Ganga Water Treaty: Background, Provisions, Challenges

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As India and Bangladesh prepare to renew the Ganga Water Treaty, signed in 1996, recent developments have highlighted the critical role of climate change and regional politics. The treaty, which governs the sharing of Ganga waters at the Farakka Barrage, is set to expire in 2026. The renewal discussions are now focusing on the impact of climate change on water flows and the involvement of the West Bengal government, which has raised concerns about being excluded from the negotiations and the potential adverse effects on the state’s water resources.

Ganga Water Treaty mind map

This topic of “Ganga Water Treaty: Background, Provisions, Challenges” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Historical Context

Background on Indo-Bangladesh Relations Regarding Water Sharing

  • Indo-Bangladesh Relations: India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers, making water sharing a critical aspect of their bilateral relations. The relationship has been marked by both cooperation and contention, particularly regarding the equitable distribution of water resources.
  • Joint Rivers Commission (JRC): Established in 1972, the JRC was created to address issues related to the shared rivers. It serves as a bilateral mechanism to facilitate discussions and agreements on water sharing, flood management, and river basin development.

The Construction and Impact of the Farakka Barrage (1975)

  • Construction Timeline: The construction of the Farakka Barrage began in 1962 and was completed in 1970. It became operational on April 21, 1975. The primary purpose was to divert water from the Ganges to the Hooghly River to flush out sediment and improve the navigability of Kolkata Port.
  • Economic and Environmental Impact: The barrage has had significant economic benefits, including improved water supply for irrigation and industrial use. However, it has also caused environmental issues such as increased siltation, riverbank erosion, and displacement of local populations due to changes in water flow patterns.
  • Controversies: The diversion of water has been a point of contention between India and Bangladesh, with Bangladesh expressing concerns over reduced water flow during the dry season, affecting agriculture and livelihoods downstream.

Previous Agreements and MoUs (1977, 1983, 1988)

  • 1977 Agreement: The first formal agreement between India and Bangladesh on the sharing of Ganga waters was signed in 1977. It established a water-sharing formula for the dry season, but the agreement expired in 1982.
  • 1983 and 1988 MoUs: Following the expiration of the 1977 Agreement, India and Bangladesh signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) in 1983 and 1988. These MoUs made minor adjustments to the previous agreement but did not include a guarantee clause for minimum water flow to Bangladesh.
  • Challenges: Despite these agreements, the period between 1989 and 1996 saw no operational mechanism for water sharing, leading to disputes and tensions over water allocation during the dry season.

The 1996 Ganga Water Treaty

Signing of the Treaty on December 12, 1996

  • Historical Signing: The Ganga Water Treaty was signed on December 12, 1996, in New Delhi by Indian Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. This landmark agreement aimed to resolve long-standing disputes over the sharing of the Ganga River’s waters.

Key Provisions and Terms of the Treaty

  • Water Sharing Formula:
    • The Treaty established a detailed water-sharing formula based on the flow at the Farakka Barrage.
    • If the flow is 70,000 cusecs or less, the water is divided equally between India and Bangladesh.
    • For flows between 70,000 and 75,000 cusecs, Bangladesh receives a fixed 35,000 cusecs, with India taking the remainder.
    • When the flow exceeds 75,000 cusecs, India gets 40,000 cusecs, and the balance goes to Bangladesh.
  • Guaranteed Minimum Flow:
    • The Treaty guarantees Bangladesh a minimum flow of 35,000 cusecs during critical periods, particularly from March 11 to May 10, ensuring a consistent water supply during the dry season.
  • Monitoring and Implementation Mechanisms:
    • Joint Committee was established to monitor the implementation of the Treaty. This committee includes representatives from both countries, who oversee daily water flows at the Farakka Barrage and the Hardinge Bridge.
    • The Joint Committee is responsible for collecting data, submitting annual reports, and resolving any disputes that arise from the implementation of the Treaty.
    • In case of disagreements, unresolved issues are referred to the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission or higher governmental levels for resolution.

Duration and Renewal Clause

  • 30-Year Duration: The Treaty was designed to last for 30 years, expiring on December 12, 2026.
  • Renewal Clause: The Treaty includes a provision for renewal by mutual consent. Both India and Bangladesh can review the Treaty at five-year intervals or earlier if necessary, to assess its impact and make any needed adjustments based on principles of equity and fairness.

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Implementation and Challenges

Initial Implementation and Outcomes

  • Operationalization: The Ganga Water Treaty was operationalized immediately after its signing in 1996, with the establishment of a Joint Committee to oversee its implementation.
  • Initial Success: Initially, the Treaty was seen as a success, fostering cooperation between India and Bangladesh and ensuring a more predictable water-sharing arrangement.

