China offers help in Bangladesh river project under India’s nose

Dhaka, November 14 (KMS): 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, a situation Pakistan comes across almost every year at the hands of machinations of Indian rulers .

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.”

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.

India and China are not only major regional rivals but are locked in their own bitter territorial dispute in the Himalayas.
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.”

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.

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.

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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