Troubled Waters

Despite decades of negotiations and numerous promises from India, the Teesta water-sharing agreement between Bangladesh and India is nowhere near being settled.

By Sohail Arman | May 2023

The Teesta is a transboundary river shared by India and Bangladesh. In response to West Bengal’s decision to dig canals to drain water from the Teesta, Bangladesh’s foreign ministry has sent a note verbale to India, seeking information about media reports that said that India has initiated a project to divert water from the Teesta. The West Bengal government has decided to develop two additional canals to drain water from the Teesta. Jaldhaka, another transboundary river, would also be diverted into the canals for use in agriculture. The Teesta Barrage Project has already allotted 1,000 acres of land to the West Bengal Irrigation Department for the canals, which are anticipated to assist about 100,000 farmers in Jalpaiguri and Coch Bihar. The decision of West Bengal to dig two more canals for diverting water from the transboundary Teesta River will badly affect the lives and livelihoods of about two crore people in Bangladesh.

A total of 54 rivers that go from the Himalayas to the Gulf of Bengal are shared by Bangladesh and India. The management of such transnational or transboundary rivers is best done in compliance with international treaties and norms, such as the UN Water-Sharing Convention of 1997, the Berlin Rules, and the Helsinki Rules. Yet, this takes the form of bilateral agreements between the relevant parties in South Asia. As a consequence, the higher riparian nations often benefit and get uneven shares. For instance, Bangladesh suffers when India builds canals and barrages. In relation to the Brahmaputra River, India and China share the same problem. As a consequence, Bangladesh has only been successful in convincing India to sign agreements regarding the Ganges and the Kushiyara rivers. The Ganges River Treaty was followed by the Kushiyara Agreement by over 25 years. The Teesta water-sharing agreement has not been signed after ten years of discussions.

Northern Bangladesh will grow drier because of the arbitrary withdrawal of water. The advantages, meanwhile, will come at the expense of northern Bangladeshi farmers. Teesta is a transboundary river, and Bangladesh and India should share its water in accordance with the international water-sharing agreement in an equitable and fair way. Regrettably, Bangladesh has been deprived of such equality and reason as upper-riparian India builds barrages, dams, and canals on its own initiative, reducing the river’s flow to Bangladesh.

The question arises as to what made India think that it could withdraw the water from the Teesta unreasonably? River basin management has long been advocated in the cases of Bangladesh and India to prevent such confrontations. But in order to do so, the higher riparian side must accept justice and logic. But unfortunately, India hasn’t ratified the 1997 UN Convention on International Watercourses where only one article can settle the Teesta issue, which is Article 7 of the 1997 UN Convention on International Watercourses. According to Article 7(1) of the United Nations Watercourses Law or Watercourses Convention, no country can control the downstream or downstream of another country by damming upstream of any transboundary river. Article 5 of the Convention states: “(1) Watercourse States shall, in their respective territories, utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.

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