Tale of Teesta

More sand than water in Teesta

Shishir Morol with Shafi Khan (Kurigram) and AB Shafiul Alam . Patgram (Lalmonirhat) | Update:

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Hossain Ali, an octogenarian, lives in Dahagram, on the bank of the river Teesta. "There is less water in the river, which makes the land dry. Cultivation gets more difficult," he said on 29 April noon.

The river Teesta has entered Bangladesh through Dahagram of Lalmonirhat district's Patgram upazila, on the northwest border. A study of the water resources ministry says the Teesta originates in the Himalayas, around 5 thousand 300 metres above sea level.

On the morning of 29 April, we went to the bank of Teesta to see it entrance into Bangladesh. We rode by motorcycle through maize fields, but had to halt near a sand island. We then had to walk till we reached the river bank. There we spoke to Hossain Ali and Rezanur, a goatherd.

The river is gradually coming towards the Bangladesh side, they say.

The next day we spoke to people who were beneficiaries of the dredging system. Officials of Teesta Barage Project helped us to this end. At noon, we saw that three gates of the barage were open and the river water was flowing into the dry land.

Getting close to Teesta has become very difficult nowadays, because it's 10-20 kilometres away from the main road. But one cannot go by boat either, due to lack of water.

Our Kurigram correspondent Shafi Khan said that we can get a boat from near the Teesta Bridge, but when we went there none of the four boats wanted to take us to the river mouth. The boat owners said that river transport through this route has stopped for almost a decade now. People now opt for road transport and so did we.

We now decided to go to the confluence of Teesta and Brahmaputra. We sought the help of local people who all said that we could not go there on a motorcycle. However, we somehow managed to get there, to be welcomed by a beautiful sight.

Brahmaputra is in full flow, from the north to the south, but Teesta was silence personified. However, Brahmaputra water was murky with sand, but Teesta was crystal clear.

Cultivation in Teesta

In the afternoon, we went to Charkharibari village under Dimla upazila. We found the villagers busy in cultivating and selling maize. The Water Development Board (WDB) has set up blocks of concrete to save the river bank. People have constructed buildings in the belief that river erosion won't hit them again.

"This char (sandbar) will not be there during the rainy season," said Hamid Ali, a local of the village. He said India has been using sluice gates, storing water in canals at times and opening them when the water flow is excessive.

The ministry survey also mentions this system, which they term 'barrage'. There are two barrages on Teesta -- one on the Indian side, at a place named Gazaldoba, and another at Dowani, which is under Hatibandha upazila of Lalmonirhat.

The barrage on the Bangladesh side is 19 kilometers into Teesta's flow in the country. The water is used in 12 upazilas of Nilphamari, Rangpur, Dinajpur and Bogra.

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From Dahagram to Sundargan, people complained of scarcity of water. Deep tubewells cannot lift water, and the costly machine-driven ones fail to do the job after 10-15 minutes. Villagers think it's because India has barred the water flow. They also complained that sand coming from India is creating a lot of problems for them.

However, many have set up their houses on that 'char'. They are mostly from river erosion-affected areas of Mymensigh and Jamalpur districts. WDB officials, however, say this land belongs to the government and setting up things there is illegal.

The WDB is concerned about the river being flooded with sand. They have a plan to dig 89 kilometres in the Teesta besides removing about 101 million of sand. But the uncertainty over the Teesta deal with India has made it difficult for them to make a decision to this end.

On 30 April, only three of the 44 gates of the Teesta barrage was opened at noon, while on 3 May four more gates were seen partially opened. The authorities said the demand for irrigation water is low now, and that is why they are releasing the water to the main river. Besides, water is coming from India as well.

Controlled Teesta

Teesta is a controlled river now, as neither in Bangladesh nor in India is there any natural flow. The river has been blocked in many places to produce electricity and facilitate irrigation. As a result, its route and flow have changed.

WDB officials said the river has the least water between 15 January and 15 March. Most of the work to save the river bank have been done on the right side of the river, which has left it to move further towards its left, they said.

There are nine stations to assess the water level of Teesta water besides five stations to monitor its flow. One among them, the Kaunia station, reports that the level has risen since 1985 and as a result more and more sand is flooding the river. India started releasing water that year. They keep the barrage closed during the dry season, but open it during the rains.

On the Bangladesh side, local people and traders were seen extracting sand. The authorities also want this. An official of the barrage seeking anonymity said the more sand extracted, the more water can be reserved.

People living around the river said the number of Boirali fish has plummeted drastically.

On 1 May, near the Brahmaputra-Teesta confluence, we spoke to fishermen Nur Alam and Chandan Das just before the sunset. They spent the day on the boat and slept there at night. They pointed to the lack of fish in the river, saying they caught only one and sold it at Tk 200. 

"No land we have, no fish in the river. Only we know how we are surviving," lamented Chandan.

*The article originally written in Bangla has been rewirtten in English by Quamrul Hassan.

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