A Reflection on South Asian Rivers

Water should bind together and not divide us.

Gift of Nature
Rivers are creations of nature and living entities. From its origin to its end in a sea, a river connects landscape, boulders, sand, silt, aquatic beings, and humans. Rivers and water bodies like ponds, lakes, streams, groundwater, and oceans are intrinsically linked together, maintaining the planet’s ecosystems and supporting all life on the earth. The more balanced the ecosystems and rivers are, the healthier the planet and humans are.

Rivers do not respect political boundaries. They flow across countries, cities, villages, fields, and industrial corridors, shaping social, economic, and cultural practices. Globally, water faces stress. This stress is heightened when rivers cross international political boundaries. Across the world, there are 260 rivers flowing from one country to another. Many countries have disputes on sharing of water of transboundary rivers.

The Indus, the Ganga, and the Brahmaputra—the major rivers flowing through the South Asia region—originate in glaciers, mountains, hills, and valleys, linking rain, land, delta, and oceans. The region’s monsoon rainfall, with a cycle of heavy and little rain, has shaped the whole region. We have redefined these commons as abundance and scarcity to suit political ends.

In the process, south Asian commons such as rivers, lakes, and ponds, binding communities and countries across this region, have undergone changes. Over a period of time, the commons have become public and, in many cases, also private. The private excludes those who depend on commons for survival. Increasing control of the water common by the corporate lobby has maximized the benefits for itself while externalizing the cost to nature and unsuspecting communities. The local ecology on which these commoners survive has been grossly degraded.

In this transformation, the State has emerged as a hegemonic actor and its rise has altered the relations between countries. Upstream-downstream riparian positions have been established and, while this has consolidated the State-led position, people’s priorities have become secondary. Governments sharing transboundary rivers have different priorities in how each proposes uses and management of water. In many cases, prevailing and dominant approaches to water have led to conflicts between States, between State and people, and among people. This is despite States and societies of South Asia sharing a common hydrological destiny connected through a web of rivers, wetlands, flood plains, groundwater, and watersheds.

Childhood in the lap of a river: ActionAid India

Rivers and Boundaries
A number of treaties or memorandums of understanding on sharing of water of transboundary rivers have been concluded in South Asia. Nepal and India have signed treaties on the Mahakali, Narayani, and Kosi rivers. India and Bangladesh have signed the Ganga water treaty. India and Pakistan have signed the Indus agreement. These treaties look at productive functions of water in the form of building a project or sharing of water in an existing barrage on a major river or its tributary. They do not consider many smaller basins that flow from one country to another. Dr. Kalyan Rudra states that “the official records say 54 rivers flow between the two countries (India and Bangladesh), though, in reality, there can be many more”[1]. The treaties also do not consider water management or water governance for equity and nature.

The past treaties, while consolidating political power over water, do not consider local communities’ needs. Despite subsuming the power over-extraction and use of water, the agencies of the State are unable to fulfill their responsibilities, i.e. providing basic water services while ensuring the health of water bodies. The increasing river pollution and disputes are examples of these failures. People in both upper and lower riparian areas suffer for no fault of their own. However, they blame each other for their sufferings, which tends to take away opportunities for coexistence and coproduction.

These contexts will become more serious by climate change to which South Asia is highly sensitive. Climate change is likely to create avalanches and glacial floods while altering the timing and frequency of precipitation. These changes lead to flood disasters, making vulnerable communities even more vulnerable. These shifts will seriously impact river flows and the vulnerable communities already facing threats from deteriorated water commons. The flood that devastated Kedaranath in Uttrakhand in June 2013 is one example. The intensity of that flood and landslides combined was so intense that traces of many deceased and properties have not been found yet. Exposure to hazards and human interventions in rivers were major contributors to the massive losses.

Food and livelihood from river: ActionAid India

In addition to frequent and untimely rainfall and flood disasters, poor operation of reservoirs and barrages is a source of problems for communities living along river banks. The problems they face range from erosion to the creation of new land within rivers and floodplains. Lack of a timely flood warning system across borders further adds to their woes.

