Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Happened To Teesta Water?

ON SEPTEMBER 4, The Hindu reported that Paschimbanga chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, was not coming to join Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, on his visit to Bangladesh. The report was both surprising and shocking, as it also reported that she was opposing the proposed Teesta water-sharing agreement. The Bangladesh government was very prompt; two ministers claimed to the press that whether somebody came or not the agreement would be signed. Despite their claims, frustration deepened in public. The BDNews on September 3, quoting Anandabazar Patrika of Kolkata, reported that Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury, a member of the Lok Sabha from Maldah, had said the remaining 460 cusecs of water of the Teesta would be shared on a 48-52 basis between Bangladesh and India. He further said Bangladesh shall get 25 per cent and India 75 per cent of the Teesta water. So far Bangladesh government had been assuring its people that the river was getting 20 per cent for its environmental flow and the rest would be distributed 48-52 to Bangladesh and India.

The frustration in public was turning into anger. Among experts, confusion emerged on what quantity of water the Teesta carries, particularly in lean periods. Historically, it is the water coming down from the Himalayan glaciers added with the spring waters from the hills. The flow increases by March, as summer arrives and the glaciers melt faster. In monsoon, rainfall over its catchment (all over Sikkim with average annual 2,740mm) sometimes create flood down to its plains of Duars. Kalyan Rudra, an expert in India, writes that this flow can be as low as 90 cubic metres per second or cumecs at Anderson Bridge (Taming the Teesta, June 2007). The peak discharge in 1968 flood was measured at 19,800 cumecs at Jalpaiguri. The Anderson Bridge was destroyed in that flood. Bangladesh had a record of minimum average 200 cumec discharges for the Teesta at Kaunia Bridge on the road from Rangpur to Kurigram.

The Gazaldoba barrage east of Siliguri town can be found in Google Earth satellite pictures, where images dated February 22 reveals that no water was being released down towards Bangladesh from the barrage. I located the new Anderson Bridge on the road from Darjeeling to Kalimpong, the Coronation Bridge at Sivoke on the Siliguri Assam highway, and the Domohani Bridge on Jalpaiguri Cooch Behar Highway. These are important landmarks over the Teesta in India, and are often referred to in water related discussions. It was clear that with the added catchment areas in West Bengal, the lowest flow of the Teesta inside Bangladesh should be double to that of Anderson Bridge, if not diverted. But the scenario is the opposite. India was diverting Teesta water towards the Teesta Project Irrigation areas and releasing huge quantities of water towards Bihar through the rivers Mahananda/Mechi.

The Teesta had an average historical flow of 2,80,000 cusec maximum and 10,000 cusec minimum at Dalia, upstream of the Teesta Barrage in Bangladesh (1 cumec or cubic metre per second equals 35.3 cusec or cubic feet per second). Due to increasing withdrawal in the upstream, this flow has come down to about 1,000 cusec, and to even 500 cusec during droughts. India constructed the Gazaldoba Barrage in 1982 and started diverting water for irrigation and transferring to the Mahananda. India’s irrigation plan with the Teesta water is massive; it plans to cover about 9.22 lakh hectares of land in the districts of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur and Maldah. Bangladesh constructed its Teesta Barrage in 1990 to supply irrigation to about 6.32 lakh hectares of land in the Niphamari, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Jaipurhat, Gaibandha and Bogra districts.

In the 37th meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission in Delhi, the Bangladesh water resources minister, Ramesh Chandra Roy, demanded 50-50 distribution of the Teesta water at Gazaldoba point. At that time he expressed satisfaction by getting 3,500 cusec of water without asking, and said it can be increased through talks (The Daily Star, March 18, 2010). In January this year at the secretary-level meeting, Bangladesh demanded 8,000 cusec and India 21,000 cusec of the Teesta water. Together they demanded 29,000 cusec when the lowest flow in the river was around 10,000 cusec only. However, after that meeting, it was in the air that the Teesta water-sharing agreement is imminent, with the formula of dividing the flow 50-50, keeping aside 20 per cent of the total flow for the river.

