, from adverse impacts of the melting Himalayan glaciers.
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a Kathmandu-based intergovernmental research organization of eight countries released the assessment on Monday.
ICIMOD director general David Molden urged politicians of the region to take urgent decisions through trans-boundary cooperation.
The report said dams and reservoirs can also make the situation worse as they can block and store sediment that is transported in river flow in the region.
The report also refers to Farakka barrage, constructed by India, as it has negatively affected the downstream region of Bangladesh by reducing silt flow, thereby reducing soil fertility, and increasing the flow of saltwater up the river. Silt transport in rivers also leads to filling up and reduction of the storage capacity of reservoirs, lakes, and ponds as well as the carrying capacity of canals.
Several governments in the region face challenges of achieving political consent for international water negotiations, whereas some governments are seen as regional hegemons, it said.
The five-year study assessed the potential effects of climate change on the Himalayan range which feeds into major river systems including Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Irrawaddy and Mekong in the region of eight countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar — and beyond.
The report further argued that bilateral water treaties often involve nation-states with disparate levels of political power. For example, in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins, India holds separate bilateral treaties with Nepal and Bangladesh, despite the fact that these three countries are all part of a larger, shared basin.
Bilateral water treaties in the region have resulted in varied outcomes for downstream states, the report said. Sometimes, transboundary water treaties have improved shared resource management. But in other cases, the lack of an adequate, or any, agreement has contributed to contentious relations between countries, as is evident between India and Bangladesh. Water projects within the Brahmaputra and Ganges basins have led to increased tensions between the two countries.
There are projects that were developed unilaterally. India constructed a series of run-of-the-river hydropower projects and a diversion barrage on the Teesta River. Both projects negatively impacted downstream Bangladesh.
To further complicate international agreement on water sharing, domestic protests within India have weakened the central government’s ability to achieve an equitable arrangement with Bangladesh over the Farakka Barrage, an example of how international water cooperation is subverted by domestic political aims.
Stressing the need for strong action, Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general of the centre, said cost for inaction is huge and people en-masse became victims in such a situation.
‘Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the Hindu Kush Himalayas cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in little less than a century, Philippus Wester, who led the assessment, said on Monday.
They warned about the risk of increase in frequency and magnitude of water induced hazards, and immediate threat to water, food and nutrition security and air pollution due to rise of political, social, economic and environmental vulnerability in both upstream and downstream countries.
Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development based in Dhaka and an external reviewer of the ICIMOD assessment, said the findings of the report is very alarming, especially for downstream nations such as Bangladesh, according to Associated Press.
Even if the most ambitious Paris climate accord goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) were met by the end of the century, more than a third of the region’s glaciers will be lost, the study said.
If the global rise in temperature were 2 C (3.6 F), two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers will melt, it said.
More than 350 scientists and experts of different disciplines of 22 countries helped develop the assessment which was prepared by 210 authors and 125 external reviewers.
Golam Rasul, a development economist of ICIMOD from Bangladesh, said the regional governments would require to work out what the benefits are of cooperation as well as what are the cost of non-cooperation in different fields.
When asked why politically induced forced migration, including the most recent mass exodus of Rohingya people of Myanmar to Bangladesh, was not incorporated in the report, Ram Babu Bhagat of India, who was a lead author of the section on migration in the report, claimed there was lack of data on the politically induced migration.

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