Dhaka Courier

Water talks: Teesta and beyond

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In between them Bangladesh and India share 54 transboundary rivers, which include the mighty Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river system. GBM is the third largest freshwater outlet to the world’s oceans. Of these 54 rivers that Bangladesh and India are co-riparian, Teesta is the fourth largest and livelihood in a vast tract of Bangladesh’s northwest largely depend on the flow of Teesta water. A dried up Teesta only prolong the agony of millions live to its catchment – in the part of lower riparian Bangladesh. Diminishing water flow in Teesta during the lean period of the year has a huge consequence on Bangladesh’s overall food security as irrigation gets hampered in the rice-rich North.

Basking on the glory of 1996 Ganges river water sharing treaty, both Bangladesh and India thought it was about time they give it a best shot to share eight of the other common rivers – Teesta, Feni, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, and Dudhkumar – on waters of which Bangladesh has a fair deal of stake but historically had long been not getting enough. Teesta covers nearly the entire floodplains of Sikkim, while draining 2,800 sq km of Bangladesh, governing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. For West Bengal, Teesta is equally important, considered the lifeline of half-a-dozen districts in North Bengal. Bangladesh has long been seeking an equitable distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996, but to no avail.

Last time the two countries had a ministerial-level meeting of the Bangladesh-India Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) back in March, 2010, both had nearly ready in hand frameworks for water sharing of at least two of these rivers – Teesta and Feni. Both countries were set to ink the Teesta deal in September, 2011 but India backtracked from signing a Teesta water sharing agreement on the pretext of its West Bengal state government’s opposition to the deal. It’s considered a common knowledge in water diplomacy in our part of the world that Teesta waters have been diverted, withdrawn for purposes like producing hydropower and irrigating farmlands in India’s Sikkim and West Bengal. Not to speak of the planned second component of Teesta Barrage, Bangladesh is now failing to harness its first component of the barrage properly in want of water.

Bangladesh-India JRC was formed right after Bangladesh got liberated in 1971. The water minister-level Commission is supposed to sit twice a year while its committees at experts and officials’ levels are supposed to follow up the JRC goals through regular meetings several times a year, as and when required. Unfortunately, it has been over eight years since water resources ministers of Bangladesh and India last met to talk about Teesta at the JRC platform. Since then Bangladesh has been more than ready about holding a meeting of the JRC, an official instrument devised jointly by Bangladesh and India back in 1972, to resolve water disputes and harness common water resources for mutual and regional benefits. A long overdue JRC meeting in Dhaka in June 2013 was postponed due to India’s last moment pullout. Five more years passed by and Dhaka wrote to Delhi dozens of times seeking a date to hold the JRC meeting but to no avail.

As far as water sharing issue of river Teesta is concerned things actually had moved fast after the 37th JRC meeting (the last one) held in Delhi back in March 2010. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January that year helped put JRC back into motion so much so that a water treaty on the sharing of Teesta was about to be struck the very following year as then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Dhaka on a return visit. The Teesta deal had faced obstacles since September 2011 when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, scheduled to visit Dhaka with Singh, opted out of the trip, opposing the agreement.

Originating in India’s Sikkim, Teesta enters into Bangladesh through West Bengal. Mamata has been opposing the water deal based on the argument that if India commits to certain cusecs of guaranteed water share from Teesta to Bangladesh, her state might be deprived of water during the dry season. In a subsequent development, Mamata commissioned an expert, Kalyan Rudra, to give a report on Teesta water sharing prospects. The Rudra report, submitted in 2012, has never been made public but Indian media reported on several instances that the report had stated that there was a shortage of water in Teesta since the Indian government had been building hydro-power projects upstream.

In fact it’s not only in Sikkim, rather the Teesta water diversion was made also in West Bengal through building of a dam and hydro-power project in Gajaldoba near Shiliguri. India completed the Gajaldoba project at a time when Bangladesh had to abandon its planned 2nd phase of Teesta Barrage irrigation project as the very command area of the 1st phase dried up due to very poor flow of water through the Teesta.

Bangladesh and India, which share between them waters of 54 common rivers, inherit and cherish a long tradition of using and harnessing of this natural resource amicably and judiciously. The signing of the Ganges water sharing agreement by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her then Indian counterpart Deve Gowda in December, 1996 is one example of a mutually agreed solution to water sharing between neighbours. The 30-year water-sharing arrangement recognised Bangladesh’s rights on Ganges water as a lower riparian country. Now that no progress is in sight as far as Teesta water sharing is concerned, JRC ministerial is not being held for past eight years – it is indeed a matter of concern that how these two South Asian neighbours resolve all other pending water sharing issues of other common rivers. Besides, the process of review and revisiting the Ganges treaty has to be started soon as well, as the 30-year deal ends in 2026.

Since its inception the JRC had 37 meetings till 2010, which discussed, among other things, sharing waters of common rivers, transmission of flood related data from India to Bangladesh,  construction and repair of embankment and bank protection works along common/border rivers,  Indian River Inter Linking project, Tipaimukh Dam project of India and Mahananda Barrage constructed by India.

Though there has been no meeting of JRC (at the Water Ministerial level) in the last eight years, there were several other meetings that took place either in India or in Bangladesh on and off at technical levels. But ever since the talks were stalled in 2011, there has been no significant call for materialising the Teesta river treaty by New Delhi. Expectations run high every time there is a summit and during high official-level visits between Bangladesh and India. But experts in the water discourse always emphasise on activating JRC as a forum where both political and technical discussions can take place simultaneously. It’s not crucial just because Bangladesh wants its due share of water from the river Teesta. Rather, it’s necessary for the best interests of both Bangladesh and India. It’s not only about Teesta, it’s more than that.

Teesta apart, progress on discussions on sharing of the waters of Feni, Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar rivers has also been stalled for long. Bangladesh’s concern over India’s river interlinking project is far from over as the project works continue to gain momentum. India is also curious to know, in further details, whether or not the Ganges Barrage that Bangladesh contemplates to build in Rajbari would have any negative bearings in its ecology. So there is a whole range of issues here that demand attention.

Reaz Ahmad, Executive Editor, UNB

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Reaz Ahmad
  • Issue 15
  • Water talks: Teesta and beyond

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