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[Final draft for the publication of the journal

‘International Political Economy’. Vol 18, October 2006,

University of Tsukuba, Japan.]

Does resource scarcity relate solely to environmental insecurity?

Perspective from the water crisis issue in Bangladesh

Anar Koli
PhD student
International political Economy, University of Tsukuba, Japan
This paper aims to understand the environmental security linkage both from the
conflict and co-operation perspectives based on the water crisis issue in Bangladesh. Focusing
on livelihood insecurity and environmental threats, this study asserts that the notion of
security in the case of Bangladesh is actually very much related to environmental factors. This
study argues that the most important cause of the water crisis is not the resource shortage
problem but rather a problem of approaches. The crisis and conflict exist and are exacerbated
by the long legacy of unilateral control of resources, exclusion of community people in
resource management and the lack of a right-based policy approach. Based on two case
studies, it will be concluded that the approaches of problem solving and the nature of adaptive
mechanism take the leading role in resource scarcity and conflict linkage.

This study suggests an environmental security approach where water is to be secured

for wider environment protection and human security can bring changes to this conflicting
situation. A right based policy approach and people’s participation in decision-making can
contribute to enhance environmental security and co-operation. Focusing on the present trends
of water resource management, this study finds that the water management in Bangladesh is
gradually changing towards more integrated and people centric approaches. It also finds that
Bangladesh’s water crisis issue and its management is intricately dependent both on domestic
and international policies and politics. Therefore, the securitization process of water needs
intervention and integration at both levels. And this integration demands a politics of
consensus and co-operation.
1. Introduction
At the beginning of the 21st century, Bangladesh seems to be continuing its trend of
remaining as a potential site of insecurities, instabilities and conflicts. An overwhelming
dependency on natural resources and a high dense population with chronic poverty make
Bangladesh one of the most environmentally vulnerable areas in the world. Competition for
limited resources, environmental degradation and environmental change threaten most
people’s lives and livelihoods yearly. Frequent devastating floods, droughts and water scarcity
in the dry season, salinity intrusion, deforestation, arsenic contamination, river erosion,
degradation of wetlands, pollution of water and land and so on are the very common
phenomena in Bangladesh. Water resources in the country have not been managed effectively
through the ages. As water is central to the livelihood of Bangladesh, the crisis related to
water and its consequences have push Bangladesh into a very threatening situation.

These water scarcity or water crisis issues are not confined only to the domestic
sphere. Most of surface water resources are controlled from the outside of the country and
there is a long history of tension over water sharing between India and Bangladesh. The
dispute over water sharing between India and Bangladesh has existed for more than forty
years. Although water crisis in Bangladesh is largely hidden, and in most cases, the
competition for limited water resources does not erupt into violent conflict, the devastating
impact of the crisis threatens the entire ecology and well being for long term. Water, the basis
of life, thus, has become one of the key sources of insecurities and conflicts within and across

The scenario is not all pessimistic. A change in the water resource management of
Bangladesh has been taking place over the last few years. The National Water Policy 1999 1
and the National Water Management Plan 20042 have been formulated towards a more
integrated and holistic resource management approach. The thirty years Ganges Treaty3 is a
promising step towards conflict resolution between India and Bangladesh. Although these

Govt. of Bangladesh. 1999. National Water Policy. Ministry of Water Resources, Dhaka.

Govt. of Bangladesh. 2004. National Water Management Plan. Water Resource Planning Organization
(WARPO), Ministry of Water Resources, Dhaka.

changes and policy initiatives are still in a transition phase, they are potential factors for
future co-operation and security concerns. These initiatives could be used to change the
conflicting situation into stability and enhance sustainability. Thus at this transition stage
‘water’ issues in Bangladesh become the midpoint or the platform between conflict and co-
operation. On the one hand, the ongoing threats and insecurities from the water crisis and its
conflicting consequences, and on the other hand the possibilities to enhance stability and co-
operation through water resource management make the ‘water’ issue very much a critical
area for future security thinking.

This paper therefore, aims to understand the environmental security linkage from both
the conflict and co-operation perspectives. Here, environmental security is conceptualized as a
response to non-traditional environmental threats to human security, particularly the water
crisis and its consequences have been studied as environmental threats. Two case studies, one
at the domestic level and the other at the inter-state level have been studied to analyze water-
conflict and water-co-operation linkage. This study also focuses on the trends of water
management policy to understand the direction of water -security linkage. The study
emphasizes that lack of a right based approach and poor emphasis on environmental security
concerns rather than the resource scarcity alone take the leading role in the resource scarcity
and conflict linkage.

This paper is mostly based on qualitative data and has employed both the primary and
secondary sources of data. Field visit and focus group discussion (FGD)4at the community
level (at Nischintapur and Gobindapur village) in Hakaluki haor and interviews with policy-
making professionals on water issue in Bangladesh have been conducted for this purpose.

1.1 Key Concepts

The Government of Bangladesh and the Government of India. 1996. Treaty between The Government of the
People’s Republic of Bangladesh and The Government of the Republic of India on Sharing of the Ganga/The
Ganges Waters at Farakka. Held on 12th Dec. 1996 at New Delhi, India.

FGD is a qualitative method. Its purpose is to obtain in-depth information on concepts, perceptions and ideas of
a group. A FGD aims to be more than a question-answer interaction. The idea is that group members discuss the
topic among themselves, with guidance from the facilitator.

Environmental security, Security, Conflict and Insecurity, Power based and right based
approach, Livelihood, Community based natural resource management
Environmental Security In this study, the concept of environmental security is
conceptualized as a response to non-traditional environmental threats to human security.
Environmental security is public safety from environmental dangers caused by natural or
human process. Water crisis and its consequences have been focused particularly in this paper
as environmental threats.
Security This paper considers the term ‘security’ from the broadened perspective of a
human security concept, which considers not only traditional territory threats but also other
non-traditional threats5. The paper also emphasizes ‘security’ particularly from the perspective
of livelihood security and environmental security.
Conflict and Insecurity Conflict can be any fundamental disagreement that prevents
co-operation and collaboration and causes social tension and dispute6. However, in this study,
the conflicts mainly under consideration are resource-based conflict concerning competition
for economic power and access to natural resources7. Dispute over water sharing, political
tension, disruption of livelihood base, group conflict and inequalities are also studied here as
Conflict and insecurity will go often together and will indicate a similar type of notion
in this study, but should not be considered as synonymous. Conflict, and especially violent
conflict, is an empirical and observable phenomenon. Insecurity, on the other hand, is a
subjective and socially constructed perception.
Power based and Right based approaches The power based approach follows the
assumption that might is right and that a powerful actor will be able to impose its will. The
right based approach considers equitable distribution of resources and equal participation of
all stakeholders. Thus a right-based approach allows people to take their own decisions, rather
than being the passive objects of choices made on their behalf. It considers power as
interdependence among different stake-holders; therefore, one actor may not be individually
powerful, and by co-operating with other actors it can become so. In regard to ‘water’

Lonergan, Steve. 2000. op.cit pp. 69-70.
IUCN-The World Conservation Union. 2000. State of the Art Review on Environment, Security and
Development Co-operation. (working paper) conducted on behalf of the Organization of Economic Co-operation
and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee. p. 19.
Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Conflict, peace and development co-
operation on threshold of the 21st century. pp. 16-21.

resource distribution and water accessibility, the right based approach considers the rights of
Livelihood refers to the means of gaining a living. It includes all forms of access to
goods and services through which households and individuals survive, including those from
private and common resources, cash income, payments in kind and subsistence production or
gathering. (Sen 1981, Bernstein et al 1992, Scoones et al 1996, Johnson 1997)9
Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) is a resource
management tool that assigns all or a proportion of ownership, rights and control over natural
resources to a designated group of local people or a designed local institution.

1.2 Theoretical framework of the study

This paper emphasizes that the direction of water-security linkage, that is, whether the
water crisis leads to conflict or co-operation, depends not on resource scarcity alone, but
mostly on problem solving approaches and adaptive mechanisms. If the adaptive mechanisms
are weak and negative, such as unilateral control and power based approach then the water-
security relation goes towards conflict. But if the adaptive mechanisms are effective, such as
those based on the right based and the people’s centric policy approach, then it can avoid
conflict and move towards stability and co-operation. Water crisis and conflict issue are thus
more than a resource scarcity issue, they are primarily political and decision making

The framework of analysis of this study is mostly based on the revised model of the
Global Environmental Change and Human Security (GECHS) project, University of
California Irvine. This GECHS model itself is based on the dominant paradigm model of
environmental security. The dominant paradigm model is based on the Dixon model as well as
the model of ENCOP10, PRIO11, NATO, State Failure Task and others. This study will use the

Gleick, Peter H ‘The Human Right to Water’. Water Nepal vol. 9/10, No. ½ pp. 117-125.

