Teesta project: Does Bangladesh have no alternative to China and India?

China had given Bangladesh a proposal regarding the management of the river Teesta. According to media reports, recently India has given Bangladesh a similar proposal. What is in these proposals regarding the management of Teesta? Will these offer any permanent solution to the problems of the river? Given the prevailing economic realities, what should Bangladesh actually do? Nazrul Islam searches for answers.

The issue of Teesta arose once again during the recent two-day visit of India's foreign secretary to Bangladesh. Before his visit, India's influential daily The Hindu reported that China's project for Teesta in Bangladesh was a matter of concern for India. After all, it was located near the strategically important Siliguri corridor and northeastern states. Elaborating on the background of the project, it was noted that India had failed to finalise the Teesta water-sharing agreement, which served to heighten Dhaka's impatience over the future of river-related initiatives. (Jugantor, 8 May 2024)

It seems, ostensibly, that one of the major objectives of the secretary's Dhaka trip was to keep Bangladesh away from China's Teesta-related project. During the trip, the Indian secretary offered Indian funding for the Teesta project. This can be called a proposal to "implement China's project with the exclusion of China."

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Back in 2016 there was talk of a plan drawn up by PowerChina regarding Teesta. That year before the Dhaka visit of China's President Xi Jinping, PowerChina drew up a comprehensive management project for Bangladesh's major rivers.

At the outset, this initiative was centred on the river Jamuna. However, at the request of Bangladesh Water Development Board, Teesta river was included too. In continuance to this, PowerChina drew up the billion dollar 'Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project'.

The Bangladesh government has apparently maintained a strict "policy of secrecy" regarding this project from the very beginning. As representatives of the people, the government of Bangladesh takes loans for such projects and it is the people who in some way or the other have to repay these loans. So it is not comprehensible why the people will not know about this project and not be able to express their views in this regard.

It is even more ironic that PowerChina has made a video regarding this project and has publicised this worldwide over YouTube. So rather than learning about a project involving their own country from their own government, the people of Bangladesh got to know about it from a foreign company.

All said and done, Bangladesh's investigative journalists managed to dig out some information about the project, such as the preliminary development project proposal (PDPP). From this PDPP and PowerChina's video, as well as from other sources, we have managed to get some sort of idea about the project.

Professor of geology at the Commonwealth University in the US, Md Khalequzzaman, carried out research on the basis of such information. In light of available data, information and research, I presented detailed deliberation on the Teesta mega plan in two books. These two books are 'Bangladeshe Pani Unnayan: Bortoman Dharar Shongkot Ebong Bikolpo Pother Prostab (2023) and Water Development in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Future (2022). The two books talk about alternative strategies for the development of the Teesta basin.

Data, information and research tell us that the basic proposal of China's project is to cut Teesta river's present average breadth of around 3km to 0.816 metres (that is around one-fourth). By this, around 171 sq km of land can be recovered and used for urbanisation, establishing a solar power project, agriculture development and establishing settlements.

The project says that by means of dredging, the depth of Teesta will be increased from the present 5 metres to 10 metres (that is, double). It is expected that this will increase Teesta's navigability. The project has more proposals for construction of jetties, ports and roads.

From its name it is clear that PowerChina's main area of work is power generation. This company is working as construction contractors for several power project companies in Bangladesh. It is not clear from when, how, and how far this company became expert in the field of river management.

Given this backdrop, it is not very surprising that PowerChina has come up with an "disquieting" proposal for the river Teesta. It is clear that if the river's breadth is reduced to one-fourth, even of its depth doubled, the river's cross-section will be half and of the volume of its flow remains the same, the velocity of its flow will be double. As a result, erosion in Teesta's sandy river basin will intensify and the embankments on the river banks will not be able to withstand this.

Around 50 million tonnes of silt flows in with the river Teesta annually. So the increased depth of Teesta brought about by dredging will soon decrease. This will make the erosion of the banks worse. And it will be even more difficult for Teesta with its drastically narrowed breadth to contain the compounded flow of water during the monsoon and flash floods.

