By Ram Kumar Jha
The Teesta is the fourth largest river in South Asia. This river is said to be the lifeline of the upper catchment of the Teesta, i.e., Sikkim. Teesta flows for almost the entire length of the state, carving out verdant Himalayan temperate and tropical river valleys. The river then forms the border between Sikkim and West Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra as a tributary in Bangladesh. The total length of the river is 309 km. It drains an area of 12,540 sq km. The economy in Teesta river basin is predominantly agrarian and this sector employs the maximum number of people. In this region, agriculture is highly dependent on the monsoon which bring in excessive rainfall during peak season while there is very little water in the lean season. But, there is great dependence on the Teesta river water for irrigation, agriculture, fishing, and navigation.
As the economy urbanizes, there is a visible shift away from agriculture towards the industry and service sectors. In this basin, the Indian side area is not highly industrialised but when compared to Bangladesh side it seems to be more developed. In the Teesta river basin, the population is mostly rural as of now, but is urbanizing at a rapid rate. The population density is very high in this basin and it is growing at a fast pace. It is estimated that over 32 percent of the population will reside in urban centres by 2025, with the percentage going up to 47.3 percent by 2050. It is likely that the pressure on the river system will increase rapidly in tandem with its growth.
It is also estimated that the Teesta river has a mean annual flow of 60 billion cubic metres, but a significant amount of this water flows only during the wet season, i.e., between June and September, leaving scant flow during the dry season, i.e., October to April/May when the average flow gets reduced to about 500 million cubic metres (MCM) per month. Every year, the river floods its bank during the monsoon months, causing harm to people and property. Likewise, every dry season, the river shrinks considerably. This variability is causing damage to the economy of the region. The issue of equitable water sharing during the lean season is the longstanding dispute between the two countries.
People living in the Teesta river basin are waiting for a long time for a permanent solution to Teesta river water sharing. But the political efforts initiated end with no result. It shows the political ineffectiveness of both countries on the decision making process. Although, it is critical to understand the winners and losers in any transboundary agreement, it is also important to identify opportunities for greater cooperation for development.
Since 1972, water relations between the two countries has been a work in progress for achieving equitable water sharing. India and Bangladesh signed the ‘Statute of the Joint Rivers Commission’ on March 17, 1972 which governs all rivers common to both nations. The Commission liaises with the two governments to ensure joint efforts and also works on the sharing of water resources, irrigation and flood control measures.
In 1983, for solving the immediate purpose of water utilisation, a water sharing agreement was reached between India and Bangladesh. Both countries were allocated 39 percent and 36 percent of the water flow respectively. In 2011, a new bilateral treaty expanded upon this agreement by proposing an equal allocation of the Teesta river water during the lean season, leaving aside 20 percent of the total flow of the river as environmental flow. But the water deal could not be ratified after India’s argument that water is a state issue, and the then newly-elected West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declined to approve the treaty at the last minute. The reason behind this was that providing higher volume of water to the lower riparian country (Bangladesh) would cause problems in the northern region of West Bengal, especially during the drier months. This issue was not discussed during the India-Bangladesh bilateral meeting on June 6-7, 2015 in Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh.
In the political discourse, the question of sharing of Teesta does not focus on the lean and monsoon water flow, besides lacking clarity in approach during the discussion. Political debates and methods of water sharing are based on the annual flow of water and do not account for seasonal variability. This approach makes it difficult for the two nations to agree upon a specific water sharing method. Further, it is notable that the problem with regard to sharing of the Teesta river water during the lean period is felt in very specific parts of India and Bangladesh, i.e., northwest Bangladesh and northwest Bengal. In the political arena the specifics in terms of region is also not addressed. If these specific details are highlighted then both countries will realise that instead of delaying the signing of the Teesta agreement, they should sign it at the earliest.
In the current geopolitical scenario, efforts at trans-boundary river cooperation have largely failed, even as the growing scarcity of water in the region and the effects of climate change demand shared approaches for the proper utilization and management of trans-boundary water resources. This needs special focus on realistic facts and approaches to solve the Teesta river water sharing as early as possible at the political level. This may also help to address agricultural development and rural poverty reduction in the Teesta region.
(Ram Kumar Jha is working as Policy Analyst, CUTS International, Jaipur. He can be contacted at email@example.com)