Bhutan sets the record straight on the cross-border irrigation water issue

Foreign Ministry issues a rebuttal and gives the actual facts

Several media reports in India stated that Bhutan has stopped releasing irrigation channel water to over 6,000 farmers hailing from more than 26 revenue villages of a district dependent on a man-made irrigation channel locally called as ‘dong’ to carry water to a huge chunk of paddy fields on the Indian side of the district from Bhutan since 1953.

“However, due to the sudden closure of the irrigation channel without citing any reason, the Bhutan government has created massive resentment in the entire district,” stated an Indian media outlet.

In response, an official from the Department of Law and Order said that whatever has been written in the media across the border claiming that Bhutanese are not giving them water is not true, and that it is a false information.

The official said much labor and effort is being put to clear the water blockage for continuous water supply.

“DeSuups, Bhutan-India Friendship Association (BIFA) based in Samdrupjongkhar and other local Bhutanese volunteers have been doing a tremendous job in fixing the damages caused to the irrigation channel, and to ensure the continuous supply of water to the Indian farmers across the border,” he said.

Since the matter is of an informal nature, which is why the government does not participate as a state actor, and therefore, volunteers along with the non-governmental association BIFA take the initiative to form and enhance the goodwill and resolve any issues within, he added.

The official said there is no intention of stopping the water from flowing down to India, which would benefit numbers of farmers. In fact drinking water is also being supplied to benefit the community across the southern border.

“For now, due to sealed border, we do not allow them (Indian farmers) to come inside for any repairing purpose. For that matter, whenever there is any issue, we resolve it ourselves with the help of volunteers and supply them the water at the earliest,” he added.

Bhutanese in Samtse and Jomotshangkha take the water till the border through individual pipes so that the people from across the border need not have to come inside.

“Our people are into it and they are doing their best to give them the continuous water supply. Bhutan and India have been friends for many decades, and therefore, we do not have any intention to stop the water supply at any cost. So they should not take it that way,” he said. Meanwhile, Samdrupjongkhar Dzongda Tharchen Lhendup said, “We have been doing the repairing work for continuous water supply to the Indian farmers. There are three points of water supply from Jomotshangkha, two from Thromde and two from Motanga.”

An excavator has been deployed to clear the water blockage caused by the recent heavy rainfall. Thromde was unable to keep up with the clearing work earlier, which has now been taken over by the dzongkhag.

It took a few days to clear the water blockage and since then water is flowing with no hindrance, he added.

Tharchen Lhendup said, “Before the border seal, they (Indian farmers) used to come here and do the repairing work whenever there is an issue. But today, they can’t as with the sealed border. There can be frequent issue as with blockage due to the heavy rainfall in summer. However, we will continue to do (clear) so.”

Strong rebuttal from the Foreign Ministry

The misreporting or fake news by the Indian media also took a political colour as some media outlets tried to associate the alleged water blockage with India’s diplomatic tensions with China and Nepal.

The Foreign Ministry issued a strong clarification against the various news articles published by the Indian media on the issue.

It said that since 24th June 2020, there have been several news articles published in India alleging Bhutan has blocked water channels that supply irrigation water to Indian farmers in Baksa and Udalguri Districts in Assam adjoining Samdrup Jongkhar District.

“This is a distressing allegation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to clarify that the news articles are totally baseless as there is no reason why the flow of water should be stopped at this time. It is a deliberate attempt by vested interests to spread misinformation and cause misunderstanding between the friendly people of Bhutan and Assam,” said the ministry.

It said Baksa and Udalguri Districts in Assam have been benefitting from the water sources in Bhutan for many decades and they continue to do so even during the present difficult times when Bhutan is faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It said that since the lockdown in India and closure of Bhutan’s borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Assamese farmers are unable to enter Bhutan to maintain the irrigation channels as was done in the past. However, understanding the difficulty that would be faced by the farmers in Assam, the Samdrup Jongkhar District Officials and the general public have taken the initiative to repair the irrigation channels whenever there are problems to ensure the smooth flow of water to Assam.

The release said heavy monsoon rains and sudden rise in the water levels is posing serious challenges, but the Bhutanese authorities, including with heavy machinery, are on standby to clear any blockage and channel the water whenever there is a problem.

“Bhutan would like to assure the people of Assam that the Royal Government of Bhutan, particularly the Samdrup Jongkhar District authorities, will make every effort to ensure that the disruptions caused by the monsoon rains to the irrigation channels are addressed without delay and there is water available for the farmers in Assam,” said the MFA.

It said that Bhutan also requested for the understanding of the farmers in Assam as sometimes there could be few delays in the flow of water due to disruptions caused by the heavy monsoon rains and the operational difficulties arising from the restrictions put in place by both the countries due to COVID-19

The ministry said Samdrup Jongkhar authorities maintain close contact with their counterparts in Baksa and Udalguri. The challenges faced during these difficult times have been explained to them and they have expressed understanding of the situation.

It ended by saying that the people of Bhutan, especially those living along the borders of India, deeply value their age-old ties of friendship and cooperation with the people of India, particularly their close neighbors across the borders in Assam and West Bengal.

It said the people of Bhutan feel that such ties of friendship, cooperation and support must continue and be reinforced during these difficult times.

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