Climbdown by Dhaka? Little chance of getting more Teesta water from West Bengal, admits Bangladesh official 

The official, as an alternative, has urged India to finance monsoon storage of Teesta water

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Sunday 12 February 2023

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Photo: @ajitsinghpundir / TwitterPrime Minister Narendra Modi with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Photo: @ajitsinghpundir / Twitter

A senior government official of Bangladesh has stated that the country realistically stands little chance of getting any more Teesta river water from India’s West Bengal.

The official suggested that Bangladesh should instead focus on constructing a reservoir or storage infrastructure on the Teesta, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, to conserve monsoon water. The project should have financial support from India.

The official, while qualifying the proposal to be a personal opinion, has confirmed that he has shared it “with many in the government”.    

The opinion seems to be a step down from Dhaka’s decade-old demand of a Teesta treaty on the lines of the existing Ganga Treaty ensuring more water flow during summer from West Bengal, which has been stymied by state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee since 2011.

Banerjee maintains that the interests of West Bengal, especially its northern districts, will be compromised in case of such an agreement.   

The Ganga Treaty was signed between then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and Sheikh Hasina Wazed in 1996.

“Realistically speaking, West Bengal will not be able to divert any water to Bangladesh during the lean season, as it has diverted almost all water through the Mahananda link channel in Gajoldoba to support agriculture and cater to drinking water needs in Siliguri and its surroundings,” Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury, chairman of the National River Conservation Commission of Bangladesh told this reporter on the side-lines of the recently concluded 8th International Water Conference held at Sylhet, Bangladesh.

“ … (Moreover) from the political point of view, the All India Trinamool Congress is weak in Bengal’s northern districts and hence, will not be ready to share any water at the cost of their political interests,” Chowdhury added. The event was organised by non-profit ActionAid Bangladesh.

“How long can we wait? We should try to do something soon to cater to the millions depending on Teesta water for agriculture,” Chowdhury said.  

The China factor

“We need to conserve monsoon water for the dry season and that is expensive. China has come forward and offered to build storage infrastructure on the Teesta. But my personal view is we should not take help from China,” Chowdhury said.

He then stated:

Either India should directly fund it; or, Bangladesh may build the reservoir or storage capacity around Dalia, where we already have a barrage, or elsewhere as technically feasible with its own funds and subsequently realise the amount with enhanced river transit tariff on India … in any way, India should bear the cost.

In July 2020, talks took place between Bangladesh and China about the possibility of the latter providing nearly a billion dollars to Bangladesh to implement a ‘Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project’.

But according to sources, the proposal has not yet received the green signal from the top echelons of the Bangladesh government.

“First, India is keen that Bangladesh does not get into a project with China on the Teesta which is quite close to the Indian border; moreover, the fear of falling into a debt trap to China, post the developments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan has also has played a role in Dhaka not inking a deal so far,” a Bangladeshi water expert working closely with the government told this reporter.

According to sources, both pro- and anti-China camps exist in Bangladesh bureaucracy on the issue of the country taking China’s help in Teesta water conservation.

Many also see the proposal to take Chinese help on the Teesta as a strategy of the Sheikh Hasina government in pushing India for proactive actions on the Teesta.  

Last November, Li Jiming, Chinese ambassador in Bangladesh implicitly alluded to Indian pressure on Dhaka.

He said though Bangladesh itself had earlier proposed a pilot project for managing the Teesta, which was subsequently accepted by China, it seemed there might be some hesitation on the Bangladesh side because of some outside pressure.

Jiming made it clear that China would be willing to take up the project if formally requested by the Bangladeshi government.

“Chowdhury’s proposal is a pragmatic way forward but I think it may also be explored whether both India and China can be part of the exercise … if India and China can work together on climate change and other issues; why not Teesta?” asked Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University, who works on the geopolitics of water in south Asia and was present at the Sylhet meeting.

Demand side management must

“It sounds practical but may not be able to offer a sustainable solution unless Bangladesh does the demand side management of Teesta water… Bangladesh should start thinking about diversifying from irrigated paddy,” said Nilanjan Ghosh, an ecological economist and head, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.

As of now, Bangladesh is keen to get water from the Teesta to cultivate 0.7 million hectares of agricultural land supporting more than two million farmers.

“Such a step is not expected to provide a long-term solution. Rather, river experts from both countries should sit together and find a solution which will benefit most people living in the Teesta Basin … let politics follow the scientific solution,” river expert Ainun Nishat from Dhaka told this reporter.

Nishat also urged India to involve the Indian state of Sikkim into the discussion as a series of hydropower units being set up in Sikkim is considered a major cause behind dwindling water flow in the Teesta.   

“The newly shared idea is possible if the Indian government agrees to the trade-off. However, I am not sure whether it will be possible to construct a barrage to conserve Teesta water in Bangladesh considering its topographical position,” said another river expert from India.

Bangladeshi experts however claim that if not a full-fledged barrage, other technical solutions are available to conserve monsoon water in the Teesta.

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