Here we arrive at the final question, how much water shall Bangladesh get with this formula? If it is on the basis of 10,000 cusec flow, Bangladesh shall get 6,000 cusec, which is a comfortable offer. Anyway, it should not be less than 3,500 cusec, as we can expect from the 37th JRC meeting. So, we, from the public, demanded a guarantee clause in the agreement. If the flow in Teesta is less than the amount necessary to meet both party demands, it can be augmented by releasing stored water from the Sikkim dams. But we got a heavy shock when the Anandabazar Patrika reported that let alone 460 cusec, the water shall be divided 48-52 between Bangladesh and India. If 460 cusec is 20 per cent, then the 100 per cent or total flow becomes 2,300 cusec. If the water is divided keeping 460 cusec undistributed, Bangladesh gets only 900 cusec. Altogether, it is about a 25-75 distribution to Bangladesh and India. On September 4, the Indian minister for water resources did not arrive in Dhaka. As a result, the 38th meeting of Joint Rivers Commission scheduled for September 5 was not held. By September 5 evening, it was clear that there will be no agreement to be signed on Teesta water.

The Hasina-Manmohan Summit ended with no agreement on Teesta, no agreement on transit. On September 8, the Bangladesh foreign secretary, Mijarul Quayes, told a press conference, ‘Teesta agreement is finalised; we are not to give any more concession.’ Our question is what is there in the document? What is the amount of flow to be distributed? Over a point to share 33,000-50,000 cusec of water, Kalyan Rudra on September 6 said at Kolkata, ‘Teesta water comes down to 3,500 to 4,000 cusecs only in lean periods’ ( He said, ‘Twenty-three “low flow” dams in Sikkim shall obstruct Teesta water flow to the Gazaldoba Barrage.’ According to Kalyan Rudra, we cannot get more than 2,000 cusec in lean periods by any distribution formula. Shall it be acceptable to us when we were getting 3,500 cusec without asking? Here I can mention a Daily Star report on September 3 quoting the prime minister’s adviser Mashiur Rahman who said that experts were yet to know the volume of water of the Teesta. ‘So, we will measure the volume of the water in the next 17 years. Later, we will go for a permanent treaty,’ he said.

A former JRC director, Kazi Golum Mostofa, said at a talk-show on Desh TV on September 10 that the Teesta deal would be on percentage basis, not on quantity basis. He said the Indian side claims that water down to the Gazaldoba Barrage is added with other stream flows joining it within the Indian Territory and this should also be measured. The Indian side is correct: the flow of the River Dharla in India joins the Teesta upstream of the Domohani Bridge near Jalpaiguri. Mostofa said the proposed 15-year deal provides measurements at upstream of the Gazaldoba Barrage, diversion through the canals, release through the Gazaldoba Barrage, and water received upstream of the Teesta Barrage in Bangladesh. Thus, it shall be clear what amount of water is available before distribution, what amount is released to Bangladesh and what amount received in Bangladesh. The difference between water released and received in Bangladesh shall be the water added in the flow on its way down to Bangladesh.

The agreement which was about to be signed is not public yet. But by stitching the information collected together, we can generate a picture of the proposed deal. But opposition from Mamata has made this deal uncertain. Can we not understand it gives us an opportunity to collect further information about many things happening upstream and downstream of the Gazaldoba Barrage? Information about Sikkim dams is available in maps provided by the web site India has covered by now only 20 per cent of its irrigation area in the Teesta project. So, it is diverting and transferring Teesta water to the Bihar areas by releasing water through the Mahananda Barrage near Banglabandha. One can go there and see the diverted flow through the River Mahananda. Mind it, the water released there does not reach the Mahananda in Chapainawabganj, but flows towards the Mechi/Fulhar upstream of the Farakka Barrage, as can be seen in Google Earth.

Bangladesh is now asking India to remove the hurdles for Teesta Agreement as soon as possible. But I suggest, the Bangladesh side should now demand, with strong arguments, the following:

1.    No dams should be built in Sikkim for storage which will obstruct lean period flows in the Teesta tributaries. ‘Low flow’ hydroelectricity dams shall also obstruct the lean period flows.

2.    No linking or release shall be allowed to the River Mahananda/Mechi to the west or to the River Jadhaka to the east. These links/releases shall lead to inter-basin water transfer.

3.    The area of the Indian Teesta Irrigation Project must be reduced to a realistic figure. A too large area shall end up with major conveyance loss and failure.

BY : M Inamul Haque.