Chadwick, M.T., Soussan, J.G., Alam, S.S. and Mallick, D.L. Environment Center, University of Leeds,
Bangladesh Center for Advance Studies (BCAS) 1998. Understanding Rural Change: Socio-Economic Trends
and People's Participation in Water Resources Management in Bangladesh. University of Leeds, UK. [project

Environment and Conflicts Project.
Peace research Institute in Oslo.

dominant and GECHS model with some modification to explain the author’s own

Fig 1: Framework of Analysis for Water Crisis-Conflict and Water Crisis-Cooperation Linkage

factors (population
growth, poverty) Co-operation, Stability
Effective adaptive
(Right based approach)

Water crisis Environmental Negative

& social stress social effects
Instability, conflict,
Weak & negative Insecurity
adaptive mechanism
(power based approach)

Source: Prepared by this author based on GECHS project’s model

This study focuses on the wetland livelihoods and wetland management issue to
analyze the water security relation at the domestic level. The water sharing contention
between India and Bangladesh will also be addressed as another case to discuss the water-
security relation at the international level.

2. Bangladesh in the context of environmental security

Home to nearly 140 million people, Bangladesh is one of the most marginalized and
environmentally vulnerable areas in the world. Socio-economic conditions such as poverty
and high dense population, and the vulnerable environmental situation, such as environmental
degradation, environmental change, natural resource scarcity, and poor management of
resources, make the situation more vulnerable and complex.

Arguably, one of the most critical problems faced by Bangladesh is the large size of its
population. Total population is about 130 million with an annual growth rate of 1.48% 12 and
an average of 834 people per km2. However the country has succeeded in significantly
reducing the population growth rater over the years. The annual population growth rate fell
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 2002. National Population Census-2001. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

from 2.35 during 1974-1981 to 1.48% during 19991-200113. In absolute terms, the population
has increased by 52 million or more in twenty-five years since 1973. Projection suggests that
total population will increase by 40% from 129 million in 2000 to 181 million by 2025 and
224 million by 2050.14 About the 40% of people are below the age of fifteen, and, thus, the
dependency ratio is very high15. The population structure is pyramidal and the economically
active population is only about 35% (about 45 million) of the total population16.

Besides the high dense population, the most critical factor that interacts with water
scarcity as well as environmental stress in a complex way is ‘poverty’. According to the
national figures, about 44.3% of people or 55.9 million people are ‘absolute-poor’ based on
the poverty line measured by Direct Calorie Intake (DCI) method 17 in 2002 of which 20% are
hard core poor18. Based on the poverty line constructed as less than US$ 1 per day per person,
twenty-nine percent population are found as income-poor whereas seventy eight percent
population are poor if the poverty line is raised to less than US$ 2 per day per person19. Over
75% of the poor live in rural areas but are classed as functionally landless (owning less than
0.2 ha of land for cultivation). Nearly twenty-four percent of farm households own less than
0.2 ha and another 46 percent own up to 1.0 ha. (FAO1999). Landing size is gradually
decreasing and as a consequence more and more people become landless According to the
Human development Index (HDI) introduced by United Nations Development Program
(UNDP),20 Bangladesh remain one of the world poorest countries with a GDP per capita of
US $ 1,770 per annum; and a Human Development Index (HDI) rank of 139 out of 177

World Fish Center, in Collaboration with Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Center for Advance Studies
(NGO). Understanding Livelihoods Dependent on Inland Fisheries in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia
DFID/FMSP project R8118. 2003. Bangladesh PRA Report. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Nishat, A [2002] ‘Changing the Profession: The Evolution of Approaches Amongst Engineers to Water Policy
and Practices in Bangladesh’ Discussion Paper Livelihood-Policy Relationship in South Asia, Dhaka.
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 1996a. Yearbook of Agricultural Statistics of Bangladesh 1994 (Dhaka).

Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 1994. Bangladesh Population Census- 1991, Vol.1 Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Accoding tp the Direct calorie intake (DCI) method; absolute poor- with an energy intake of less than 2122 and Hardcore poor- with an energy intake of less than 1805
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 2002. National Population Census-2001. Dhaka, Bangladesh.
UNDP HDR, op.cit.
The human development index (HDI) focus ones on three measurable dimensions of human development:
living a long and healthy life, being educated and having a decent standard of living. Thus it combines measures
of life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income to allow a broader view of a country’s development
than does income alone.

countries in 200521. The proportion in poverty has reduced gradually in recent decades but the
absolute numbers in poverty still remain high. The inequality rate has increased. The GDP per
capita and HDI rank has been increased in 2005 than the previous year but the position of
Bangladesh is worst in South Asian country22.

The critical point is that most Bangladeshi who are poor and live in rural areas, are
highly dependent on natural resources for their lives and livelihoods. In Bangladesh, 79.85%
of the people live in rural areas23 and rural livelihoods mostly depend on land, water and
land/water based production systems. Agriculture and fisheries related livelihoods account for
about 30 percent of GDP and 61 percent of overall employment, 57 percent of the labor force.
Although the contribution of agriculture to the national economy has been declining, it is still
very important in the livelihoods of the rural people. More than 50% of households in rural
Bangladesh are dependent on agriculture and 2.5 percent are fishers24. The fisheries sector as a
whole contributed 4% of national GDP in 2000 (World Bank et. al. 2003) and 6% of the
export earnings25 (BBS 2002). This sector provides employment to about 1 Million full time
and part time fishers, of which, 0.77 million are engaged in inland open fisheries26. In addition
to the regular inland waters, a large part of the country remains seasonally submerged for 3-4
months during monsoon. Millions of rural poor and marginal people gain their partial
livelihood support from fisheries sector while over one million are full time fishers who
maintain their livelihood from the already depleted open water fisheries resources.
There has been a significant diversification in the rural economy besides the
traditional agriculture and fisheries during the last decade. The process of diversification of
the rural economy and livelihood options greatly relies on the growth of agriculture and the

UNDP 2005 UNDP Human Development Report 2005. (last visited on 2005/12/10)
UNDP HDR, op.cit.
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. 1994. Bangladesh Population Census- 1991, Vol.1 Bangladesh.

World Fish Center, in Collaboration with Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Center for Advance Studies
(NGO). Understanding Livelihoods Dependent on Inland Fisheries in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia
DFID/FMSP project R8118. 2003. Bangladesh Country Summery Report. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

BBS 2002, op.cit.
World Fish Center, in Collaboration with Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Center for Advance Studies
(NGO). Understanding Livelihoods Dependent on Inland Fisheries in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia
DFID/FMSP project R8118. 2003. Synthesis report, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

productivity of natural resources including land, water, fisheries, and forestry27. In many parts
of the country, the river and canal based navigation has also had a dramatic boost from the
introduction of mechanized boats. Thus, in this socio-economic fabric, water plays a very
crucial role in terms of sustaining the majority’s livelihoods and economy.

Although the livelihoods dependent on natural resources cover a majority people’s

security and a significant portion of national economy, the incidence of poverty in households
with agriculture, forestry and fishing as major occupation is much higher than the overall
national average29. About 40% of those households mostly dependent on natural resources are
below the poverty line compared to the national average of 34%. The highest percentage
(50%) of households below the poverty line is for landless households. In the 1995-96
Household Expenditure Survey30 75% of landless agricultural workers and 45% of fishers
were below the lower poverty line against the national rural average of 40%. In particular, the
majority of the poor continue to live in rural areas, with the trend in poverty reduction being
more pronounced in urban areas. Despite improvements in recent years, women remain
particularly disadvantaged, with 95% of female-headed households in poverty31.

The above statistics suggests that the natural resource dependent people are most
vulnerable and deprived, though their number is larger in the country. Their vulnerable
situation gets more intensified and threatened as they have to depend and compete over scarce
and degraded resources. Water scarcity thus is directly or indirectly linked with
unemployment, underemployment, low wages and overall livelihood insecurities. Whether
water scarcity increases poverty or poverty increases water scarcity and degradation, in both
the ways it is threatening to human security. Poverty and water resource scarcity both have
destabilizing capabilities. The interactions of these two factors are thus strong roots of
insecurities and conflicts.

