Online Panel on Teesta River by the River Saving Network, UK

Rivers Saving Network (RSN), UK, hosted a discussion panel with the title Teesta River: Facts and Future on September 25, 2021, on the occasion of the World Rivers Day, observed globally on the fourth Sunday of September. River experts and activists joined the online discussion from around the world. The session started with a brief introduction by Dr. Rafiqul Hassan Jinnah, the President of RSN, UK, who joined from London. Dr. Khalequzzaman, professor of geology at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, USA presented the keynote address containing a preliminary assessment on the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP), a government of Bangladesh (GoB) project in partnership with the Power Construction Corporation of China, a wholly state-owned construction company involved in large projects in over 100 countries. Popularly known as PowerChina, the company has already submitted a feasibility study on the project to the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB), the GoB Ministry of Water Resources body charged with the mega project. Dr. Khaleq summarized the major components of the proposed project, namely river training, dredging, levee construction, land reclamation and water storage, as a pretext of his critical perspective on the feasibility study based on press reports of the study. He raised important questions about various aspects of the project, especially in the areas of flood control and water vault. He maintained that the project will have adverse effects on the natural character of the river, its connection with the human habitat in the char areas, its ecosystem and its tributaries. Cordoning the river flow for land reclamation contradicts the treatment of rivers as living entities and legal persons, a designation that the  High Court of Bangladesh proclaimed in a 2019 decision on the river Turag that  the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court later upheld. Dr. Khaleq cast doubts on whether adequate water would be available in the dry season to be stored as proposed. He ended his presentation by offering some alternatives, including proposing that countries and regions sharing the Teesta watershed more effectively engage in hydro-diplomacy to  more sustainably share  water. 

Dr. Ainun Nishat, an eminent water resource and river expert and a professor emeritus at BRAC University, joined from Dhaka to review the keynote presentation. Dr. Nishat expressed his frustration on the unavailability of relevant information mostly due to  non-cooperation by government offices. He highlighted a comparable project on the river Jamuna that proposes a similar multifold narrowing of the river channels.      

Sharif Jamil, general secretary of BAPA, put forward his perspective on the issue as an activist. He reiterated the need for events facilitating knowledge dissemination such as this one. Faridul Islam, a BAPA activist hailing from the banks of Teesta, spoke next. He raised a host of grassroots concerns, including the lack of coordination among various government agencies and the consequences thereof. Physician and environmental activist Abdul Matin, vice president of BAPA, also joined from Dhaka. He touched upon the gap between the aspirations of the people and the ambition of the planners. Doctor Matin urged the political leaders for an honest engagement on rivers and other environmental issues.       

Professor Anu Muhammad, an environmental and resources activist, political leader and a professor of Economics at the Jahangir Nagar University, started his speech with an illustration of the nexus between corrupt officials, lobbyists and consultants with examples from the well-read John Perkins’ book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Anu agreed with earlier speakers in denouncing the narrowing of the river channel in the name of land reclamation.   

Dr. Nazrul Islam, Chief of Development Research at UNDESA and founder of Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), summarized the discussion. He thanked the organizer for hosting this dialogue in the spirit of facilitating public discussion as emphasized by Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist who pioneered the Capabilities Approach to human development. Nazrul responded to some of the follow-up questions and concerns raised by other speakers and addressed misunderstandings on the international law related to the rights and usage of trans-boundary water. He ended his remarks with a stern warning against megaprojects like TRCMRP, which he sees as a suicidal step that ignores local interests and ecology in the name of development and securing foreign grants. Nazrul reiterated the need for continued popular activism. To ensure greater understanding and participation, he suggested a greater dissemination of the relevant information through publications that are small in volume and easy to read.   

The session ended with a lively question-and-answer session. Among notable questions was the one from Dr. Sufian Khondker, who commented that the narrowing of the channel, when accompanied with proper dredging, might add to the efficiency of the river channel. In response, Dr. Khaleq discussed the need for a transition from the commercial approach mindset to an ecological approach mindful of the sustainability of the earth systems and the diversity of biological lives.  

Amina Ali, member RSN, UK and General Secretary, Udichi, UK facilitated parts of the session and the question-and-answer session.The online discussion is available on RSN’s  Facebook page. and Dr. Khaleq’s PowerPoint slides are stored on BEN’s website .

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