Mostafa Kamal Majumder
Sudden influx of water in the Bangladesh part of the Teesta on 22 April coinciding with BNP’s long march to press equitable sharing of the river’s water was immediately followed by a race for claiming credit for the same. While Ramesh Chandra Sen, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on water resources made a loud claim that it reflected success of their diplomacy, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who led the long March, termed the release of 3006 cusecs of water, up from the current dry season’s average that ranged from 300 to 500 cusecs, as initial success of their long march. The sudden rise and fall in the flow of water to the Bangladesh part of the Teesta prompted the Democratic Left Alliance of the Communist Party of Bangladesh and the Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD) to say, it reflected the flow of the river had been obstructed on its Indian part. The alliance had staged a three-day Teesta long march from April 8-10 after staging some demonstrations in Dhaka. A leader of the left alliance said the flow of Teesta water increased on Tuesday, which proved that India created obstacles at a number of places including Gajaldoba. “There was no rain or flood inside Indian territory. How the water flow increased within 24 hours?” The left leader, however, said there was no reason to rejoice the sudden increase of Teesta water flow and emphasised on continuing the movement for just share of waters of common rivers.
After the surprising rise of the Teesta flow on April 22, its flow to Bangladesh from the Gazaldoba Barrage in West Bengal fell to 1242 cusecs on the day after. On Thursday April 24 the flow fell further down to 1186 cusecs. Informed sources have said that Teesta’s flows to Bangladesh in the dry season this year maintained a sustained lowest ever level of 300 cusecs to 500 cusecs. In another week’s time from that point rainfall induced runoff was expected to compel the water regulators of the river in India to release most of the water towards Bangladesh because they cannot handle the peak season flow that reaches nearly 280,000 cusecs. Of late communication minister Obaidul Quader has claimed that BNP’s Teesta long march failed. The minister has been reported to have said on April 25, “BNP leaders indeed made a very insignificant car march in the name of long march.” Obaidul also observed that BNP’s movement for realising due share of Teesta water has failed. “It has also failed from the diplomatic perspective.” He said BNP doesn’t have any strength, courage or capacity to topple the government by forging a movement.
A highly placed source in the government having deeper understanding of water flow issues have told journalists that the statements of neither Ramesh Chandra Sen nor Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir was correct. The sudden heavy rainfall in the upper catchments of the Teesta in the Sikkim State of India could be a causative factor, because the excess runoff was difficult to handle for the water diversion channels created for now down the Gazaldoba barrage. A Water Development Board Executive Engineer in Rangpur had earlier on April 22 speculated that either an excess runoff created by rainfall, or just deliberate release of water by opening sluice gates of the Gazaldoba Barrage might have caused the sudden rush of water. The executive engineer did not have information about heavy rainfall in the upper catchments of the river that could have created an excess runoff.
The Teesta River originates in the Himalayas and flows through the Indian States of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh, where it flows into the Brahmaputra. Flowing through the length of Sikkim, the Teesta River is considered the lifeline of the Indian state. Already over 71 kms (44 miles) of the river – which flows through earthquake-prone, ecologically and geologically fragile terrain – is either in reservoirs or diverted through tunnels for hydropower generation. These dams pose a threat to river communities and the rich biodiversity of the region. The river enters Bangladesh near the Tin Bigha corridor of Lalmonirhat district and, according to one water expert, its total length is about 315 km (some say 400 km), out of which 129 km (some say 172 km) is in Bangladesh. Its summer flow, according to one estimate, is about 280,000 cusecs and minimum flow is about 10,000 cusecs. At Kaunia Road Bridge in Rangpur district in Bangladesh, there is a water level and discharge measuring station for the Teesta River. About 21 million Bangladeshi people live in the basin of river Teesta while only 8 million live in West Bengal and half a million live in Sikkim state. The population ratio is 70 for Bangladesh and 30 for India.
