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Wednesday, January 11, 2012
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Teesta water issue: A few hard facts

The Indian prime minister's visit to Bangladesh is considered a failure in public perception in Bangladesh because it was much hyped as one that would resolve the long-standing water-sharing issue on the Teesta River.

Although there were many productive agreements signed during the visit they were overshadowed by failure to sign a promised deal on water-sharing of the Teesta River.

For the people of Bangladesh, water-sharing of trans-boundary rivers is very important as 54 major rivers flow from India to Bangladesh. India reportedly withdraws water from 43 common rivers through artificial structures, which is against good neighbourliness.

Out of 54 major rivers, water-sharing agreement of only one riverthe Gangeswas signed in 1996 for a period of thirty years.

Teesta is the most important river in northeast of Bangladesh. It originates in the Sikkim Valley of the Himalayan Range within India. The entire rainfall runoff of this valley accumulates near Kalimpong of Darjeeling district in Paschimbanga (West Bengal).

The river enters Bangladesh near Tin Bigha of Lalmonirhat district and, according to one river expert, the 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 reportedly 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 ration is 70 for Bangladesh and 30 for India.

India has built a barrage at Gazaldoba from which 85% of water flow is diverted from Teesta River without Bangladesh's consent.

When Bangladesh needs water in dry season it does not get it, but when it does not need water during summer and monsoon it gets enough of it to the point of flooding, destroying houses, roads and riverbanks and embankments. Accordingly, sharing of water of the rivers is necessary in the dry season.

Bangladesh has to irrigate 632, 000 hectares of farming land with water from the Teesta and during the dry season. Since Sikkim and West Bengal withdraw water from the Teesta, the flow has been drastically reduced to the detriment of the Bangladeshi farmers.

Initially, Dhaka proposed equal sharing of Teesta water, keeping 20% for river flow. This means the sharing would be out of 80% and Bangladesh would get 40% and India 40%. But India wanted 55%. Furthermore, India wanted a 15-year agreement on water-sharing of the Teesta River.

It was reported in the media in June 2011 that the two sides agreed that India would get 42.5% and Bangladesh 37.5%.

The Teesta river accord could not be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Dhaka visit last September due to last-minute opposition from Paschimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

It is reported that when India's National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon provided the water division figure during a meeting to West Bengal Congress lawmaker Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury, he 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% of Teesta river water while Bangladesh would receive 25%. He reportedly said: “Presently, we are taking only 39% of Teesta water. But after the agreement we will get 75%. So, it will be very beneficial.”

Ms. Mamata Banerjee reportedly had said after meeting with Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni in November last year that she had appointed an expert committee to study the Teesta water-sharing issue.

West Bengal River expert Kalyan Rudra, who heads the committee set up by the West Bengal government on November 15, 2011 to find an acceptable solution to the Teesta water issue, was scheduled to submit his report by December 2011, but he reportedly failed to submit it and wanted more time. It is not known when Rudra will submit the report.

In recent times, tension has increased between Congress Party and Trinimool Congress. The survival of Manmohan Singh's 20-party coalition government depends on the support of 19 MPs from the Trinimool Congress. Therefore, New Delhi cannot afford to politically annoy Ms. Banerjee.

Coalition governments everywhere suffer conflicting pressures from different party components, and the Teesta water-sharing appears to have become a victim of political maneuvering between New Delhi and Kolkata.

Interestingly, records tell us that Bangladesh could not sign any water agreement either with the Congress or BJP-led government in New Delhi. The 1977 Ganges Water Agreement (for 5 years) was concluded with the Janata government led by Morarji Desai, and the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty with the United Front coalition government led by Deve Gawda.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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