Tag Archive | "international watercourse"

News Post: India’s National River Linking Project

On February 27, India’s Supreme Court ordered the implementation of the country’s ambitious National River Linking Project “in a time-bound manner.”  The impetus of the project – originally commissioned in 1982 – was to improve management of water resources.  It aims to link 30 major rivers, and will involve diverting the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers.  India claims the project will “enhance its irrigation potential” to meet demand for grain from a population “estimated to reach 1.5 billion by 2050.” The project would accomplish this goal by allowing storage and transfer of water between India’s arid states and those with a water surplus.

The Ganges River Delta

Neighboring states and environmental organizations have opposed the project since it was formally introduced in 2002.  One concern is that the large-scale diversion could cause ecological disaster.  Bangladesh, India’s downstream neighbor, is particularly vulnerable.  The nation’s agricultural and environmental interests depend upon a healthy Ganges and Brahmaputra watercourse.

India assured Bangladesh– once in 2005, again in 2006, and most recently in 2010 – that they would make no unilateral decisions on the project’s implementation.  However, India is in the process of building 700 dams, many of which would facilitate the River Linking Project.  Moreover, many of these dams affect river flow into Bangladesh.   This suggests the table is already set for implementation of the project.  The Supreme Court’s order merely clears a path.

It appears India intends to implement the National River Linking Project regardless of concerns from neighboring states.  However, because the project would affect trans-boundary watercourses, a question remains as to whether its implementation violates customary international law.  For instance, if India is affecting Bangladesh’s equitable and reasonable apportionment of the Brahmaputra or Ganges rivers, the project may be precluded by the equitable and reasonable use doctrine.  Moreover, if India is causing significant harm to Bangladesh’s reasonable and equitable use of the rivers, the project may be in violation of the no significant harm doctrine.  Alternatively, while not yet recognized as customary international law, there is movement toward requiring countries to protect international watercourses and their ecosystems through due diligence.  While currently only soft law, this obligation could be persuasive in determining what steps the international community might have to take if the National River Linking Project moves forward and Bangladesh cries foul.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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