China-backed revival of Teesta river, shared by Bangladesh and India, moves forward amid geopolitical concerns
Chinese engineers could soon begin work on a US$1 billion project to revive Bangladesh’s Teesta River after progress on the megaproject stalled, casting doubt on an initiative that Dhaka regards as crucial to meeting food security goals.
China’s ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming visited the river last month, saying engineers from the Power Construction Corporation of China (Power China) were carrying out an inspection of the work area.
“I hope that we’ll be able to start the Teesta megaproject within a very short time frame,” he told reporters.
The comments were the first major development since July 2020, when Bangladesh announced it had applied for a US$983 million loan from China. Though the exact amount has yet to be finalised, Bangladesh could bear between 15 and 30 per cent of total costs.
Ambassador Li’s statement is being viewed within Bangladesh as a sign the project is making progress – albeit slowly.
Dhaka turned to China to help revive the river, which runs downstream from India, after failing to finalise a water-sharing agreement with New Delhi. An interim deal agreed to in 2011 was abandoned due to objections from the Indian state of West Bengal, through which the river runs before entering Bangladesh.
Nearly 21 million people directly or indirectly depend on the Teesta for their livelihoods, with the river’s flood plain covering nearly 14 per cent of the total cropped area of Bangladesh, according to a 2013 report by the Asia Foundation.
Bangladeshi officials have long complained that water levels have dropped as a result of Indian irrigation projects upstream, including the Gajoldoba barrage and the Teesta barrage.
The river floods during monsoon season, causing massive erosion, but it is “dead” during the dry months, said Ainun Nishat, water resource and climate change specialist in Bangladesh.
“The issue is that India is not only diverting the flow, but also exporting water to other parts of the country, which Bangladesh is not very happy about,” he said.
Syeda Rizwana Hassan, an environmental lawyer in Bangladesh, said due to lack of water most months of the year, only 35 per cent of agricultural land is being cultivated in the Teesta Basin.
“We have lost many fish species, leading to hundreds of fishermen losing jobs,” he said “The situation is unbearable, unacceptable and is leading to great inequity.”
In September 2016, the Bangladesh Water Development Board signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Power China for work on the project, which has since expired.
Dr Shamal Chandra Das, chief engineer at the development board, said on Thursday his agency had formally requested a renewal of the MOU and it was being processed.
The river restoration project will involve dredging, land reclamation, erosion control and river bank protection, said Kabir Bin Anwar, senior secretary at the Ministry of Water Resources.
Groynes, levees and cross bars will be installed to prevent erosion, according to a video from Power China. Sediment and debris will also be dredged from the bottom of the river.
The Teesta is a 5km (3.1 miles) wide braided river, with its main channel bifurcated by islands. The engineering will force its flow into a narrower main channel, around 1km wide.
“If you narrow the river, the water level will be higher and you would be able to irrigate by pumping water from the river,” said Nishat.
The dredged material would be used to reclaim about 170km of land on both sides of the river, which will host urban complexes, industrial estates and agricultural development zones.
Some experts have said trying to “straighten” a braided river will increase its velocity to a potentially unmanageable level.
“Rivers are not an element we can handle by ourselves. If a river is naturally braided, it will be wise to keep the river’s natural tendency,” said Munsur Rahman, professor at the Institute of Water and Flood Management in Bangladesh University of Science and Technology.
However, Nishat said it was a lack of maintenance that had caused it to become 5km wide.
“The river will be restored back to its original shape,” he said. “The engineering structures would be strong enough to withstand the high velocity.”
Another concern is who will benefit from the reclaimed land.
“Riverine people will never get any benefits other than daily labour”, said Mohammad Azaz, chairman of the River and Delta Research Centre in Bangladesh.
“Building any industrial zones, it would be the investors, the government and the construction industry that would have their pockets filled.”
The project details have not been shared with the public or academics for debate, said Hassan, the environmental lawyer.
Given India’s tense relations with China, New Delhi is also likely to object to the project, experts say.
China too is aware of the geopolitical issues at stake.
Speaking at a seminar in Bangladesh on October 13, China’s ambassador Li said frankly that the country was “a bit reluctant about the project”.
“The reason, of course, is that there are some sensitivities that we have sensed,” he said, referring to accusations of a “Chinese debt trap” and “geopolitical” issues.
Ananta Agarwal previoulsy joined the Post as an intern in June 2022. She is a journalism student at The University of Hong Kong.