The decision of West Bengal to dig two more canals for diverting water from the trans-boundary Teesta River will badly affect the lives and livelihoods of about two crore people in Bangladesh, river researchers said.
Northern Bangladesh will grow drier because of the arbitrary withdrawal of water, the researchers said, dealing a severe blow to the region’s nature and environment, which are already under tremendous stress from the impacts of changing climate.
The Teesta, which was once a mighty river flowing from Himalaya glaciers, now mostly runs like a stream in Bangladesh, often broken by vast stretches of sandy riverbeds.
Bangladesh has been waiting for decades for a water-sharing treaty to be signed over the Teesta River. But West Bengal chief Mamata Banerjee in 2011 refused to allow such a deal between India and Bangladesh highlighting the need for water for farmers in the Indian state.
Water Development Board officials say that the water flow the Teesta gets, downstream the Teesta Barrage at Gajoldoba in West Bengal, is mostly natural as India does not release any water through the barrage during the lean months.
The WDB officials said that four canals were arbitrarily withdrawing water from the Teesta in West Bengal before the latest announcement came from the Indian state government about digging two more canals to serve some one lakh farmers in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar.
‘The expansion of irrigation in the upstream means further reduction in the flow of water in the Teesta,’ said Tuhin Wadud, a river researcher, who also teaches Bangla at Begum Rokeya University in Rangpur.
‘The sufferings of about two crore people will deepen because of the withdrawal of water in violation of international laws,’ said Tuhin.
On March 4, Indian newspaper The Telegraph reported the transfer of 1,000 acres of land to the irrigation ministry of West Bengal to excavate two new canals for withdrawing water from the Teesta and the Jaldhaka.
According to Indian media reports, there are 42 dams built on the Teesta starting from Sikkim.
Every year, West Bengal channels about 10 per cent of the Teesta water to the Mahananda River, said the Third Pole, a multilingual platform disseminating information on the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there, citing 2010 data.
The Teesta flows some 115 kilometres inside Bangladesh, according to the WDB, including 13 kms upstream the Teesta Barrage built by Bangladesh in Lalmonirhat.
The 13-km-long area upstream the Teesta Barrage gets some water while the rest of the river suffers an acute water shortage most of the time — except for the period from October to December.
‘The water our farmers get from the Teesta comes from underground,’ said Mizanur Rahman, executive engineer, WDB, who is stationed at Lalmonirhat.
Mahbubur Rahman, WDB additional chief engineer, north zone, said that they requested the water resources ministry to take initiatives so that no new canals are dug upstream (in India).
‘The northern region will turn into a desert soon, making crop cultivation impossible,’ said Mahbubur.
The Teesta already assumes the look of a desert, particularly in dry months such as March, depriving people, especially fishers and boatmen, of their livelihoods.
The transport expenditure in the region also sharply goes up during the period.
‘We are using pumps for lifting groundwater for irrigation,’ said Nohendra Nath Barman, a farmer of Lalmonirhat Sadar.
‘We are scared about what would happen if India withdraws even more water,’ he said.
Since January, WDB officials said, the Teesta Barrage in Bangladesh recorded water flow between 1,200 and 1,500 cusecs against the need for 3,500 cusecs.
Shafiqul Islam, president, Lalmonirhat chapter of the Teesta Bachao, Nodi Bachao Sangram Parishad, feared that further reduction in the Teesta water flow would affect the food production in the country’s northern region.
‘It could even lead to food shortage,’ he said.
The northern region is dubbed Bangladesh’s rice basket as the region grows boro rice, the main food crop of the country.
Boro growers faced increased challenges due to both water shortages and excesses because of India’s arbitrary withdrawal and release of water in the Teesta.
Flash floods destroy standing crops in the northern region when India opens the Gajoldoba barrage without any warning, causing flash floods.
‘The rice acreage will deplete in the coming years,’ said Azgar
Ali Mandal, 70, a farmer of the Lalmonirhat Sadar upazila.
One of the two canals, planned by the West Bengal state, will run 32 kms, drawing water from the Teesta and the Jaldhaka and supplying it to Changrabandha in the Cooch Behar district, reported the Telegraph.
The other canal, to be excavated on the left bank of the Teesta, will have a 15km length, the Telegraph report said, attributing unnamed sources.
The report said that the canals would benefit some one lakh farmers with irrigation.
The Gajoldoba Barrage project was launched in 1975 with a plan to irrigate 9.22 lakh hectares of agricultural land in north Bengal of West Bengal with the plan to route water from the Teesta through canals on either bank of the river, reported the Telegraph.
The project now irrigates 1.04 lakh hectares.
In summer, the Teesta has a flow of about 100 cumecs, the Telegraph reported, adding that India and Bangladesh needed 1,600 cumecs for agricultural irrigation.
Water discharge into the Teesta has been declining as a result of a continued glacier decline,
reported the Third Pole in 2017.
Further withdrawals of Teesta water will deepen water scarcity in the river.
Experts have long been demanding basin-wise river management.
‘We are utterly surprised by the India’s decision to lift even more water,’ said Asfa Ud Doula, executive engineer, WDB, Dalia.