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Volume 5 Issue 06 | June 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Covering the Cost of Environmental Compliance
-- Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
The Vanishing Habitat -- Ziauddin Choudhury
Leaving Behind the Legacy of a Healthy Environment
-- Pinaki Roy
Water Scarcity and Conflict: A Bangladesh perspective
-- Md. Shariful Islam
Building the Chars
--Wameq Raza
Ban on Corporal Punishment in Upholding Rule of Law
-- Arafat Hosen Khan
Photo Feature: Eroding Lives
Understanding and Unbundling
Gender Budgeting

-- Kaniz N. Siddique and Shahana Siddiqui

Out of the Farm, Into the City: Structural
change and economic development
-- Jyoti Rahman

Globalisation in Bangladesh: The School
of Rock and the Soldiers of God

-- Mubashar Hasan

The Case for a New Regulatory Framework
-- Rashad Haque

The Challenge of Fukushima Nuclear Accident
-- Abdul Matin
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963):
Stars open among the lilies . . .

-- Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home

Water Scarcity and Conflict: A Bangladesh perspective


Water scarcity may lead to future regional and global conflicts, warns MD. SHARIFUL ISLAM.

'The wars of the next century will be over water'
Ismail Serageldin, Former Vice President, the World Bank (1995).

As a crucial and basic life support substance, water is the most precious resource for any country. No doubt, water is indispensable for the continued security and survival of the states. While the demand for fresh water is increasing day by day everywhere in the world, its supply is decreasing. So, the gap between demand for fresh water and its supply has been ever increasing globally. In this regard, a major report recently issued by the 2030 Water Resources Group including the World Bank estimated that, the gap between global water demand and reliable supply could reach 40% over the next 20 years and particularly in developing regions the water deficit could rise to 50%. Therefore, fresh water shortages are becoming a major cause of conflict both domestically as well as regionally between the states.

Figure-2: Water scarcity and conflict

In the future, the growing world population, further spread of irrigated agriculture and industrialisation, will make increasing demands and competition for scarce water resources which will create future conflict. In this regard, former United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali observed that the “next war will be fought over water, not politics”. Kofi Aanan highlighted this concern in 2001 pointing out: “Fierce competition over fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” The current UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon reinforced the concern. In January 2008, addressing the World Economic Forum he cautioned: “a shortage of water resources could spell increased conflicts in the future. Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon. The ongoing Darfur crisis grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation and a scarcity of resources, foremost among them water.” And in the case of Bangladesh, water insecurity will be the biggest threat or challenge with regard to ensuring its national security as its vulnerabilities come from both internal and external sources. It will be clear from the following figure how water scarcity triggers conflict.

Bangladesh case
Presently, about 162.2 million people live on 56,977 sq. miles (1,47,570 sq. km) of land which makes Bangladesh the most densely populated larger country in the world. From the last census report of 2001, it is evident that between 1961 to 2001, the population increased by 123.1 million (12.31 crore). In 40 years, the population increased by 77 million (7.70 crore). The population was 75 million in 1971 and in less than 40 years it has crossed 152 million. The present figure of population is 162.2 million which will increase to 200 million by 2020 (The Daily Star, July 11, 2010). Moreover, speakers at a dialogue on January 12, 2011 at Dhaka University said Bangladesh's population would be 222 million by 2051 and 250 million by 2081.

Therefore, among other concerns, fresh water supply will be a crucial issue for this country as its population is ever on the increase and when the state will fail to provide it, this can lead to intense unrest and social instability. The gap between supply and demand of water is ever-increasing. In this regard, Chairman of National Disaster Management Advisory Council Dr. MA Quassem said, “Water availability in Bangladesh is around 90 billion cubic metres (BCM) during the dry season against the demand of about 147 BCM, a shortage of nearly 40 percent, resulting in drought- like situation in large parts of the country” (The Daily Star, August 22, 2010).

Bangladesh is going to face severe water crisis within the next couple of decades due to random contamination of surface and ground water, absence of comprehensive water sharing with neighbouring countries and mismanagement in preserving rain water. Although the whole world is seriously thinking of conserving their water resources for ensuring water security, Bangladesh is destroying its surface and ground water by throwing waste into water bodies and over extracting ground water.


Today, rivers around the country are being filled up or being encroached upon in such a manner that is threatening the very existence of human habitation. According to a survey conducted by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), there are 310 rivers in Bangladesh. Of these, 57 are border-rivers, the condition of 175 is miserable and 65 are almost dead. Eighty percent of the rivers lack proper depth. The latest study of BIWTA reveals that 117 rivers are either dead or have lost navigability. Such rivers include Brahmaputra, Padma, Mahananda, Meghna, Titas, Dhaleswari, Bhairab, Sitalakkhya, Turag, etc.