2.1 Environmental stress and threats

DFID, Bangladesh. 2002. A Review of DFID’s Country Strategy for Bangladesh, CSP 1998-2002. DFID,
Taufique, Kazi Ali., and Turton, Kate. 2001. Hands Not Land: An Overview of How Livelihoods is Changing
in Rural Bangladesh. BIDS and DFID
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) 2000.
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) 1997.
Rahman 1998; World Bank 1998; Ashley et al.2000.

With physically abundant water resources, Bangladesh has very critical water crisis
both from water scarcity and water abundance. The main water system of Bangladesh
comprises the tributaries and distributaries of the three major river systems: the Ganges, the
Brahmaputra and the Meghna and numerous perennial and seasonal wetlands such as hoar,
boar, beels and ground water. Most of Bangladesh lies on the floodplain and about two third
of Bangladesh is wetlands. Of the total inland waters of 4.3 million hectares, 65.3 percent are
flood plain, 3.8 percent are ponds and 3.2 percent are coastal farms.32.

Ground water is another major water resource of Bangladesh. It has continued to be

developed as a source of domestic, industrial and irrigation supplies. Of the total water use in
the country, 90% is for agriculture. About 73% of the water used comes from groundwater. At
present, about 90% of irrigation water is provided by ground water. Bangladesh also has huge
rainfall; the average annual rainfall in Bangladesh varies from 1500 mm in the west-central
part to over 3000 mm in the northeast and southeast. Winter (November through February) is
very dry and accounts for only less than 4% of the annual rainfall and the rainy season (June
through October) accounts for 70 to 85% of the annual rainfall33.

Although Bangladesh has plenty of water resources the distribution of water resources
is highly uneven; too much water in the monsoon and too little in the dry season. Thus flood
and scarcity of water is a double edge sword problem for Bangladesh. This uneven
availability of water causes various types of environmental stress. On one hand, Bangladesh
face flood and drainage congestion and sedimentation problem and on another hand it faces
drought, salinity intrusion, and arsenic (indirect way) problem, deforestation, and so on due to
scarcity of water.
Floods are one of the most critical problems in Bangladesh. Upper riparian water flow
and internal rainfall almost every year creates flooding conditions in the country, causing
devastating damage. The nation experiences around 37% inundation due to floods every 10
years. Once in every ten years, roughly one third of the country gets severely affected by
floods, while the catastrophic years such as 1988 and 1998 around 60% of the land area in
Farzana Ahmed, Rasshiduzzaman Ahmed, Ainun Nishat 2000 ‘Session 3: Directions for Achieving
Sustainable Floodplain Livelihoods’. In Clemett, A.V., Chadwick, M.T., Barr, J.F.F. (ed.). People's Livelihoods
at the Land-Water Interface - Emerging Perspectives on Interactions Between People and the Floodplain
Environment. Symposium Proceedings, University of Leeds, UK. pp 63-72.

33 (last visited on 2005/11/04).

Bangladesh was inundated34. The extent of the 1998 flood was the highest in recorded history,
inundating about 68% of the total landmass of Bangladesh35. The full scale of damages caused
by flooding is unknown. Only the tangible damage at current price was estimated to be
US$2.1 billion in the 1998 floods36. An account to damage to the whole economy caused by
the 1998 flood shows that the non-agricultural sectors (e.g., infrastructure and commercial
sectors), including the non-crop sector suffered enormous loss, constituting over 57 % of the
total losses, equivalent to nearly 4% of the 1998 GDP. Crop sector has suffered 43 % of the
total loss, equivalent to 2.8% of the 1998GDP.37

On the contrary the water scarcity and its consequence are also a great problem in
Bangladesh. Drought is a common phenomenon in many parts of Bangladesh in post
monsoon and dry season. The North part of the country suffers most from the drought
problem due to water scarcity of surface water. One major crisis or consequences of water
scarcity is salinity intrusion. There had been significant increase in salinity intrusion over the
last two decades in the South-West region of the country as a result of drastic reduction of dry
season fresh water flow through important distributaries of the Ganges like Gorai, Bhairab,
Mathabhanga, Kumar, Kobadak, Chitra, Betna, Nabaganga etc. The salinity level in Khulna
the coastal industrial city shot up to 29,000 micromohs38 in 1992 and 1995. The ingress of
salinity has caused manifold adversities in the agro socio economic life of millions of people
living in an area of about 2 million ha39.

The Sundari trees of the Sundarbans-the largest mangrove forest as well as a world
heritage site had been the worst hit of the water scarcity problem and salinity problem.

Water Resources Management: thematic sub committee (Group -10), Ministry of Water Resources, Govt. of
Bangladesh. 2004 Contribution towards preparation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) for
Bangladesh. Dhaka.

Water Resource Planning Organization (WARPO) and Center for Environmental and Geographic Information
Service (CGIS). 2003. Analytical Framwork for the Planning of Integrated Water Resources Management.
Water Resources Management: thematic sub committee, op.cit.
Chowdhury O, H.Islam, K M N and Bhattacharya, D. 1999. The Impacts of 1998 Floods on Bangladesh
Economy-A Rapid Assessment, Asian Development Bank, Dhaka.
The intensity of 2000 micromhos/cm equivalent to 1200 ppm is considered as the tolerable limit of salinity
when normal agricultural practice can continue unhindered.
Joint River Commission (JRC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Government of Bangladesh. 2003. A
brief on Arsenic Contamination of Ground Water in Bangladesh and India’s Mega Plan for Inter-Linking Rivers.

Excessive water salinity has resulted in increased soil salinity in the ground water of the area.
This has caused serious adverse impact on domestic, municipal and industrial water supply,
fisheries, forestry, agriculture and above all on the natural balance in large areas of the south-
western region. The phenomenon has forced many people to the area in quest of livelihood

The ground water situation also is in an alarming state. In recent years, ground water
aquifers in many part of the country have become contaminated with arsenic. In 1997, ground
water studies for arsenic contamination by the Department of Public Health Engineering
(DPHE) sampled about 2023 wells across the 250 thanes (out of a national total 464) of the
country. It was observed that arsenic in ground water is strongly concentrated virtually
entirely in the southeast and southwest regions of the country. It is reported that ground water
in different areas of more than 50 out of the 64 districts of the country is contaminated with
arsenic in various degrees40. Extensive arsenic contamination of the groundwater in the
alluvial aquifers of Bangladesh is probably the worst case of water pollution in present time.
Water pollution is difficult to overcome; it victims suffer a slow but painful death from cancer,
skin and other diseases. Many experts are now convinced that over exploitation of ground
water has resulted in this wide spread arsenic contamination. Of the total water use in the
country, 90% is for agriculture. About 73% of the water used comes from the groundwater. As
of now about 90% of irrigation water is provided by ground water.

In the case of wetlands, which is one of the most important water related resources; in
Bangladesh these have been exploited and used exhaustedly, without having proper
conservation policies or having any long-vision plan. Over emphasis on irrigation and flood
control has a negative impact on wetlands. Many wetlands are destroyed and their capacity
and productivity negatively affected. Fish resources become very much scarce in these
wetlands and valuable flora and fauna are also threatened. People in the wetlands also suffer
due to a lack of access to the water resources. Thus, even though the wetlands are very rich in
natural and water resources, the people in the wetlands have long suffering and struggles.

Joint River Commission (JRC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Government of Bangladesh. 2003. A
brief on Arsenic Contamination of Ground Water in Bangladesh and India’s Mega Plan for Inter-Linking Rivers.

Thus, the scenarios of the water resources, which are the safety nets throughout long
history, are being highly eroded and degraded. The above discussion and analysis finds that
there are many water related threatening factors and environmental stress, such as flood,
drought, salinity, arsenic, degradation of water, and these factors rule the lives of millions of
people in Bangladesh. The impacts of these threatening factors are devastating as the socio-
economic context of Bangladesh also vulnerable. These social and environmental stress have
various negative social effects such as loss of economic productivity, declining agro-
production, increases livelihood insecurity, increase competition on limited resources and so
on. Directly or indirectly these negative social effects and environmental stress cause
enormous threats to the well being of Bangladesh especially these environmental stresses
threaten the majority people’s livelihood. As livelihood is the core of human security, the
‘security’ of the majority people is basically related to environmental factors, such as the
quantity, quality and availability of water resources. In present reality, people need much
attention to be secure from environmental threats and livelihood insecurity. The notion of
threat in Bangladesh therefore, is very much related to environmental factors than any other
territorial threats.

