Transboundary Waters

By: Staff Reporter and Prasad
Water defies political boundaries and thus cannot be dealt with in isolation. Sustainable water resources management are major challenges of the future. An increasing number of countries are experiencing permanent water stress, yet in most cases, agreements, mechanisms and institutions to manage disputes over water resources are either absent or inadequate.

Everyone stands to gain from cooperation over water. It is important to establish relations among water experts and policy makers from the different riparian states and regions and turn the local decision makers aware to forge mutually acceptable and equitable agreements and treaties. International law offers a series of means to resolve international disputes, both diplomatic (negotiations, consultation, good offices, mediation, fact-finding, inquiry, conciliation, and the use of joint bodies and institutions) and legal (arbitration and adjudication).

The natural flow of water, both on the surface and underground routinely crosses boundaries. When two or more sovereign countries share a watercourse, which could be a river basin, lake, or aquifer, it is generally considered to be an international watercourse. Most discussion about international watercourses, however, refers to river basins.

Over 45 per cent of the land surface of the world is covered by river basins that are shared by more than one country. Over 40 per cent of the world’s population resides within internationally shared river basins. Over 75 percent of all countries, 145 in total, have within their boundaries shared river basins. There are 263 transboundary river basins and 33 nations have over 95 per cent of their territory within international river basins. While most transboundary river basins are shared between just two countries, there are many river basins where this number is much higher. There are 13 basins worldwide that are shared between 5 to 8 countries. Five river basins, the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi, are shared between 9 to 11 countries. The river that flows through the most countries is the Danube, which passes through the territory of 18 countries. Great reservoirs of freshwater also move silently below our borders in underground aquifers. So far, 274 transboundary aquifers have been identified.

The history of international water treaties dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma crafted an agreement ending a water dispute along the Tigris River. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has identified more than 3,600 treaties relating to international water resources dating from AD 805 to 1984. The majority of these treaties are concerned with some aspect of navigation. In the last century, more than 200 water related treaties have been negotiated and signed.

Sustainable management of world water

Since the 1970s a series of international meetings and conventions have provided milestones on the way to sustainable water resource management. The UN sponsored Conference on Water at Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1977 was the first step in the direction of improving international cooperation and coordination in the management of global water resources. Recognition of the need for an international water policy organisation grew and intensified in the 1980s and early 1990s. These principles were endorsed in 1992 at conferences on water and the environment, held in Dublin and Rio, respectively, leading to the widely accepted Dublin principles for managing water.

There is only one universal treaty dealing with the use of freshwater resources: the 1997 UN Convention on the Non Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997 IWC Convention). So far twelve countries have become parties to the 1997 IWC Convention, and eight additional states have signed but not yet ratified it. To enter into force it needs to be ratified or approved by 35 states.

India abstained from signing the Convention as Article 3, which deals with Watercourse Agreements, is prescriptive. India believes that a Framework Convention should leave states free to evolve and implement mutually agreeable terms in relation to specific international watercourses. Thus Article 3 fails adequately to reflect the principle of freedom, autonomy and the right of states to conclude international agreements without being fettered by the UN Framework Convention. Also, Article 5 on Equitable and Reasonable Utilisation and Participation is ambiguous especially as the term ‘sustainable utilisation’ has been imposed on the principle of optimal utilisation without defining what the former implies in the given context. Then, Article 32 dealing with non-discrimination presupposes political and economic regional integration of states, as say within the European Union. Otherwise, prescribing national treatment for non-nationals claiming recompense for alleged transboundary injury will be un-implementable. Finally, Article 33 pertaining to the settlement of disputes mandates an element of compulsion in setting up fact finding commissions. India believes that the parties should be left free to choose any acceptable procedure for securing an amicable settlement through mutual consent.

At the  in 200Stockholm Water Symposium2 there was a rare degree of unanimity among organisations representing water managers and other stakeholders on four basic issue of governance of water resources, economic growth and water degradation, urban water services and integrated solutions.