Today, our rivers are dying because of throwing waste and filth recklessly into the water bodies. For example, 7,000 small and big industries release effluent into the Dhaka river system. Every day, approximately 1.3 million cubic metres of waste from these 7,000 industrial units and an unspecified volume of human waste get dumped into the river which causes enormous water pollution. According to reports, 80% people suffer from jaundice, skin disease or diarrhoea in the watershed areas. Moreover, waterborne diseases are responsible for 80% of illness and deaths in the developing world, killing a child every eight seconds.

As rivers got polluted we became more and more dependent on ground water as a source of drinking water. It is reported that presently 86% of WASA's drinking water comes from ground water. Besides, excessive use of ground water during the Boro season may have an adverse effect on the country's drinking water, warned International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on January 23, 2010. The excessive use due to widespread urbanisation, the recharge of the ground water is not occurring as before. As a result, the ground water level is falling between 1-3 metres every year. For example, during the last 12 years the ground water level has fallen to almost 34 metres. According to a study conducted by the Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation (BADC), in 1996 the ground water level was 26.6 metres in different parts of Dhaka city which fell to above 60 metres in January 2008. If this fall of ground water continues, what will happen in 2050 when even deep tubewells will be unable to strike water. For example, in 2001, deep tubewells could strike water at a depth of 200 to 300 feet but now they have to go about 1,000 feet to get uninterrupted supply.

In Chittagong, Khulna, Jessore, Satkhira, Madaripur, Shariatpur, Cox's Bazar, Narail, North Bengal and in many parts of Bangladesh water crisis has reached an alarming situation. Even the army was deployed in Dhaka city to control the situation (The Daily Janakhantha, April 1, 2010). People are buying water from water agents. According to a Daily Star report, most residents of Rajshahi city corporation are out of water supply network and therefore, Rajshahi city corporation has initiated a programme of selling bottled water even though the city's one-third population are mostly poor. Besides, in most places of North Bengal, hand driven tubewells have become dysfunctional because the water level has fallen beyond the extractable limit. In a word, the picture is grim. Along with this, arsenic pollution and salinity intrusion has added a new dimension to accelerate the acute water crisis.

Water related conflicts
Water scarcity, especially fresh water scarcity, may one day lead to the Third World War. Water experts believe that water disputes on intra-state and inter-state level may increase in future. The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database created by the scholars of Oregon State University provides a comprehensive inventory of all international water-related events from 1948-2005, involving 6,400 cases of water related conflict. In case of Bangladesh, water conflicts exist with India over Ganges and Teesta water sharing. Remarkably, 54 rivers of Bangladesh are shared with India. As a lower riparian country, Bangladesh has no control over them. Unilateral water diversion or withdrawal of water from trans-boundary or international rivers has been the long-standing policy of India. Without any agreement with Bangladesh it has steadily embarked on constructing dams or diverting water from many trans-boundary rivers such as Teesta, Gumti, Khowai, Dharla, Dudkumar, Monu, etc. India had reportedly blocked streams of rivers such as Muhri, Chagalnaiya, Fulchari, Kachu and many others in Tripura flowing into Bangladesh.


Since the trans-boundary rivers are within the territory of India, it did not discuss and come to agreement with Bangladesh on the blockage or diversion of use of waters of rivers although the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission (JRC) exists since 1972. India constructed a huge Farakka barrage in order to divert a portion of dry season flow to increase the navigability of Calcutta port in 1975. Right after, when it went into operation in 1975, the fresh water supply of the Ganges decreased considerably with a number of consequent effects in the south-west part of Bangladesh. Moreover, agriculture, navigation, irrigation, fisheries, forestry, industrial activities, salinity intrusion of the coastal rivers, ground water depletion, river silting, coastal erosion, sedimentation as well as normal economic activities have been adversely affected.

Therefore, from the very beginning of the birth of Bangladesh, there is dispute between India and Bangladesh over water sharing. In this regard, former UN water expert Dr. SI Khan said that “the water dispute with India is as old as the inception of Bangladesh. It started even before Bangladesh when India's ill conceived Farakka Barrage on the Ganges was built to divert water fall flushing silt from the Hooghly River”. He also said that “although Bangladesh has fifty-four trans-boundary rivers with India, there is only water sharing treaty with India on the Ganges river signed on December 12 in 1996. But India removed the guarantee and arbitration clauses in getting minimum water from the treaty.”


On sharing of “common rivers”, Article 9 of the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty obliges India to conclude to “water sharing agreements” with Bangladesh on principles of equity, fairness and no harm to either party. But the real picture is different. Although a 30-year water treaty has been in effect between the two countries since 1996, it has been seen that India diverted water according to its own will, depriving Bangladesh from her just share during dry season.

Moreover, Bangladesh's suffering is going to be intensified in the near future as China and India will build over 200 big and small dams on the Himalayan rivers Yangtze, Brahmaputra and Ganges to meet their growing water needs ( The Daily Star, June 28, 2010).

