Rethinking Transboundary Water Governance

In this reflective piece, Dr. Venkatesh Dutta presents the conception of multilevel water federalism as key to stimulate broader deliberations and scholarly inquiry relating to the transboundary water governance in South Asia. This conception, he suggests can help water, ecosystem, and communities re-emerge stronger and resilient.

Rethinking transboundary water governance

Regional and transboundary water conflicts within and between nations are widespread all over the world, but such conflicts are not always a priority issue in the political agenda of the various governments that share a waterscape. In almost all countries in South Asia, water management is fraught with inefficiency and complacency, a fact which helps account for the frequent flooding, water scarcity, excessive groundwater draft, pollution, degradation of rivers, and dismal poverty that plague the region. Past treaties have not eliminated disputes over water sharing; in fact, disputes exist not only between countries but also between states within a country.

There are six distinct features of water management that have rendered South Asia a territory of agonizing paradoxes:

  • The demand for water is rapidly outpacing the available supply.
  • Water management practices have been and continue to be poor. There is a heavy emphasis on supply-side interventions and the construction of large-scale physical infrastructure that regulates water storage and flow, such as barrages, dams, and embankments. The responsibility for water management within the region is scattered and fragmented across several bureaucratic departments.
  • The region is categorized as a ‘high to extremely high’ water-stressed zone.
  • Food security in South Asia depends upon reliable rainfall. However, there is a high degree of inter-and intra-annual variability in precipitation, a fact adversely affecting the flow regimes of the region’s hydro-ecosystems. Extreme events in the form of devastating floods and droughts present major challenges for the socio-economic development of the region.
  • The Ganga-Brahamputra-Meghna basin contains more absolutely poor people within the category of poor economic performers than do all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined (Biswas, 2011).
  • For many transboundary lakes as well as rivers and their tributaries, there are no treaties for water allocation between all the co-basin countries.


Ecological versus political boundary
Shared river basins have triggered quite a number of disputes among South Asian countries because of the unique and complex spatial scales and multiple levels of governance that exist in that region. Nepal lies completely in the Ganga basin, while Bhutan is located entirely in the Brahmaputra basin. Half of the Brahamputra basin lies in China, and about 43% of the Meghna basin lies in Bangladesh. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan share some 20 major rivers among them. In addition, many of the tributaries of these rivers are also transboundary. About 80 percent of Bangladesh is fertile alluvial lowland that is part of the Greater Bengal Plain. Its landscape has been carved out as the world’s greatest freshwater delta by the work of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers and their tributaries.

The Indus basin, which consists of the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers inter-links India, Pakistan, and China. The Indus and Brahmaputra, two of the three largest river systems of South Asia, originate in the Tibetan plateau of southwestern China. Many of the midstream tributaries of the Ganga also originate in Tibet. Dam-building and water-diversion projects by upstream states are a matter of anxiety for downstream neighbors, a fact which may affect hydro-climatic-resilient development in the region. Most efforts to integrate functional differentiation among the riparian states have failed because of fragmented management.

Natural boundaries in a shared waterscape – the Ganga-Brahamputra-Meghna basins

Asymmetrical water federalism
Many regions in South Asia do not have rivers originating in their own territory; instead, they depend upon regions outside their borders for water. There is a general feeling that these ‘outsiders’ control the headwaters of the transboundary rivers, causing both floods and droughts. Floods have a more devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of people in South Asia than in any other part of the world. The dominant water discourse, however, puts too much emphasis on ‘water scarcity’ and ‘water abundance’. Though both phenomena are caused by natural variability, there is less focus on the scarcity of ‘social resources’ and more on the abundance of ‘power disparities’ between the riparian states. A major problem with the supply-centric river basin management approach has been its disregard of the hydro-ecological timescale and accordance of supremacy to political decisions and power structures (Cosens and Williams, 2012). Legal and political systems define the administrative boundaries, not the hydro-ecological systems, of the river basins.  Despite the multiple problems with the existing transboundary agreements, the current discussions to resolve the conflicts reflect the linear orientation of hydro-bureaucracy. Unfortunately, reductionist linear extrapolation has led to a cumulative loss of socio-economic prosperity in the region.

The six major characteristics that demonstrate that asymmetrical water federalism rules transboundary water governance in South Asia are as follows.

Non-inclusive focus of agreements: There has been no genuine effort to establish basin-wide cooperation; instead, the current norm is to seek project or river reach-specific negotiations on an ad hoc basis. The sort of understanding and acceptance of basin-wide management that is compatible with the co-riparian countries is rarely applied.

Asymmetry of influence: Participation is always unbalanced. Agreements generally serve the interests of the downstream, resulting in is a ‘big brother-small brother’ disorder. There is a visceral reluctance to develop a system that is based on the equitable and legitimate allocation of rule. The power-poor are generally left out of the decision-making process as higher scale politics dominate the negotiating space.

Static framework: The concepts of ‘water scarcity’ and ‘water abundance’ are relative; actual conditions change with natural variability. While we have a deficit of rainfall statistically, the downstream regions may be flooded because of run-off from upper catchments that do not fall within a downstream country’s borders. Water treaties have become out of tune with reality as the context has become more unpredictable.

