Prominent Bangladeshi hydrology expert Dr Ainun Nishat sits down with the Dhaka Tribune to discuss the much-talked-about issue of sharing Teesta water between Bangladesh and India. Excerpts:
Q: As we have learnt, the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty might not be signed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit to India. How will it affect Bangladesh?
A: We need this treaty because we need to know how much water we are going to get from the Teesta during the dry months so we can plan our agricultural projects accordingly.
India has completely dried out the river on our end during lean period by closing all the gates of the Gazaldoba barrage. That is unexpected from a friendly neighbour.
This treaty is a formality, but India cannot ignore our rights to the river water.
Ideally, this treaty should have two mechanisms: ensuring water flow in the dry period and managing water for the rest of the year in the entire river basin. In addition, it should ensure prevention of flood and river erosion during monsoon.
Teesta’s dry period starts in October, and monsoon starts in April-May. I think the crucial period in the Teesta is September-October, when supplementary irrigation is needed in some areas of the river basin for agriculture.
During dry season, the Teesta gets around 6,000 cusecs of water [1 cusec = 28.32 litres per second]. But Bangladesh needs 8,000 cusecs and India needs 16,000 cusecs. Without releasing more water in the river, it is impossible to meet these demands.
My second concern is flood. The Teesta overflows during monsoon. Its water flow typically exceeds 300,000 cusecs, but we have a record of Teesta’s water flow exceeding 450,000 cusecs one year. In addition, we face massive river erosion in the Teesta during monsoon.
To tackle these issues, we need effective flood management, which can easily be achieved by building a reservoir in the upstream.
Q: We heard the treaty had been deferred because West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not agree on it with the central government…
A: We heard in the news that Mamata Banerjee claimed the Indian union government did not discuss the details of Teesta treaty with her. But I think the issue is not related to West Bengal. The issue is between two central governments. That means Delhi has to talk to Dhaka and decide on equitable water sharing.
But it is said without the West Bengal government’s consent, the central government of India cannot go into an agreement with Bangladesh.
That is absolutely wrong. When Bangladesh and India discuss sharing water of a trans-boundary river, the state government has nothing to say because the issue is within two central governments.
Q: The Ganges Water Sharing Treaty will expire in 2026. What should be the next step regarding this treaty?
A: The Ganges treaty is supposed to be reviewed every five years, but it has never happened. The treaty is renewable without any condition. I believe Bangladesh will be able to renew it, but the discussion should begin in the next two years. Also, this time the treaty should not be time-bound.
Q: We know the Ganges treaty is based on the availability of water at Farakka point. We also learnt that the amount of water in Farakka during the lean period is decreasing. If we renew the treaty, should we decide on the same amount of water as before?
A: At the moment, Bangladesh has no way of knowing what is happening in the upstream Ganges. But Bangladesh and India signed a cooperation agreement in 2011, which means the terms of river management between the two countries can be negotiated.
It is time for us to discuss some of the terms. According to the Ganges treaty, the upper riparian country should ensure that the volume of water increases gradually. The water flow in the Ganges was good, but after 1975, India has been withdrawing water from the river at different points. But the treaty asks both the countries to ensure water flow in the river for proper basin-wise river management.
If Bangladesh can continue the discussion with all stakeholders, the problems regarding water sharing in all trans-boundary rivers could be resolved.
Q: You often say that basin-wise river management might bring the best results in the region. Can you elaborate on that?
A: Basin-wise river management is a classic idea. It has been implemented for all international rivers, like the Rhine, the Colorado and the Mekong.
The demand and availability of water varies in the upstream and downstream of a river. Usually, the water flow in the upstream surpasses the demand, while it is the opposite in the downstream.
The optimum solution to balance the supply and demand could be creating proper modelling of the rivers based on water quantity and quality. This way, we can resolve issues like flood, navigation, irrigation, hydro-power and fisheries for the entire basin of a particular river.
All this is covered by basin-wise river management.
Q: Do you think all the countries in this region will come to a common consensus on this issue?
A: There is no need to bring all the countries to a single platform. A commission should be formed to deal with the issues regarding one particular trans-boundary river. For example, for the Brahmaputra, Bhutan, China, India and Bangladesh should form a joint commission and deal with Brahmaputra basin management.
Q: Bangladesh is planning to set up Ganges barrage in Goalanda, Rajbari. Why? Do you think it will cause floods in the upstream of the river, like in India’s Bihar?
A: Bangladesh has been receiving a certain volume of water through Farakka barrage during lean period. If we divert one-third of that water to the southwestern districts of the country, it will help to reduce the salinity in that region’s water. That can be done only with the barrage in Goalanda. There is no alternative, to my knowledge.
Using my experience on this issue, I can say that there is no relation between Farakka barrage and the flood in Bihar. Bihar Chief Minister Nitesh Kumar demands for opening the barrage gates. Of its total 108 gates, four or five always remain closed due to technical problems.
If they open those five closed gates, there won’t be much difference in the water flow. Kumar’s actual demand is to keep the gates open from May to September. He also wants the removal of sediment in the upstream of Farrkka barrage, which is a technical matter.
Q: Why does Nitesh Kumar want to open all the gates of Farakka barrage?
A: He is somehow under the impression that the barrage gates remain closed during monsoon, and that is what causes flood in Bihar, but it is not true.
The problem is, political leaders can be led to the wrong conclusion too.
Q: Does the construction of Ganges barrage depend on India’s permission?
A: If you are building something with money borrowed from someone, they will demand a say in the project. But that will not happen if you make it with your own money. India built Farakka barrage with its own money, so they had all control over it. However, I believe the Ganges barrage should be built jointly with India.
Also Read: Mamata remains rigid against Teesta deal