The Bangladesh government, in partnership with China, has designed the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP) in a bid to solve the long-standing Teesta River water crisis.
Since the Teesta River is in a barind tract, the population of this area is largely dependent on agriculture. This area is a large supplier of Bangladesh's rice and vegetables.
This transboundary river, before it enters Bangladesh from India, has around 35 barrages to divert water. Consequently, this river is weakened and has less water upon entering Bangladesh.
In the rainy season, the river has around 280,000 cusecs of water; which comes down to around 10,000 cusecs at times. In some places, it is occasionally below 1,000 cusecs.
People both upstream and downstream depend on the Teesta for agricultural purposes and the river is facing a crisis in fulfilling the demand for water, as India is diverting the water. Thus, Bangladesh is implementing its own project to solve water issues as those relating to this river cannot be solved bilaterally with India.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016, Beijing signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) worth $24 billion. One of those included river management with dozens of others "on the basis of mutual benefit and equality." China pledged its technical support for land reclamation due to climate change both in the sea and river.
In reference to these deals, the Bangladesh Water Development Board and Power Corporation of China signed an MoU to work in the water sector in Bangladesh and they did a feasibility study based on the Teesta River. Then the Chinese power corporation submitted the TRCMRP report which was approved on May 30, 2019.
In June 2020, it was promoted as a PDPP priority project. The Bangladesh Water Development Board will work as its implementing partner and the project is due to be completed in 2025.
The project has seven specific objectives. In this article, I will go through them and share the issues that concern me as a river activist.
The first of the TRCMRP's seven objectives is river regime control. Now, unlike other rivers, the Teesta is a braided river. For example, the rivers Surma, Meghna or Dhaleswari have nice riverbeds and a straightforward channel.
But the Teesta, in this regard, should be compared to the Brahmaputra. It resembles the hair braid of women and has many islands in it. So, when we talk about "controlling" a braided river, or any river for that matter, it cannot be controlled without adversely impacting the environment.
When we straighten a river by shrinking the banks and digging deep into the riverbed, this drastically alters the original braided nature of the river. And for the record, no braided river can actually be sustainably altered to become a straightened river. With its annual 49-million-ton sediment load, I am worried about how much we can achieve by capital dredging.
The second point of TRCMRP is flood control – which in our country has been adopted since pre-independence era, with the establishment of the water development board. This has always resulted in adverse effects for us because flooding cannot actually be controlled. What we can do is flood management.
Each year in Bangladesh and in Assam of India, larger floods are the de facto result of embankments. So, controlling floods using embankments does not end well if we consider historic impacts. Instead, there lies an issue of corruption as far as flood embankments are concerned. Besides, flood control itself is anti-nature by definition.
Thirdly, the TRCMRP plans to restore the river system through river dredging. The problem here, however, is that we do not always have a similar flow of water. Capital dredging succeeds only when water discharge is strong. Besides, the project does not clarify what the environmental EIA and EMP of such capital dredging would be.
Fourthly, the TRCMRP wants to increase water availability in the Teesta by increasing water storage. But as it also wants to straighten the river by changing its braided nature, it will make the water flow with more velocity into the Jamuna. So, the amount of water that it will be possible to store here is unclear.
Instead, we fear that this could divert attention from the fact that the only solution to have water is through negotiation with upstream. If the issue of having water from upstream – which is our right – loses attention, we will have no water in the long run no matter what mechanism we implement here.
Then comes the hydraulic structure that we would build for irrigation. I believe we should have opted for harvesting less water intensive crops instead of water intensive crops. We actually have damaged the Teesta by opting for more water intensive crops.
A lot of focus has been placed on hydraulic structures and irrigation, but how much emphasis will be given to retaining the proper flow of the river? This has not been clarified in this project, just like the Indian projects that, too, create barricades in water flow for irrigation. My concern is that if we cannot save the river in the first place, what good will we reap from such a hard structure on the river?
The project says that it will turn reclaimed land – 170.87 square kilometers – into an urban complex, and build: industry, power plants, agricultural development land, and resettlement areas. Now we believe the reclaimed land indeed belongs to the people of the Teesta banks.
But would this reclamation actually benefit the public? When urban complexes are built there, the common people will not be able to own such property as the people surrounding the Teesta's banks are poor. The direct benefit will more likely go to industrialists while the marginalised people on the Teesta banks might only end up being petty workers for these corporations.
The project talks about acquisition of land and reclamation, but it does not clarify if it would bring the marginalised people living there for generations under a safety net. It would perhaps be an ambitious project, but from the aspect of land requisition, it does not benefit the marginalised people living right there.
We indeed welcome that larger investors like China enter our water sector. Since we are not receiving enough water from upstream, Chinese investment here is good from a strategic sense.
However, if we end up changing the original features of the river in this process, we need to be aware so that the river does not bring about adversity to our environment in the long run. In such a case, it would not be a sustainable effort.
The Bangladesh Water Development Board is the implementing partner on this mega project. We have seen in the past how this board has been involved in irregularities and corruption. The issue of the board's accountability and transparency is not clear. So, when it comes to a Tk1 lakh crore mega project, the role of the water development board and its capacity raises eyebrows.
In the process of developing this project, we have not seen any public participation, from civil society or local people, in the decision-making to implementation processes.
Moreover, this project is being implemented considering only the Teesta riverbed and its banks. But the river has 11 tributaries and one distributary, which includes transboundary rivers. We need to make plans considering the whole river basin.
If we cannot include all these 11 rivers in our plan, dredging the riverbed or considerations about only the Teesta's banks would be a partial plan. A comprehensive plan would require inclusion of the whole basin, public participation and an ecological approach.
The author is the chairman of the River and Delta Research Centre (RDRC). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org