Dhaka has failed to secure a water-sharing treaty on the Teesta river despite almost three decades of effort. Such an agreement could have ensured availability of Teesta waters on the Bangladesh side and thus vast tracts of land could have been irrigated.
However, following the recent Teesta debacle, water resources minister Anisul Islam Mahmud feels a basin-based water management could be more effective than a piecemeal solution to water issue of each of the international rivers. He expressed his views in an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo:
Prothom Alo (PA): Exactly when did Bangladesh begin talks on Teesta water-sharing with India?
Anisul Islam Mahmud (AIM): We began discussion sometime in the mid-80s, particularly with the commencement of the Teesta project. We mainly had two considerations: one was to provide supplementary irrigation,and the otherto ensure use of water during the lean season. Those days, there was no dearth of water during the September-December period and it was aimed to bring almost half a million hectares of land under irrigation by utilising that water. The other target was to ensure irrigation during the lean season when there was scarcity of water.
PA: Has the objective of bringing half a million hectares of land under irrigation been successful?
AIM: No, we could not do it. Currently, we have been able to irrigate 125,000-150,000 hectares of land.We could not excavate the canals that we were supposed to, in the second and third phases. We are now expanding the first phase of the project. By so doing, we will be able to bring another 25,000-30,000 hectares of land under irrigation. It would have been the most beneficial for us had we been able to exploit the full potential of the project, especially use of supplementary irrigation.
PA: Why has it not been possible?
AIM: We had not been able to excavate the canals that we were expected to, in the second and third phases. We had not been able to make the required investment (for land acquisition and giving adequate compensation to the affected people). There is still adequate water during the season of supplementary irrigation.
PA: Are you suggesting that the irrigation target of the Teesta project could not be attained due to shortage of investment?
AIM: The infrastructure we now have is enough to utilise the waters that we want from India.We have told India that 80 per cent of the Teesta waters should have distributed between the two countries keeping the rest (20 per cent) for normal flow of the river.
PA: We have witnessed the Teesta waters receding fast in recent years...
AIM: Teesta has dried up in the past 2-3 decades. Whereas we used to get 1500-2000 cusecs of waters at this point in time of the year, the quantum (flow of water per second) has come down to 370 cusecs.
PA: How is the rate of receiving waters during the lean period in the past 10 years?
AIM: The flow of waters has continued to recede. And it drastically fell in 2015.
PA: Have you raised the issue of drastic fall in the water flow of Teesta with the Indian authorities?
AIM: Yes we did.
PA: What is India’s explanation on the matter?
AIM: We had a lot of talks with them. The fall in rainfall in Sikkim has been attributed to it. The climate change, especially change in the patter of rainfall has been noticed; however, there is huge rainfall this year. The past year too saw excessive rains. As a result, like this year, the standing crops in the haor areas were washed away last year. Whatever, the trends of rain, a Teesta treaty could have provided us with scope to have waters. The farmers could have known earlier how much water would be available during the lean season and how much land would be irrigated with that water. We could have taken preparations.
PA: That means an agreement would have ensured certainty of receiving waters?
AIM: Certainly. An agreement would have provided guarantee of getting waters. In absence of treaty, we cannot also distribute the water whatever among the farmers properly.
PA: You have talked about reasons of receding Teesta waters, such as climate change, fall in rainfall and so on, but the experience of our colleagues says something different.There is adequate water in the Teesta.
AIM: Nobody says that there is no water in the Teesta. It’s a fact that the waters of Teesta are being withdrawn in the upstream.
PA: The chief minister of the Bengal state of India has time and again brought forth the claim of non-availability of water in the Teesta...
AIM: West Bengal claims the water flow from Sikkim has receded as waters are being withdrawn for building infrastructure in Sikkim. We said let’s get 50 per cent of the waters available at Gazaldoba point. But West Bengal is not ready to give that, although India’s central government is pledge-bound to give us Teesta waters. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has categorically told our prime minister Sheikh Hasina during her Delhi tour – something that no other Indian prime minister has said before –that it would signed during the very tenure of Modi and Hasina in the respective countries. By saying so he has clearly made a timeframe for signing a treaty; i.e. such a treaty would be signed by 2018.This is for the first time a timeframe for signing the Teesta agreement is being talked about.
PA: Are you terming the timeframe as a success of this tour? But India has iterated its position of not signing any overseas agreement excluding a state government...
AIM: It’s the internal matter of India’s central government. So, I don’t see any reason to be concerned about the matter. Our negotiation and contacts are all with the central government of India.
PA: The two governments had in recent years been eloquent about their relations. In such a congenial atmosphere, why is still the delay in signing the Teesta deal?
AIM: Any talks on water-sharing takes a lot of time. It is not that it happens only in our case. India’s different states were seen quarrelling over water issue but could not solve their disputes. Talks on important issues like sources of water are always complex and time-consuming.
PA: Is there any plan on our part to focus on basin-based water management involving all common rivers?
AIM: When I was also the water resources minister in the 1980s, I had a proposal that excepting three major rivers, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, waters of all other rivers should be equally distributed between the two countries. That actually means, keeping 20 per cent waters for normal flow of the rivers, the rest 80 per cent should be equally shared. If there is a decision in principle on such matters, we could then proceed to measurement of waters.
The issue of use of water is also important alongside sharing. If we distribute waters of a particular river, that (sharing) ensures proper use of the river, not the best use of the water itself. For this, regional cooperation is important. For this, we need basin-based river management.In South Asia, we will have to focus on basin-based river management in order resolve the water issues.
PA: Have we readied any plan and taken preparations for carrying out survey and research activities focussing on basin-based river management?
AIM: If it is to be done, we have to do it together. Only 7 per cent of the catchment area belongs to Bangladesh whereas the remaining 93 per cent is outside of our territory. So, the overall planning and research are not possible without them.
PA: Has there been formal or informal discussion on this?
AIM: For example, Bangladesh and India are discussing the issue at the sub-regional forum involving Nepal and Bhutan. There has been significant progress in this initiative as well We hope, there should be progress in cooperation matters involving rivers and waters.
PA: As India withdraws unilaterally waters of Teesta,Bangladesh too withdraws waters as the people Kurigram say. They allege that they are deprived of the fruits of the Teesta project.
AIM: Kurigram has not been a party to the Teesta project. That is because Kurigram has rivers like Dharla, Dudhkumar. So, the allegation that Nilphamari district is benefitted at the cost of Kurigram’s interest is not true.
PA: Thank you for giving us time.
AIM: Thank you, too, Prothom Alo.
• The interview text, originally written in Bangla, has been rewritten in English by Khawaza Main Uddin.