Regional conflict situation may get a boost if India/ West Bengal goes ahead with the Teesta water diversion as per media reports. This will hurt Bangladesh's water share and in the process force it to seek whatever power it can leverage to offset the damage. And that means the entry of China in the game. As can be imagined, it will not be a pleasant addition and escalate the already tense situation in the region including Indo-China relations.
Bangladesh is also being pushed on several international fronts including the Myanmar Rohingya issue. The situation in Cox-s bazar zone is becoming very difficult and is reaching a trigger point for wider violence. It's slowly going beyond the capacity of Bangladesh to handle the crisis. Since there can be no military resolution of the problem, it will require international intervention but that is not in sight.
Since Bangladesh is being wooed by the US to distance itself from China, it creates an interesting balancing act scenario for all the parties concerned. However that opens up an opportunity for Bangladesh as well. If China doesn't deliver the support it needs, the US wins. And if India's Teesta plan goes ahead, India's better friend the US loses as China has already offered a Teesta deal to Bangladesh which may be considered more seriously then. It's tricky to say the least.
The Treaty situation now
Teesta is a stalled scenario as it's been 12 years since the move made by India/ West Bengal to divert more water to its hydropower plants and irrigation projects. Some of these projects have been there for a while new projects have been taken up. Meanwhile, Joint Rivers Commission (JRC), Bangladesh, has moved to lodge a protest with India.
"India did not inform us about their move. We are going to send a protest letter to India expressing our concerns and mentioning how the move will affect the ecosystem of the Teesta downstream," said Mohammad Abul Hossen, a member of the JRC, Bangladesh. Indian newspaper The Telegraph on Monday reported that the West Bengal government decided to set up three hydropower plants in Darjeeling and two of them are likely to reduce the volume of water in the Teesta. Last week, the newspaper also reported that the West Bengal government acquired 1,000 acres of land to dig two canals and divert more water from the Teesta to irrigate farms in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts.' (Daily Star Bangladesh)
Teesta water sharing agreement won't work
Teesta water serves Bangladesh's North particularly between December and April. The 2011 Teesta Treaty was finalized in 2011 but couldn't be signed due to West Bengal CM's opposition. It lies unattended to since then. In 2021 Modi and Sheikh Hasina had agreed towards a quick resolution and a Framework of Interim Agreement on six common rivers was completed but without West Bengal CM's agreement, this has made no progress.
Water sharing projects with India don't work very well so expecting the direct path to a solution seems unfair. Some of the realities are common for both which includes shortage of water. What West Bengal may be doing is a calculated risky decision assuming that Bangladesh won't be able to do much if West Bengal decides to act on its own.
West Bengal is right that Bangladesh is not on the weighty side of the negotiating table and so the weaker of the two. It leaves very few options for Bangladesh except to turn to other levers including China. Point is, is Bangladesh ready to act or can it act given the current realities?
China, US and Bangladesh
That the decision is not a technical problem is important for all parties to understand. India has done well to manipulate the arguments in such a way to make it seem that it's Kolkata not Delhi which is responsible for the non -implementation of the Treaty. Indian writers have also raised environmental and related issues justifying the delays. However, these are Indo-centric and India's environmental sensitivity record is low and convenient as the Farakka barrage problem shows.
China has proposed a 1 billion dollar project which India and its ally US have been opposing. For both, the issue is about regional influence and not the environment. That is understandable. However, Bangladesh also has a position which because of its weakness, including military, is not heard. This doesn't just apply in case of India which is a big power but even Myanmar who knows which way a confrontation will go should it happen.
The US is emerging as the less useful superpower because it has bought goods but has not played any role in the regional affairs. It's unable to put pressure on India and is much better at dealing with weak states like Pakistan with which it has had many partnerships and political projects.
Bangladesh doesn't fit into any of these bills and its weakness is no secret. It really has no options except to side with China. Dhaka's foreign policy observers say that China doesn't go beyond a point in siding with its allies. If a Teesta Treaty with China triggers a quasi-military reaction from India, China won't intervene. But is such a doomsday scenario realistic? However, the unknown appears more real.
No matter what, a realistic and practical analysis of the China supported Teesta Treaty will become a necessity soon though not much will move before the elections are over.