In the case of Bangladesh, these vulnerable situations not only concern threats, but
they also contribute to breeding conflict. Water crisis in Bangladesh involves both domestic
and inter state level conflict. All these conflicts are not always violent or highly visible in
nature rather the crisis and conflict is not immediately apparent. The following two case
studies, one at domestic level and the other at inter-state level, examine water-security relation
from conflict perspective. These cases focus on the causal factors behind this conflicting
situation, whether resource scarcity or poor management of water resource leads the
vulnerable situation towards conflict.

3. Case study on livelihood struggle in the wetland Hakaluki Haor

According to the definition articulated in the Ramsar convention,41 more than two
thirds of Bangladesh may be classified as wetland. Twelve million people are directly and
possibly another twenty million are indirectly dependent on these wetlands in Bangladesh.

The Ramsar convention has defined wetlands as `areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or
artificial, permanent or temporary with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of
marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.

The wetlands are an enormous resource base that has been providing materials and facilitated
services that lend support to the local economy throughout the history, especially the
livelihoods related to fishing, which are intricately dependent on these wetlands. A significant
number of people are engaged in related activities such as fish and dry fish production,
aquaculture and enhanced fisheries, fish trading, processing and net/trap and boat making.
About 70% of rural households in floodplains (one third of the country) are involved in
subsistence fishing for their own consumption.

Hakaluki haor, the largest haor (wetland) in Bangladesh is situated in the North East
of Bangladesh and is renowned for its abundant fisheries resources. The reason Hakaluki haor
has been selected for this study is that the community people, especially fisher-men groups in
Hakaluki suffered enormously even though the area is renowned for its abundant water
resources and fisheries resources. Two villages ‘Nishchintapur’ and Pashchim (west)
Gobindapur in Hakaluki haor were selected for this case study. The methodology of the case
study includes a series of focus group discussions with the community people of the village
Nishchintapur and Pashchim Gobindapur in the Hakaluki haoar.

3.1 Livelihood at Hakaluki

Fisheries remain traditionally one of the key livelihoods in Hakaluki. A large number
of fisheries livelihoods group and fishing activity is found in the village Nishchintapur and
Pashchim Gobindapur. Among all stakeholders about 40% subsist on fishing, among them
about 60% are fulltime fishers, 20% are part-time fishers and about 10% are subsistence
fishers.42 Among the twenty participants of the focus group discussion, fourteen are full time
fisherman or jele and six are part time and subsistence fishermen. Sixteen depend on fishing
as their livelihood and primary source of income. ‘Bangladesh PRA Report’ (2003)43 also
shows that 90% of the poor fishers and more than 50% of the part-time fishers depend on
fishing for their livelihood.

World Fish Center, in Collaboration with Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Center for Advance Studies
(NGO), DFID/FMSP project R8118. 2003. Understanding Livelihoods Dependent on Inland Fisheries in
Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

World Fish Center, in Collaboration with Government of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Center for Advance Studies
(NGO), DFID/FMSP project R8118. 2003. Bangladesh PRA Report, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The wetland people use water resources not only for their prime source of livelihood,
but also for their alternative coping mechanism in adverse situations. In monsoon season,
when job opportunities shrink, the majority of people in the haors and floodplains engage in
fishing. In the monsoon season, the whole hoar turns into a single sheet of water allowing
people get free access to water body naturally. According to the community people and the
focus group discussion around 80% of households are involve in fishing in the monsoon.
Another alternative job during the monsoon season is preparing ‘pati44’ from ‘Hogla grass.
Women are mostly involved in preparing pati and net for fishing.

Haor people face enormous insecurities as they have fierce competition among each
other for scarce resources. The haor area is renowned for its abundant fisheries, but access to
these fisheries is characterized by extremely tight control by very powerful and wealthy
leaseholders. The majority of the traditional fishermen are poor and cannot take lease of the
water body on their own, so they usually work as paid employees in the leasholder’s beel.
Among the twenty participants of the fishermen group twelve work as paid employees
occasionally or all throughout the year. They generally have access to the fisheries only on a
catch-share basis or through employment.

According to the participants, in the off-season many traditional fishermen do not

obtain jobs, they looked for jobs outside; some people engage in day labour jobs outside of
their area and some migrate to the city. Most of the Hindu participants in the Gabindapur
village expressed their view that the number of Hindu traditional Jele have declined
drastically from the past. Another critical problem expressed by the participants is the drastic
decline in the quantity of fish. Even though there is the opportunity for fishing, there is not
enough fish in the water, even in monsoon. The participants identified the causes of this
decline in fish as over fishing, no trees or shrubs as breeding ground for fish, and pollution of
the water. They identified the problem of water siltation, which also has negative impact on

3.2 Livelihood insecurity and conflict at Hakaluki

The participants expressed their view that there has always been conflict over the
access and ownership of the water bodies, however it not always violent. The leaseholders
Pati-It is one kind of mat made from hogla grass (grow in the marshy land of haor)

enforce their rights over the water body very strictly, very often poor people try to enter
restricted water bodies and if they are caught their gear and boar are confiscated45. They are
punished, sometimes physically violated. Often, leaseholders drain out (dry up) their beels for
collecting all the fishes at a time for commercial purpose but these cause huge trouble for the
local people and help to create disputes and conflict. Most of the participants expressed their
view that they have huge competition for getting access to water resources, fish and other
social benefits, but there are no frequent violent conflicts among the user groups. Too much
competition very often turns into disputes among neighbors. There are infrequent conflicts
among leaseholders that are violent, resulting in injuries, mentioned by some of the

The fisheries studies of FAP 17 identified conflicts in haor when the physiological
change happened in haor. As siltation increases, more and more hoar areas are being
cultivated. The construction of embankments that can protect crops from floods is an extra
incentive for extending crop cultivation in the haor. As this happens, the potential conflict
between landowners and leaseholders increases46.

Most of the conflicts in haor are often suppressed or hidden within the wider process
of social control and mediation. Participants of the focus group expressed their view that in
most of the cases they mitigate conflict by themselves. Often their mahajon and other local
elite or politically powerful persons mitigate their conflicts. They have to accept their
judgment even though it not always in their favor. If the conflict is violent and very critical
then the members and chairman of Union Parisad, an elected person of the local government
usually comes to mitigate or they have to go to a court. In present times, NGO staff and
government staff also go to the villages and become involved in this type of mitigation.

3.3 Haor management and leasing system

The crisis and conflict situation in the haor area has long roots with the leasing system
and overall management system of the wetland. For a long time, wetland people are ignored
from policy and initiatives. Since there is a long history of the tradition of `power is might in
the wetland, local people who are the actual users of water resources have negligible control
Government of Bangladesh, FAP 17 Fisheries studies ( Supporting volume no 17), op.cit.
FAP 17 Fisheries studies (1994, Supporting volume no 17 and19), op.cit.

over them. There was no appropriate policy or plan for wetland management, or sustainability
of the livelihoods of the haor people for a long time. Community involvement in the decision-
making or resource management process was almost absent. Moreover, the policy of water
resource leasing was aimed at earning tax revenue, not at the sustainability of the poor or the
promotion of livelihood strategy.

Historically (before 1947) Jalmohols or water bodies were open or controlled, to some
extent, by the fishing communities (mostly Hindu lower caste) themselves under a series of
informal agreements with the local Zamindar. However the competition was essentially
limited within these two groups: the ‘landlord’ who had nominal control over water bodies
and the fishermen who were usually patronized by a particular Zamindar on a stable basis.
Gradually, the old established pattern of fishing disappeared and this change brought a new
more heterogeneous group of rural power brokers and large landowners into the market for
controlling the fisher leases. After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the changes have
accelerated. The beels in the haors are government-owned (khas) land (under the MoL47) and
are leased out for fishing through auction. The government is interested in collecting revenue
from fisheries and it does so primarily by leasing out MoL individual fisheries From
independence in 1971, fishing communities, organized into samiti or cooperative societies,
were given the opportunity to make the first bid at auctions of Jalmohol.
In reality, the common poor people did not share in the opportunities. The automatic
raising of base lease fees by 25% from one lease period to another has quickly led to the
fishing communities being priced out of the market. From 1986, MFL has begun a major new
initiative to overcome problems of exploitation of fisherman and fishing mining, which is
know as New Fisheries Management Policy (NFMP). Under NFMP, access to fishing rights is
only given to genuine fishermen. This is done through a process of local peer/official
selection and certification and issuing of renewable annual fishing licenses to approve and
listed genuine fishermen. As most of the Jalmohol are much larger than what one fisherman
can harvest, the DOF48 has elected to license out Jalmohols to fishermen collectives (e.g.,
cooperatives, associations etc).