Issues Faced During Implementation

  • Inaccurate Flow Projections:
    • The Treaty faced challenges due to inaccurate projections of future water flows at the Farakka Barrage.
    • These inaccuracies led to difficulties in meeting the guaranteed water allocations, particularly during dry seasons.
  • Inadequate Guaranteed Flow:
    • The provision for a guaranteed minimum flow of 35,000 cusecs to Bangladesh during critical periods was often not met.
    • Statistical analyses indicate that Bangladesh did not receive its guaranteed share 65% of the time during critical dry periods from 1997 to 2016.
  • Environmental and Economic Impacts:
    • The Treaty did not adequately consider environmental and economic drivers, leading to adverse effects on local ecosystems and communities.
    • Issues such as increased siltation, riverbank erosion, and reduced agricultural productivity were reported.
  • Lack of Comprehensive Monitoring:
    • The monitoring mechanisms established by the Joint Committee were insufficient to address all implementation challenges.
    • There were discrepancies in water flow data between the Farakka Barrage and the Hardinge Bridge, complicating the assessment of compliance.

Review of Treaty Performance

  • Periodic Reviews:
    • The Treaty includes provisions for periodic reviews every five years, but these reviews have often highlighted persistent challenges and unmet objectives.
    • The reviews have called for improved data collection, better flow projections, and enhanced cooperation mechanisms.
  • Climate Change Impact:
    • Climate change has exacerbated water availability issues, with changing precipitation patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events.
    • The Treaty did not initially account for the long-term impacts of climate variability, necessitating adjustments to its terms.

Current Status and Future Prospects

Status of the Treaty as it Approaches its Expiration in 2026

  • Expiration Timeline: The Ganga Water Treaty, signed in 1996, is set to expire in December 2026 after its 30-year duration.
  • Current Status: As the expiration date approaches, both India and Bangladesh are actively engaging in discussions to determine the future of the Treaty. The Treaty has been a cornerstone in managing the shared water resources of the Ganga River, but it faces challenges due to changing environmental and political dynamics.

Ongoing Negotiations and Discussions

  • Technical-Level Talks: Recent discussions between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have initiated technical-level talks for the renewal of the Treaty. These talks aim to address the evolving needs and concerns of both nations.
  • State Involvement: The involvement of the West Bengal government has been a contentious issue, with state officials expressing concerns over not being adequately consulted. The state’s participation is crucial due to its significant stake in the water resources of the Ganga.

Potential Scenarios Post-2026

Renewal of the Treaty

  • Mutual Consent: The Treaty can be renewed by mutual consent, as stipulated in its provisions. Both countries may agree to extend the current terms with possible minor adjustments to address new challenges.
  • Continuity and Stability: Renewal would provide continuity and stability in water sharing, ensuring that both countries continue to benefit from a structured agreement.

Renegotiation of Terms

  • Updated Provisions: Renegotiation may involve updating the water-sharing formula, incorporating new data on water flows, and addressing the impacts of climate change.
  • Enhanced Monitoring: Improved monitoring and implementation mechanisms could be included to ensure better compliance and data accuracy.
  • Environmental Considerations: New terms may focus more on environmental sustainability, addressing issues such as siltation, erosion, and the ecological health of the river.

Drafting a New Treaty

  • Comprehensive Agreement: Drafting a new Treaty could provide an opportunity to create a more comprehensive and forward-looking agreement that addresses the shortcomings of the current Treaty.
  • Inclusion of All Stakeholders: A new Treaty could involve broader consultations with all stakeholders, including state governments and local communities, to ensure a more inclusive and equitable agreement.
  • Climate Adaptation: The new Treaty could incorporate provisions for climate adaptation, ensuring that both countries are better prepared for the impacts of climate variability on water resources.

Other Rivers Shared Between India and Bangladesh

  • Teesta River:
    • The Teesta River is a major transboundary river, crucial for both India and Bangladesh.
    • It flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh.
    • The river is vital for irrigation and agriculture in both countries, but an equitable sharing agreement remains unresolved.
  • Feni River:
    • The Feni River originates in the Indian state of Tripura and flows into Bangladesh.
    • An MoU signed in 2019 allows India to withdraw 1.82 cusecs of water for drinking purposes in Sabroom, Tripura.
  • Kushiyara River:
    • The Kushiyara River, a distributary of the Barak River, forms part of the India-Bangladesh border.
    • A recent MoU (2022) allows both countries to withdraw up to 153 cusecs of water each during the dry season.
  • Other Shared Rivers:
    • India and Bangladesh share a total of 54 rivers, including the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Jaldhaka, and Torsa.
    • These rivers are critical for regional water management, flood control, and agricultural activities.