Sharing of water of the river’s is necessary in the dry season. Bangladesh’s demand is to irrigate 632, 000 hectares of farm land – falling within the command area of the Teesta Barrage – with water from the Teesta during the dry season. Since Sikkim and West Bengal withdraw water from the river, the flow has drastically fallen to the detriment of the Bangladeshi farmers. Initially, Dhaka proposed equal sharing of Teesta water, keeping 20 percent for the river itself. This means Bangladesh and India would take 40 percent share each. It was reported in the media in June 2011 that the two sides agreed that India would get 42.5 percent and Bangladesh 37.5 percent. A Teesta river accord could not be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in early September 2011 due to last-minute opposition from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
It was unclear how the sharing would be like. India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon provided the water division figure during a meeting with West Bengal Congress lawmaker Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury. Chowdhury was opposed to the figure and wrote a letter to the Indian PM conveying his fear that the water-sharing agreement might affect the agriculture of West Bengal “adversely.” Lawmaker Chowdhury told the BBC in early September that India would retain 75 percent of Teesta river water while Bangladesh would receive 25 percent. He, as reported, said: “Presently, we are taking only 39 percent of Teesta water. But after the agreement we will get 75 percent. So, it will be very beneficial.” Ms. Mamata Banerjee reportedly had said after meeting with Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni in November 2011 that she had appointed an expert committee to study the Teesta water-sharing issue. However according to available reports, at Gazaldoba barrage that India has constructed, 85 percent of water flow is diverted from Teesta River without Bangladesh’s consent. New Delhi could not afford to politically annoy Mamata Banerjee, because the survival of Manmohan Singh’s 20-party coalition government depended on the support of 19 MPs from her Trinimool Congress.
As in respect of other common river there is a lack of transparency in respect of activities on the Sikkim and West Bengal part of the Teesta river. Had west Bengal diverted just 39 percent of the river’s water as West Bengal lawmaker Chowdhury has reportedly said, 6,100 cusecs of water would have still flowed to Bangladesh if one accepts an estimate that lowest minimum flow of the river during the dry season is 10,000 cusecs. As mentioned earlier the flow towards Bangladesh varied from 300 cusecs to 500 cusecs – or less than 5 percent of the flow – during this dry season which is about to end. A senior journalist based in Shiliguri, West Bengal, has said that Bangladesh nationals who go to Darjiling or Shiliguri as tourists are not allowed to enter Sikkim where a series of dams have already been constructed, and new dams are in the process of construction.
River water is needed not merely to meeting irrigation demands. The common rivers render invaluable ecosystem services which are more important and cannot be overlooked. The rivers cannot offer water for irrigation, industry, drinking and cannot render their natural ecosystem services if they do not continue to flow from their origins to their mouths or ultimate downfalls into the sea. Dependent on river ecosystems are livelihoods of not only millions of people as mentioned above, but also billions of flora and fauna right from the hill slopes down to the floodplains. It’s therefore no wonder that the Teesta River has become a contested battleground between the government and the indigenous Lepcha and Bhutia communities in Sikkim. The government of India hopes to dam the last free-flowing 13 kms (8 miles) of the Teesta River for hydropower. According to one report, while the forces pushing for hydropower development in the region may be strong, they are rivaled by the spirit and perseverance of indigenous communities of Sikkim fighting dam development. These include the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) and Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC). Community efforts have resulted in the Government of Sikkim cancelling the construction of a total of 10 dams, with the last four cancelled in June 2012.
Yet apart from about 42 mini hydro-electric dams constructed on tributaries of the Teesta up in the mountains, five dams have reportedly been completed on the main river, and a sixth is in the process of construction in Sikkim. Local communities are strongly protesting the construction of the new structures and the diversion of water through tunnels dug through the hills, as these displace people and force resettlement of their homes, destroy valuable forests and destroy riverine ecology that support life and livelihood of people. Water experts say, although theoretically hydro-electric dams do not divert water, at least ten percent of the water that is dammed is lost in each case because of backflow and evaporation at reservoirs. “Most of the so-called run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects being developed in the Himalayan region (more specifically in Sikkin) involve large dams which divert the river waters through long tunnels, before the water is dropped back into the river at a downstream location after passing through a powerhouse. These projects are being promoted as ‘environmentally benign’ as they involve smaller submergences and lesser regulation of water as compared to conventional storage dams. This perception conveniently ignores the impact of several features intrinsic to the design. For example, long stretches of the river will be bypassed between the dam and the powerhouse, with up to 85-90 percent of the river flow in the winter (lean season) diverted through the tunnels. In the 510 MW Teesta V Project in Sikkim the ‘head race tunnel’ taking the water from the dam to the powerhouse is 18.kilometres long and bypasses a 23-km length of the river. Not only will this destroy riverine ecology, but a cascade of projects will mean most of the river would essentially end up flowing through tunnels. The affected citizens of Teesta have aptly described this as “Our sacred Teesta is being converted into an underground river.” (Source: Damming Northeast India published in November 2010 by Kalpavriksh, Aranyak and ActionAid India.) While the mini-dams reduce the quantum of dry season flow to the main river, the dams on the river itself and the Gazaldoba barrage divert water nearly drying up about a half of its length inside Bangladesh.