Dam building has been a preferred way of State agencies to manage water and achieve economic development. Dams restrain flow and allow the use of water to suit needs. But they divert water and, in many places, rivers downstream of dams have dried and stretches have no flow. Point and non-point sources further pollute the remaining flow already seriously stressed. In many countries, the release of ‘environmental flow/minimum flow’ is proposed to maintain a river’s health in a reasonable condition. But there is no clarity on the amount of water that should be allowed to flow in a river for it to remain healthy.

Each river has its specific characteristics and capacity to assimilate waste. When the amount and concentration of wastewater or pollutants exceed the limit, the quality of river water goes drastically down and aquatic habitats are lost. When boats cannot be plied in a dry river, the only means of survival of dependent communities is lost. Even when E-flow policies are complied with without effective mitigation of pollution, rivers are threatened. In addition to a high level of pollution, machine-led sand and boulder mining is killing rivers very fast. Because rivers are a source of food and livelihood of many communities, such destruction has food insecurity implications. In dry and polluted rivers, inland fishery is not possible.

Vulnerable communities, especially women, depending on a river for food and nutrition suffer. In many places, land-less women-headed households depend on river banks for the cultivation of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Selling these products provides them with some income. This dependence was evident during the COVID-19 lockdowns. After migrants returned to villages when their places of work in cities were shut, they had to go to local rivers for meeting their food needs.

Morning starts with river: ActionAid India

Flowing Healthy Rivers: Community as a Partner
Rivers are not just physical flow but also part of a community’s identity in many ways. Socioeconomic and cultural aspects of society revolve around clean rivers irrespective of geo-climatic locations. They embody symbolism and are a primary agency of, culture and faiths. Symbolically, rivers are referred to as ‘mother’ and have been given the name of deities. The modern approach to water use has failed to understand and assimilate these values. In many places, physical abuse and gross neglect of water commons have eroded the community’s identity.

Lack of ownership and participation fosters irresponsibility. They also deprive people of equitable benefits from a river or remaining water commons. Governance by communities can help make a river healthy and also minimize conflicts. An aware local community can remain vigilant to minimize point and non-point pollution sources, maintaining rivers clean.

This goal of keeping river clean cannot be met without the active participation of riparian communities. Alliance of people living along rivers within and across borders can be a way towards the goal of keeping healthy rivers. All rivers must have spaces of their own and local communities must be brought in as one of the major stakeholders in safeguarding this space. They must be given the responsibility and accountability demanded of them.

Regulated and manual sand harvesting can minimize damage and help maintain river ecology. Planting indigenous varieties of trees on the banks will help terrestrial ecology and benefit local communities. Collectively, these actions, as part of nature-based solutions, can yield food and fodder for equitable benefit-sharing. They will reconnect rivers with the banks and the wider lateral landscape. Indigenous knowledge and techniques can be harnessed and used to help deal with low-intensity floods and erosion at a much lower cost.

While meeting immediate, psychological, and spiritual needs, water is also needed for the ecosystem and biodiversity. Restoration of rivers maintains the overall health of the eco-system. Restored rivers should have the same importance as justice, freedom, equality, and representation. Restoration of rivers needs to be integrated with community-based flood warning and disaster risk reduction mechanisms.

The path to sustainable water solutions involves different sets of actors. The journey involves political and emotive issues that must be recognized[2]. Water should bind us together and not divide us. The blues of water within and beyond boundaries should be a guiding philosophy for us to come together as we move towards sustainable water solutions. To that, end our approach should be to let rivers flow free and clean.


Biography: Dr. Bratindi Jena is Associate Director, ActionAid Association, India. With a Ph.D. from Delhi University, Dr. Jena has more than 25 years of experience in promoting natural resource conservation, including forest, water, commons, and mines and minerals. She has worked with international development organizations and, as a researcher, has directed major national and international topics related to natural resources and tribal/indigenous peoples. As a social worker, she contributes to allay people’s struggles and conservation of nature.


[1]                Dr. Kalyan Rudra, Charting rivers beyond borders, December 2014, The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/charting-rivers-beyondborders/article6713407.ece

[2]           India’s water woes, Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha, March 2014

18th March 2021