11 April 2017

Is the Teesta river water controversy so intractable?

By Amitava Mukherjee

Change of crop patterns in the north-western part of Bangladesh and increasing cultivation of drought-resistant crops by both India and Bangladesh may hold the key to the solution of the so-long-intractable issue of the sharing of the Teesta river waters by India and Bangladesh.

The crux of the problem is paucity of water at the Gazoldoba barrage in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. Bangladesh has been demanding that water available at Gazoldoba should be shared on a 50:50 basis reserving 20 percent of the overall river water for an environmental flow in order to keep the Teesta in good health.

But it would be wrong to hold only West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee responsible for the logjam over the issue. The real reasons are twofold -- the streak of diplomatic one-upmanship on the part of Bangladesh and an amateurish approach so far adopted by the Indian government.

Let us consider the total quantum of water available in the Teesta after it leaves Sikkim, the place of its origin, and enters the plains of India and Bangladesh where it is basically a rain-fed river with an average annual flow of 60 billion cubic metres (BCM) -- quite a sufficient amount of water for providing irrigation to both sides of the international border. But the problem takes place during the lean season -- from October to April -- when the average flow comes down to 6 BCM.

If the lean season flow is taken as the benchmark for a 50:50 sharing formula, as is the case now, then it will be a total injustice to India because out of the Teesta river’s total catchment area of 12,159 kilometres in the plains, nearly 10,155 square kilometres fall within India while Bangladesh’s share in this respect is only 2,004 square kilometres or merely 17 percent of the total. 

So it is crystal clear that the overwhelming majority of the river’s replenishments pass through India. Moreover, India’s total water resource stands at 1,907.8 BCM while that of Bangladesh is 1,211 BCM. Given India’s vast size, its water resource is certainly poorer than that of Bangladesh.

On the whole, Bangladesh’s approach to the issue is highly debatable. Dhaka was certainly well within its rights when it constructed a barrage at a place named Dalia in the Neelphamari district, perhaps as a riposte to India’s Gazoldoba barrage. But how can it really explain its demand of equal distribution of water as its Teesta Irrigation Project has set a target of 7,50,000 hectares of command area and 5,40,000 hectares of irrigable area. 

Even if the irrigation target is taken into account than India’s claim on Teesta waters has stronger feet as it seeks to provide irrigation to 9,22,000 hectares of area in six districts of the northern part of West Bengal.

Still Teesta is a trans-boundary river and a mechanism has to be found out for meeting the needs of both the countries. So far as India is concerned, a good number of small storage dams might be built in Sikkim, the place of the river’s origin, for storing excess monsoon waters and then charging up the river’s flow through them during the lean season. In addition, the Sankosh river coming from Bhutan may be linked with Teesta for augmenting the latter’s supply. 

So far as Bangladesh is concerned, it has to lessen its dependence on Aman (July-December) and Boro (November-May) paddy-cultivation in its north-western part, particularly the Rangpur division. Boro cultivation is totally dependent on irrigation while Aman is only partly rain-fed as monsoon withdraws from this part of the world in the first week of October.

The existing Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission would have to be revitalised for a comprehensive planning. Bangladesh would have to keep it in mind that lessening of crop and irrigation intensity -- 200 percent and 63 percent, respectively -- in the Teesta river basin of that country is not bad all the time, particularly when water is scarce. 

So, the need of the hour is gradual phasing out of high-yielding variety of seeds whose cultivation demands more water and introduction of drought-resistant crops. This should be the duty of both India and Bangladesh.

Mamata Banerjee is not the only hindrance in the signing of a treaty on Teesta. The actual cause of the impediment lies deeper.

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