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Will the move to help Dhaka conserve Teesta lead to meaningful actions

Readers’ corner 2024-06-29, 9:30pm


People in the Bangladesh part of the Teesta Basin now face a devastating flood.

We have read with keen interest the report, India to dispatch a technical committee to help Bangladesh conserve the Teesta, published in your popular blog on 24 June following the last visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Delhi. The report also made mention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that another technical committee would also be formed to work on extension of the Ganges Treaty which will expire in 2026. We noticed a keen hope expressed in the report that both the cases are resolved with the spirit of benevolence.

Our perspectives on the two issues are however different.

The move as narrated above remains at the deep fridge stage because the constitution of technical committees on the Teesta and the Ganges is a proposition of ignoring even the rather dormant Joint Rivers Commission of the two countries which in the past had meetings, exchanges of notes and opinions for solving problems facing the common rivers which are 54 in number. It also makes no references to the urgency of sharing the Teesta on which an agreement was scheduled to have been signed way back in 2011.

Keeping aside the issue of Teesta water sharing or the signing of an agreement for the same, the proposed technical committee – the Indian side to be precise – would take on itself the responsibility of determining whether the construction of a reservoir in the Bangladesh part of the Teesta basin is at all necessary. All this on the perceived security threat or the geopolitical aspect of a Chinese proposal to implement a one-billion-dollar project to address Teesta flood and riverbank erosion in the wet season and lack of water of the river in the dry season, because the river’s entire lean season flow is diverted from the Gazal Doba Barrage in West Bengal, India.

At least the dry season woes of the people of Teesta Basin in Bangladesh could have been resolved to some extent simply by agreeing to give them a due share of the hilly river which regularly turns violent in the rainy season. Nowhere during the latest talks or in the joint statement has this been specifically mentioned even though both sides know this is the crux of the entire Teesta question.

Then again the questions of management and conservation of the Teesta that too only within Bangladesh is against the principles of management of a transboundary river which should cover the water body’s origins in the Himalayas to its outfall in the Bay of Bengal through the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system in Bangladesh. The technical committee that has been proposed to be constituted is being mandated to work only within Bangladesh.

One can thus say that its scope is very limited – to remove apprehensions of Chinese involvement in the proposed Teesta Project that’s meant to offset the adverse effects of Bangladesh’s environmentally disastrous lack of water in the lean season and calamitous flooding in the wet season because the year-round flow of the river is regulated from across the border beyond Bangladesh’s knowledge.

Needless to say, the narrow focus of the said technical committee on management and conservation of the Teesta in Bangladesh has little scope to serve any useful purpose of the lower riparian neighbour, Bangladesh, which has over time lost its say over the share of water of the river. The proposed committee is now to decide whether there is any necessity for intervention in Bangladesh to protect the people of the basin from a one-sided control of the river’s flow by the big upper riparian neighbour, India.

The experience of the last two decades shows Dhaka should remain pretty sure that no lean season flow of the river will be available regardless of the consequence of this to the environment, ecology, economy, life and livelihoods of the people here. Another thing about which there is a clear certainty is that the onslaught of the flashy hilly river shall without fail be passed on to the Bangladesh part of the basin whenever there is a natural disaster caused by unusually heavy rainfall or a glacial outburst above Sikkim that hosts the river up in the Himalayas.

About the Ganges also, a technical committee is to work on the renewal of the 30-year treaty that would end in 2026. The knowledge and understanding of water sharing of transboundary rivers over the three decades have undergone significant changes. Both sides now understand well enough that a mere extension of the date of expiry of the treaty would mean little if there is no guarantee of availability of water at the Farakka point for release into Bangladesh for, say the infinite future or another 30 years. During the past 28 years of the treaty, Ganges water was not available to Bangladesh as per the terms of the treaty. In the very first year following the signing of the treaty in 1996, the flow of water to Bangladesh had fallen to 6,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) against the allocation of 30,000 cusecs.

The Ganges Treaty should, for the benefit of the two friendly neighbours, dwell extensively on water data and information from the rivers’ origin in the Himalayas to its outfall to the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. Dhaka should be able to understand the ups and downs of the river above the Farakka Barrage not only to get a due share but also to be able to make reliable forecasts of flood disasters which at times turn calamitous.

A new treaty on the Ganges should be based on the internationally accepted principles of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) which is sustainable and gives a win-win situation to people of all co-basin countries. Here one would, definitely welcome benevolence but not minus the co-basin and lower riparian rights. A new treaty should have the essential term on the guarantee of the availability of water and provision of arbitration in case of differences of opinion on the treaty that are there in India’s water-sharing treaties with both upper riparian Nepal and lower riparian Pakistan over Mohakali and Indus Rivers respectively.

Another important point mentioned in the SANDRP report is very important – lack of consultation of the West Bengal Government before taking the Initiatives. It was precisely on the pretext of the objection of WB Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee that no Teesta treaty has been signed in the last 14 years. Now she has written to India’s centre against making assurances to Bangladesh without consulting her. If she remains firm in her opposition to the move mentioned above, nothing looks likely to happen. To us in Bangladesh, the question is, did not Delhi know this?