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India seems to be trying to change the final draft of the Teesta agreement: Ainun Nishat

Ainun Nishat

The ongoing floods in Bangladesh have given rise to all sorts of debates and discussions. Some are alarmed at the situation and others are not. In an interview with South Asian Monitor, Brac University’s emeritus professor Ainun Nishat speaks about the issue in detail.

SAM: Bangladesh has been seeing regular floods for the past few years because of the onrush of water from the hills upstream. Are the floods this time any different?

Ainun Nishat: The onrush of hill waters in our country is on the wetlands or the haor region, that is, Netrakona, Kishoreganj, Sunamganj, Sylhet, Habiganj and Maulvibazar. That is only normal and inevitable. It is a matter of nature. It is worrisome when the floods are in April. Even if the floods are in mid-May, it is dangerous. That is when the boro rice crops are ripening. If the floods come in July, that is all right. Actually, if one-third of Bangladesh is not underwater, then we get worried. That is not normal. So, there is nothing out of the ordinary this year. Chalan Bil will be inundated. Madaripur, Shariatpur, Faridpur bils (marsh lands) will go under water. Where do you see any onrush from the hills?

Then again, Bangladesh is a large country. On the map it may be small, but the water of Atrai does not behave in the same the manner as river behaves in Kurigram. Surma, Kushiara and other rivers that side do not behave in that manner. The rivers in the coastal regions do not behave the same. Unless you define this, then our learned know-all TV talk show speakers will sprout out all sorts of nonsense.

If a char (river island) breaks up in any place, if an embankment breaks and water enters, that is wrong. There are coastal embankments, but does water rise above those and come in? Does water rise above the embankments and enter Dhaka? If you see water anywhere, will you call that a flood?

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Water enters where it is normal to enter. Now if you compare things with what it was 50 years ago, you will see the population has grown. People have gone to places where people didn’t live before. The river is doing what it does. Water rises. The water isn’t too much. It is quite low. Last year there were much more floods.

I think the people facing the most danger now are in Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat and Barguna. Go to Shyamnagar and you will see what floods are all about. During the full moon and new moon, the water comes up to people’s chests. Those whose houses are in high places can stay at home, others go to shelters or sit on the embankments. There is no food, no work, no drinking water.

Atrai is the most dangerous now. The water can’t go down because the water of Jamuna is near danger level. The big bosses don’t understand what danger level means.

Do you know that when the embankment of Jamuna’s chars breaks, the people in Sirajganj offer prayers in gratitude? Because that means the contractors will get lots of work and will begin work in June. Then in July when everything is washed away, they will say we had completed 80 per cent of the work but it has all been destroyed. Another interesting thing is, if you look at the Water Development Board, you will see that people pay a lot to get postings in certain places. A Sunamganj posting in the Water Development Board costs a lot.

Before everything was in the control of the engineers. Then a law was enacted for a monitoring committee to implement projects and the local member of parliament will select three persons for the committee. In 2017 the embankment broke and there were floods in Sunamganj and one person is responsible for that. I use to respect that person a lot before. That was Suranjit Sengupta. He was supposed to give the names of the people for the committee in October and he gave these names in February the next year.

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Someone or some people this time said that the floods are going to last a long time. So what? Before the farmers would sow the aman rice crop and if that was destroyed in July or August, there would be a famine. Now there are embankments in 80 percent of the places. If the embankments can stand strong, then there is no problem. There are no embankments in Shariatpur, Jamalpur, Madaripur, Gopalganj, Jhalkathi. The people there aren’t bothered.

One of my students is now a teacher at BUET and I asked him on what basis he made his statements. He said, there is a European weather centre and they forecasted this. Everyone has their vested interests.

SAM: Is it true that sufferings are mounting because people are trapped by water?

Ainun Nishat: I have all sympathy for those who are suffering. Look, the embankment was within a kilometer or half a kilometer of the river from Sirajganj to Chouhali, Qazipur and such areas in the right bank of Brahmapurta. There were no people there. Now small settlements have sprung up there, there are small factories, weaving looms, houses and industries. But the water will still rise. 

Now is the time to see where the suffering is, why there is suffering, why water has risen. If the water rise is natural, then there has to be zoning to demarcate where the water will definitely rise.

SAM: What are Bangladesh’s weaknesses in flood management?

Ainun Nishat: Let us take Bangladesh as a unit. There will be water for 15 to 20 more days at the Jamuna char. Padma char, that is, Padma char in Rajshahi, will see water for another 5 to 6 days only, then it will go way. Why have they made two storey, four storey houses there? You have to work where there are embankments.

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River erosion is inevitable. That calls for river training. No matter how many times you dredge a river, it will fill up again unless you increase the river’s capacity to carry silt. If you try to give administrative solutions to a technical problem, how can it work? We have no accountability here. The government pours in the money, some people siphon it off into their own pockets.

SAM: Every year there are floods. What is Bangladesh to do?

Ainun Nishat: There was a master plan in 1964, then in 1986, 1992 and in 2002. These have to be put to use. Solutions must be worked out depending on the place, time and circumstances. Water management, flood management and drought management all must be restructured.

SAM: Historically speaking, were the flood risks and damages the same in the past?

Ainun Nishat: No. In 1947 the population was 4 crore. Now it is 18 crore to 20 crore. People are living where people are not even supposed to be living. People are living in the flood plains. As the method of land use has changed, water management and flood management has to be revised too.

SAM: What impact has the Farakka barrage had on the rivers of this region? 

Ainun Nishat: You can’t use summer’s formula for winter. Farakka will start closing gates from October. Water flow will begin to halt. It is open now. In the five months of May, June, July, August and September the river’s behaviour at Farakka’s lower regions is different. In the remaining seven months the gates are closed and water is held upstream. That is the problem during the dry season. Then there is the problem of the rainy season.

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SAM: What is the future of the Teesta agreement? 

Ainun Nishat: That is a political issue. The Teesta deal has been initialed at a secretary level. That means the draft is ready for the ministers to sign. It seems now that India is trying to change that draft. As to when it will be signed, that is a political matter, not a technical one.

SAM: According to the Scientific Research Journal, Bangladesh is one of the hotspots for floods. So in the South Asian context, what preparations should Bangladesh take? 

Ainun Nishat: Nepal doesn't speak to India. India doesn’t speak to Bangladesh. India, Bangladesh and Nepal don’t speak together. Again, the risks we are talking about won’t happen right now. The situation will gradually worsen and the risks will appear 100 years hence.

Even so, there is need for planning and preparation. That is not happening. In March 1972 when the Joint Rivers Commission was set up, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Mrs Indira Gandhi placed most importance on floods. That means from 1972 Bangladesh and India felt the need for joint management of the floods. Now 50 years have passed since then, but what progress has been made? It is all about politics.

Then in 2011 there was the basin management agreement. Over the past eight years there has been no indications or anything happening there either.