MoL: Ministry of Land.
Department of Fisheries.

This new approach of leasing has not been initiated everywhere in Bangladesh; more
over, even though water has been leased through fishermen collectives, in reality the rich,
elite and politically powerful people still have the real control; the majority poor people have
only a nominal share. In most of the cases the beels are under rich leaseholders, not the poor
people. Usually the elite people in the village or in the samity buy the lease in their name.
Then they obtain a share of that. In reality, the leaseholders are usually the active movers in
the relationship, approaching fishing communities and acquiring the right to use their names
in order to obtain leases in return for rights to fish as laborers, license holders or sub-lessees. 49
NFMP has had little impact on protecting the rights of ‘genuine fishermen’ as most of the
water bodies are under the control of elite people or the local mahajan.

Lack of proper financial support or credit support in emergencies is another factor that
makes this situation much worse. The participants expressed the view, that the need to go to
mahajan and depend on mahajan to lend money for buying net, boat, seed, fertilizer or other
purposes. Very often they are exploited by the Mohajon but they have to go to them as there is
lack of institutional sources of credit. Haors are in remote areas and sometimes isolated from
the mainland. Very few NGOs are working in haor areas. The majority of the participants
expressed their view that they can not get a loan from the bank as they have no collateral for a
mortgage. NGOs also don’t want to give them credit for the same purpose.
On the other hand, wetlands have long been degraded. The physical loss, shrinkage
and modification of aquatic habitats, irrational use of pesticides, fertilizers and discharge of
chemical pollutants from industries are said to be one of the major factors involved in
depleting fish varieties. The extensive irrigation scheme for agricultural fields and
indiscriminate use of agrochemicals are changing the feeding and breeding grounds of many
indigenous fish species50. Discharge of pollutants into water bodies from industries, and over
fishing are highly responsible for the destruction of fish species. Short term leasing of haors
and boars to individuals for commercial exploitation has led to many species becoming

Government of Bangladesh, FAP 17 Fisheries studies ( Supporting volume no 17), op.cit.
A. Atiq Rahman, D.L. Mallick, Nasimul Haque and Ainun Nishat. Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies
(BCAS). 2002. ‘Trends in Natural Resource Management in Bangladesh: Looking for Integration and a New
Institutional Framework’ Natural Resource Management Workshop Report. 10th Oct, 2002. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

locally instinct51. Studies on Flood Action Plan FAP 1752 and FAP 653 found that Flood Control
Drainage (FCD) and Flood Control Drainage and Irrigation (FCDI) projects have had a
negative impact on fish stock and fisheries. Too much emphasis, over irrigation and flood
control from the water development sector, has excluded the other sectors, such as the wetland
or fisher groups.

The above situation examines that the stressful water situation in the Hakaluki has had
a long effect on wetland people especially on their livelihoods. The enormous competition for
limited resources and degraded situation of wetland contributes to breeding conflicts either
explicitly or implicitly. But this stressful situation exists and is exacerbated not only by
resource scarcity but also unilateral control and poor management of resources. Due to the
lack of proper management, long-vision plans and people-centered policy approach, the
majority of people in Hakaluki haor suffer from livelihood insecurity, although the area is
renowned for water resources.

The situation is not all in dark, a gradual change is taking place, especially in the
1990s, pressure for the restructuring of the water sector has grown. A new consensus among
stakeholders, professionals and policy makers on the need for integrated water resources
management has arisen, reflected in the Bangladesh Water and Flood Management Strategy
(FPCO, 1996)54. Following a FAP recommendation and pressure from NGOs and donors, the
preparation of a comprehensive NWMP was initiated in 1998. The GoB responded to this
initially through the Bangladesh water and flood management strategy, which proposed the
formulation of a national water management plan and the institutional strengthening of water
sector organizations. It openly recognized that there are considerable limitations on the
existing approach to water management and it recognized the inadequacy of the existing
institutional framework for meeting the present needs.55

A. Atiq Rahman, D.L. Mallick, Nasimul Haque and Ainum Nishat. 2002. ‘Trends in natural resource
management in Bangladesh: Looking for Integration and a new institutional framework.
Government of Bangladesh, FAP 17 Fisheries studies ( Supporting volume no 17), op.cit.
Government of Bangladesh 1992 ‘Thematic Study-Fisheries in the Northeast Region of Bangladesh’. Flood
Action Plan 6 (Northeast Regional Water Management Project), Draft, final. Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Flood Plan Coordination Organization (FPCO). 1996. Bangladesh Water and Flood Management Strategy .
Government of Bangladesh, Ministry of Water Resources, Dhaka.
Mathew Chadwick and Anjan Datta.[2003] Water Resource Management in Bangaldesh A Policy Review,
Livelihood-Policy Relationships in South Asia Working Paper 1.

The National Water Policy (NWPo) was prepared and published in January 1999
following endorsement of the National Water Resources Council (NWRC). A new National
Water Management Plan (NWMP)56 was formulated and approved in 2004. Some NGOs, like
Center for Natural Resource Studies (CNRS), International Union for Conservation Nature
(IUCN) and government project such as ‘Training on Conservation of Wetlands in
Bangladesh’ implemented by the Forest Directorate through the MOEF57 have also been
launched in this period.

The FAP 17 reports also find that in some places where the NFMP has been introduced
in co-ordination with a program of support for fishermen through NGOs, the policy has been
successful in redirecting fisheries benefits towards traditional and full time fishermen.58
However, in this period, Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM)), people’s
participation, environmental impact assessments increasingly gained recognition. Community
people are also trying to expand their involvement and communication with new markets,
new institutions and support system. NGOs and government put emphasis on including
community people in mainstream policy thereby considering their rights as community
people. As a whole, it was found that the gradual involvement of community people and a
process of institutionalization is evolving in the wetland.

These changes in the water sector also caused changes in the water-security relation.
With the new adaptive mechanism, which emphasizes people’s participation and different
stakeholder participation in decision-making, there is large potential to move the water-
security relation towards co-operation and stability, instead of conflicts. The process of such
change is not simple and clear cut but the recent policy changes and initiatives at the grass
roots level, such as Community Based Natural Resource Management, indicate that an
effective and positive adaptive mechanism is growing. Even though natural resources remain
the same or are becoming scarce, the positive adaptive mechanisms at the local and national
levels help to move the conflicting situations towards more co-operation and stability. The

Govt. of Bangladesh. 2004. National Water Management Plan. Water Resource Planning Organization
(WARPO), Ministry of Water Resources, Dhaka.

Government of Bangladesh. 1999. National Report of Bangladesh for COP 7, 1999. (last visit 2006/01/03).
Government of Bangladesh, P 17 Fisheries studies ( Supporting volume no 19), op.cit.

majority of people’s participation in decision-making can certainly secure people’s right and
thus enhance livelihood security and as well as environmental security.

4. Case study on political tension over water sharing between India and
Water crisis and conflict in Bangladesh is not only limited to the domestic sphere as
Bangladesh is the lowest riparian country of more than fiftty trans-boundary rivers. Out of the
230 rivers in Bangladesh, fifty-seven are Trans-boundary Rivers, of which fifty-four come
from India and the remaining three from Myanmar. About 93% of the catchments areas are
located outside the country in China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. 59 Bangladesh and India both
share water from the same Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin and both countries
have high levels of demand for surface water in their agro-based societies. Based on common
water sharing they have had water related disputes for more than forty years especially when
India commissioned the Farakka barrage over the Ganges to divert the water. The effects of
the Farakka barrage have a devastating impact on the ecology, economy and sustainability of
Bangladesh. The scarcity of trans-boundary water has become a great threat to human beings
and the ecology of Bangladesh. However, the long awaited thirty years treaty on the Ganges
water sharing in 1996 has commenced a new dimension on the India-Bangladesh relationship.
Nonetheless the crisis still exists at the time of writing, as India and Bangladesh have been
unable to come to a consensus on the augmentation of the Gages and other trans-boundary
waters. However, the signing of the 30 years treaty for the Ganges and initiatives towards
other trans-boundary rivers indicates a potential co-operative and integrated approach to water
management in the region. In this context, the proposal of the Inter-Linking Project (to divert
water from Brahmaputra to south part of India) created again a huge amount of potential
threats and tension towards Bangladesh’s future economy, ecology, human security, as well as
towards the political relationship between India and Bangladesh. Based on the disputes over
water resources, this case study analyzes the water–security relation from a water scarcity
conflicts and water scarcity-co-operation perspective.

