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China open to role in Bangladesh river project under India's nose


Dec 31, 2010

China open to role in Bangladesh river project under India's nose​

Beijing's envoy expresses concern Dhaka might back out over 'outside pressure'

Residents move belongings to safety as the Teesta River swells in Bangladesh in 2016. The country is eyeing ways to better manage the waterway -- possibly with China's help. © Getty Images

SYFUL ISLAM, Contributing writerNovember 14, 2022 11:58 JST

DHAKA -- A billion-dollar project to restore and manage a crucial river in Bangladesh is back on the table, with China showing a willingness to fund the endeavor, though even the Chinese ambassador has hinted at potential concerns over how regional rival India might react.

The project centers on the Teesta River, which originates in the eastern Himalayas and flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh. The waterway has long been a source of friction between India and Bangladesh: Dam construction in India means farmers in northern Bangladesh lack water in the dry season and face inundation in the wet season.

In 2011, the leaders of India and Bangladesh agreed to direct their officials to pursue a deal for sharing water from the Teesta during dry seasons on a "fair and equitable basis." But a final agreement has been elusive, and this September, after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India, farmers were left disappointed over the lack of progress.

Hasina only came away with a nonbinding pact on sharing water from the Kushiyara River, considered less important than the Teesta. According to a study by the Asia Foundation, nearly 21 million Bangladeshis directly or indirectly depend on the Teesta River for their livelihoods.

Considering repeated failures to ensure what it feels is its share of Teesta River water, Bangladesh has been looking at options to improve the situation on its own. This is where the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project (TRCMRP) comes in -- a plan to repair embankments, store water for the dry season and take other measures.

On Nov. 5 at a Bangladesh China Silk Road Forum event in Dhaka, Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming said his country was willing to invest in the Teesta River management project if Bangladesh desires it.

"If the Bangladesh government is really determined to do it," he said, "China would take it under very positive consideration."

This appeared to be a step forward from comments Li had made the previous month. He visited the proposed TRCMRP area in October and spoke with locals about how the project would improve their living standards "to a great extent." But on Oct. 13 he also admitted that China was "a bit reluctant" about the project.

"The reason, of course, is that there are some sensitivities ... that we sensed and observed," Li said.


The Chinese ambassador said he was personally worried about the Bangladeshi government later stepping back from the project due to "some outside pressure," without naming the potential source of that pressure -- India.

Li added that it would put him in a "very awkward position" if a decision were made to move forward only to have someone later argue that the project was "another Chinese debt trap," prompting Bangladesh to then say, "Sorry, China, we can't go on."

There is some precedent for this.

Delwar Hossain, director of the East Asia Center at the University of Dhaka, said geopolitical sensitivity once forced Bangladesh to rethink Chinese involvement in building a deep-sea port.

India and China are not only major regional rivals but are locked in their own bitter territorial dispute in the Himalayas. China's interactions with other South Asian nations have also caused a stir: Earlier this year, Sri Lanka asked Beijing to defer an agreed-upon port call by a surveillance ship after New Delhi objected; the visit eventually went ahead.

Hossain said that Bangladesh has development needs and that the country has been pursuing an independent and nonaligned foreign policy. "We don't hesitate to seek support from India, China, Japan, the U.S., even Russia or any country, and we are getting that."

Hossain added, "It is true that in some projects there are some dilemmas or our development partners may have different perspectives which we are seeing in [the] case of [the] Teesta project, but we can sort it out through discussions."

Munshi Foyez Ahmed, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to China, agreed. "We should not look for any geopolitics here," he said, "rather [we] should resolve the differences through discussions."

Ahmed says geopolitical concerns can be an excuse to create unnecessary barriers.

"India can examine whether the country will face any setback due to the Teesta River management project, no matter who is funding it," he said. He said that West Bengal already faces flood-related problems, and conceded that there is a chance the Teesta project could contribute to such issues to a small extent if it goes ahead.

China is no newcomer to the project. The Bangladesh Water Development Board in 2016 signed a memorandum of understanding with Power China to work on it. Power China then conducted a feasibility study and suggested measures for river control, flood prevention and mitigation, restoration of the water system by dredging, and other steps.

It also recommended land reclamation and development using dredged materials, measures to save water for the dry season, irrigation through hydraulic structures, and environmental restoration efforts.

In 2020, Bangladesh sought a $983.27 million loan from China to implement the project. Since then, Beijing has been weighing the pros and cons.

Shamal Chandra Das, an additional chief engineer of at the Water Development Board, said the board is working to extend the tenure of the pact with Power China, which expired in October.

Das said that a char, or large sandbar, "has developed in the middle of the river due to heavy sedimentation, thus there is no alternative [to] river management to restore water flow."

On Nov. 5, Ambassador Li said the most important factor is not technology, not money, but the determination of the Bangladeshi government.

If Bangladesh says it is determined to go forward with the project, he said, "China will be there."


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