Water Sharing in India

The issue of international water relations arose in an acute form immediately after 1947 with the partitioning of the Indus river basin and what had earlier been a single irrigation system in Punjab. It was settled through the Indus Waters Treaty (1960) which allocated the entire flows of the three Eastern Rivers, the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, to India except for domestic use, non-consumptive use and restricted agricultural use by Pakistan and that of the three Western Rivers, the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus, to Pakistan, less domestic use, non-consumptive uses and limited agricultural use by India. India also entered into project-specific agreements with other neighbours – Nepal and Bhutan, but these essentially do not constitute sharing arrangements. A treaty has been signed with Nepal on the Integrated

Negotiations are on for the beneficial use of waters of many other rivers flowing in the Himalayan region through Nepal and India. The more recent Treaty on Ganga waters with Bangladesh (1996) prescribes a formula for sharing the lean season flows of the river at Farakka between the months of January and May every year. It also envisages similar agreements or understandings with regard to other common rivers. There are yet other rivers, which flow through other neighbouring countries like China, Bhutan and Myanmar before entering into India. In course of time, efforts are underway to reach agreements with these co-basin countries.

Summing up

Managing water resources is a complicated process. Watercourses typically meet a variety of economic as well as ecosystem needs, although in many cases, not enough water is available to meet all of the identified needs. Transboundary waters transcending human-defined political and administrative boundaries pose one of the major water management problems. The potential for conflict appears to be highest where much of the land is either semiarid or arid, and most of the unexploited water resources are in international watercourses. International cooperation is required to ensure that the mutual benefits of a shared watercourse are maximised.

India is drained by a number of international rivers that rise beyond its borders or flow into lower riparian states. Since most of the storages in the north and north-eastern states are near the international borders, ‘water diplomacy’ for effective and optimal utilisation of the water resources in the region is likely to play a key role in the economic development of the people of the region. The presence of internationally accepted principles offers common ground, which could serve as guidelines to promote sustainable water resources management throughout the region. Despite many challenges ahead there is
every reason to hope that world will live in water peace.


Issues of sharing the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Meghna and 51 other common rivers have been in contention between the two countries over the past many decades. Actual sharing of the lean flows of the river Ganga became problematic in 1975 with the commissioning of the Farakka Barrage. A series of agreements were put in place until 1988. Thereafter, relations soured on this issue until a breakthrough was achieved with the signing of the Ganges Waters Treaty by the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh on 12th December 1996. The Treaty shall remain in force for a period of thirty years to be renewable by mutual consent. The Treaty stipulates an ‘emergency’ situation when discharges fall below 50,000 cusecs, necessitating an immediate dialogue between the two countries to decide on sharing arrangements. Both India and Bangladesh have Teesta Barrages on either side of the border and plan to irrigate extensive commands whose full requirements cannot be met without lean season augmentation or integrated use of the waters of rivers adjoining the Teesta within the Brahmaputra system.


Hydro power could be for Nepal what oil is to the Gulf. However, its currently assessed techno-economic potential of 42,000 MW needs a market which primarily lies in India. India would also benefit by storages in Nepal to moderate floods and expand irrigation in the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar plains. Earlier diversion schemes on the Sarada (Mahakali), Kosi and Gandak notwithstanding, Indo-Nepal water resource development for regional benefit has made limited progress on account of a variety of mis-perceptions and misgivings on both sides. The landmark Mahakali Treaty of 1996, which came into force in June 1997, heralds a new beginning. The Treaty enjoins India to ensure a flow of not less than 10 cumec (350 cusec) downstream of the Sarada barrage. Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project on river Mahakali known as Sarda in India is the centrepiece of the Treaty. Understanding was reached by Indo-Nepalese experts in 2001 on the SaptaKosi project. A 269 meter high concrete/rock fill dam on river SaptaKosi is envisaged with underground power houses with an installed capacity of 3000 MW at 50 per cent load factor. In addition, a barrage on river SaptaKosi (in Nepal) would be constructed about 8 km downstream of the high dam to re-regulate the water released from the dam.


