Shared Rivers in South Asia:
Challenges and Prospects in Lower Riparian States

International seminar organized by

Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati
In Collaboration with
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asain Studies, KOLKATA

Partnered by: Tezpur University, Assam
16-17 March 2015

A Brief Report
During the Inaugural Session. From left: Prof. Chandan Mahanta, Prof. Amarjyoti Choudhury, Wasbir Hussain, Dr Alka Acharya, P.C. Haldar, Amb. Tariq A. Karim, Surya Nath Upadhyay

A Two-day International Seminar was organized on 16-17 March 2015, by the Centre for Development and Peace Studies (CDPS), Guwahati, in collaboration with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), Kolkata. The Seminar was held at Tezpur University, in partnership with the University’s Department of Sociology.

The Seminar was attended by participants from India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Participants were from varied fields – diplomats, hydrologists & dam engineers, former top police and intelligence officials, sociologists, journalists, environmentalists, political scientists and others. Scholars from Tezpur University also actively participated during the two days of the Seminar.

The Seminar was inaugurated by Prof. Amarjyoti Choudhury, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Tezpur University and a well known physicist. CDPS Executive Director, Mr. Wasbir Hussain, introduced the subject of the Seminar and welcomed the participants. The Keynote Address was delivered by well known China expert, Dr. Alka Acharya, former member, National Security Advisory Board, Govt. of India, and currently Director, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

The Vice Chancellor of Tezpur University, Prof. Mihir Kanti Chaudhuri, also attended one of the sessions and made brief comments.

Presentations were made on the following broad topics:

  • China and South Asian Rivers
  • Shared Rivers Cooperation: Need for an Institutional Framework in South Asia
  • Rights of the Riparian States on an International Watercourse
  • Water Resource Management: Concerns of Lower Riparian States in South Asia
  • Hydro Diplomacy: Water as an Opportunity for Peace in South Asia
  • Harnessing the Brahmaputra: Key to Northeast India’s Economic Regeneration
  • Utilizing River Resources in South Asia and the Changing Public Discourse in India’s Northeast
  • Dams on Yarlung Tsangpo, Water Diversion and The Brahmaputra’s Future: An Ecological Perspective
  • A full session was devoted to brainstorm on the subject, ‘Preparing a Framework for South Asian Water Cooperation’

The Seminar deliberated on prospects and challenges of sharing trans-boundary river waters. The Seminar noted that issues related to shared rivers in South Asia are generally seen as a source of conflict or potential conflict, and emphasized on the need to look at it also as a tool for regional cooperation in the region. Seminar arrived at a conclusion that countries in South Asia sharing rivers could formulate a cooperative framework and establish an institutional mechanism for cooperation among these countries.

Aview of the Seminar
  DAY 1

Introduction and Welcome Address:
Mr. Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS


CDPS Executive Director Wasbir Hussain welcomed the guests and delivered the welcome address. He briefly explained the context based on which the present Seminar had been organized. He said that water is connected to many of the challenges in the South Asian region, challenges relating to development, security and economic growth. He further said that many of the Himalayan rivers are intimately tied up with the issue of territory and that it could pose a far bigger challenge for countries to manage in the days ahead than perhaps issues relating to border.

Mr Hussain highlighted the apprehension in several parts of South Asia over the manner in which China is going about utilizing its water resources and said that of particular interest and concern is China’s massive dam projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo (as Brahmaputra is called in China) and possible attempts at diverting the river to provide water to its arid northern areas.

Mr. Hussain also said that if one is worried about the impact of the dams, like siltation, reduction in water flow in the downstream stretches of transboundary rivers, or flooding, one is also aware of the tremendous hydro-electric potential and its exploitation and asked how these challenges could be addressed. He said that both upper and lower riparian nations need to be prepared to meet the challenges posed and think of a way forward to harness the potential of its water resources and work for mutual benefit. He said that the Seminar will aim at brainstorming and see whether these countries enjoying the shared rivers can formulate a cooperative framework for their use, development, protection, conservation and management of the water and related resources and establish an institutional mechanism for cooperation among these states.

