Vol. 4 Num 92 Wed. August 27, 2003  

India's insidious river linking plan

In a nationalwide address (14th August) on the eve of India's 57th Independence Day, Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam has confirmed his country's gigantic water-linking plan, intended to divert enormous quantities of water from the major rivers including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra to its drought prone southern and eastern states. If the deadly plan is implemented, it will seriously affect the flows of the Surma, the Kushiara, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges rivers, in fact the whole of riverine Bangladesh. According to our scientists, even 10 to 25 per cent reduction in the water flow of the rivers of our country will dry up vast areas, specially in the winter season. It is needless to point out that as a result of unilateral withdrawal of waters from the Ganges at Farakka, we are already suffering much, as the northern and western parts of our country are facing acute shortage of water which is causing stoppage of our Ganges-Kabadak project, affecting even the Sundarbans, not to speak of stunted fish production and industry and ecological problems. Therefore the implementation of India's proposed river linking plan will seriously aggravate our problems. But 'friendly' country India is unconcerned and is caring a fig for our interests!

Before making suggestions to counteract India's dangerous water-linking plan it is essential to discuss some of international laws and practices in this regard.

The Hormon Doctrine: The Hormon Doctrine of absolute territorial sovereignty over international river, originated in the US in 1895, has in fact never been followed and practised by any state, not even by the US. Thus while resolving the Rio Grondo dispute the US did agree to provide Mexico with water equivalent to what Mexico had used before the diversion of waters from the Rio Grondo for irrigation purposes in the US took place. The 1933 Montevideo Declaration adopted by the Seventh International Conference of American States limits the right of utilisation of common waters by the obligation not to infringe the legal right of utilisation of other states. Similar views are also expressed by the Inter-American Bar Association, the Institute of International Law and the International Law Association. The 1977 UN Water Conference at Mar del Plata has also accepted this view of basin states' responsibility in dealing with common waters.

Besides in a number of court cases the US Supreme Court [e.g. Kansas vs Colorado (1902), North Dakota vs Minnesota (1923), New Jersey vs New York (1931) etc], the Swiss Federal Court [e.g. Aargan vs. Zurich (1878), Schiff Nausen vs Zurich (1897), etc.] and the German Court [Wathemberg and Prussia vs Baden (1927)] asserted that they invoked the principles of equitable apportionment and limited territorial sovereignty as established principles of international law. Similarly the Italian Court of Cessation asserted that "International Law recognises the right on the part of every riparian state to enjoy as a participant of a kind of partnership created by the river."

Again, article 7 of 1933 Montevideo Declaration of American States provides that "The works which a state plans to perform in international waters shall be previously announced to the other riparian states". The 1957 Buenos Aires Resolution of Inter-American Bar Association requires the consent of a co-basin state when that state may suffer damage of injury as a result of a proposed work.

In view of the decisions of the above stated court cases, and as per international laws and practices, we must ask India to stop immediately its proposed river-linking plan and strictly follow all international laws and practices in this regard. It should sit together with Bangladesh and endeavour to find out alternative plan, more reasonable, practicable and justifiable, such as construction of storage reservoirs on the Ganges Himalayan tributaries with the cooperation of a third party --Nepal -- in order to augment the dry season flow of the Ganges.

If India does not listen to it and goes ahead with the proposed plan then we should file a case in the International Court of Justice or an International Tribunal for stopping the operation of the proposed plan and also for claiming damages caused by its unilateral withdrawal of waters from the Ganges and other 54 common rivers, as was done by Spain for resolving the Lake Lanoux dispute, which was eventually settled by the Lake Lanoux Arbitral Tribunal. While rejecting France's claim for absolute territorial sovereignty over its river, it held; "Territorial sovereignty plays the part of presumption. It must bend before all international obligations to take into consideration the different interests at stake, to strive to give them all satisfaction compatible with the pursuit of its own interests and to demonstrate that on this subject it has a real solicitude to reconcile the interests of the other riparian with its own."

The Indus and all its tributaries are flowing into Pakistan from Indian side. But India never withdraws water unilaterally, and strictly follows the terms and conditions of Indus Basin Water Treaty Agreement of 1960. Then why not in case of Bangladesh?

The author is a retired Collector of Customs.