Here, as in the case of the Ganges, political authorities having jurisdiction up to their borders dictate the course of a natural system. Unlike the people in the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal who can influence their Union government or make their voices heard, voices of sufferings caused to the people and the environment downstream in Bangladesh do not reach New Delhi and fail to create pressure on the other side of the political border. This is because the river is not treated holistically as an entity by itself which needs an integrated basin-wide management to survive and continue to render its services at both upstream and downstream.
The adverse impacts are slow but extremely devastating on the people of Bangladesh, a landmass which is mostly the gift of the major Eastern Himalayan Rivers that flow to the sea through this largest delta of the world. The rivers that have created this delta also sustain the same. If cut off from the rivers the delta is bound to suffer a process of desertification. Such devastating adverse effects of segmented management of rivers have already started unfolding in the Ganges dependent areas in Bangladesh. Salinity ingress from the sea has reached as far as Daulatdia in Rajbari District, more than 300 kilometres deep inlands. The flora and fauna, fishery, navigation, agriculture and livelihoods of fishermen, boatmen, and farmers have been seriously affected, as in the Ganges dependent areas. A serious environmental disaster has unfolded in Bangladesh as farmers for the last several decades have relied heavily on ground water due to scarcity of surface water from the rivers for irrigation. Excessive abstraction of ground water has led to arsenic contamination of drinking water in about 75 percent of the country negating the success in reaching safe drinking water to more than 90 percent of the people during the past three decades. According to latest reports arsenic has started to show in some vegetables, rice and coconut milk in some areas. Drying up of rivers has affected agriculture, made fisher folks, boatmen jobless, decreased average income of people of river communities. Livelihood loss forces people to migrate, migration cannot be stopped by high barbed-wire fences and even by strong vigil of Border Security Forces. The effects of environmental distress on one side of the border are bound to fall on the other side that is dictating the flow of the natural rivers.
Diversion of rivers from their natural paths through flood plains to drier terrains again amounts to killing these water bodies. As eminent Indian water expert and former union water resources secretary Ramaswami Iyer has written, “Rivers do not die, but are killed.” In Ramaswami Iyer’s words, “River conservation is not just a question of rescuing a river from pollution and contamination, but much more. There were some references to rivers dying, but in fact they do not ‘die’ but are killed by human action and neglect. Instead of trying to rescue a heavily polluted river to revive a dead or dying river, we must see that these things do not happen and the rivers remain alive and healthy. This calls for a change in the way we think about rivers. Before we talk of ‘conserving’ a river, we must learn to respect it.” Rivers and their floodplains reinforce each other alternatively in wet and dry seasons. While in the wet season the rivers feed the flood plains with snow-melt and rain-fed water, during the dry season when there is little rainfall and limited snowmelt up in the mountains, seepage of water from the flood plains resuscitate the rivers. Deprived of this resuscitation support, rivers diverted through relatively dry terrains are sucked up and killed over time. This explains why in western countries including the USA more than 800 dams have been decommissioned during the past one decade to restore rivers and their ecosystems. The ‘Yamuna Manifesto’ published by Project Y, New Delhi, aptly illustrates this, “The Yamuna’ like all rivers, is an ecological entity by itself – it supports its own unique ecosystem. It is a living economic entity – it generates livelihoods; supports fisheries; recharges groundwater naturally; and provides water for irrigation, hydropower. It is an essential link in the hydrologic cycle, and plays a role as crucial as the arteries in the human circulatory system.
“The Yamuna is also a social and cultural entity. On the banks of the Yamuna and Ganga is held one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, the Kubh Mela, besides numerous other festivals.