  Inaugural Address:
Prof. Amarjyoti Choudhury, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Tezpur University, Assam
  Delivering the Inaugural Address, Prof. Amarjyoti Choudhury, said that Rivers are optimized structures for maximum interaction and river structure itself tells about cooperation. He said that at present only 40 per cent of the world population has access to water necessary for minimum hygiene and it is predicted that by 2025 it will go down to 25 per cent. He said that a holistic approach needs to be developed on how to utilize the water resources, which are now becoming scarce.

He said that it is now of utmost importance that a dialogue ensues between countries on optimum utilization of the shared waters. He also said that it is necessary to include China in any kind of framework formed among South Asian nations for water cooperation. He said that we need to find ways of engaging with different countries, agencies and thinking groups and bring them under the same umbrella. He said the present Seminar is a right step in this regard. He also stressed on the use of technology to prevent damage to the ecosystem while utilizing the water resources.


Keynote Address: Dr. Alka Acharya, Director, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi


Delivering the Keynote Address, Dr. Alka Acharya, talked about how regional challenges has affected the growth and relations in the South Asian region. She said that the mid-90s have been described as the era of new regionalism and by the end of the 90s and turn of the twenty first century, the discourse was largely about how regional blocs are becoming the basic building blocks of the new global architecture. However, she said, in that context, South Asia stood out like a sore thumb as far as regional integration process was concerned. She said both South Asia and Southeast Asia are characterized by the presence of a very strong dominant player and smaller players; China being the dominant player in Southeast Asia and India in South Asia. But, whereas China has managed to become the centre of the regional dynamics in Southeast Asia, a great trading partner for its neighbours and become an engine of growth, such similar pattern was not witnessed in South Asia. India was unable to become a dynamo of growth and it was clear, ever since the 90s, that its regional challenges prevented it from playing a greater role in the world stage. Dr. Acharya said that the challenge before South Asia was that national boundaries had overrun the common issues of the people and it prevented the solution of various common problems. She further said that the degree of improvement in India-China relations had an immediate impact on the kind of role that China was playing in South Asia.

According to Dr. Acharya, China has to be involved in the negotiating table if we want to reach an agreement on management of shared waters. She said that there is lack of understanding in India of what is happening inside China and as such serious research has to be done on this issue. She said that China is now one of the largest investors in clean energy and they are looking for solutions for generating energy with minimum environmental damage. China cannot find all solutions on its own and this is where India and other South Asian nations can come forward and present a solution and engage China in a dialogue on water issues.

Vote of Thanks was delivered by Prof. Chandan Sharma, Dept. of Sociology, Tezpur University, Assam.


Chair: Dr. Alka Acharya, Director, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi

(1) China and South Asian Rivers
Speaker: Mr. P.C. Haldar, Former Director IB, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board, India


Mr. P.C. Haldar said that water diversion and dam building by China are two points of concern and apprehension in South Asia. Though full details are not available, it is broadly known that China’s South-North Water Diversion project is very well going on along three routes – Eastern, Middle and Western. Some portions are already partially open. The Western route of this project is of concern, as it will draw water from rivers flowing to this region. It is in the pre-construction stage and is likely to be completed by 2050. So, he said, it is to be kept in mind that the problem may come around 2050 and not now. So, we need to pursue our case continuously with China to ensure that they do not make any major diversion of water without consulting the stakeholders. China has been repeatedly talking about keeping the interests of other stakeholders in mind and we need to accept these statements made by them, unless we have irrefutable evidence that it is not so.

Mr. Haldar said that over the last 10 years, China has been becoming more and more aware of its status as a superpower or a near superpower, and it has begun to understand the need to shoulder responsibility. He said that voices are coming up from within Chinese scholars that China should look for cooperation on basin management. But the point of concern still is that, even in 2050, when they will be able to transfer water to its arid region though its water diversion project, it will still not solve the problem, as the water usage would also rise up for purposes like extracting natural gas. Also, China has given commitment to reduce carbon emission, which means they have to harness energy through two means – wind and hydro. So, dams will surely come up. As such there is a need to create a mechanism to engage China more frequently at multiple levels, so as to convey our concerns, Mr. Haldar said.