A recent report titled "The Himalayan challenge: Water security in Emerging Asia" stated, "a decrease in water supply by up to 22 percent in next two decades, rise in sea level and increase in population might push Bangladesh to the risks of food insecurity, outbreak of water-borne diseases and loss of biodiversity."

At first, water scarcity and climate change have to be taken as serious, long-term problems. As it is a gradual process, the problem may today seem less severe but we have to think about the next generation and whether they will get a glass of fresh water to meet their thirst or not, whether they will get a global warming free world or not.

Recommendations Promoting regional cooperation
There is no alternative but cooperation on regional and global issues of water sharing . Regional cooperation of the co-riparian countries is crucial for Bangladesh to address her water challenges. Bangladesh needs to build up coalition and strengthen lobbying with Nepal, Bhutan as well as with Pakistan as there is a water sharing dispute between India and Pakistan.

SAARC can play an important role in reducing vulnerability of future water related disasters through regional cooperation on water management and conservation and development of cooperative projects at regional level in terms of exchange of best practices and knowledge, capacity building and transfer of eco-friendly technologies.

Enforcement of laws
Bangladesh has good laws for environmental protection, yet it does not have a good track record of enforcing these laws. The government must enforce the relevant laws such as Wetland and Open Space Conservation Act 2000 along with its amendment in 2009, to protect the rivers, other water bodies, wetlands from the polluter, illegal occupiers. But it is a matter of sorrow that there is little implementation of laws in Bangladesh and even a government agency itself like BIWTA has violated court orders by erecting business establishments in the filled parts of Buriganga river at Sadarghat.

Here, the point is, if the law enforcers themselves violate laws then what will others do? And ironically, the Department of Environment stopped a member of the River Saving Task Force who is also a lawmaker, from filling up a canal without due permission. But unfortunately, the lawmaker again sought DoE's permission to continue the illegal work. If this is the situation then there is considerable cause for concern.


Reusing, harvesting of rain water and stopping water waste
Reuse of water can reduce the total water demand. It can be applied both in the domestic and industrial sectors. Rain water harvesting can also reduce water scarcity. There must be mandatory provisions of rainwater harvesting for every new structure coming up which will be particularly helpful for purposes like car washing, gardening, etc., at least for a certain period of the year and also serve as a reliable source of drinking water in the coastal areas of the country. New innovative technologies are needed to accelerate the utilisation of rain water.

With regard to water wastage, it is very unfortunate that in the government quarters, colonies waste a lot of water during the dry season while the whole country is in severe water crisis. Steps such as 'metre-billing system' in the style of the power sector should be introduced to stop wastage of water but with safety net for the poor or ultra poor.

Besides, a lot of water is also wasted during the monsoon and managing that is also imperative.

Dealing with Teesta waters
During the dry season, especially beginning in September and going up to March, Bangladesh requires the Teesta waters for agriculture. So, there is an urgent need for an agreement of Teesta water sharing with India, although, during the dry season, flow of the Teesta goes down to anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 cusecs while the demand for water by Bangladesh and India are 8,000 cusecs and 21,000 cusecs respectively (Editorial, The Daily Star, January 12, 2010.) Therefore, it is an issue that needs careful handling. It can be said that the Teesta agreement will definitely be a foundation on which further cooperation can be forged, especially on sharing of the waters of Dhaka, Dudkumar, Manu, Khowai, Gumti and Muhuri rivers to meet future water demands.

Moreover, there is a need to assess the realistic needs of water in the country and should have appropriate plans which will be supported by adequate budget in the national budget to face future water scarcity. Lastly, it is reported that in the bilateral meetings with India, we depend mainly on Indian statistics. Thus, the decisions of such meetings are usually favourable to India. We must take immediate measures to improve our position.

Bangladesh's water security concerns have two dimensions: internal and external. Both dimensions are crucial to meet the future water demands. The scarcity of fresh water will lead to intra and inter-state conflicts in the near future. The Ganges water treaty was signed as a solution to the water sharing problem between Bangladesh and India. But it did not work accurately because of fresh water scarcity. Given the climate change underway, water insecurity in these countries has heightened. Due to the growing water scarcity between Bangladesh and India the future of Ganges water treaty is at stake where India already diverts water of the Ganges according to its own will. Besides, India's ambitious plan to construct a large number of big hydro-power plants on the GBM basins is a growing concern for Bangladesh. No doubt, it will intensify water insecurity in Bangladesh. If properly managed and regional cooperative approach can be ensured, future water security can be secured in this region. As there is no military solution to environmental insecurity, Bangladesh must give more emphasis on hydro and climate diplomacy along with her economic diplomacy.

Md. Shariful Islam is a student of BSS (Honours), Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.

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