The bottom line is, PowerChina's Teesta project will not offer any permanent solution to the problems of this river. Given these circumstances, it would not be wise of Bangladesh to go ahead with this project.

Bangladesh Environmental Network (BEN) from 2013 has been urging the government to take up a 'transit in exchange of rivers' policy. It is a matter of regret that the government did not adopt this. On the contrary, it has given India transit, transshipment, port, and river route facilities, being given nothing in exchange.

Under such circumstances, it is sheer irony for the Indian foreign secretary to come along with a proposal to fund the Teesta-related project instead of increasing its flow. It would not bode well for Bangladesh in the long run to go ahead to implement this project with loans either from China or India.

It must be kept in mind that the scope for Bangladesh to indiscriminately take loans to implement questionable projects has come to an end. As it is, Bangladesh's accumulated foreign debt has reached around USD 1 billion (USD 100 crore) and the liability for annual repayment of foreign loans is around USD 5 billion.

In the next couple of years when debts from other project loans including of Rooppur loom up, this liability will grow further and a crisis may emerge. Bangladesh has already borrowed around USD 5 billion from IMF to replay foreign debt. Media reports say efforts are also being made to borrow from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, etc. In a situation of "taking loans to replay loans", the sooner the questionable PowerChina project is shelved, the better.

So what is the way out for Bangladesh? There are two ways.

One is, ensuring that India gives Bangladesh its due rights to Teesta river. If Indian genuinely wants good for Bangladesh regarding Teesta, then it must stop withdrawing water from Teesta in the dry season by means of the Gajoldoba barrage. India's central government claims it can do nothing as West Bengal is not acquiescing. There is little scope to unearth the truth behind such excuses. There are 15 more constructed, under-construction and planned structures, including the Gajoldoba barrage, to obstruct and withdraw water along upstream Teesta --  and all of these are projects of India's central government.

Flash floods for Bangladesh are another fallout of the Gajoldoba and other barrages constructed on Teesta. As it is Teesta is prone of flash floods. Now those operating the Gajoldoba barrage, open the barrage gates at their convenience, resulting in flashfloods in Bangladesh's Teesta basin. There were flash floods around seven times last year.  For the people of Bangladesh's Teesta basin, India's stance may seem like, "we'll inundate you with floods, scorch you with drought."

With an adequate number of countries ratifying the 1997 UN convention for use of international watercourses, the convention has come into effect. The convention clearly states the rules and regulations that countries must follow regarding the use of common rivers. This convention projects the rights of the downstream countries. Bangladesh must ratify this convention and call upon India to ratify it too.

It must be noted that simply good intentions are not enough to ensure one's rights regarding rivers. In this instance, just as India is taking advantage of its geographical location, Bangladesh too must make use of its opportunities. It is from this angle that Bangladesh Environmental Network (BEN) from 2013 has been urging the government to take up a 'transit in exchange of rivers' policy.

It is a matter of regret that the government did not adopt this. On the contrary, it has given India transit, transshipment, port, and river route facilities, being given nothing in exchange. This has diminished Bangladesh's leverage to earn its rightful demand from India. Even so, Bangladesh must make all-out efforts to ensure its rights from India regarding common rivers as recognised in the UN 1997 convention.         

The other way out is, to go ahead for the restoration of the Teesta basin in a manner best suited for the country's conditions, with local expertise and people's participation, instead of running after foreign funding, consultation, so-called expertise, etc. Teesta must be reconnected with all its tributaries and branches. All old canals, drains, bils and other water bodies must be restored and connected.

If all these tasks can be carried out, then extra water flow during the monsoons can be contained, irrigation water will be available in winter and flash floods can be tackled. The sooner Bangladesh advances toward in these two directions, the better.

* Dr Nazrul Islam is visiting professor, Asian Growth Research Institute and former chief of development research at the UN.

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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