He further said that we need a much greater hydrological exchange of data among the South Asian nations as well as China. At present, India and China has an agreement for hydrological data sharing for 30 days, but that is not enough even for flood control. Still it can be said that a beginning has been made. Mr. Haldar further suggested greater hydrological investigation of Assam, Tibetan Plateau, Bangladesh, data sharing and creating common measures for water preservation. On the issue of the possibility of formation of a water commission, he said that first we have to create greater faith and understanding amongst the South Asian nations before rushing into making a structure which later becomes difficult to manage because of difference of perceptions. He concluded by saying that water war is not our destiny.


2) Shared Rivers Cooperation:
Need for an Institutional Framework in South Asia

Speaker: Ambassador Tariq A. Karim, Adviser, South Asian Regional Economic Integration, World Bank


Mr. Karim began his speech by giving a brief description about the various trans-boundary rivers in the Himalayan region. He informed that the Himalayas are drained by 19 major rivers, of which Indus and Brahmaputra are the largest, each with catchment basin of 100,000 sq. miles. He also said that as a result of increasing global warming and anthropogenic activities, Glaciers that feed Bramaputra are likely to reduce by 20-25 per cent by 2050.
Mr. Karim then highlighted the challenges in this region. According to him, these are:

• Proposed Chinese diversion of 200 billion cbms of waters from Yarlung Tsangpo to the Yellow River.
• The progressive melting of Himalayan glaciers as a result of climate change will impact the amount of water in the Brahmaputra.
• As the Brahmaputra river dries up, along with other rivers critical to the survival of India, gross per capita water availability may decline by one third by 2050.
• With worsening environmental conditions, by 2025 global warming will lead to rise of the sea level which will lead to stronger storms, tidal surges leading to large coastal inundation.
• Continuing rapid glacial melt will create thousands of lakes at base that will be subject to bursting banks and will also dump more water into rivers initially resulting in more frequent and more serious flooding


3) Rights of the Riparian States on an International Watercourse

Speaker: Mr. Surya Nath Upadhyay, Secretary General, Jalsrot Vikas Sanstha, Nepal

  Mr. Upadhyay spoke about the international law regime and Doctrines of Law on International water courses. He then explained briefly how the international water courses law evolved over time. He spoke about the Salzburg Resolution 1961, Helsinki Rules 1966, Berlin Rules 2004 and UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses 1997 and gave a brief highlight about these rules and conventions. Mr. Upadhyay then talked about some case laws and state practice. He briefly talked about the Indus Treaty 1960 between India and Pakistan; Columbia River Treaty between USA and Canada; Nile River Treaty in Africa and the Mahakali Treaty 1996 between India and Nepal.

Mr. Upadhyay said that cooperation on water had been always a matter laden with politics. However, in recent developments, it is more of business and opportunities than politics. He said that there is no instance that some nation has denied water to its lower riparian nations and neither there has been a war among countries over the issue of water. He said that India and China has started sharing flood data and that is a good beginning. He suggested that India, instead of pressing for lower riparian rights with China, should look towards entering into a framework agreement with it and the other South Asian nations.

Chair: Mr. P.C. Haldar
Former Member, National Security Advisory Board, India

1) Water Resource Management:
Concerns of Lower Riparian States in South Asia

Speaker: Engr. Md Waji Ullah, Executive Director, Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), Dhaka

Engr. Md Waji Ullah, Executive Director, Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), Dhaka making his presentation

Mr. Waji Ullah said that Bangladesh shares 57 trans-boundary rivers, which impact its water availability, leading to socio-political, economic and environmental concerns. Frequent natural disasters, rapid urbanization, high demographic growth and climate change are aggravating the situation. He said Bangladesh depends on water sharing with the upper-riparian countries, which need appropriate trans-boundary treaties.