“It is wrong to think that water flowing in the river is going waste! But this is still the mindset of engineers, bureaucrats, politicians and others in the Water Resource Establishment.
“Monsoon water is far better stored in local water systems and underground aquifers than behind large dams which, in any case, has a finite life.”
While westerners are mending past mistakes, repetition of the same mistakes could spell greater disasters in the most densely populated countries like Bangladesh where more than 1100 people live per square kilometer including the rivers, depressions, canals creeks and hills.
Thus demanding natural flows of common rivers cannot be dubbed as an anti-Indian activity as some people wrongly believe it to be so, or raise hoarse voices with little understanding of the issue. Holders of this view should look at West Bengal which has succeeded to block Delhi’s move to sign the proposed 2011 Teesta water sharing agreement, and the Sikkim communities which have blocked the construction of at least 10 dams in their state because of their anticipated adverse impacts. They should also look at Tipaimukh where the construction of proposed world’s biggest dam remains stalled for over a year because the Forest Advisory Committee in New Delhi in its considered opinion has said that construction of the huge structure cannot be given a go ahead because of the colossal damage it would cause to forests in Monipur. Sadly enough not very long ago a political delegation from Bangladesh which overflow the Tipai Dam site and could not see the area in their own eyes by landing there, opined in favour of its construction while a longest serving ruler of Bangladesh gave tacit support to the project by telling his supporters at the close of a Tipaimukh long march several years ago that Bangladesh should get share of the estimated 1500 mw of electricity to be generated there. Fact remains that as the political authority in Delhi controlling 30 percent catchments of the Barak river unilaterally decided on construction of the said dam, environmental clearance to the Timpaimukh dam project had been given despite there being strong protests from local communities in Monipur. There was no environmental impact study downstream in Bangladesh where 70 percent of the Barak river basin lies to ascertain its viability and justification. The loud voices of protest raised by people from Bangladesh had no bearings on policy planners, on the other side of the border, who did give the environmental clearance for construction of the dam before its being stalled by the Forest Advisory Committee in New Delhi.
This April a number of socio-political organisations have organised human chains or demonstrations, seminars or addressed news conferences in Dhaka underlining the need for securing adequate flow of the Teesta River to Bangladesh. The Democratic Left Alliance of the Communist Party of Bangladesh and the Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal; and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party organised long-March to Rangpur to press the demand for fair share of Teesta water. A major tributary of the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh the Teesta has nearly chocked to death with its dry season flow falling below five percent of its normal for the period, according to available information. Teesta which used to have adequate flow at this time of the year facilitating navigation of large water vessels has literally turned into what Tagore wrote ‘a small meandering river with knee-deep water in the month of Baishakh’.
Viewed from the adverse impacts of structural interventions on rivers to the real stakeholders – the river-dependent communities – there is a strong case for taking up a people’s common movement to protect the rivers. A recent study supported by the Asia Foundation has pointed out that decisions on interventions on the common rivers in South Asia have been taken by state actors without consulting the river communities. ActionAid India supported studies have revealed that the river communities at both upstream and downstream of rivers share their experiences in friendly environments and have shown more eagerness to collaborate with each other than the Indian state governments which are bent upon to fight each other. Again for sustainable harnessing of surface water resources, it is urgent to ensure that the rivers are not used up to meet the present needs. People to people contacts have in recent years broken some barriers to sharing information and data on common rivers between Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and has in turn influenced policy decisions to some extent. Such initiatives should be strengthened and carried forward so that the river-dependent communities in the countries of South Asia can create pressure on their respective governments to respect the rivers and ensure their continued flow, so that the governments of the region in turn are compelled to collaborate and cooperate with each other for sustainable management of all Himalayan rivers.
Sustainable development of the common rivers should mean integrated basin-wide management of their water resources – by ensuring that they continue to have natural flows up to the sea. These water bodies should be seen as commons for people all along their basins instead of dividing the natural systems with political boundaries that the former does not necessarily obey. A recent workshop in New Delhi organised by the People’s SAARC (PSAARC) observed that like the common South-West Monsoon, South Asia has great common rivers which should be maintained as such for sustainable development of South Asia.
(The writer is editor, GreenWatch Dhaka and a writer on water and environment issues)
Mostafa Kamal Majumder