Recent MoUs and Agreements (2019, 2022)

  • 2019 MoU on Feni River:
    • Signed to allow India to withdraw water for drinking purposes in Sabroom, Tripura.
    • The agreement addresses immediate water needs but has raised concerns in Bangladesh about potential impacts on its irrigation projects.
  • 2022 MoU on Kushiyara River:
    • Finalized during the 38th meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission.
    • Allows both countries to withdraw water for consumptive use during the dry season.
    • Aims to facilitate water projects in South Assam (India) and Sylhet (Bangladesh).
  • Broader Cooperation:
    • The 2022 JRC meeting expanded cooperation to include eight additional rivers for data exchange and future water-sharing agreements.
    • Discussions also covered flood data sharing, river pollution, and joint studies on sedimentation management.

Role of the Joint Rivers Commission

  • Establishment and Purpose:
    • The Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was established in 1972 to address issues related to the shared rivers between India and Bangladesh.
    • It aims to maximize the benefits from common river systems through bilateral cooperation.
  • Structure and Function:
    • The JRC is headed by the Water Resources Ministers of both countries.
    • It serves as a platform for technical and ministerial-level discussions on water sharing, flood management, and river basin development.
  • Recent Activities:
    • The 38th JRC meeting in 2022 marked a significant step in reviving bilateral cooperation after a 12-year gap.
    • Key outcomes included the finalization of MoUs on the Kushiyara and Feni rivers, and agreements to include additional rivers in data exchange programs.
    • The JRC also facilitates the sharing of real-time flood data, which is crucial for managing flood risks in Bangladesh.

Political and Environmental Considerations

Political Dynamics Influencing Water Sharing Agreements

  • Upstream-Downstream Tensions:
    • India, as the upstream country, controls the majority of the water flow, leading to power asymmetry in negotiations.
    • Bangladesh, being downstream, depends heavily on water released by India, creating a sense of vulnerability and dependence.
  • Domestic Politics:
    • Internal political dynamics in both countries, such as state-level politics in India (e.g., West Bengal’s stance on the Teesta River), significantly influence bilateral water agreements.
    • Political changes and leadership transitions can either facilitate or hinder progress in water-sharing negotiations.
  • Regional Cooperation:
    • The Ganga Water Treaty is seen as a model for regional cooperation, but its success is often challenged by broader geopolitical tensions in South Asia.
    • Both countries have occasionally used water-sharing issues as leverage in broader diplomatic negotiations.

Environmental Concerns and Sustainability

  • Climate Change:
    • Climate variability has led to unpredictable water flows, exacerbating water scarcity during dry seasons and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events.
    • The Treaty did not initially account for long-term climate impacts, necessitating adjustments to address these challenges.
  • Ecological Degradation:
    • Reduced water flow has led to increased siltation, riverbank erosion, and loss of biodiversity in the Ganga and its tributaries.
    • The diversion of water at the Farakka Barrage has significantly altered the natural flow regime, impacting the health of aquatic ecosystems.
  • Sustainable Management:
    • There is a growing need for sustainable water management practices that balance human needs with environmental preservation.
    • Joint efforts in river basin management, pollution control, and sediment management are essential for the long-term health of the river systems.

Impact on Local Communities and Ecosystems

  • Agricultural Impact:
    • Reduced water availability during critical dry periods has adversely affected agriculture in both India and Bangladesh, leading to decreased crop yields and economic hardship for farmers.
    • In Bangladesh, the lack of adequate water flow has led to increased salinity intrusion, affecting soil fertility and agricultural productivity.
  • Fisheries and Livelihoods:
    • Changes in water flow have disrupted traditional fishing practices, leading to a decline in fish populations and impacting the livelihoods of fishing communities.
    • The ecological changes have also affected other forms of livelihoods dependent on the river, such as boatmen and those involved in riverine trade.
  • Human Health and Well-being:
    • Water scarcity and pollution have direct implications for public health, leading to waterborne diseases and reduced access to clean drinking water.
    • The socio-economic impacts of water scarcity have led to increased poverty and migration in affected regions.


The Ganga Water Treaty, a cornerstone of Indo-Bangladesh water cooperation, faces significant challenges as it approaches its 2026 expiration. While it initially fostered collaboration, issues like inaccurate flow projections, environmental impacts, and political dynamics have persisted. Ongoing negotiations aim to address these challenges, with potential scenarios including renewal, renegotiation, or drafting a new treaty. Sustainable and equitable water management remains crucial for both nations’ future.

Practice Question

Discuss the historical context, implementation challenges, and future prospects of the Ganga Water Treaty between India and Bangladesh. How do political and environmental considerations impact this bilateral agreement? (250 words)

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