Joint River Commission (JRC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Government of Bangladesh. 2003.
Bangladesh and Trans-boundary Water Issue. Dhaka.

The 1.75 million sq. km of GBM basins is home to nearly 620 million people (1999
estimate). Of that total, around 70% are in India, 22% in Bangladesh and the rest in Nepal,
Bhutan and China. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line and the number
of poor people is increasing60. Although Bangladesh accounts for only 8 percent of the GBM
basin, the hydrological catchments areas that lie within its borders represent 88 percent of the
country’s total land61. Thus, the majority of people intricately depend on these rivers.

Map 3: The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin

Source: Internet (

One key feature in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin is that the spatial and
temporal distribution of water availability is very uneven. Thus, the flows of the rivers of
Bangladesh are also highly seasonal, with sometimes too much flow and sometimes too little
flows in the river. 80% of this annual flow is concentrated in the monsoon months from June
to October.62 During the dry season (November through April), when water is badly needed,
the cross border flow decreases to an average of only 159 BCM. In the critical dry month of
March, when water demand is at its peak and the in-country rain fall negligible, the total flow
through the trans-boundary rivers comes down to an average of a mere18 BCM.

A N H A. Hossain, S. H. M Fakhruddin, 2003. Peoples Initiative for Transboundary River Basin Management,

Faisal, Islam. M, op.cit.
Joint River Commission (JRC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Government of Bangladesh. 2003.
Bangladesh and Trans-boundary Water Issue. Dhaka.

Table-1: Per Capita Water Availability & Water Demand between Wet and Dry Seasons63
Wet Season (June-September) Dry Season (January-April)
Per capita availability Per capita demand Per capita availability Per
capita demand
6613 M3 1091 M3 562 M3 1134 M3

Source: Joint river commission (JRC), Bangladesh Bangladesh and Trans-boundary Water Issue. Dhaka.

The data of the above table shows that the available water in Bangladesh is either too
much or too little. In terms of water availability, Bangladesh, therefore, faces two major
hazards: floods during the monsoon (June-October) season and draught and scarcity of water
during the dry season (November-May). The dry season water scarcity in Bangladesh is
exacerbated by increasing upstream diversion of precious flows from the trans-boundary
rivers across its borders. This problem became acute and visible when India commissioned a
barrage over the Ganges river at Farakka to divert the bulk of the dry season flows of the
Ganges in 1974. The natural decrease of flow and the diversion of water makes the water
scarcity situation critical in the dry season in Bangladesh.

As 88% of Bangladesh lies on the catchments of the GBM basin, the livelihoods,
economy, ecology and, as whole, the security of the people of Bangladesh intricately depend
on these river systems. For centuries, the waters of the trans-boundary rivers have been
shaping the life and living of millions of Bangladeshis. Thus the scarcity of water has multi-
layered and multi level impacts and effects. It effects are felt at the individual level to the
national and international levels and from economy to ecology and to security.

The diversion of the Ganges waters during the dry season at Farakka continued at an
alarming rate, evident from the dry season flows of the Ganges at Hardinge Bridge. The
Gorai, which is the main tributary carrying water to the south-west region of Bangladesh,
became totally dry at the beginning of the lean period. The progressive utilization of the
waters upstream in India, coupled with the massive unilateral diversion at Farakka Barrage,
culminated in the lowest recorded flow a Hardinge Bridge of 13,521 cusecs in 1992,

compared with historical average flows of 75,000 cusecs during the last ten-day period of
March (Nishat 1996). Several studies Abbas64, Begum65, Islam66, Verghese (1992), Verghese
and Iyer67, Crow68, Nishat69 Nishat, Tanzeema and Faisal70 have already been conducted on
the dry season water scarcity situation, focused mostly on the Ganges and Farakka issue. Ben
Crow71 identified different effects of Farakka barrage. His study reveals a chain of cause and
effect linking, reduced river flows and its consequences.

4.1 Political tension and process of the ‘Ganges Treaty’

From the very beginning of the Farakka barrage project, political tensions and
conflicts grew between India and Bangladesh. A dispute over The Ganges flow was made
public in 1951 when Pakistan (Bangladesh was East Pakistan at that time) protested to India
about the proposed Farakka barrage72. In spite of the protest, in 1960 the government of India
sanctioned the budget for construction of the Farakka Barrage to divert bulk of the dry season
flows of the Ganges. Negotiations have pursued between India and Bangladesh, and prior to
1971 with Pakistan, on this issue for the last 40 years. Instead of converging towards an
acceptable sharing arrangement, the issue has become more complex with many other issues
related to a sharing arrangement.73

More than 20 years after the commission of the Farakka barrage, the two countries
signed a 30 years treaty on 12th December 1996 for sharing the dry season flows of the
Ganges74. Although it took a long time to reach the treaty stage, Bangladesh and India, from
Abbas, A.T. 1982. The The Ganges Water Dispute. Dhaka: University Press Ltd.
Begum, K. 1987. Tension over the Farakka Barrage. Dhaka: University Press Ltd.
Islam, M.R. 1987. The Ganges Water Dispute: Its International Legal Aspects. Dhaka: University Press Ltd.
Verghese, B.G. and Iyear, R.R. 1993. Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers. New Delhi: Konarak
Ben Crow, Alan Lindquist and David Wilson. 1995. Sharing the The Ganges: The Politics and Technology of
River Development. Dhaka: University Press Ltd.
Nishat, A.1996. Impacts of the The Ganges Water Dispute on Bangladesh in Asian International Waters, from
The Ganges-Brahamaputra to Mekong. Oxford University Press.
Faisal, I. M., Nishat, A. and Tanzeema, S. March, 1999. Sharing Common Waters between India and
Bangladesh. Paper presented in the International Workshop on Co—operation and Conflict Resolution in South
Asia, JNU, Delhi, India.
Ben Crow, op.cit.
Nishat, A. 2000. ‘An Assessment of the International Mechanisms for Water Negotiations in the The Ganges-
Brahmaputra-Meghna System’ International Negotiation Vol, 5, No. 2, 5: pp. 289-310
Nishat, A.1996. op.cit.
The Government of Bangladesh and The Government of India. 1996. Treaty between The Government of the
People’s Republic of Bangladesh and The Government of the Republic of India on Sharing of the Ganga/The
Ganges Waters at Farakka. held on 12th Dec. 1996 at New Delhi, India.

very early, recognized the importance of resolving water related contentions and attempted to
expedite the process by formally establishing the Joint River Commission (JRC) in 1972. The
Joint River Commission was formed to facilitate water related co-operation between India and
Bangladesh. Several short term water sharing agreements were signed between 1977 and
1995. A lot of time was spent between 1977 and 1996 without any fruitful outcome due to
India’s insistence on having a flow augmentation plan for The Ganges. During this time, the
southwestern part of Bangladesh suffered enormous economic and ecological losses.75
Especially in the years from 1986 to 1996, the dry season flows of the Ganges in Bangladesh
decreased drastically in the absence of a sharing agreement76. Therefore, political tension has
developed between India and Bangladesh in several ways. In spite of serious attempts from
the Bangladeshi side, it took a long time to settle the problem solving decision.

At present the most important issue in water sharing is the contention over the
augmentation of the Ganges flows. The issue of flow augmentation has been problematic
from the very beginning. When the 1977 agreement was signed, both parties realized that the
dry season flow of the Ganges would have to be augmented. Accordingly, the two sides
exchanged their proposal in March 1978. In this first round of exchanges, both countries
rejected the other’s proposal as unrealistic77. In 1983, they submitted their updated proposals
to each other. India did not consider the Bangladesh proposal on the basis that it was
multilateral. India prefers to keep bilateral relations both with Bangladesh and India but not
with Nepal or any other country on water disputes. On the other hand, Bangladesh found the
Indian proposal disastrous. Bangladesh raised many objections to the proposal on technical,
economic, social, political, environmental and legal grounds78.