Only sharing of benefits, no sharing of burdens: The agreements are limited only to the sharing of benefits between riparian states.  No one talks about sharing the grief due to the breach of an embankment or the over-allocation of water to cities at the cost of depleting groundwater resources and drying up springs.

Operational inconsistency: Most agreements are bilateral and are not always based on uniform and fair principles.  There is a lack of mutual consistency in their operational terms. Too much emphasis is given to technical and political cooperation while equitable water use and allocation take a back seat. While the problems and solutions are acknowledged on both sides of the table, actual strategies to reach solutions are blurry.

Trust deficit: The climate of suspicion undermines the possibility of resolving disputes by dialogue. Leaders support policies that are the outcome of lukewarm friendships or that serve the interests of donor agencies.

Multi-level water federalism reconsidered
The shared waterscapes provide the opportunity for different levels of governments to adopt a coordinated and basin-wide approach. However, several local and regional political, economic, social, and cultural practices and processes and the consequences they generate across various scales have resulted in conflicts and in the tension between the unification and fragmentation of water governance. “Multilevel federalism” is a term that can be used to describe a system in which power is spread vertically between several levels of governments and horizontally across multiple government and quasi-government institutions, non-governmental organizations, agencies, and actors. In such federalism, every level of administration has an independent power regime, authority, and freedom and is subject to independent regulatory control within the overall constitutional framework (Hirst, 2000).

This bottom-up approach enables the connecting of local knowledge and inputs with national-level decisions. The institutional structure allows for the coexistence of shared interests and solidarity among communities of varying sizes, ranging from villages to blocks, towns and cities to states, and national governments to international organizations. There is a respect for openness with a certain overlapping of the roles of individual communities. The multilevel federal framework allows for the local, regional and global to co-exist with differing models of decentralization, cultures, and identities as well as with local, regional, and class self-interests (Levi, 2010; Moss and Newig, 2010).

Pillars of multilevel water federalism: PECT framework
Multilevel water federalism has four pillars: i) sustained political will (P), ii) enlightened leadership (E), iii) constructive collaboration centered on building resilience and stewardship (C), and iv) trust (T). If these four pillars are properly integrated and respected within broad institutional structures and during the execution of treaties, co-riparian countries will be able to avoid past mistakes and tone down the constitutional tensions which become quite evident during times of crisis. Each pillar is explained below.

Political will sustained: Political uncertainties cloud water negotiations. It is very important to emphasize that a truly equitable water agreement will come about unless and until the other non-water related political conflicts have ended. The sine qua non of resolving a transboundary water conflict is a strong political will that is sustained by the respective parties.

Enlightened leadership: With enlightened leadership, we can better understand which things worked well, which things need more work and which things may be an opportunity for more positive outcomes that are in the interest of the people and the overall socio-economic development of the region.

Constructive collaboration: The ‘wicked problems’ related to the governance of water transcend territorial boundaries and can be best tackled through addressing interconnected nested scales using constructive collaboration. The leadership should engage in conversations that are centered on building resilience and stewardship and on issues that may originate at the micro-watershed levels but nonetheless influence the entire basin. Such collaboration should also focus on balancing the intricate constellation of interests among the riparian states and recognize the dynamics of socially constructed nested scales.

Trust: Political relationships based on mutual mistrust sustain rather than resolve conflicts. Building trust and closeness provide confidence that is indispensable in transboundary water management and cross-border cooperation. Through trust and understanding, positive changes can happen in a short time, even in a setting where conflict is long and drawn-out.

Pillars of Multilevel Water Federalism

Final Observation: The PECT framework emphasizes the fluid and networked nature of power relations between and across various levels of governments, institutions, agencies, and actors. The idea behind this framework is to expand the ongoing debate about building social and ecological resilience, democratic legitimacy, economic efficiency, and equity in transboundary water governance. The concept of multilevel water federalism can stimulate broader deliberations and scholarly inquiry relating to transboundary water governance in South Asia that will help water, ecosystem, and communities in South Asia re-emerge stronger and resilient.


Biswas, A. K. (2011). Cooperation or conflict in transboundary water management: Case study of South Asia. Hydrological Sciences Journal56(4), 662-670.

Cosens, B. A., and M. K. Williams. (2012). Resilience and water governance: adaptive governance in the Columbia River basin. Ecology and Society 17(4): 3.

Hirst, P. (2000). ‘Democracy and Governance’ in J. Pierre (Ed.) Debating Governance: Authority, Steering and Democracy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Levi L (2010) Multi-level Governance and Federalism, The Federalist Debate, Year XXIII, Number 3, November 2010.

Moss, T., and  Newig, J. (2010). Multilevel water governance and problems of scale: Setting the stage for a broader debate. Environmental Management 46:1–6.

Dr. Venkatesh Dutta currently the coordinator of the Department of Science and Technology Centre for Policy Research, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, India was a Fulbright Scholar and a British Chevening Fellow. He was instrumental in drafting Groundwater Management Bill for Uttar Pradesh and also serves as a member of the drafting committee of the State Water Policy. (


23rd December 2020