India and Bangladesh's cross-border water diplomacy an opportunity

The opening up of Chittagong port is an opportunity for both India and Bangladesh to move towards a co-operative model of diplomacy
Last Updated : 25 July 2022, 18:07 IST

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In April 2022, in a bid to increase connectivity between the two countries, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered the use of the Chittagong seaport to India. The strategic use of the seaport, besides strengthening ties between India and Bangladesh, can be mutually beneficial: greater trade and export opportunities. The move opens up new transit points for the landlocked North-East region, particularly for Assam and Tripura – and new opportunities to build the region’s economy.

Significantly, India and Bangladesh had also signed a Coastal Shipping Agreement in 2015 and a Standard Operating Procedure allowing direct regular shipping between Bangladesh and the ports on India’s east coast, particularly Chittagong. Reopening the pre-Partition trade routes would reduce the cost and time of transportation for India’s North-East and generate revenue for Bangladesh.

The deal makes way for greater diplomatic cooperation between the two countries, improves bilateral ties, and, of critical importance to both, heralds greater cooperation in water management. The benefits of water-sharing can extend beyond the water itself. In 1996, India and Bangladesh signed the landmark Ganges Treaty for managing this shared watershed. This was intended to end differences between Bangladesh and India as the principal objective of the treaty was to determine the amount of water to be released by India at the Farakka Barrage dam. However, studies show that Bangladesh has had trouble receiving the guaranteed share of water during critical dry periods around 65% of the time. In the face of the many on-going coastal and riverine natural disasters faced by Bangladesh, hopes are high that the agreement that expires in 2026 will be aligned with advancements in water-governance and nature-based solutions amidst the rapid environmental degradation, presenting opportunities to explore beneficial mechanisms for river basin and watershed management.

Hopes are high, as well, for an agreement to be reached on the Teesta river which stretches through Sikkim and Bengal before joining the Meghna river in Bangladesh. Several wetland ecosystems of Bangladesh are affected by the sediment flow from the Indian side, harming the biodiversity of the haors and downstream communities – lending impetus to the need for a mutually agreeable solution for both biodiversity and people.

The opening up of Chittagong port, therefore, is an opportunity for both India and Bangladesh to move towards a co-operative model of diplomacy. Both face shared challenges of climate change disrupting water security and extreme flooding, which will only increase in the coming decade. Co-operative approaches to managing transboundary watersheds will be key to meeting these challenges, without adversely affecting the security of their citizens.

Dialogues around water are also crucial to allow the countries to jointly manage their forests and wetlands, and complex hydrological systems across political borders. This includes facilitating joint research and data sharing on land use and socioeconomic change, as well as opportunities for benefit-sharing. Bilateral trade between the two nations, particularly the North-East India and Bangladesh, can play a strong role in recognising the economic imperative for reviving and managing these watersheds.

Consolidated nature-based solutions to unresolved political issues will benefit both economically as well as build resilience and productivity to secure the livelihoods of people. Resolving the on-going problem of Teesta water-sharing needs strong bilateral relations and cooperation. The sharing of Chittagong Port must not be the end: it must be the start of a new cooperative diplomatic approach that recognises our mutual challenge of climate insecurity.

(The writer is trustee -president, Balipara Foundation, a social enterprise)

Published 25 July 2022, 17:27 IST

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