1. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • NSC Weekly Report #16

[Omitted here is material unrelated to South Asia.]

4. Proposal

Ganges and Brahmaputra Water Development (Maps Attached)2

The middle and lower Ganges and Brahmaputra River valleys—in the eastern India-Bangladesh region—are the home of some 200 million of the world’s poorest people. The outlook is for further deterioration in the food/population ratio and by the end of this century the area will predictably be a disaster area dwarfing the Sahel.3 If we had foreseen the Sahel disaster, we would have undoubtedly acted to avert it. This disaster is foreseeable and probably avoidable.

The key to the problem is water. The region suffers from floods and droughts and the division of available water has already caused an important international dispute between India and Bangladesh. The World Bank and others see prospects of large-scale water management, combined with intensive rural development programs, turning this area into a highly productive agricultural region. The benefits for the [Page 2] people living there will be substantial, and the international community will also benefit if the region becomes a contributor to the world food balance rather than a disruptive drain on it. The political stability of the region should also be enhanced.

The costs will be immense—but nowhere nearly as large as the human and economic costs of ecological disaster. The project could only be undertaken on a multilateral basis along the lines of the successful Indus waters program two decades ago.4 Participants should not, however, be limited to World Bank members. The Soviet and, perhaps China, should also become involved in an endeavor that is the concern of all mankind.

The recipients will also have to be organized multilaterally. Bangladesh, Nepal, and India will have to coordinate their involvement since there will be costs as well as benefits for each. This exercise in cooperation should be politically useful since Nepal and Bangladesh have yet to learn how to live comfortably with their large neighbor.

This multilateral approach has an additional benefit for us. It would permit us to transfer large amounts of resources to India in a way that would spare us the agonies of a bilateral assistance program and be clearly targeted on the poorest region of India.

State and AID have been looking at this idea now for six months—sympathetically but without much sense of urgency. We understand that the World Bank is interested in doing a feasibility study. The principal political obstacle—the India-Bangladesh quarrel over the distribution of Ganges waters—is just about overcome. An indication of American interest could facilitate final settlement and focus world attention on one of the major global issues. The technical, financial, and political obstacles could still turn out to be prohibitive, but we need to find out—and a high-level push sometimes makes obstacles seem less difficult.5

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Subject Chron File, Box 125, Weekly National Security Report: 5–6/77. Top Secret; Sensitive. In the top right-hand corner of the first page of the memorandum, Carter wrote: “Zbig—In each instance when there is a problem or need, please let me know what action is already being taken. J.” Brzezinski initialed beneath Carter’s note.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–6, Documents on Africa, 1973–1976, Documents 14 and 20.
  4. The Indus Waters Treaty was signed in Karachi in September 1960 by Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Pakistani President Ayub Khan, and the President of the World Bank. See Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. XV, South and Southeast Asia, Document 97.
  5. In the left-hand margin next to this paragraph, Carter wrote: “Let’s proceed w/ a plan. Include degree of Congressional involvement.”