Amid an outgoing monsoon, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on September 5 at the Hyderabad House, Delhi. For the other state leaders, it could be a state visit. But for Bangladesh and India, a bilateral meeting reflects the optimal level of friendship and cooperation, which have profound implications for bilateral relations and entire South Asia.
The delayed and awaited visit has much to offer. Out of them, one has been identified for developing a framework of water-sharing agreements. In their first agreement over a single river in 25 years, India and Bangladesh achieved some headway in the divisive river water sharing problem during the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and her visiting counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, which has added another feather in the cap of their friendship.
On August 21 this year, the Bangladesh-India Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) meeting agreed that the two countries would share the water of the Kushiyara. Following the decision at that meeting, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on withdrawal of 153 Cusec (cubic feet per second) of water from the Kushiayra by Bangladesh was signed in New Delhi as Premier Sheikh Hasina was visiting the neighbouring country. This agreement is expected to pave the way for fair and equitable sharing of waters from common rivers flowing through Bangladesh and India in the near future.
Common rivers in bilateral relations
The 54 rivers Bangladesh and India share collectively have influenced the two nations' history, politics, culture, and economies for many years. The history dates back to the pre-independence era when Bangladesh and India were a part of the British colony. The outlets of the sea were through Chattogram port or via the rivers of Bangladesh, reaching the ports of Kolkata. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his meeting with Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina, said that the rivers, folk tales about them, and folk songs have also witnessed the shared culture, norms, and heritage. These mighty rivers flow from Bangladesh to India at various points and play a significant role in transportation, cultural integration, and people's livelihoods in the post-independence era. Therefore, transboundary rivers have become a determining factor in their bilateral relations.
Hasina-Modi Summit: Breakthroughs in water sharing
Bangladesh and India signed seven Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) demonstrating cooperative which covers several areas prioritising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for bilateral relations between Bangladesh-India a role model for neighbourhood diplomacy, hoping all outstanding issues, including the Teesta water sharing treaty, will be resolved in no time in the spirit of friendship and cooperation. One of the signed MoUs concerns the withdrawal of 153 cusecs of water from the Kushiyara River by Bangladesh under the upper Surma-Kushiyara Project.
This MoU would benefit Southern Assam in India and Sylhet regions in Bangladesh. The two leaders welcomed the signing of an MoU between the Jal Shakti, the Government of the Republic of India, and the Ministry of Water Resources, the People's Republic of Bangladesh, on the withdrawal of water by Bangladesh and India from the common border river Kushiyara, that will help Bangladesh to address its irrigation needs and facilitate water projects for South Assam.
During the discussion, India conveyed gratitude to Bangladesh for enabling India to construct the intake well to implement the 2019 MoU between the two countries on withdrawal of 1.82 cusecs of water from Feni River from the drinking water supply for Sub room town in Tripura. The issue of combating pollution improves riverine improvement, and both prime ministers have also addressed river unnavigability.
Hope rekindled after all those years
The MoU regarding the withdrawal of water from the Kushiyara river has rekindled the hope after all those years, as it has huge implications on the water sharing between Bangladesh and India. Referring to the signing of the MOU on the Kushiayra River, the Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina dictated all issues encompassing the water sharing of 54 common rivers would be resolved.
"Being bounded by 54 joint rivers and 4,000 kilometres of borders, Bangladesh and India are committed to enhancing the collective welfare of the two peoples," she said. Therefore, this MoU can be regarded as a landmark achievement in Bangladesh's water diplomacy domain.
Firstly, it will pave the way for water sharing of other disputed rivers, including the Testa River. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, "The two countries resolved many outstanding issues in the spirit of friendship and cooperation; we expressed hope for setting all outstanding issues, including the signing of the Tessa Water sharing Treaty, at the earliest."
Secondly, river water sharing is considered a highly sensitive issue that needs a round of discussions and a series of negotiations to strike a deal like this. Moreover, it reflects the relevance of dialogue, negotiations, and a high level of comfort and understanding between Bangladesh and India. If Bangladesh and India can work together as partners, it will not only facilitate the two counties but also bring peace and prosperity to the region as a whole
Thirdly, this is the first treaty signed between the two neighbours on sharing common river waters since the Ganges River water sharing agreement in 1996. The leaders also made a consensus regarding forming a joint Technical Committee to conduct a study for optimal utilisation of water received by Bangladesh under the provisions of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, 1996, which will expire in 2026.
Finally, this framework mentioned in the MoU will pave the way for the water sharing of more than 16 common rivers. The India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission, which met after a 12-year hiatus, decided to include eight more rivers where India will forward flow information and made some headway on water sharing of common rivers. The JRC Technical-Level Committee, scheduled to be held this year in Dhaka, will continue to debate the issue.
Bangladesh and India share a largely cordial relationship. They should work together to address the existing challenges and focus on sharing water and managing common water resources for future generations. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that India should be more generous, which will benefit both countries. Therefore, the water-sharing MoU between Bangladesh and India has opened a new horizon regarding their bilateral cooperation in transboundary water diplomacy.
Saume Saptaparna Nath is research associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA), Dhaka.