The boundary between Pakistan and India has been drawn right across the Indus Basin, leaving Pakistan as the lower riparian. Moreover, two important irrigation head works, Madhopur on Ravi and Ferozepur on Sutlej, were in India. A dispute thus arose between two countries regarding the utilisation of irrigation water from existing facilities. Negotiations held under the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), culminated in the signing of the historic Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. The Treaty apportioned the entire waters of the three eastern rivers, the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi to India, except for domestic, non-consumptive and irrigation uses by Pakistan as specified. The waters of the three western rivers, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum, were allocated to Pakistan, less certain uses by India as specified. The Treaty has worked satisfactorily, despite strained Indo-Pakistan relations and two wars. There is no quantitative limit on Indian uses from the western rivers for domestic and industrial purposes. Therefore India is entitled to formulate appropriate schemes of rural and urban water supply in the portion of Indus basin lying in its territory. The Treaty allows India specified withdrawals from Ranbir and Pratap Canals. It further allows the irrigation of about 13.4 lakh acres of cropped area from the three western rivers. In fulfilment of the obligations of Indus Waters Treaty, India has supplied the requisite data of 30 Projects on Western Rivers including Small Plants, run-of-river plants etc. to Pakistan. With Bhakra Nangal, Pong, Pandoh and RanjitSagar reservoirs already completed, envisaged storage reservoirs for harnessing 33 MAF of eastern rivers is available. Projects having about 7183 MW installed capacity have already been completed and projects having 4515 MW installed capacity are in different stages of construction.


In the year 2002, the Government of India entered into an MoU with China for provision of hydrological information on Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra river in flood season, which was extended in 2008 for a validity of 5 more years. In accordance with the provisions contained in the MoU, China provided hydrological information (water level, discharge and rainfall) from three stations, Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia located on river Yaluzangbu/ Brahmaputra from 1st June to 15th October every year, which was utilised in the formulation of flood forecasts. Another MoU was signed during the visit of the Chinese Premier to India in April 2005 for supply of hydrological information of Sutlej (Langquinzangbu) from the Tsada station in flood season. An artificial lake was formed in (June/July 2004) on river Parechu in Tibet (China) as a result of a landslide. The bursting of the lake would have caused havoc downstream in Himachal Pradesh to people and infrastructure including the NapthaJhakri H.E. Project. The Indian Government kept a close watch and held discussions with Chinese authorities at Lhasa in 2004 and at Beijing 2005, regarding blockade on river Parechu and establishment of additional hydrological stations on LangquinZangbu (Sutlej) and ParlungZangbo (tributary of Yaluzangbu i.e. Brahmaputra) and Zayu Qu (Lohit). China agreed to the possibility of controlled release of artificial lake water. However, before any action could be taken the landslide dam breached on 26th June 2005.


A scheme titled ‘Comprehensive Scheme for Establishment of Hydro-meteorological and Flood Forecasting Network on rivers common to India and Bhutan’ is in operation. Five member Indian team visited Tsatichu lake in 2006 (which was formed due to massive landslide occurred on the right bank of river Tsatichhu in 2003), where it was observed that the quantity of water in the lake at present is very small and the threat of flood to downstream areas, including Indian Territory is negligible.


A number of small streams rising in eastern Manipur drain into the Kubaw Valley and, like the larger Imphal/Manipur river, flow into Myanmar to drain into the Chindwin which falls into the Irrawaddy. India has small irrigation uses on the Manipur river and has developed the Loktak Hydro Project (105 MW). Although there appears to be little likelihood of any conflict with Myanmar here, though there is scope for Indo-Myanmarese cooperation in jointly developing the hydro potential of the Chindwin. The Chhimtuipui River (otherwise known as the Kaladan or Kolodyne) rises in Myanmar, then marks the Indo-Myanmar border for quite some distance before entering southern Mizoram and then finally re-entering Myanmar to empty into the sea near Sitwe (Akyab). The river is navigable in Myanmar from Paletwa, some 100 kms from the tip of Mizoram, to the sea which could act as an incentive for trade in the future.

Inputs from Theme Paper on Transboundary Waters, Central Water Commission, Ministry of Water Resources, 2009

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *