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Dhaka Tribune

Hydro-diplomacy in action

India, China, and Bangladesh’s joint venture on Teesta

Update : 20 May 2024, 02:21 AM


During his recent visit to Dhaka on May 8-9, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra expressed India's interest in financing the Teesta River project, marking a significant shift in India's engagement with Bangladesh regarding this long-contested water resource. This expression of interest coincides with China's ongoing involvement and proposal to finance the same project. India's investment in the Teesta River project was motivated by China's prior engagement and perceived geopolitical challenge. By co-financing the project, India aims to counterbalance China's influence and uphold its regional dominance, highlighting the complex interplay of strategic interests in South Asia.  While it is easy to frame the involvement of China and India in the Teesta River project within the usual narrative of geopolitical rivalry, it is imperative to recognize the unique opportunity this situation presents for a tripartite collaboration that could transcend traditional competitive dynamics. Through cooperative efforts, China and India, along with Bangladesh, have the potential to create a sustainable and effective management plan for the Teesta waters.

The impact of the Teesta river on Bangladesh:

Water is synonymous with life, it’s the lifeline of the earth as economic growth, food production and other means of human survival depends mostly on availability of water. Water traverses national boundaries as rivers, lakes, and groundwater, linking nations, ecosystems, and communities. The Teesta River, spanning 414 km in length, is one of such transboundary river between India and Bangladesh which originates from the Pauhunri Mountain in the eastern Himalayas.  It traverses through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh through the Rangpur division.

A report says that the Teesta basin supports approximately 30 million residents, with 2% in Sikkim, 27% in West Bengal, and the majority, 71%, in northwest Bangladesh; of these, 78% live in rural areas while 22% reside in urban settings.  The Teesta, Bangladesh's fourth largest river and the principal river of the northern region, spans a floodplain of 2,750 square kilometers, sustaining over 10 million people and accounting for 14 percent of the nation's total crop production. However, as the most downstream nation, Bangladesh contends with the dual challenges of excessive water from this transboundary river during the rainy season, leading to flooding, and insufficient flow during the dry season, adversely affecting the economy, livelihoods, and ecosystems. According to the Washington-based International Food Research Institute (IFPRI), Bangladesh annually loses about 1.5 million tonnes of Boro rice, or 8.9% of its total rice production, due to water shortages in the Teesta barrage area, with projected declines of 8% by 2030 and 14% by 2050 due to reduced river flow.

Bangladesh-India Hydro diplomacy relating to Teesta water sharing

Bangladesh-India hydro diplomacy, particularly relating to the Teesta water sharing, epitomizes the complex interplay of national interests, regional cooperation, and geopolitical strategies in South Asia. The Teesta River dispute began in 1951 when India and then-East Pakistan agreed on equitable sharing of the Ganges waters, including the Teesta River, but the agreement was never implemented.  After the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission was established in 1972, an ad hoc arrangement for sharing the Teesta waters was reached in 1983, which allotted 39 percent of the water to India and 36 percent to Bangladesh. The importance of the Teesta river issue grew following the Ganga Water Treaty in 1996. Subsequent negotiations between India and Bangladesh on sharing the river's waters started soon afterward but have achieved only limited success. In 2011, a draft agreement on water sharing was prepared and India proposed to allocate 37.5 percent of the Teesta waters to Bangladesh, keeping 42.5 percent for itself during the dry season from December to March to resile on India’s international commitment. However, the agreement was not finalized because Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, strongly objected to the treaty. Bangladesh has consistently raised concerns about the delays in finalizing the long-awaited Teesta river water sharing treaty, indicating Bangladesh's ongoing demand for progress. However, there has been no positive response from India regarding the treaty's advancement. Nevertheless, Bangladesh is genuinely concerned that India's recent plan to divert the Teesta River by constructing two additional canals will severely impact its agriculture and exacerbate tensions between the neighboring countries.  Finding no alternative, the Bangladesh government has collaborated with China to initiate the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP) to address the prolonged water crisis of the Teesta river.

Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP)

In 2016, Bangladesh and China signed an MoU to collaborate on water sector initiatives, focusing on the Teesta River through a feasibility study, leading to the submission and approval of the TRCMRP report in 2019, with the project set to complete by 2025. The TRCMRP is a multifaceted initiative aimed at enhancing water security in the Teesta River basin. With seven strategic goals, the project seeks to address various challenges faced by the region. The primary goal is river regime control to stabilize the river's flow. This is closely followed by comprehensive flood management strategies to mitigate flooding risks and river erosion. The project also plans to dredge the river system to restore its natural state and improve water storage capacity, which will enhance water availability, particularly during dry seasons. Additionally, the TRCMRP includes land reclamation and focuses on hydraulic construction and irrigation enhancements to support agriculture. A significant focus is also placed on environmental and ecological restoration to balance development with conservation. This initiative represents a critical step towards resolving long-standing water issues and promoting sustainable development in the Teesta River area.

Significance of tripartite cooperation in implementing TRCMRP

The tripartite cooperation in the Teesta River project, involving India, Bangladesh, and China, goes beyond typical geopolitical rivalry, offering a chance for real regional harmony. For this cooperation to work, India needs not only to finance but also to first agree on a water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh. This agreement would set a solid foundation for China to assist positively. In this partnership, India could ensure fair water distribution due to its upstream position, Bangladesh could handle the downstream effects, and China could provide technical help, using its experience in large water projects.

Such collaboration would turn a long-standing issue into a success story of international teamwork, potentially leading to better diplomatic relations, regional stability, and a model for global resource management. This could significantly improve development, water security, and environmental stability in South Asia. Nevertheless, India's reluctance to finalize the Teesta water sharing treaty and the slow disbursement of only 20% of the promised $7.362 billion in line of credit funds over 13 years, amid bureaucratic hurdles and restrictive conditions such as mandatory sourcing from India, raise concerns about its commitment to effectively invest in regional projects like the originally Chinese-backed Teesta project.


Md Jahid-Al-Mamun is a young academic, currently serving as a Lecturer in the Department of Law at the University of Dhaka. He has a deep interest in the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia and frequently writes about the region's current affairs.

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