Sharing Teesta’s a murky business

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Relations between Bangladesh and India have taken a contentious turn on the issue of sharing water from the Teesta river that flows through Sikkim and the northern parts of West Bengal to Bangladesh. Bangladesh wants 50 per cent of the Teesta’s waters during the dry season between December and May to satisfy its irrigation and fishery needs.

The Teesta river dispute 

  • The Teesta River originates in Sikkim and flows through West Bengalas well as Bangladesh. India claims a share of 55 percent of the river’s water.
  • Negotiations on how to share the water have been going on since 1983. A 2011 interim deal – that was supposed to last 15 years – gave India 42.5 percent of the Teesta’s waters and gave Bangladesh 37.5 percent. Banerjee opposed this deal so it was shelved and remains unsigned.
  • 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, it added.
  • Banerjee has in the past countered the above line of argument citing the amount of Teesta waters India already gives Bangladesh. “When we need a certain quantity of water to maintain our Kolkata Port and fulfil the need of farmers, water is released from Teesta and Farakka barrages to Bangladesh sacrificing the state’s interest” she said in 2013.
  • Hydropower on the Teesta is another point of conflict. There are at least 26 projects on the river mostly in Sikkim, aimed at producing some 50,000MW.

Alternative offer:

West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, offered an alternative: water from three different North Bengal Rivers, namely, the Torsa, the Raidak and the Jaldhaka. Recently, she mentioned another rivulet known as the Aatreyi.

This proposal seems questionable from the hydrological, ecological and economic perspectives. These water bodies are only rivulets.

Problems with interlinking

While there is the notion that interlinking Manas-Sankosh-Teesta under the national water transfer project can provide the necessary water to Bangladesh this idea may not stand scientific scrutiny considering long-run implications.

  1. Manas and Sankosh are significant tributaries of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river system in India and Bangladesh; diverting water from these two rivers will reduce flow in the mainstream of the river, thereby significantly affecting downstream river-bed agriculture, the ecosystem and aquatic biodiversity.
  2. The Manas-Sankosh link canal may pass through protected areas, creating significant problems for species movement and terrestrial breeding behaviour.
  3. The issue of techno-ecological-economic feasibility is not yet clear.
  4. The possible reduction in flows through the Jamuna channel in Bangladesh is likely to result in another trans-boundary water dispute, about which Bangladesh has already expressed apprehension.
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