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Is Bangladesh looking for a Chinese solution to its Teesta water woes?

Bangladesh negotiated with India for 35 years, but the negotiations did not make any headway due to the river's importance to West Bengal. So Bangladesh has to look for other solutions where advanced Chinese technologies and experiences may have something to offer.

MD Mufassir Rashid Oct 26, 2022
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Teesta River

On October 9, 2022, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, visited the Teesta Barrage area in Lalmonirhat, a district of Bangladesh. The envoy reiterated that China is "serious" about implementing the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP). 

But the project is likely to be implemented only after detailed assessment, as Bangladesh has been seeking a comprehensive solution for the river for a long time. Considering the importance of Teesta on Bangladesh's economy, food, and culture, the project may bring a solution to Bangladesh's longstanding concerns.

Teesta's economic importance

Teesta is a transboundary river that originated from glaciers in Sikkim in northeastern India. The river runs through northern West Bengal state and enters Bangladesh in the Rangpur division. It further flows towards Nilphamari and Lalmonirhat and finally joins the Brahmaputra river at Gaibandha.

The river serves as one of the crucial sources of water for the communities in these districts. It is also an important source of the Brahmaputra river. According to the Asia Foundation report of 2013, Teesta’s flood plains in Bangladesh cover 14 per cent of the country's agricultural land. It also provides irrigation for 750,000 hectares of agricultural land in Bangladesh. It also provides livelihood opportunities to 7.3 per cent of the total population. The estimated number is 13.1 million people. Hence, the river is directly related to Bangladesh's food and economic security.

Hydro-diplomacy 

As Teesta originated from Sikkim and runs through West Bengal and Siliguri before entering Bangladesh, it also plays a vital role in agriculture and the economy there. It is a primary source of irrigation for 920,000 hectares of land in West Bengal.

The issue regarding water-sharing originated due to the impact of Gajoldoba Barrage and Teesta Barrage. India built the Gajoldoba barrage in 1985 for irrigation purposes. India also completed the construction of Teesta Barrage by 1997. These two barrages impede the natural flow of water to Bangladesh. Farmlands are facing water scarcity, and water becomes scarcest during the dry season. The shortage of water is also adversely impacting the Brahmaputra river. Moreover, during the rainy season, the barrages release a large amount of water that overflows and causes floods in Bangladesh. As a result, Bangladesh has been negotiating with upper-riparian India to share water since 1983, when the barrages were under construction.

However, as West Bengal also needs water from the same river, the state's chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is also silent on the issue of proposed water-sharing. She demands water from India's interlinked rivers in exchange for the Teesta water to Bangladesh. But as India has yet to share its interlinked rivers with its federal states, the water-sharing negotiations remain deadlocked.

As a result, Bangladesh has to think about alternative solutions, such as river management projects that would allow Bangladesh to maintain a steady flow in its part of the river. In this context, China came forward with a river management plan that may provide Bangladesh with a comprehensive solution to the problems.

Teesta management project 

The Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP) will cost approximately $1 billion. The project will dredge 108 km of the river bed and build a 173 km embankment to ensure efficient river regime control. The project will also construct a 115 km four-lane road along the river. Many of these roads will be an amalgamation of dam and road together. Such restoration and comprehensive management will address Bangladesh's irrigation and overflow concerns.

Moreover, the project also aims to construct a satellite city on the reclaimed land from the river that would  introduce urbanization and an industrialized economy to the locals. The project also promises to provide jobs to 8000 people, contributing to the national economy. And lastly, the preservation of assets estimated through the project is worth BDT 1130 billion.

The project is still in the nascent phase. PowerChina, a Beijing-based construction company, has run a feasibility test, and they expressed their satisfaction with the results. Experts in Beijing are likely to develop a detailed plan which Bangladesh may consider after a thorough assessment.

Intertwined geopolitics

While for many, any intertwined issue related to India and China with Bangladesh is a part of a larger geopolitical game, reality begs to differ, considering the complex interdependence. Teesta River management is also beyond such geopolitics for Bangladesh. Bangladesh follows a balancing policy and maximizes the odds between India and China. The country also has interdependence with both India and China. Considering the significance of the Teesta for India's West Bengal region, Bangladesh needs a comprehensive solution. Bangladesh negotiated with India for 35 years, but the negotiations did not make any headway due to the river's importance to West Bengal. So Bangladesh has to look for other solutions where advanced Chinese technologies and experiences may have something to offer.

In a sub-regional context, any urbanization and industrialization alongside Bangladesh's riverbanks will also benefit India. The bordering districts of both countries have strong ties; their economies are also interlinked. The project will construct roads that would contribute to regional connectivity.

It is also worth mentioning that this is not the first management project regarding Teesta. According to the Foreign Minister, a French expert group ran a comprehensive study on flood control in 1988-89 that covered Teesta. But the project could not be taken up due to funding issues back then.

TRCMRP may have the potential to address Bangladesh's longstanding concerns. As negotiations with upper-riparian India have reached a deadlock for a while now, Bangladesh needs a solution to protect its own interests. It is related to Bangladesh's food security, economy, and culture, where TRCMRP may provide a sustainable solution to the local people's needs.

(The author is a Research Associate at The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). Views are personal. He can be contacted at mufassir.emil199@gmail.com

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