Until 1996 there were several meetings and discussions on augmenting the Ganges
flow but, at the time of writing, two countries have yet to reach consensus. The contentious of
water sharing still continues. The two governments discussed this issue in pre 1996

Nishat, A. 1996. op.cit.
Joint River Commission (JRC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Government of Bangladesh. 2004.
Bangladesh, Trans-boundary Rivers and the Regional Perspectives, Dhaka.
I. M Faisal, op.cit.
K. Begum. 1987. Tension over the Farakka barrage: A techno-political tangle in South Asia. Dhaka:
University Press Ltd. (UPL).

negotiation, not after the 1996 Treaty79. Although the government of India and Bangladesh
agreed to initiate water-sharing Treaties/Agreements with regard to other common rivers and
set up a Joint committee of experts (JCE) but according to the JRC, the JEC, at the time of
writing, has held seven meetings with no meaningful progress. In the absence of agreements
on sharing common river waters, India is increasingly diverting the dry season flows from
many common rivers to the detriment of Bangladesh interests. In the absence of any
agreement on sharing the common rivers, the dry season flows of the Teesta, Manu, Khowai,
Gumti and Muhuri in Bangladesh have been drastically reduced by upstream diversions
across the border. Similar effects have been observed in the flows of the Mohananda,
Bhhairab, Kodla and a number of common rivers80.

This situation increased tension when India proposed the interlinking project of India.
This occurred when Bangladesh is suffering from the acute scarcity of water during the dry
season as a result of cross border upstream diversion, and when Bangladesh is expecting a
positive change towards equitable distribution of water, at a time the proposal of Inter linking
creates enormous threats to Bangladesh. This project envisages diversion of precious dry
season flows of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra to South India. The water of Brahmuputra
and the Ganges contribute about 85% of the total surface water available in Bangladesh
during the dry season. The waters of the Ganges and Brahmaputra are like the lifeblood of
Bangladesh. Cutting off the flows of these two rivers would bring total disaster to

Bangladesh fears that any transfer of water from the Ganges and the Brahmaputra and
their tributaries would cause irreparable and permanent damage to the country. Around 60
million people of Bangladesh are heavily dependent on the waters of the Brahmaputra. In
broad terms, the issue is about changing the parameter of an extremely complex system in
equilibrium81. The Bangladeshi government is known to have communicated its concern to
the Indian government82. Bangladeshi Water Resource Minister declared that if India proceeds
Personal interview with Tawhidul Anwar Khan JRC, Bangladesh at Dhaka JRC office, on 22nd September,
Joint River Commission (JRC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Government of Bangladesh. 2003. ‘A
brief on Arsenic Contamination of Ground Water in Bangladesh and India’s Mega Plan for Inter-Linking Rivers.
Sustainable Development Networking Program Bangladesh (SDNP)-2005 (,
last visited on 2005/11/09)

on this unilateral action then Bangladesh would appeal to the United Nations to redraft
international law on water sharing83.

The program has also generated a lot of controversy within India and outside. Some
civil society organizations in Bangladesh and some from India and Nepal protested this
proposal as it may threaten the entire area and environment itself. Bangladesh Poribesh
Andolon, Bangladesh Environment Network and other NGOs jointly organized a conference
on "Regional Cooperation on Trans-boundary rivers: Impact of the Indian River-Linking
Project" held in Dhaka from December 17-19, 200484. Many Indian speakers, mostly experts
on water resources management, have expressed strong reservations on the inter-linking plan
of rivers on serious technical and environmental grounds. Among them is an India eco-
activist, Ms. Medha Patekar who leads the National Alliance of People's Movement, a
network of over 150 mass-based movements85.

4.2 The problem solving approach of common water

Thus, even after the Ganges water sharing treaty, the contentions over water issues
remain largely in debate. There may be several reasons for the persistence of such contention
and tension. However, the first and very important reason lies in the approach that India and
Bangladesh seek to apply to solving the problem of water scarcity. Both the countries have
understood the necessity of augmenting the Ganges flow for a long period but the contention
still continues because the approach to solving the problem is very much state-centric; it is
based solely on state interest. This approach ignores the issue of ecological equilibrium, the
long-term relation for regional stability and the human security of the entire basin.

The historical processes of negotiations on water sharing reveals that the water sharing
between India and Bangladesh involved unilateral and bilateral negotiation, which mostly
centered on a state-centric approach. The process began with a unilateral action where two

British Daily-The Guardian
The Daily Star, Dec 17, 18,19, 20, 2004. New Age Dec. 19, 20,2004. Prathom Alo Dec. 20, 2004. The
Bangladesh Observer. Mon, Dec. 20, 2004.

The Daily Star, Dec 17, 18,19, 20, 2004. op.cit.

countries are not equal in terms of size, strength and position. India is a prime example of a
larger, upper riparian state that can impose its will over smaller, lower riparian countries.
India is in a strong position in regard to regional politics, and this has allowed it to pursue an
at times unilateral policy with regard to water sharing with Bangladesh86.
Both Bangladesh and Pakistan have stated that India has merely wasted time through
bilateral discussions in an attempt to get its unilateral aims completed away from heavy
international scrutiny (Bhasin, 1996: 414, 1627-28). Bangladesh’s subsequent appeals to
various international institutions resulted in official concerns being expressed by the UN,
Commonwealth, Non-Aligned Movement, the Islamic League and the World Bank (Swain,
1993: 432; M.R. Islam, 1987: 927; Gulati, 1988: 111).
However, India has similar reservations about Bangladesh’s commitment to the
process, and believes that its own actions are acceptable. Indeed, both nations have been
unwilling to accommodate the other’s point of view, and tensions have risen from both India’s
unilateral diversions of river flows and Bangladesh’s unilateral approaches to international
Both nations have largely favored the bilateral approach since the 1971 Treaty of
Peace and Friendship provided the basis for the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission
(JRC). The dispute has officially remained an Indo-Bangladeshi affair. Regarding Indo-
Bangladesh bilateral process, there can be little doubt that there has been productive periods
where the governments have collaborated and generally worked towards a decision (such as in
1971, 1976, 1984 and 1996). These periods are heralded as productive examples of how
bilateral discussions can lead to resolutions in international disputes88

In bilateral resolutions, there needs to be a common profit to which both nations work
together. The essential problem with the Ganges bilateral situation is that it has largely been a
zero-sum situation89. However, if we look at the total amount of the water resource of GBM,
then we find that the total amount of water is abundant for the region. Thus, in terms of the
water scarcity situation is not zero sum. The GBM is 'far from being a zero-sum game,
cooperative water development of the GBM system would assuredly place all players in a
Hafiz and Islam, 1996: 66-67.
McGregor, Joel. 2000. ‘The Internationalization of Dispute over Water: The Case of Bangladesh and India’.
Presented at Australian Political Studies Association Conference, ANU, Camberra, 3-6 Oct, 2000.

Swain. 1996: 437-438; Abbas, 1987: 537-538

strong synergy-driven, win-win situation'90. The above case analysis indicates that the
direction of water-security relation towards conflicts is not always for the cause of resource
scarcity, rather the political approach is much more related to continuing this conflicting

4.3 Signs of progress and co-operation

Fortunately, there are some positive developments in Indo-Bangladeshi riparian
management. The 1996 Indo-Bangladeshi agreement has been heralded as an important step
in Indo-Bangladeshi relations, creating a binding agreement and effectively ending the
opportunity for India to withdraw unilaterally (Salman, 2000: 9; Kanaluddin and Bailey,
1996: 16). The agreement has provided an opportunity for stability within the dispute through
a long-term agreement, as opposed to the varied short-term agreements previously unutilized.

A particularly promising project for augmenting the dry season flow of the Ganges is
the Sapta Kosi High Dam Project in Nepal91. This dam will have a huge storage capacity of
nine bcm, which will provide flood control during the monsoon season in both North Bihar, in
India, and Bangladesh, and will augment the lean season flow of the Ganges, while also
meeting all of Nepal’s irrigation requirements. This project has multiple dimensions including
flood control, sediment management, improved navigation, better irrigation, and
hydropower.92 The involvement of Nepal, although informal and partial, is a step towards a
multilateral and integrated approach in water resource management.

