Under the fiery summer sun, the once verdant fields of paddy in north Bangladesh is a vast wasteland that stretches for thousands of hectares covering numerous villages. In this dry land, a thin ribbon of water, the once mighty Teesta, struggles through sandy banks. Water can only be found 10 feet or more below the surface.
The dying river has drastically altered the livelihood of millions. As the river flows from Sikkim through West Bengal, cascades of dams significantly reduce the volume of water reaching Bangladesh from 5000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) to 500 cusecs.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s richest countries in fresh water, and sustains a dense population. Yet, Bangladesh is dependent not only on the monsoons, but also on India. 54 trans-boundary rivers bring 90% of its water from upstream India. The Teesta is only one local aspect of a much wider problem, including climate change. South Asia with 21% of the world’s population has barely 8.3% of the world’s water resources.
In 2011, Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka had raised the expectation of the people of Bangladesh. But, a new agreement for a 50-50 sharing of Teesta water, replacing the earlier 1983 one, was blocked by the chief minister of West Bengal. Water is a “states issue” in federal India. It is critical to note that it was the BJP opposition along with Trinamool Congress and Asom Gana Parishad that prevented the previous Congress-led UPA Government from signing the Teesta water sharing treaty.
Fast forward to June 2014, the external affairs minister of the new NDA government has promised during her visit to Dhaka, that the Teesta issue would be given consideration. If Prime Minister Modi aims to improve relations with India’s neighbours, including Bangladesh, the Teesta question cannot be bypassed. As the fourth largest trans-boundary river, it serves an approximate population of 21 million people in Bangladesh as opposed to around 8 million in India.
In West Bengal, the Teesta barrage project intends to irrigate 922,000 hectares in 6 northern districts as well as produce hydropower. Work so far includes Gazaldoba barrage in Jalpiguri which was completed in 1982. This diverts around 85% of the flow thereby greatly reducing water to the lower riparian.
Meanwhile in Bangladesh, the Dalia barrage was built with a network of canals to serve districts in the North West. Unfortunately, during the dry periods, diversion of water at Gazoldoba renders the Dalia barrage fruitless, and excessive water released during monsoons causes floods, land erosion, and destruction of crops.
A 2012 report by Indian expert Kalyan Rudra confirmed that the shortage of water in the Teesta was due to the numerous dams and projects upstream.
The Teesta covers an area of 12, 136 sq km out of which 1,121 sq km is in West Bengal and 2,009 sq km is in Bangladesh. The rest of the river flows through Sikkim, an area rich in biodiversity and endangered species. The construction of numerous hydropower projects in Sikkim has raised alarm there. The diversion of river water and dumping of waste materials has increased ecological fragility and affected indigenous people with loss of livelihood and poor agricultural productivity.
Unrest due to dispossession of land and lack of adequate compensation has further exacerbated dissatisfaction. Although a section of the people and government has benefited, local inhabitants, civil society groups, scientists and environmentalists are concerned about the negative impact of dams on Sikkim’s fragile ecosystem; the threats include a great increase in landslides.
Furthermore, the controversial Indian government’s Inter Linking of Rivers Program (ILR) is expected to divert the water from the rivers of the Himalayan region to the dry areas of southern India. This has been criticized both in India and Bangladesh as uneconomic, and a violation of both the 1996 Helsinki and 2004 Berlin Rules on equitable sharing of river water.
The long standing dispute over the effect of the Farakka dam on the Padma and tension over the Teesta is joined by even greater concern over the potential loss of flows to the Jamuna and the Meghna if India and China proceed with multiple large dams and river diversion projects.
Throughout the world, negotiations for the shared management of scarce water resources are often fraught with tension and mistrust, even within a single country – between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for example, and the concerns of civil society and interests of stakeholders are often under-represented or neglected.
Ideally, water management should take a holistic approach, balancing all interests. Lower riparian states such as Bangladesh recognise this, but the absence of mutual trust creates difficulties in negotiating bilateral or regional agreements. There is too often “zero sum” thinking, narrowly confined to the assumption that a cusec gained by one side must be a loss to the other.
The UN has rightly pointed out that management of trans-boundary rivers needs concerned countries to avoid “inward looking national strategies and unilateral actions” and adopt “shared strategies for multilateral cooperation and governance.” All parties should “put human development at the centre of trans-boundary cooperation and governance.”
There are many examples of failures to achieving such aims. China has an estimated 22,000 large dams, half of the world’s total. For instance, on the river Mekong, China has built and is still building massive dams with seemingly little regard for the vital interests of the five countries downstream.
One dam, Xiaowan, holds 15 billion litres of water. China has refused to negotiate joint management of the Mekong, and is one of only 3 countries to vote against the 1997 UN treaty governing shared international waters. China claims its “scientific regulation” of rivers helps downstream countries. But these smaller and poorer countries require better sharing of information and confidence building though cooperation.
In contrast, the river Rhine is an example of what can be achieved. It flows through 7 countries, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Historical conflicts harmed water related interests until international cooperation across the whole Rhine basin transformed the situation.
Consequently, avoidance of unilateral promotion of interests, collaboration and fruitful negotiations are possible when undertaken with understanding of the needs of all parties.
An Asia Foundation study has identified some recommendations and the author also suggests some course of action:
The whole Teesta basin should be analysed as a single unit: It is a trans-boundary river and falls under multiple jurisdictions. The state governments of Sikkim, West Bengal, and the national governments of India and Bangladesh should discuss the river in an integrated manner in consultation with other stakeholders.
Discussions need to include national needs, volumes of water at various periods, equitable distribution, conservation, environmental concerns, climate change and characteristics of the ecosystem for judicious planning.
Respect each other’s needs: Mutual confidence and appreciation of each other’s requirements are the basis for successful collaboration and conflict resolution.
Full and timely availability of data and information to all parties: Greater access to information by all stakeholders, civil society, NGOs, and experts creates confidence and generates discourse enlarging the acceptance and legitimacy of negotiations.
Develop lateral thinking for new solutions: Instead of discussing only “how many cusecs to which country” engage in broader dialogues with multiple representatives to discuss joint planning of basin wide management e.g. provision of water at lean periods, regular data sharing for rightful distribution and prevention of flash floods at the lower end.
Voluntary concessions: Voluntary concessions based on the requirements of downstream areas can help create the basis for sustainable development benefiting all parties.
Tradable benefits: All negotiation can include trading other benefits outside immediate water issues. Bangladesh should assess any such benefits it might trade with upstream interests as valuable tools for negotiation.
When the situation is dire and worsening then time is of crucial importance. But we are compelled to wait and see how far India and West Bengal are willing to collaborate with Bangladesh on an integrated approach to Teesta management based on international principles of justice and for the mutual benefit of all our peoples. Do we have to wait long? And how long is long?
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