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India, Bangladesh: Water Disputes and Teesta River Diplomacy

This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.

India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers between them. Despite setting up a Joint River Commission for water management as early as 1972, tensions between the countries on how to share resources recently came to a head in a dispute over the Teesta River. At stake are the lives of countless people from West Bengal and Bangladesh who depend upon the river for survival.

To date, only one comprehensive river pact has been signed by India and Bangladesh – a 1996 bilateral treaty that established a 30-year water-sharing arrangement between the two countries. This was set to change in September 2011 when India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was due to sign a pact with his Bangladeshi counterpart regarding access and use of the Teesta River.

Aerial View of Teesta River

Aerial View of the Teesta River. Flickr photo by Prato9x (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Teesta – which has its source in Sikkim – flows through the northern part of West Bengal in India before entering Bangladesh, where after coursing through about 45km of irrigable land, merges with the Brahmaputra River (or Jamuna when it enters Bangladesh). In 1983, an ad-hoc water sharing agreement was reached between India and Bangladesh, whereby both countries were allocated 39% and 36% of the water flow respectively. The new bilateral treaty expands upon this agreement by proposing an equal allocation of the Teesta River.

However, the deal fell through when the then newly elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, refused to approve the treaty, fearing that the loss of higher volume of water to the lower riparian would cause problems in the northern region of state, especially during drier months.

Ganges Hrishikesh

The river Ganges, flowing through Hrishikesh, India. Flickr Photo by Sanj@y (CC-BY-2.0)

Given that water is a state issue in India, and that Banerjee’s political party, the All India Trinamool Congress, is a key coalition partner of the ruling central government, the deal could not go through without her approval. While a large section of the Bangladeshi populace as well as the Indian media vilified her rigid stance, her opposition to the terms of the treaty was not without its share of support.

In May 2012, during a visit to India, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Ms. Dipu Moni, warned that bilateral relations would be complicated if India fails to deliver on the Teesta water-sharing agreement.

Despite this pressure tactic, the treaty remains a slow burner as India continues its efforts of domestic political consensus building. However, the Indian Minister for External Affairs, S.M. Krishna tried to diffuse tensions and assured Bangladesh that India remains committed to an early solution on the issue of sharing Teesta waters.

Jamuna (Brahmaputra) river in Bangladesh. Flickr photo by bengal*foam (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Bangladesh also wants a quick resolution to the issue, and may even be willing to soften their stance because of mounting pressure at home to get the deal done.

Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Farid Ahmed writes:

It is apparently quite clear now that…Bangladesh for now has failed to ensure that India inks a deal…to share water of common rivers, mainly Teesta … Now it is Bangladesh which has to do what it should have started long ago. Apart from traditional diplomacy, they should have transmitted the feelings of its public to those on the other side of the border. The sky is locked for Dhaka as no Bangladeshi channels are broadcasted by Indian cable operators… Most Indian newspapers were supportive for Bangladesh’s cause on Teesta. That’s a positive side. What about engaging with West Bengal’s public?

Nevertheless, looking beyond the political rhetoric, West Bengal’s concerns about water security for its northern region cannot be overlooked and need to be allayed. India is already beginning to feel the strain on its water security given the ever rising demands for more water for its burgeoning population. According to a 2010 report ‘Water Security for India: The External Dynamics’ published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA):

India is facing a serious water resource problem and as trends suggest, it is expected to become ‘water stressed’ by 2025 and ‘water scarce’ by 2050

Both countries, therefore, need to develop a well thought out, balanced treaty that will enable equitable sharing of the waters of the Teesta, thereby enhancing bilateral ties and reducing the possibility of water conflict.

ISN logoThis post and its translations to Spanish, Arabic and French were commissioned by the International Security Network (ISN) as part of a partnership to seek out citizen voices on international relations and security issues worldwide. This post was first published on the ISN blog, see similar stories here.
  • The dispute between Bangladesh and India is not going to be resolved unless the two countries can arrange a meeting dedicated just for this. Bangladesh deserves to be able to get the water from Teesta. The Indian government is being entirely unreasonable by withholding the dialogue between the two countries regarding this.

  • ziaush shams

    ” The Indian government is being entirely unreasonable by …………” What do you expect from such a cruel neighbor, Mr Tarek Alam, when their BSF boss states that ….. “only seven Bangladeshis have been killed last month”. I am convinced as long as Brahmins will rule India, the other castes will be further marginalized in their own country, forget about being reasonable with the people of their neighboring country- Bangladesh. And all the rivers belong to India for they have originated there. If you do not accept that doctrine, you are unreasonable. Understand!   

    • rajeev

      neither you know about India or who is ruling here??

    • Srijoni Banerjee

      getting so many reservations how can these people say about marginalisation of other casts….one thing has been proved by Mr Shams that extra support actually weakens instead of strengthening people!!!!!!!!and the talk is about Water Issue and not about cast…weak analogy!!!!!

  • Dr. Aminur Rahman

    If Bangladesh wants to resolve water-sharing problem with India; she must raise this issue to UN council; without this Bdesh never get their water as International law.

  • Guest

    getting so many reservations how can these people say about marginalisation of other casts….one thing has been proved by Mr Shams that extra support actually weakens instead of strengthening people!!!!!!!!

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  • Adnan Zubair

    watch this vedio …………. India is not less then a terrorist ……..

    • Masud

      Frustrated……….. our govt also trying to destroy our environment.

    • Masud

      No reason to ignore it but u cant demand illegal sharing of water for this………..

      • Shashwat Chopra

        well said mustad. I also support Bangladesh on teesta. Love from INDIA.

    • ibrahim

      mind your words adnan…..think about it where would have you been unless we help in 1971?
      even today we share show some respect if u have it.
      as far as tista concern , how india share equal water with bangladesh while we suffer from water crisis in lean season.
      you want free flow of river water? if we cannot control water resource by various dam then your country will be in flood round the year.
      is that wt u want?

  • jesu

    In accordance, with the above given article it is irrespective of the policies and political domain that plays a major role in the treaties of Teesta, adhere to the vested interests of both the nations political scenario. It clearly shows the impinging of water which is of a natural resource that is to be shared equally between the two countries which is in need of allaying the treaties signed in 1972 and 1983 due to its not much of opaque nature. As the chief minister of the state the fear of making her people suffer in the drier seasons its her responsibility to act as a detractor but with a prudent perspective the act is of vilifying nature by madam. mamtha banerji . Let’s just hope the best would be done with the inks of Teesta water treaty with the recent meeting of union minister of state for development of northeastern region, External affairs and overseas Indian affairs.

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