Mr. Waji Ullah spoke about consequences of a water conflict on Bangladesh, which is a lower riparian nation. He said that a water conflict would cause low dry season water availability hampering water security, would cause livelihood degradation and migration hampering social security, would lead to reduced agricultural and fish production, reduced navigation and water-borne trades, would lead to loss of forest and ecosystem and increase flood and river erosion.


2) Hydro Diplomacy: Water as an Opportunity for Peace in South Asia

Speaker: Dr. Chandan Mahanta, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati


Dr. Mahanta said that the rise of Hydro Diplomacy argues that policymakers can reap peace dividends by investing in intra-basin cooperation, which can help resolve existing conflicts, prevent future conflicts, and create goodwill that spills over beyond water. He gave the example of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, which has survived three wars between India and Pakistan and prevented water from becoming a weapon during those conflicts.

Dr. Mahanta informed that there are more than 180 environmental regimes or conventions now in operation. These increasingly charts the course for national environmental policy and provide political context in which collective action by states is focused to solve international issues - from Climate Change to the flow of Rivers, from Biodiversity to trade in endangered animals. He then spoke about some of the regional developmental initiatives in South and Southeast Asia such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

Dr. Mahanta said that the Brahmaputra Basin is the least developed major river basin in the world and there are major opportunities with the riparian countries for future development in hydropower, agriculture, flood mitigation and navigation. However, he cautioned that there will are environmental, economic, political and social risks to each of the countries, if they pursue development without cooperation.

  DAY 2
Chair: Dr. A.N.S. Ahmed, Director (Research), CDPS
  (1) Harnessing the Brahmaputra: Key to Northeast India’s Economic Regeneration
Speaker: Dr. Nayan Sharma, Professor
Water Resources Development & Management Department
Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee
  Dr. Sharma began his presentation by giving a brief review of the economic situation in Assam, which showed that over six decades of continued planning process has failed to spur significant economic growth in Assam as well as Northeast India. He then presented the technical issues on harnessing water resources of the Brahmaputra for economic regeneration of Northeast India. He said that from a strict technical standpoint, harnessing the huge water wealth of the Brahmaputra river system by building well-designed big multi-purpose storage dams, after taking all safety measures and precautions, holds the key to bringing about an accelerated economic breakthrough in Assam and the Northeast.

Dr. Sharma said that the state-of-the-art advancements made in dam engineering aided by advances in computer simulation techniques using high speed computing system and robust numerical methods, have now greatly revolutionized the technological skill for developing much safer designs of big dams and hydraulic structures for higher peak ground accelerations triggered by large earthquakes superimposed on adverse geological conditions. He said that it is essential to plan water resources development projects in Northeast India on multipurpose concept with provision for hydropower, flood control, irrigation etc. to derive optimal economic benefits.

Dr. Sharma then presented the following possible impact of climate change on the river environment in Brahmaputra Basin:

  • Climate change effects are likely to cause both intense floods and droughts in Assam.
  • Due to ongoing environmental changes in watershed areas, consequent upon deforestation, the increased sediment supply has greatly exceeded sediment carrying capacity of the river network causing the Brahmaputra stream bed rise, intensification of braiding and bank erosion, which have resulted in significant loss of discharge carrying capacity of the river channels.
  • The annual specific yield of 3 cusecs / sq. mile of the Brahmaputra is highest in the world, and as against that the average valley width is hardly about 50 Km only, while the Brahmaputra itself occupies about 10 Km of it. Thus, the spill of excess flow from the shallower silted river channels in no time inundates large areas.
  • Fourthly, the loss of prime agricultural & habitation land of about 100 sq km per year due to river bank erosion of the entire Brahmaputra river system is probably one of the highest in the world and the river erosion process is still going on unabated.

Dr. Sharma said that, it has now become imperative for the four co-basin nations – China, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh to enter into a comprehensive water management co-operation agreement for sustainable, equitable, safe and judicious exploitation of the water resources of the Brahmaputra River in a climate of trust, cooperation and harmony. For accelerated economic growth of the co-basin nations, water management agreement can be equipped with an inbuilt mechanism for sharing relevant data & research, joint project investigation and cost sharing, joint monitoring & planning of water resources projects, sharing of technical expertise for planning, design and construction.

