Will it be Teesta's turn next?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Bangladesh raises a hope for a step forward in the resolution of the long-pending Teesta water-sharing issue with Bangladesh.

Since 1972 Bangladesh has wanted a 50 per cent share of Teesta river water. Teesta is one of the 54 rivers on the India-Bangladesh border. Of these there already is a water-sharing agreement on the Ganga river. The sharing of water on other important rivers such as Teesta, Dharla, Dudhkumar in West Bengal and Feni, Manu, Muhuri, Khowei, Gumti in Tripura, have been under discussion for quite some time.

Teesta river originates in Sikkim, flows through Jalpaiguri town in West Bengal and finally joins Brahmaputra river at Teestamukh, Bangladesh. It has over 12,000 sq km drainage area of which 89 per cent lies in Indian territory. In Sikkim there are mostly hydroelectric projects, thus there is no consumptive use of water, and no effect on monsoon flows. West Bengal has constructed a Teesta Barrage, 90 km upstream of the Indo-Bangladesh border at Gajoldoba in Jalpaiguri, while Bangladesh has constructed the Doani/Dalia barrage downstream, 15 km from the international border. The shortage of water for irrigation occurs between November and April.

The two countries reached an understanding in July 1983 for an ad hoc sharing of Teesta water flows during the dry season: an allocation of 36 per cent for Bangladesh, 39 per cent for India and 25 per cent remaining unallocated. This arrangement helped Bangladesh in getting finance for the Dalia barrage construction.

Past discussions between the two countries for reaching an agreement on the interim sharing of Teesta water for 15 years were on the following lines: a) during lean season, Teesta water flow be measured jointly at three locations i.e. Indian barrage at Gajoldoba, at Bangladesh barrage at Dalia and downstream at Kunia, Bangladesh; 2) after collection of data, the 90 per cent dependable flow data in Teesta river be worked out; 3) after deduction of environmental flow and 450 cusec for its use, India to release water at Gajoldoba barrage in such a way that 50 per cent of the water available at Gajoldoba be available at Dalia barrage in Bangladesh. This arrangement was thought to be a feasible proposition because of geological conditions, which cause about 25 per cent water regeneration between Gajoldoba Barrage and Dalia barrage. This meant that West Bengal government would have to release only 25 per cent of the water available at Gajoldoba, which when added to 25 per cent regeneration, would result in receipt of water by Bangladesh equivalent to 50 per cent of the water available at Gajoldoba.

Unfortunately, government of West Bengal is agreeable to share only 25 per cent of available water at Gajoldoba plus the river flow (about 8 per cent). To them, the proposition on the manner of release as stipulated in the earlier paragraph is vague, as there could be years when regeneration of water between Gajoldoba and Dalia may not be 25 per cent. In that situation, committing half the water available at Gajoldoba may affect the important Teesta Barrage project. This project is significant, being the largest irrigation project in the eastern region, involving irrigation potential of 9.22 lakh hectare and 67.5 MW of hydropower.

In any international water course issue, there is a need for resolution by adopting equitable, non-discriminatory guiding principles for sharing of water resources, say as per those available in the UN Water Course Convention, 1987. It urges all riparian States to cooperate on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilisation of an international water course. Interestingly, India, Bangladesh and China did not ratify this Convention. In resolving the Teesta river water sharing problem, the basic principle should be on these lines.
For the last few years, Bangladesh has raised the issue of less availability of Teesta water due to non-release by India from its barrage at Gajoldoba in the lean season. The West Bengal government claims less water is available than it needs, hence the shortfall. The controversy continues.

Within the country there has to be a political consensus for any solution. In addition, the hard data on the ground should show that India (especially West Bengal) will not be a loser with the interim Teesta river water sharing arrangement, especially assuring its non-detrimental impact on the Teesta Barrage project. Both the countries should work together in gathering and analysing technical data. The first move must come from the government of India to convince the state government (s) about the efficacy of a mutually beneficial solution. There is hope, now that the Land Border Agreement with Bangladesh is a reality.