The 13th SAARC summit in November 2005 recognized the years 2006 to 2015 as the
SAARC decade for poverty alleviation. In the GBM region such an achievement can be
possible through the integrated approach of resource management. The leaders also decided to
consider the modalities for having a Regional Environmental Treaty in furthering
environmental co-operation among SAARC members93. The last JRC meeting in the
September 2005 also indicated the possibility a very promising solution of the water dispute
between India and Bangladesh. Indian JRC Co-chairman Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi reassured
Ahmed, Q. K., A. K. Biswas, R. Rangachari and M. M. Sainju. 2001. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna
Region : A Framework for Sustainable Development, Dhaka: University Press Ltd.
I. M Faisal, op.cit.
92 (last visited on 2005/11/07)
South Aisan Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC). 2005 ‘Dhaka Declaration’ 13th SAARC Summit.
Dhaka, Bangladesh on 12-13 Nov. 2005.

Bangladesh that it would not implement the River Linking Project in Himalayan range rivers
that include the Ganges and Brahamaputra, which have direct bearings on Bangladesh94.

The civil society organization also seems to be emerging in the renouncement issue.
The Track 2 activities (research, discussions, and debates on issues, problems, and prospects
by bilateral and regional participants) to promote bilateral and regional co-operation in the
GBM region as well as SAARC have been substantially expanded. The Indo-Bangladesh
Track 2 bilateral dialogues are become quite vibrant, involving many individuals, different
institutions and addressing various subjects, including water development, management and
sharing95. Although the involvement and intervention of the civil societies is very nominal, as
Bangladesh India as well as Nepal have a large number of civil society organizations,
especially NGOs, there is huge potential for involving main stream people in the decision
making process.
The above positive changes and development has huge potential to make the adaptive
mechanism positive and effective. And then, with a positive and effective adaptive
mechanism, which allows people’s right and broader environmental security above the
unilateral state interest, a conflicting situation can be turned into co-operation. In the case of
Bangladesh and India, the political approach taking the leading role in the water-security
relation, so the recent changes in the political environment are the hope for future security and
5. Is resource scarcity or poor water management behind the water
The above two case studies reveal that whether water crisis exists at the local level or
the international level, or whether the scarcity is in absolute terms or in the terms of
accessibility, it does not make much difference. The impact of this crisis on human well
-being and the society is devastating. At every level, from local to national, or regional, water
crisis can destabilize the equilibrium of society through increasing threats and conflicts. At the
local level, this study found high competition, group conflicts, vulnerable livelihood, and
migration towards urban areas and so on. At the inter-state level, political tension and mistrust
between neighboring countries is found. These conflicts, both at the domestic and state level,

The Daily Star, September 22, 2005.
The Daily Star, April 03, 2004.

are not always expressed as violent, rather very often, they creates social tension, instabilities,
disruption of livelihoods, and displacement of people, which can be called social disruption.

However both case studies show that the key driving tools towards this conflicting
situation are not resource scarcities alone. There are frustrations and feelings of deprivation
primarily due to the inequitable distribution of resources. Bangladesh and Ganges-
Brahamaputra-Meghna basin as a whole are poor regions but the resources are not always
scarce. In particular, in the case of water resources, there is not enough physical resource
scarcity in the Ganges-Brahamaputa –Meghna basin. Rather, the water resource in GBM is
abundant for the whole region. Even though the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna region, as a
whole, receives many times more water than is necessary, over the years this region has
suffered from water scarcity and water dispute problems. The trends of water sharing between
India and Bangladesh began as unilateral action based on inequity. In a unilateral approach,
there is a possibility for a winner and loser. As Bangladesh is the lower riparian country and
relatively weak; the control of common water remains in the hand of India. For a long time,
these approaches ignored the rights of people and ignored the environment itself. The space
for public and civil societies in the water dispute resolving process is very negligible. This
approach to problem solving, such as too much state centric interest and unilateral decision
making, eventually breeds tension, mistrust and conflict.

At the domestic level, the main reason for the crisis is not a water scarcity problem
rather it is a problem but of accessibility and degradation. At the local level, this study found
that a very limited number of people who are rich and local elite have all the control over
water resources. The tradition of `power is might` has been in place for long time in the
society and local people who are the actual users of water resources have nominal control
over their life sustaining resources. These inequalities help the elite to deprive the poor and
capture the larger share of resources. This situation exists and is exacerbated by the long
legacy of unilateral control of resources, neglect from mainstream policy makers and
exclusion of community people in the resource management.

The trend of water sector management in Bangladesh exposed that the government
and other sectors ignored the poor community people for long time. There was no proper
policy, plan for wetland management, or sustainability of the livelihoods of the haor people
up to the 1990s. Even after 90s, the community people are suffering as the plan are not
implemented accordingly. Community involvement in the decision making or resource
management process was almost entirely absent. Moreover, the policy of water resource
leasing was aimed at earning tax revenue, not at increasing the sustainability of the
livelihoods of the poor. Too much emphasis over irrigation and flood control form the water
development sector also resulted in a very negative impact on the other sectors, such as the
wetland and fisher groups. Most of these management approaches were partial, fragmented
and non- people centric. This approach and negative and weak mechanisms did not help to
secure the water resource for the vulnerable people. Rather, this approach helped to increase
the inequality, allowing the rich and elite to control and capture resources.

Both the case studies thus reveal that the approach of problem solving rather than
resource scarcity takes the leading role in the water-security linkage. In Bangladesh ‘human
security’ is deeply concerned with livelihood security and environmental protection. But the
management of natural resources, which is the basis for livelihood security, remains less
highlighted in the policy-making arena. As the majority’s livelihood is involved with the
water issue, the security of water is actually the security of the human beings of Bangladesh.
Securing environment and sustainable water resource management can thus, ensure the
sustainable livelihood and development.

So, to change the conflicting situation, a new approach is needed which allows the
security of human beings and nature, above any particular state interest and short term benefit.
In such situations, the environmental security approach, which concerns the environment and
security from a broader and integrated perspective, can enhance proper resource distribution
and avoid of conflict. A process of collective decision-making and a balance between public
agency and community people can enhance such type of approach.

However, all over the world there is fast growing recognition for sustainable water
resource management for poverty alleviation and future security and co-operation building.
The beginning of 21st century is accentuated with huge policy changes and rebuilt the
previous policy and institutions with new and innovative ideas. Bangladesh and South Asia
countries are also gradually changing their views and policy towards such a sustainable
resource management approach. The National Water Policy (1999) and the National Water
Management Plan (2004) of Bangladesh put much emphasis on integrated management,
community involvement and necessity of institutional change. Community people and civil
society, especially a number of NGOs are gradually getting involved in water resource
management in the country.

However this is an initial stage, a greater number of NGOs and civil societies are still
remaining outside of these initiatives. Only a fraction of the NGOs with limited activities have
started their journey towards water and environment issue. With a full-fledged involvement of
community people and civil society, these initial initiatives will be multiplied and effective.
The present trend of the water management sector in Bangladesh and the GBM region
indicate that the approach to water management is gradually changing.

7. Conclusion

The water-security analysis framework helps to build the understanding of a conflict,

which is the first step towards conflict resolution. However, in many cases, it is not easy to
identify a way to end conflicts. But a good understanding of the process why conflict or co-
operation is growing is likely to help the identification of sustainable ways out of the conflict.

This paper focused on that water crisis issue of Bangladesh and its consequences
affect both domestic and international politics and policies. The political environment of both
levels has great influence on water-security relation. Therefore, securing water resource needs
the intervention and integration at both domestic and international level. This integration
demands a politics of consensus and co-operation. Further,’ water’ (as well as environment
and natural resources) has the potential to become an ‘entry point` for such type integration
and co-operation.

Sustainable management of water is not only a question of achieving the poverty

reduction or the Millennium Development Goal, it is a question for our survival. Thus, the
conventional approaches to solving the problem need to be transformed with a new

mechanism; which will be based on ethics and the rights of people. Therefore a value focused
thinking approach, where all the stakeholders can participate to making their own decisions
and security is mandatory. This environmental security framework analyzes the water related
conflict to interpret the values of water and the greater dependence of human security relation
on water, which allow us to think of ‘water’ as a greater room for future security and

Glossary of Bengali words (used in this text)

Beel Officially, a ‘back swamp’ or depression. In reality, it is used for a wide variety of freshwater bodies.
Hoar Depression on the floodplain located between two or more rivers.
Hogla A kind of grass grown in marshy land.
Jele Generic term for fishermen.
Jalmahal A ‘water estate’, now referring to any water body area controlled by the government and normally
leased out fisheries.
Mahajan A very generic but important term that is most commonly used for moneylenders. Effectively, it
means rich and influential persons in rural areas (closer to its literal meaning, ‘great man’).
Samity Association of people grouped together for a common objective or purpose.
Union Lowest level of government administration.