Teesta deal likely

India and Bangladesh to sign an interim treaty for 15 years

By Pinaki Roy
Published: Thursday 14 July 2011

A protracted negotiation between Dhaka and Delhi on sharing the Teesta river is likely to end soon. The governments are set to sign an interim treaty on sharing the trans-boundary river water for 15 years, until they can strike a long-term agreement.

The river, which originates in Sikkim, is the lifeline of farmers in the greater Rangpur region of Bangladesh, a major paddy growing region.

“We have narrowed down the gaps and finalised almost all details of the treaty,” says Sheikh Md Wahiduzzaman, secretary of the country’s water resources ministry, who was recently in India to discuss the draft agreement with his Indian counterpart Dhruv Vijay Singh. The treaty will be applicable during the dry season between October and May. A good share of water will be kept for the river and the rest will be divided between the countries, says Wahiduzzaman, refusing to divulge the details. Officials say the treaty will be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh later this year.

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An official of the ministry, requesting not to be named, says both the countries have agreed to keep 20 per cent of the water flowing in the river in lean period. Of the rest India wants to release 48 per cent for Bangladesh. Dhaka wants to share Teesta water on a 50-50 basis. The information though could not be confirmed independently.

The Bangladesh authorities are also preparing the details of another accord governing the Feni river, which originates in Tripura. The treaty will allow India to realise 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni for a drinking water project at Olinagar in South Tripura district.

Since the inception of the Joint River Commission (JRC) between Bangladesh and India in the 1970s, the two countries have been discussing about sharing waters of eight bordering rivers—the Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharala and Dudhkumar—including the Teesta and Feni, without reaching an agreement. So far they have a treaty of sharing the water of the Ganges out of 54 trans-boundary rivers flowing through them.

The water sharing talks started afresh when Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government took office in 2009. An agreement on sharing Teesta water was envisaged in the joint communiqué issued after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January last year.

The Teesta, originating from Cholamo Lake at 5,330 metres above the sea level in the Indian portion of the Himalayas, enters Bangladesh at Kaliganj village under Satnai union of Nilphamari district. It courses 45 kilometres through Rangpur, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha before meeting the Brahmaputra in Kurigram. It is considered very important for Bangladesh’s food security. Over 750,000 hectares of farmland in the food surplus Rangpur region is dependant on the river for supplementary irrigation.

The area faces severe water shortage every year during the leanest period of December to March. Sometimes in December and January, water flow comes down to less than 1,000 cusec from 5,000 cusec, say Water Development Board (WDB) officials. Hence the region is dependent on the Teesta for supplementary irrigation, which is the largest in the country.

But the flow of water in the Teesta has weakened significantly in past 24 years for Gajoldoba barrage and some dams built by India in the river’s upper basin. In February and March, it comes down to less than 1,000 cusec, from 5,000 cusec in December and January. At times, it shrinks even further, say sources in the hydrology department of WDB. For instance, they add, the amount of water dropped to 370 cusec in February 2007. The water flow in the month used to be at least 4,000 cusec before India built Gajoldoba barrage in 1985. This steep drop in the water flow of the river occurs as India allegedly holds almost all water during the lean period for their hydro project. This trend, continuing over the years, means sufferings to thousands of people living downstream and affecting the ecology in the northern districts.

Following Bangladeshi prime minister’s visit in India in January 2010, the 37th JRC meeting began in 2010 after a gap of five years in New Delhi, Bangladesh delegation led by Water Resource Minister of Bangladesh Ramesh Chandra Sen said in a press meet that it expected to get more than 35,000 cusec of Teesta water in a cycle of 10 days during March-May.

During the talks, Bangladesh proposed a draft “interim agreement”, while India offered a “statement of principles” on sharing of the waters of the Teesta. At the end of the talks, India agreed to examine the draft submitted by the Bangladeshi side. The two countries also agreed to identify 12 new bank protection sites in India and 22 new ones in Bangladesh. They also agreed on sharing flood data to issue advance warning of floods.

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