Is water diversion from international river a water crime?

Mon, November 20, 2017
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Is water diversion from international river a water crime?
Published : 23 May 2017, 21:26:45
Is water diversion from international river a water crime?
MD Rafiqul Islam
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Is water diversion really a water crime? This is an important question when water diversion causes significant harms to the human being and endanger the human security.  I will analysis this question based on the theory of a renowned water and security expert Ashok Swain of Uppsala University who have recently published an article “Crime, Corruption, Terrorism and Beyond: A Typology of Water Crime” (see: The Human Face of Water Security Part of the series Water Security in a New World, 2017, pp 95-111) in where Swain and his associate Kim has defined water crime as: “Water crime is defined in both procedural and moral terms as wrongdoings determined within the legal justice systems and social norms. This includes mismanagement of water resources causing significant social harms and environmental damage; corruption allowing allocation of water resources for a favoured party, using public office for private economic and political gains and adding payments for more effective service delivery; and, terrorism targeting water infrastructure and systems and affecting water security in water scarce regions”.

This is indeed a comprehensive definition which is applied within the country and in the regional context as well. A country may commit water crime if the country fails to provide water to the people or grossly misuse the water. And if this misuse and mismanagement of water cause significant harms to the people, it is called water crime. This theory is very much pertinent in the case of Middle-East countries where powerful class use water for their own purpose depriving many of the marginal tribes. In many cases, the upper riparian country controls water and uses for her own citizen depriving millions of the people of the downstream countries. According to the definition, this significant harm to the million of people would be regarded as ‘water crime’.


Now, come to the main focal point of this article. My concern is that water diversion from the international river by the upper riparian countries and causing significant harms to the people, economy and environment of the neighbouring countries should cover this definition given by Swain and Kim. Like the individual state, this definition could be applicable in the regional context. Particularly, the impacts of the water diversion by India from the major international rivers, e.g. Teesta and Ganga, has adversely affected the people, economy and environment of Bangladesh. 


Since the operation of the Farakka Barrage, Bangladesh has been suffering from tremendous environmental, economic and health impacts. The entire land structure of the north-western part has been gradually turning barren due to the less and less water flow in the rivers. This is a fact that water is the life of river that in turn helps to keep moisture in the adjacent land of the river. As water is being diverted in the upstream area, the downstream region of Bangladesh has been at stake. The water level in the Padma and its estuaries have been reduced significantly in the dry season. The dependence on the ground water has been increased which is causing disasters in the water quality and health of the people in the region. Official data from the BMDA shows that groundwater level in the northwester parts of Bangladesh has been dropped from 64 feet in 2008 to 97 feet in 2013. This is a grave concern for the country. In the dry season, people do not receive water to cultivate that necessitates the reduction of the boro paddy production which is, on the other hand, causing significant impacts on the food security of people in the said region. This adverse impact on the environment and livelihood has forced many people to leave their own place of land and migrated to the urban centre. This increasing migration to the urban centre is resulting in rapid urbanization.


The Teesta river is another great concern for Bangladesh. Due to the construction of another Barrage in India’s part and diverting water, the Teesta river system in the Bangladesh part has begun to slowly dry up. Now, the Teesta in Bangladesh side is a narrow and flowless river. This is only because of the water diversion from the upper side. Like the impacts of Farakka, the Teesta has been causing detrimental impacts on the environment, agriculture and health of millions of people living in some districts of the North Bengal. People depended on the small professions, such as fishing and boatman have already goodbye their professions. Farmers who cultivated rice and vegetables have started to cultivate Tobacco and less thirsty maize. This is a fact that around 10 million of people Nilphamari, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur and Dinajpur districts in Bangladesh side are directly and indirectly depended on the Teesta water for their agriculture production. The water diversion has made the life of this 10 million person miserable and at stake.


Now, I am coming to the main point. Is this water diversion from the upper part of the international rivers and causing significant harms to the people, environment and livelihood of the downstream country a water crime? According to the definition given above, I think that this is, of course, a water crime against the people of the downstream country. The diversion of water from the international rivers not only violates the international law (e.g. Helsinki Water Law,1966) but also breaches the existing social norms of flowing water courses over the countries. Although upper riparian countries in some instances have constructed barrage in the international river basin (e.g. La Plata, Mekong and Nile basin), the upper and lower riparian countries have also signed the agreements for ensuring water distribution and cost minimization. Both Bangladesh and India have also signed water sharing treaty (1996 water sharing treaty). However, Bangladesh is getting less and less water in the dry season. It means that India is intentionally breaching the agreement and doing water crime as per the definition of Swain and Kim.


The water diversion is not only causing harms to the people but also endangering the environment of Bangladesh. Already the country has lost hundreds of flora and fauna from the river and land. In this regard, I would like to acknowledge that environment is a shared resource across the boundary. The pollution of air in Bangladesh does not necessarily mean that Bangladesh is only affected by it; rather, the neighbouring countries could be affected by this polluted air. Under this ground, environment pollution and destruction due to the water diversion is a crime against the people and nature as well. If I broadly explain the definition, it encompasses the meaning of water crime in the context of the environment.


So, the issue should be addressed to the appropriate forum for gaining the support in favour of proper water sharing in the international river. Recently, the United Nations has declared water as the one component of human rights. The declaration has given an obligation to the member states to be conscious of ensuring the water right to its people and neighbouring states as well. More importantly, the countries sharing the international rivers must be given the due and proper share. Any kind of violation and breaching of it means the violation of the human rights of the people of basin states. The academicians and civil society personals have the obligation to make aware of the water rights and water crime issue. Politicians sometimes might not be aware of the recent development of international rules and regulations. In this regard, the academics and thinktanks must take the anchoring role for enhancing the knowledge and information.   


The writer is a PhD candidate at the Cntre for Development Studies, Flinders University, Australia. He also teaches at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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