Insights into Editorial: What is the lowdown on sharing of Teesta waters?
India and Bangladesh share 54 common streams with the Teesta being a major one and the water sharing dispute between the two neighbours is not something new. However, sharing the waters of the Teesta river, which originates in the Himalayas and flows through Sikkim and West Bengal to merge with the Brahmaputra in Assam and (Jamuna in Bangladesh), is perhaps the most contentious issue between two friendly neighbours, India and Bangladesh.
- Teesta is the fourth largest transboundary river shared between India and Bangladesh, after the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna (GBM) river system.
- The total catchment area of the GBM is about 1.75 million square km.
- The Teesta originates in the Indian state of Sikkim and its total length is 414 km, out of which 151 km lie in Sikkim, 142 kms flow along the Sikkim-West Bengal boundary and through West Bengal, and 121 km run in Bangladesh.
What’s the issue?
It all began when West Bengal started constructing a barrage across the Teesta River. Bangladesh opposed the construction as few regions in the country were dependent only Teesta River water for agriculture.
- However, after negotiation, an ad-hoc agreement was reached. As per the agreement, 36% of water of the Teesta flows was allocated to Bangladesh, 39% to India and a further 25 % remained unallocated.
- But even this deal has remained pending for more than 2 decades. After many unsuccessful attempts to reach a consensus on the issue, a new bilateral interim deal was to be signed in 2011 to reach an equitable sharing of the water. But it was once again put on hold as the chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee opposed the deal.
- Later, in 2013, an agreement was drafted which allowed for the 50:50 allocation of teesta waters between the countries during the lean season, when the real problems of allocation crop up. However, that was not acceptable.
- The flow of the river is crucial for Bangladesh from December to March for that they require 50% of the river’s water supply. While India claims a share of 55%.
Efforts to solve the issue:
A Joint River Commission was setup to resolve all outstanding water sharing disputes between the two countries. However, no pragmatic and long-term solution could come out and Teesta remained a problematic issue.
- India has been examining many parameters for arriving at a workable solution. A possible option considered was that — since the regeneration of flow in the river channel between the Gajoldoba and Dalia barrages is about 25%, which would be available at the downstream barrage — the additional 25% demanded by Bangladesh could be released by West Bengal from the upstream barrage.
- But the state had its own compulsions for meeting irrigation needs as the summer flows are generally erratic. Hence, West Bengal did not want to commit to releasing water from the upstream barrage, at the cost of its major project envisaging the irrigation of 9.22 lakh hectares in the ultimate stage.
- Thus, the water-sharing arrangement got embroiled in domestic hydro-politics, stalling further action to find an acceptable solution to the dispute.
Importance of Teesta for Bangladesh:
The river is Bangladesh’s fourth largest transboundary river for irrigation and fishing. The Teesta’s floodplain covers 2,750sq km in Bangladesh. Of the river’s catchment – an area of land where water collects – 83 percent is in India and 17 percent is in Bangladesh.
- That means more than one lakh hectares of land across five districts in Bangladesh are severely affected by withdrawals of the Teesta’s waters in India. These five Bangladesh districts then face acute shortages during the dry season.
- Bangladesh wants 50% of the Teesta’s waters between December and May every year, because that’s when the water flow to the country drops drastically.
West Bengal’s opposition:
West Bengal has been opposing the treaty fearing that the loss of higher volume of water to the lower riparian would cause problems in the northern region of state, especially during drier months. It is estimated that the Teesta River has a mean annual flow of 60 billion cubic metres but a significant amount of this water flows only during wet season i.e. between June and September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e. October to April/May wherein the average flow gets reduced to about 500 million cubic metres (MCM) per month. This creates issues of equitable sharing during lean season.
Why this deal matters for both India and Bangladesh?
India witnessed a surge in insurgency in the northeast during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from 2001 to 2005. A new policy to befriend the BNP backfired. Bangladesh allegedly sheltered insurgents engaged in anti-India activities, and nearly all the Home Ministry-level talks ended without agreement, and India had to increase the security budget for the northeast.
- In a couple of years of assuming office in 2008, the Awami League targeted insurgent camps and handed over the rebels to India. As India’s security establishment heaved a sigh of relief, the relationship improved on multiple fronts.
- But in 2017, the Awami League is on a sticky wicket. It will be facing one of its toughest elections in two years and water-sharing will be one of the key issues. If this deal is not sealed, it will hurt both India and Bangladesh.
What can be done?
It is apparent that to make Teesta water-sharing a reality, there is a need to augment the river flows during the non-monsoon months, without which West Bengal would not allow further discussion on the subject. The deficit in flows can be met by the transfer of water from other water-endowed basins. In this connection, the proposals made in the Indian River Linking (IRL) project could be considered.
- The Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga (MSTG) link canal is one of the links proposed under the Himalayan component of the IRL. It envisages diversion of the surplus waters of the Manas and Sankosh rivers to the Teesta, Ganga and beyond, to meet the requirements of water-deficit areas. By making suitable provisions in the link canal, it should be possible to release the required water into the Teesta during the summer to augment river flows, thus meeting the requirements being proposed for water-sharing with Bangladesh.
- Also, another suggestion is the construction of giant artificial reservoirs, where the monsoon water can be stored for the lean season. The reservoirs need to be built in India as the country has some mountain-induced sites favourable to hosting dams with reservoirs, unlike Bangladesh.
The success of the deal on the Teesta is considered to be a political necessity for both governments. The deal, as anticipated, will help New Delhi get more political leverage, which, it thinks, is necessary to check the rising influence of an extra regional power – China – in the Bay of Bengal region. For Hasina, the deal will support her chances to retain political power in the 2018 general elections in Bangladesh by projecting her as a leader who can secure her country’s interests and not a ‘pawn’ in the hands of India, as she is being often called by opposition groups.
Bangladesh has been one of India’s strongest allies in South Asia. And if New Delhi wants it to remain so, it has to move fast on signing an agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta river.