Bangladesh’s Water Crisis

Many Bangladeshis have started blaming India for the country's increasing water crisis. But the government in Dhaka, its critics claim, is going with a watered-down diplomacy. One analyst offers answers to the government's hesitation on the issue.

Posted on 05/3/14
By Khawaza Main Uddin | Via Dhaka Tribune
Fishing on the Teesta River in Bangladesh. (Photo by International Rivers, Creative Commons License)
Fishing on the Teesta River in Bangladesh. (Photo by International Rivers, Creative Commons License)

Want of water in a land of water! Our forefathers, if they had consciousness in their graveyards, would possibly curse this generation for creating a water crisis. It was unthinkable in their time, particularly in a riverine country blessed with robust monsoon.


But the life of any generation is full of challenges of its own. The current state of rivers in Bangladesh tells us the sorry tale of overlooking such a challenge facing a lower-riparian country by those who are just going with the tide of watered-down diplomacy.


My image of the Teesta as one of the major trans-boundary rivers for example, is of two opposite realities. It’s a beautiful river when you have a glimpse of it on the way to Gangtok, Sikkim. On the contrary, it’s a barren land of sand in Bangladesh during the lean season – a sad scene which has been reflected in the media recently.


We all know why the Teesta has dried up at the point of entry into Bangladesh. Some of us, if not all, may ask how the crisis reached its current level. As a citizen of an independent country, it is also difficult to accept how we are living without agreement on all (54) common rivers, with the exception of the Ganges (Padma).


A pessimist may argue as to what Dhaka can do if New Delhi continues to deprive us of our due share of water. True, it’s been a culture of Indian authorities to deny Bangladesh’s rights to one of our common and essential natural resources of mankind. Have we made our case at the national level or lodged our claim properly at bilateral or multilateral forums? We haven’t even formulated arguments on how a country, which has ambitions of global leadership, has been unjust to its next-door neighbor.


Probably, the party which holds the responsibility of running the state has reacted rather sharply to the demonstration by others demanding Teesta waters. We haven’t heard the ruling Awami League – hugely indebted to Delhi for extending rare support to the farcical January 5 elections — making an outcry for the water of international rivers as an issue of a right of Bangladesh.


Instead, AL leaders Suranjit Sengupta, Dr Hassan Mahmud, and Minister Quamrul Islam bitterly criticized the BNP for the recent long march towards the Teesta barrage in the North. As the AL government suffers from a legitimacy crisis, they are scared of the popular support for the demand for water. The AL claimed all credit for the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty, oblivious of the fact that it dropped the guarantee clause contained in the agreement signed during President Zia’s tenure in 1977. Sengupta further advised the BNP to lend its support to the AL government’s approach of what he emphasized as “long diplomacy.”


That understanding of “diplomacy” reminds us of the old debate whether the tail is wagging the dog, if sedate diplomatic pursuit dominates issues involving national interests. Though I earnestly do not want to believe, our instincts, supported by visible acts, suggest there is more appeasement in the stance, ignoring the matter of sovereign self-esteem.


While the BNP’s demonstration could have increased the government’s bargaining capacity in dealing with the Indian authorities, AL leaders attacked the opposition instead, unceremoniously relegating the national issue of water.


After the signing of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accord 1993, President Yasser Arafat was asked by a Western TV channel about the opposition to the treaty from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Arafat, a guerrilla leader, observed that using the dissent as a pressure on Israel, he would uphold all valid concerns of the Palestinian people.


New Delhi is showing its recalcitrant “boys and girls” in national and provincial politics as reasons for not signing a water-sharing agreement on the Teesta, despite the AL’s massive investments in the Congress-led government. Moreover, elections have banished the water issue to Siberia, from where its revival is hardly likely, given the overt anti-Bangladesh sentiment in India’s premier-in-waiting, Narendra Modi.


It’s a mystery how national aspirations are pursued internationally. There is no visible and functional mechanism to translate political and parliamentary directives into foreign policy goals. To add to the dismal canvas, our diplomats are not briefed by their political bosses and a clear vision of the political parties on dealing with external issues is absent. On various occasions, we heard India’s minister, or top-level diplomats, attributing a feeble flow of water to lack of water in the upstream. They further stated that Bangladesh has adequate water during the monsoon and since it’s a problem of water management, Delhi could provide a hand of help. The Indians have often managed to divert the issues to obscurity, simply because of our failure to place unequivocal and irrefutable arguments.


We hardly possess credible data on how much water Indians withdraw unilaterally from the common rivers. The tough rule of the world is: No one will give you something unless you ask for it. It is widely, though not formally, said, that successive governments have been advised to appoint a pro-Indian politician as the water resources minister. The eventual result of such choice is well-known.


The present water resources minister recently made a remark on television that Dhaka might have to “internationalize” the Teesta issue, if bilateral talks fail. Lest we forget, Bangladesh had no water-sharing agreement with India when he was the foreign minister of the country during the Ershad regime.


This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper.

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