Sunday, March 24, 2013

The World Water Day 2013: Bangladesh Perspectives

Like every other years, the 22 March of 2013 is being observed as the World Water Day, focusing on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. Following a recommendation from the United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, the UN General Assembly designated 22 March 1993 as the first World Water Day. Since then, each year World Water Day is observed, highlighting a specific aspect of freshwater. So far different aspects like Caring for Our Water Resources, Women and Water, Water for Thirsty Cities, Groundwater, Everyone lives Downstream, Water for the 21st Century, Water for Health, Water for Development, Water for the Future, Water and Disaster, Water and Culture, Water Scarcity, Sanitation, Transboundary Waters, Water Quality, Water for Cities, Water and Food Security have been highlighted. This year, the focus is even broader, as the year 2013 has been declared as the International Year of Water Cooperation by the UN. It is evident that growing population and rapid urbanization is putting pressure on the freshwater resources of the world. In order to manage this precious resource, cooperation is essential between different users for the betterment of the environment and ecosystem. Hence, the slogan for the year 2013 World Water Day, “Water, Water Everywhere, Only If We Share” draws attention to the need for cooperation in water resources management. In this article we focus on the importance of cooperation in water management in context of Bangladesh. 

Let’s explore the meaning of cooperation in water management in different context. In a local scale, cooperation in water management reflects integrated management of water among various stakeholders like municipal, irrigation, industrial, recreational, and instream or ecological needs. But, do we always consider the need of the ecosystem? Let’s see a typical example. Consider an area in Bangladesh where supplementary irrigation is required for better crop production, and as a management strategy the government builds a barrage on a river passing over the area to supply sufficient amount of freshwater to irrigated land. As a result, the food production of that area increases and solves the food scarcity. However, because of the barrage, the natural riverine ecosystem will be negatively impacted unless provisions for ecological flow are maintained or proper fish pass is included in the design. In most cases, the proper measures to protect the riverine ecosystem are ignored in these development projects, which directly impact the downstream users who live their lives on fisheries. So, we can see, without integrated management of water resources, even though we can solve problem in one particular area, it can creates problems in other area. As a result, the overall socio-economic equilibrium of the country or region will be impacted. In a nutshell, we need to manage our water resources in an integrated manner considering the interest of all stakeholders in a watershed or basin.

Now, let’s bring our focus on sharing of water resources among various stakeholders living in a basin area of a transboundary river. River basin is not confined by political boundaries, and multiple nations can share a common river basin and its water resources. About 86% of the countries in the world have international river basin.  To ensure equitable and reasonable sharing of water resources of these international basins cooperation among all stakeholders, including the policy makers, hydrologists, and water resources engineers is essential. But, in reality, how much cooperation is being practiced? For example, the India-Bangladesh Joint River Commission is a bilateral body that exists for decades to resolve the water conflicts between these two countries; however, it took about 20 years to sign the Gages Water-sharing Treaty. The Teesta conflict is yet to be resolved even after two decades of discussion; and the Indian plan for building the multipurpose Tipaimukh Dam project is still proceeding without any consideration for environmental impacts on downstream region in Bangladesh. Even if we look at in global scale, the 1997 UN Convention on the Laws of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is not yet in force because of insufficient ratification or acceptance of the convention by many countries in the world, including India and Bangladesh.
The UN declaration to celebrate the year 2013 as the International Year for Water Cooperation is very fitting.  Bangladesh being at the receiving end of the flow in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basins is completely dependent on upper riparian countries for a guaranteed natural flow in these rivers and their tributaries.  Only 8% of basin areas of the GBM basins belong to the territory of Bangladesh. Therefore, Bangladesh should wholeheartedly welcome the UN declaration and work hands in hands with the UN and upper riparian nations.  Although the UN declaration is very fitting, by itself this declaration will not do any good for Bangladesh.  Bangladesh needs to be more work towards implementation of the UN declaration.  The UN have undertaken various programs to commemorate the World Water Day to be held on March 22 that includes a high-level interactive dialogue among various countries and several panel discussions to identify challenges and solutions related to transboundary water resources sharing.  If planned ahead time then Bangladesh probably could partake in these forums or panel discussions.  The UN is open to various ideas about finding potential projects to highlight the importance of cooperation among co-riparian countries because this is their own motto for this year.  Bangladesh could be proactive and could jump on all these activities.  Bangladesh can be diplomatic in getting the UN’s attention to the problems in our region and can seek for ways to extend international research and collaboration to resolve water-related conflicts and lack of collaboration among the co-riparian countries in the GBM basins.

There are several UN-sponsored programs, such as the UN-Water Program, International Hydrologic Program (IHP), and PC-CP (potential conflicts to cooperation potential).  They are involved in carrying our research under UN funding and in resolving water-related problems. Bangladesh and Bangladeshi scientists and policy makers could be involved in these programs to the extent possible.   The PC-CP program under the IHP is another venue where Bangladesh can raise water-related environmental issues that all countries in the GBM basins are facing and seek for involvement, suggestions, and resolution.  Although the final outcome from such involvement is somewhat uncertain, by participating in these programs, Bangladesh can be on the radar screen among the international community with regard to water and climate change issues.  The world is aware of the potential consequences that Bangladesh faces as an impact of climate change, but most of the people cannot make the connection between water-scarcity from upper riparian region to the impact of climate change in Bangladesh.  Less water we have during summer months, more salinity encroachment will occur in coastal region, which will devastate the agriculture, navigation, irrigation, and ecosystems in the Sundarbans – the World Heritage site.  Bangladesh needs to highlight the impact of low flow on her economy and environment in the face of climate change to the rest of the world.  The World Water Day provides the right platform to do just that.

Authors: Dr. Zahidul Islam is a Hydrologist at Government of Alberta, Canada; and Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman is a Professor of Geology at Lock Haven University, USA.

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