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Unilateral water diversion, or withdrawal of water from international or common rivers, has been the long-standing policy of India. India bothered little about the concerns of a lower riparian country, such as Bangladesh, in diverting water from common rivers.
In 1896, the “Harmon Doctrine” was propounded by the US Attorney General Judson Harmon, claiming that Mexico was not entitled to the water from an international river, the Rio Grande.

The doctrine emphasised territorial sovereignty over an international river. It means that, within its territory, a state can do whatever it wishes with the water of an international river, and does not need to bother about the consequences of its withdrawal on a lower riparian nation.

India argued in favour of the Harmon Doctrine in the mid-70s with Bangladesh (I was Director General of South Asia), though the US itself had discarded and discredited it in 1906 when it concluded a treaty with Mexico relating to sharing of water of the Rio Grande.

When India argued the relevance of the Harmon Doctrine in the ’70s, Bangladesh counter-argued that the “Helsinki Principles”, which would entitle a co-riparian of a reasonable and equitable share of water of an international/common river or drainage basin, had replaced it in 1966.

Use of river water
The use of river water is of two types — non-consumptive and consumptive. Navigation is a non-consumptive use of water because river water is not depleted or reduced through navigation. Consumptive use of water consists of withdrawing water for agricultural and other purposes. Consumptive use always reduces the water in rivers.

A river knows no political boundaries between countries. It flows as an indivisible unit, and if it is interfered with at the upper stream, the lower riparian country will be affected. That is why international law recognizes the right of each riparian country to enjoy all the advantages deriving from river waters for the welfare and economic prosperity of its people.

At least 56 rivers flow from India into Bangladesh. The largest of them, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna (GBM), flow through Bangladesh until they meet the Bay of Bengal, creating one of the biggest deltas in the world. It is estimated that 25,000 square miles within Bangladesh can be designated as a delta, an area equal to Belgium and the Netherlands together.

Bangladesh is a land of rivers, and swimming has been the birth-right of all Bangladeshi children. Rivers have been the lifeline of the people of Bangladesh, although in the monsoon season they often cause floods. Without monsoon rain and the rivers, Bangladesh’s environment, and its cultural tradition, music, and folk tales based on rivers, will die.

Agriculture is the backbone of the country, and 76% of the people live in villages. Water plays the most vital role in the country’s economy. 85% percent of the water comes from the Ganges and the Brahmaputra during the dry season (November to May).

Millions of people are directly or indirectly dependent on river water for their livelihood. Water is vital for agriculture, fishery, and the flora and fauna, and constitutes an indivisible part of people’s lives.

Depletion of water in rivers puts Bangladesh in a very critical situation, especially in navigation, agriculture, and way of life. Farmers, fishermen, and the forests, are all adversely affected by depletion of water in rivers.

Water dispute and Bangladesh
The unilateral withdrawal of water from the upper reaches by India has been a concern for Bangladesh. If India withdraws water heavily from common or international rivers, such as the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, there will be less available in Bangladesh. This is obvious.

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