BY Sanjay Debnath
During Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in October 2019, a memorandum of understanding(MoU) was signed between India and Bangladesh regarding the withdrawal of water from the Feni-River. According to the agreement, India will be able to pump
1.82 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the Feni-river to alleviate the drinking water crisis in the Sabrum region of the Indian state of Tripura. But India has not yet started withdrawing water from there.
In June, a disagreement arose between the two countries over the method of withdrawing water from the river. The technical committee of the two countries could not determine the location of the pump for lifting water.India wants them to dig deep wells in the middle of the river and extract water through pipes. Bangladesh did not agree and proposed to dig wells on the banks of the river and withdraw the water. The matter of installing the pump has been suspended for now due to the contradiction.
Being a lowland country, many international rivers flow over Bangladesh and fall into the Bay of Bengal. The number of such transborder rivers is 57. Among them, Bangladesh shares 54 joint rivers with India and 3 with Myanmar. There is a long-standing issue between the two countries over the water sharing of these shared rivers.
The most discussed of these is the Teesta Water Treaty. Due to the construction of dams on the Indian side upstream of the Teesta River, agriculture has been disrupted in the northern region of Bangladesh during the dry season for a long time. Besides, Teesta has also become a dead river due to reduced water flow. Every year, the region is flooded during the monsoon. After long negotiations, when the two countries finally agreed on the agreement in 2011, the Congress-led government pulled out of it at the eleventh hour due to the objection of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
However, during the Prime Minister’s last visit to India, an agreement was signed with India regarding the withdrawal of Bangladesh’s water from the cross-border river Kushiara. According to the agreement, Bangladesh will be able to draw 153 cusecs of water through the Rahimpur canal originating from Kushiara. This water of Kushiara is very necessary for the agriculture of 3 upazilas (sub-district)of the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. Bangladesh will soon start extracting water from Kushiara under the water-sharing deal.
Just as India has agreed to withdraw water to Bangladesh considering the needs of Bangladesh, Bangladesh has also agreed to give water from the Feni-River to India considering the needs of them. The water drawn from the river will be used to meet the drinking water needs of the residents of Sabrum town in Tripura. With the help of electric pumps, 1.82 cusecs i.e. 52 liters per second and about 4.5 lakh liters of water will be withdrawn per day. If this water is not available, the residents of the city of Tripura will face a shortage of drinking water. To address
the crisis, Bangladesh has given India the opportunity to extract water from humanitarian considerations.
According to Bangladesh Water Development Board, 8-10 thousand cusecs of water flow in Feni-River during the monsoon. The flow decreases to 47 to 50 cusecs during the dry season from February to April. Around 60 thousand acres of land in Bangladesh depend on the water of the Feni-River for agriculture. The Muhuri project,one of the irrigation projects in Bangladesh, depends on water from Feni-River. As a result, many people believe that if India withdraws water from the Feni-River, it will cause a water shortage for Bangladesh and reduce the navigability of the river. Soon after the signing of the agreement, the government of Bangladesh faced a lot of criticism.
However, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, the flow of the river during the dry season is 109 cusecs. If 1.82 cusecs of water is given from there, it will be 0.23 percent of the total flow. With this water, the drinking water shortage of Sabrum city residents will be eliminated. It will be established as an example of humanity, which will have a positive impact on India-Bangladesh bilateral relations.
However, although this small amount of water has not caused any damage to the river’s navigability, according to river experts, the river’s navigability has decreased due to the illegal extraction of water from the river by pumps to irrigate the agricultural lands located on the no man’slandin the Indian part. The number of such pumps is claimed to be about 40 in the news published with reference to the Border Guard Bangladesh. These pumps are directly lifting water from the river through pipes, capable of lifting 2 cusecs of water. As a result, the river along the border has narrowed due to the decrease in the flow of water. The operation of the Muhuri irrigation project is under threat.
According to the technical committee of Bangladesh, if the pump is installed deep in the river, it may be resulted in the erosion of the river bank and may change the course of the flow in a different direction. Bangladesh proposed to dig canals and install pumps to draw the water, which won’t harm the regular water flow of the river. As a result, if the agreement is implemented immediately considering the interests of both countries, both sides will benefit from it. A quick withdrawal of water will also speed up the solution to the water crisis of the residents of the neighboring town of Sabroom.
As the northeastern states including Assam-Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya are almost landlocked and isolated from the Indian mainland, the region is relatively underdeveloped. India is dependent on Bangladesh to ease the development process of this region. Bangladesh had an advantageous place for its geopolitically strategic position, but Bangladesh did not use the
`Trump Card’. Rather, for the development of this region, India has created an opportunity to establish connectivity by road, railway, and river to ease transportation and communication. Bangladesh-India Friendship Bridge-1 has been constructed in 2021 near the place designated for the withdrawal of water. Through this, opportunities for business and cultural exchanges have been created between people on both sides of the border. Enhanced cooperation across the border will leverage the endeavor. A city’s drinking water supply by drawing water from the river would take that effort a step further.
( The writer is a fellow of the Bangladesh River Research Institute. )