Ainun Nishat is Professor Emeritus at BRAC University’s Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research. He had previously been the university’s vice chancellor. An authority on water management, Ainun Nishat has taught at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and had also been the IUCN country director.
By AKM Zakaria
Prothom Alo (PA): Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has visited India, but the long-standing Teesta water-sharing deal was not signed.
Ainun Nishat (AN): It was clear that the Teesta deal wouldn’t be signed during this trip of the prime minister. Even so, there was pressure from the media of both the countries to seal the deal. In fact many newspapers in India, even West Bengal, wrote in support of the Teesta deal. The politically neutral media, or those in favour of the central government and against Mamata’s government, were in favour of the deal. Clearly, the media was influenced by India’s domestic politics in creating this pressure. I was sad that the deal was not signed, but not surprised.
PA: So has the Teesta agreement been blocked?
AN: I want to believe in the assurances of the prime ministers of both the countries. I am hopeful that India’s internal political deadlock over the Teesta issue will soon be resolved, and circumstances conducive to long-term management for sharing water of all common rivers, including Teesta, will be created.
PA: But the West Bengal chief minister persists in her opposition, saying water will not be shared.
AN: That is India’s domestic problem. It’s best to leave that to them. Bangladesh shouldn’t get involved in that. The two countries have many common rivers. Some come down from Meghalaya, some from Tripura and some from Assam. We need to have an understanding on these rivers too. These are issues to be discussed between Dhaka and Delhi, not with Agartala, Shillong or Guwahati. Teesta comes down from Sikkim, through Darjeeling and West Bengal to enter Bangladesh. There is conflict between Sikkim and West Bengal over Teesta. We have no scope to deal with Sikkim. Mamata’s opposition is India’s domestic issue. Delhi will see to it.
PA: Does Teesta have enough water to meet the demands of both the countries?
AN: We have to understand that Teesta is flashy, its water suddenly increasing and decreasing. On average, though, in the dry season this river’s volume of water falls to 6 thousand to 8 thousand cusecs. During the rainy season this goes up to 250 thousand to 300 thousand cusecs. Anything over this creates floods and erosion in Lalmonirhat. Sometimes the water goes up to even 400 cusecs. This tendency has increased in recent times. Teesta’s water in the dry season is not enough to meet the needs of India and Bangladesh. At least 24 thousand cusecs of water is required to meet the demands of both countries. That means the water in the dry season is enough to meet the requirements of only one of the countries.
Both the countries built barrages for irrigation purposes, to irrigate the aman crop in September-October. It is possible to meet the demand in this season. That is why an interim agreement is required. Then it can be seen how the water requirements can be met in the dry season by means of river basin management. A reservoir will be needed upstream. But due consideration will have to be given to solving its possible social and environmental fallout.
PA: Have there been any effective discussions on constructing a reservoir?
AN: The reservoir issue has always been raised during Teesta talks. Bangladesh, Bhutan and India are taking steps regarding the rivers Dharla and Dudhkumar. Bangladesh’s prime minister is agreeable to invest in such a reservoir. The hydroelectricity generated from this will justify the project.
PA: How true is Mamata’s statement that there’s no water in Teesta?
AN: In the eighties before a barrage was constructed in Gazaldoba, West Bengal, we would get all the water that flowed from Teesta in the dry season. Once the barrage was constructed, India would withdraw water, but not entirely. They would, according to them, release the amount of water due to Bangladesh. That mean, in the dry season we would get from 250 thousand to 350 thousand cusecs of water. It was in 2011 that Mamata became insistent that water would not be given to Bangladesh. It is unfortunate that from 2012, India entirely blocked Teesta water for Bangladesh. So it is completely untrue that there is no water in Teesta at Gazaldoba.
PA: What about Mamata’s proposal to give water from three other rivers instead of Teesta?
AN: I do not consider it correct to make such a proposal. Dhanshiri is a river of Barisal. There is no river called Manshiri. On one had India is honouring its rivers on the same level as human beings, and yet there is this farce with the name of rivers.
The joint statement made after the prime minister’s visit to India, urges in sub-clause 40 to finalise talks that began in 1983 regarding Dharla and Dudhkumar, the two rivers coming down from Bhutan. Bangladesh wants separate agreements regarding these two rivers. I think India has a similar stand.
PA: Will Bangladesh receive sufficient water if the interim agreement on Teesta is actually signed?
AN: In the case of the Ganges agreement, the water sharing part of the deal has come into effect. However, there are no discussions on how to increase Ganges water. There has been joint river training for preventing erosion and for dredging to ensure navigability of the rivers in the border areas. So it is expected that we will receive our share of water if the Teesta deal is signed.
PA: This deal is about sharing Teesta’s waters at the Bangladesh-India border. But in the case of common rivers, experts speak of basin-based water management. That isn’t happening.
AN: Basin-based river management is always advised in water management science and technology. If the river basin is taken into consideration, it is seen that the water flow varies throughout the year. There is excessive water and even floods in the monsoons. Then there is a deficit of water in the lean season. Water management takes the entire year into consideration. It also considers natural fish reproduction, hydroelectricity generation, tourism and so on. Water security is also important for agriculture. In order words, a solution must be devised for all the problems that causes a water crisis in a basin. Water sharing cannot be based on the amount of water at the border between two countries.
PA: India, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Bangladesh all have common rivers. China is constructing a dam upstream on Brahmaputra. Would it be practical to include all the countries in these discussions?
AN: While technically and ideally it would be justified to include China in the talks, one cannot rule out the political tensions between India and China. It is not likely that India, Bangladesh and China will sit for joint talks anytime soon. If China is constructing only a dam and reservoir in Tibet for hydroelectricity, then there is no reason for Bangladesh to object. Only if water is withdrawn will it be a matter of concern for Bangladesh.
PA: What about Nepal and Bhutan?
AN: We see some hope in including the Bhutan and India. The joint statement after the prime minister’s Indian visit spoke of trilateral talks among India, Bangladesh and Bhutan for water management and power production. It also mentions water resource development and power production between India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
PA: Bangladesh and India share 54 common rivers, yet the Joint River Commission is inactive and almost invisible.
AN: It is time look into the efficacy of the Joint River Commission. It was formed in 1972 as a technical commission. A political commission is needed to guide this commission. All over the world there is joint management for shared rivers where technical talks take placed on the basis of political decisions. At the same time, political decisions cannot be taken without accurate technical input. In this region, political talks among India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh have not taken institutional shape. That is why we just have to wait for visits by the heads of government.
PA: Thank you
AN: Thank you