Teesta river runs dry as India and Bangladesh fail to resolve disputes

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The Third Pole, Dhaka, Bangladesh

A solution to the problem of sharing the Teesta waters continues to elude India and Bangladesh, pushing villagers in northern Bangladesh to the brink of desperation as the river dries up

Image by Arup Rahee

Talks between India and Bangladesh over sharing the waters of the Teesta river have dragged on for over two decades. (Image by Arup Rahee)

Just 20 years ago, the river flowed fast and strong, sustaining the lives of millions of people. But the Teesta has now been reduced to a trickle in northern Bangladesh, say affected villagers, many of whom have been staging protests in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere.

“Nothing is left of the mighty Teesta as it was two decades ago. There has been no fish in the river for the last few years. Now, the river is silted and totally dried up,” said Faridul Islam, president of the Teesta Bachao Andolan, a citizen’s movement formed to save the river three years ago.

“This year, the situation has been the worst with almost no water in the river. Only a few inches of water flows through a sandy track on which a hen can walk easily,” Islam added.

His village is in northern Bangladesh’s Rangpur district, about 35 kilometres from the barrage irrigation canal at Dalia and about 60 kilometres from the point where the river enters the country from India’s West Bengal state.

His village is not the only one affected. People in the 5,427 villages on the banks of the Teesta are dependent on the river for irrigating their fields and for other livelihoods such as fishing.

The villagers, who wage a daily struggle for survival, are the continuing casualty of the India-Bangladesh tensions over sharing the river waters. This year, India has released only 10% of Teesta’s usual dry-season flow, said Mir Sazzad Hossain, member of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) in Bangladesh, resulting in the river drying up in Bangladesh.

To compound the situation, whatever little water comes is being diverted by theBangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) to the irrigation canal of the Teesta barrage, depriving the river and the people living alongside its banks downstream.

“Both India and Bangladesh are thinking about their irrigation project, not about the river itself or its ecology,” Islam told thethirdpole.net

“So we are demanding equal share of the water,” he said.

The foreign secretaries of the two countries met in New Delhi recently to discuss the issue. India, it is reported, agreed to send experts to study the issue.

To push for their demand and highlight their problems, the farmers from the north have been taking to the streets, forming human chains and blocking streets in Dhaka.

On April 9, for instance, farmers joined leaders and activists from left-leaning parties in a march towards the Teesta barrage demanding proper share of the water.

Time is of the essence. March and April are the peak months for irrigation of boro rice cultivation.

“Now is the time for rice formation… saplings need plenty of water during this period. But there is no water in the irrigation canals. So we are managing irrigation by lifting groundwater with pumps,” said Mozammel, a farmer from Nilphamari district.

Water shortages

Under the Teesta Barrage irrigation scheme, Bangaldesh needs at least 4,500 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water for the 60,500 hectares of cropland in the north of the country. However, they are not getting much more than 500 cusecs, say officials.

“For the last 10 days, we have been getting only 553 cusecs of water. We are getting far less than what we got last year,” Mir Sazzad Hossain said. Last year, Bangladesh received 2,500 to 3,000 cusecs.

“It means India has closed all the gates at the Gajoldoba barrage point to hold back all the water of the Teesta,” said an engineer from the Teesta barrage irrigation project, in Bangladesh, on condition of anonymity.

The excessive use of groundwater is causing the water table to deplete by about two feet a year in the northern region, said an agriculture department official.

“In most areas, farmers have to dig at least 10 feet before installing pumps,” said Firoz Ahmed, director of the department of agriculture in Rangpur.

Vital statistics

The Teesta flood plain covers nearly 14% of the total cropped area of Bangladesh and provides direct livelihood opportunities to 9.15 million people in five districts of Rangpur division, according to a study published by the Asia Foundation in March 2013.

The Teesta, the fourth largest river shared by India and Bangaldesh, also provides livelihood opportunities to 7.3 % of the total population of Bangladesh, said the report, which surveyed both countries.

Fishermen, farmers, boatmen and small traders in the study said they were being forced to change their livelihoods as the river stays dry for at least six months a year.

The situation is quite the opposite in the monsoon when India opens all the gates of their barrage and the river floods both banks, say officials.

After travelling over 400 kilometres through India and Bangladesh, the Teesta merges with the Brahmaputra (Jamuna in Bangladesh) at Teestamukh Ghat.

Protracted negotiations  

Negotiations over the Teesta can be traced back to the 1950s when authorities in the erstwhile East Pakistan and India began discussions on proposed projects on the river.

After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indo-Bangladesh JRC was set up in 1973 to anchor talks on sharing water of 54 trans-boundary rivers.

So far, the two countries have only signed one treaty on sharing water of the Ganges in 1996. JRC members have continued talks on sharing waters of another seven rivers, including the Teesta, for over two decades.

In 2010, the Teesta water sharing deal made some headway when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India and signed a joint communiqué with her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. Resolving the Teesta issue immediately was part of the communiqué.

After that, a draft agreement on the Teesta as well as a statement of principles for sharing of river waters in the lean season was prepared.

Experts from the two countries reportedly agreed to share the water available at the Gajoldoba barrage in India equally, keeping 20% for the river, for an interim 15-year period.

The deal was supposed to be signed during Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in September 2011.  But it fell through as Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of India’s West Bengal state, pulled out of the deal at the last minute.

In November 2011, the West Bengal government asked Indian river expert Kalyan Rudra to find an acceptable solution to the Teesta water issue.

Rudra submitted his report in 2012 in which he said there was a shortage of water in the Teesta as the Indian government had been building many hydropower projects upstream.

In December 2012, Bangladesh and India sought statistics of the Teesta water available at the upper point of the Gajoldoba barrage and Teesta barrage point respectively.

The issue has been stalled since. And the villagers are waiting.