  (2) Utilizing River Resources in South Asia and the Changing Public Discourse in India’s Northeast
Speaker: Prof. Chandan Sharma, Professor, Dept. of Sociology, Tezpur University

Prof. Chandan Sharma began his speech by saying that generating power from the rivers in the Northeast Indian region and using this water for irrigation has been a part of the Assamese public imagination for quite some time and this also finds expression in the cultural domain of this region. He said that the public perception became a strong political articulation when the first regional party government led by Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) demanded, through a memorandum to the Prime Minister in 1988, that the schemes prepared by the Brahmaputra Board for building several multi-purpose dams in Northeast India be implemented soon. The memorandum stated that hydropower projects on Dihang and Subansiri rivers, two major tributaries of Brahmaputra, will reduce the intensity of floods and in the same time generate cheap hydroelectric power to feed the national grids in the entire Northern belt upto Uttar Pradesh. This was in sharp contrast to what was to follow after a decade and half.

Citing the case of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric project coming up in Gerukamukh along Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, Prof Sharma said that there were various apprehensions among the people regarding this project. According to him, use of non-transparent procedures by the government while launching this project, which were often in violation of the established legal provisions, contributed to the already unfolding public speculation in the Brahmaputra valley about the real nature of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric project. Organizations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyotabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and various environmental NGOs became vociferous on this issue.

He then said about the political discourse in Assam, in which the state Congress government supported the building of dams, while other major political parties opposed it, especially keeping the 2011 Assam Assembly elections in mind. The anti-dam movement began gaining momentum in 2009 and a farmer body, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), came into the forefront of the agitation. They opposed the dams fearing that it would take away agricultural land of farmers. The agitating organizations, however, state that they are not against dams as such but are against the way the dams are proposed to be built. They are in favour of small dams.

Prof. Sharma said that the non-transparent manner of doing things and the top-down approach being adopted by the Indian government should be done away with. He also urged Government of India to enter into dialogue with China and settle the matters amicably and also take care of the concerns and apprehensions of the people.
Chair: Mr. Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS

(1) Dams on Yarlung Tsangpo, Water Diversion and The Brahmaputra’s Future: An Ecological Perspective
Speaker: Dr. Partha J. Das, Head, Water, Climate and Hazard Programme, Aaranyak, Guwahati

  Dr. Das said that China proposes to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) from the Great bend near Namcha Barwe in Tibet (China) close to the India-China border to northern China and also take up construction of large storage dams. It plans to generate about 40,000 MW of hydropower by building dams to be used in the diversion work. He then went on to explain the impact of dam building and probable water diversion on the ecology.

Dr. Das said that dams on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra may lead to habitat degradation of aquatic flora and fauna, thermal alteration of micro-habitatof micro-organisms and drastic impact on endemic species, leading to reduced biodiversity in downstream in eastern Assam. He also said it may accelerate river bank erosion, deprive agricultural land of fertile silt, alteration and degradation of fish habitat and may make local navigation risky and uncertain.

Dr. Das said that in case of a probable diversion of the Brahmaputra, India and Bangladesh will lose a significant part of the precious lean season flow (low-flow) which constitutes mainly the snow-melt from Tibet and the base flow, the consequences of which may be drastic in Assam and Bangladesh for ecology, livelihoods and basic water security. Water supply and irrigation schemes may badly suffer and the interlinking plan on the Brahmaputra will be jeopardised.

  (2) Preparing a Framework for South Asian Water Cooperation: A Brainstorming
  A Brainstorming session was held to discuss ways on how to formulate a Framework for South Asian Water Cooperation. The participants of the Seminar gave forward their views on the subject and at the end a set of resolutions were adapted.
  The Seminar ended with the Vote of Thanks delivered by Mr. Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS.
Delegates at the end of the Seminar
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