Australian Outlook

In this section

Hydro-Politics and Hydro-Hegemony in South Asia

03 May 2023
By Shafiqul Elahi
The Teesta Low Dam is under construction in West Bengal, India. Source: International Rivers/

River sharing agreements have always been subject to acrimony as down stream riparian states attempt to mitigate the choices of upper stream powers. For India and Bangladesh, an opportunity exists to come to an agreement where a more equitable relationship over shared rivers can be had. 

As the energy world is trying to shift its focus from renewable energy to non-renewable energy sources, water becomes a critical pathway for fulfilling a country’s need for power. The changing scenario has altered geopolitics in way that riparian countries now play a major role in their given regions. Hydro-hegemony is probably one way to explain the power conflict over water resources, especially in South Asia where countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Nepal are slowly experiencing water vulnerability due to climate change. Solving the dependency discrepancy in South Asian power politics has become a landmark characteristic of the changing water landscape.

Water Cooperation

Despite sharing success on several cooperation frontlines, the issue of water sharing remains a bone of contention in Bangladesh-India relations. The two countries share at least 54 trans-boundary rivers, and water sharing is a critical theme for Bangladesh, being a lower riparian country of three Himalayan rivers. Being the upper riparian country, India possesses a natural advantage over the rivers that run through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. Last year’s visit by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India highlighted this issue as the two countries signed the Kushiyara River Pact, the first of its kind since the 1996 Ganges River Pact. By this, Bangladesh will be able to withdraw 153 cusecs of water in winter, benefitting both Assam and Sylhet.

The two countries have advanced cooperation in technical and infrastructure development over trans-boundary rivers, though the water sharing issue is often lopsided or delayed to the future. For example, the inauguration of the Maitri Setu over the trans-boundary Feni River was a successful venture in both parts in 2019. However, the Feni-water sharing agreement is yet to be concluded by India, which will allow Bangladesh to be able to withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water. Also, the Aminbazar-Gopalganj 400KV power transmission line over the Padma River came to function in 2022, allowing the country to transport electricity from the Payra and Rampal power plants to Dhaka. A Teesta River water sharing agreement, by contrast, is yet to come. This is a grave situation, particularly given that India is about to establish three hydro-electric plants in the Darjeeling hills. The West Bengal government has recently decided to build two canals to divert water flows – a worrisome development for the lower riparian Bangladesh.

Hydro-Hegemony in South Asia

For India, its hydro-hegemony has given it considerable power over other lower riparian countries that is fast becoming critical in the South Asian context. Hydro-hegemony will not lead to brute conflict between countries, but it will likely result in a conflicting diplomatic deadlock over water-sharing issues.

In this instance, a hydro-hegemon possesses power (political, economic, and military), upper stream position, and the potential for water resource exploitation. In South Asia, India is becoming this hydro-hegemon of whom the neighboring countries perceive with suspicion. The three lopsided river treaties with Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim, for instance, are perceived as not for equitable river shares but rather a means to put through strong borders with China. As a sub-regional power, India’s water ambition is becoming more apparent, and this will have adverse implications for its neighbor Bangladesh.

The Farakka barrage is probably the first hydro-hegemonic move by India in the context of Bangladesh-India relations. This happened in 1975 when, without consulting with the lower riparian, India commissioned the barrage at the border to reduce sedimentation by diverting the Ganges River and mitigating the drinking needs of West Bengal. The barrage inevitably displaced many in Bangladesh as the river diversion caused flooding and erosion, affecting millions downstream who daily depend on the water. The Farakka barrage has become a problem for India, causing severe flooding in other states as well as disrupting the natural river flow in downstream Bangladesh.

By contrast, the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty signed in 1996 can be regarded as a successful initiative  in which India complied to maintain a schedule of flows in the dry season from January to May from the Farakka barrage. Recent data suggests Bangladesh receives 10-15 percent more water at the Hardinge Bridge than from the originally released water from the Farakka barrage. However, the chief concern is to extend the agreement past the end date of 2026. Both countries will also need to sign a similar agreement on the Indus Water Treaty (1961), for which the World Bank and United Nations have acted as guarantors.

The Brahmaputra River has also become a center of contention between India and China. China has embarked on an “inequitable” development project to construct five dams in Shannan Prefecture in Tibet, which will divert waters from the Brahmaputra to China’s water scarce regions like the northern and northwestern provinces. Such dam constructions and water diversion will negatively affect 140 million dependencies on the river from both Bangladesh and India.

Modern technologies are also becoming a part of the hydro-politics in the region. After decades of negotiations, and as Bangladesh saw no outcome on the Teesta, it is now resorting to a comprehensive river management program with the help of Chinese technology. Through Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project, Bangladesh is aiming to mitigate the water crisis in its part of the river. Apart from Teesta, negotiations on the renewal of the Ganges Water treaty – scheduled in 2026 – will also likely have a technological dimension as river management technologies have become affordable for both the countries.

India is dealing with two central worries. One is China and the other is controlling upper stream river flows to other countries. It has an advantageous upper stream position as well as the proven potential for exploiting water resources, as seen in the Farakka and Teesta water sharing cases. In addition to this, India also possesses notable economic and military capabilities over other South Asian countries in this region. Despite ensuring certain technical and infrastructure cooperation with Bangladesh, the Teesta and Ganges Treaties will be a major bone of contention in the future. In South Asian hydro-politics, and to maintain Bangladesh’s water autonomy in this region, such treaties will be very critical for future relationships – where India and China already have strong footings.

Shafiqul Elahi is a retired government official of Bangladesh.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.