Valuing Water from a Transboundary Perspective in South Asia

Water draws multiple political, economic, and social claims on its use, distribution, conservation, and management.

Transboundary water governance in South Asia is often described as a “wicked problem” — a problem that is nearly impossible to solve — because of its inherently contradictory and changeable nature, one which makes solutions difficult to identify and implement. It is not hard to see why. South Asia’s major transboundary river systems — the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra — collectively support over 700 million people across the sub-continent, providing water, food, energy, and ecosystem services. At the moment, however, because of a combination of factors, including the poor domestic management of resources as well as their over-use, pollution and excessive extraction stemming from growing demand and increasing resource variability due to climate change, South Asia’s transboundary water resources are under immense stress.

Despite numerous treaties and agreements, water sharing across borders remains a politically fraught, nationally charged, and increasingly challenging endeavor as climate change plays havoc with sensitive transboundary waterscapes and eco-systems. The signs are visible at a national and sub-national level, where, every summer, disputes over ground and surface water resources are growing across cities and towns, even as the frequency and intensity of extreme excessive rain-triggered events such as floods increase. Many parts of the sub-continent are now moderately or severely water-stressed and the science indicates that the scenario will only worsen in the decades to come.

Present Transboundary River Water Treaties in South Asia

It is against this background that the 2021’s World Water Day (WWD) — celebrated on March 22 — was particularly significant. WWD seeks to raise awareness about the global water crisis and the need to adopt more effective measures towards achieving SDG Goal 6 — water and sanitation for all by 2030. This year, WWD asks us a particularly critical question: How do we value water? What does it mean to our lives, our work, our wellbeing, our social, economic, and cultural way of life?

Reflecting on this question, it occurred to me that while we can all think of ways that water intersects and is critical to our everyday existence, can we learn to better value and appreciate water from a transboundary perspective? In this piece, I offer a few reflections I have had and lessons that I have learned from over a decade of conversations with experts, practitioners, and people that are deeply passionate about water in South Asia.

Moving beyond quantums and flows

Conventional treaties and agreements on South Asia’s transboundary rivers tend to abstract the rivers down to peak and lean season flows so that what remains is a one-dimensional understanding of what are complex and deeply interconnected systems. We know, of course, that rivers do not just carry water, but sediment, flora, fauna, nutrients, and gases, in other words, the ingredients that sustain and support a range of habitats and eco-systems and are key to water, energy, and food production upstream and downstream. Unfortunately, bilateral treaties and agreements are narrowly focused and scarcely reflect such critical contributions. To value transboundary water is to value these vast and complex contributions and to pursue approaches that take them into consideration. Doing so will help identify opportunities for cooperation in unlikely places. In recent years, for example, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh have made progress in discussions on inland navigation and energy cooperation, opening up new avenues for cooperation on transboundary water issues. Moving beyond a narrow, unifocal approach to one that considers other areas of engagement provides an avenue into talking about other critical issues that need immediate attention, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

Embracing multi-disciplinarity

In our region, transboundary water governance, or water governance in general, for that matter, is overwhelmingly the preserve of technocrats and hydrocrats. From a disciplinary perspective, the approach is overwhelmingly technical, focussing largely on designing engineering solutions to manage what are very large, complex, and interdependent ecosystems. Basin-level or regional planning of river systems, while recognized in theory, has yet to be actualized either at a national or transboundary level. In this closed environment, there is limited scope for alternative perspectives to percolate into the system. At a country level, the siloed nature of many government departments and institutions, which, by design, means that the horizontal and vertical exchange of information, data, and even personnel is minimal, limits the opportunities that water engineers and managers have to engage with alternative perspectives from other disciplines and, even more significantly, to engage with perspectives outside of the government’s. To move towards more holistic, environmentally sound, and sustainable approaches, we need to embrace multi-disciplinarity and acknowledge perspectives from different fields, including science, the humanities, art, and culture.

Balanced nature and waterscape;  Source ISET-Nepal @late Surendra Pradhananga

Diverse voices and diverse interests

Water draws multiple political, economic, and social claims on its use, distribution, conservation, and management. However, governments and state agencies at the national level continue to play a dominant role in the decision-making processes associated with transboundary water management. There is little recognition at the regional, national or sub-national level of the diversity of interests and competing claims around water or of the various stakeholders — communities, civil society, private sector, and others — that have an interest in and are impacted by decisions made without their engagement or participation. This lack of recognition makes efforts at reform more challenging, especially when important constituencies have been left out of the formal dialogue and negotiation processes. In fact, limited stakeholder engagement has, in many instances, led to localized resistance against efforts at reform resulting in stalemates that have lasted for decades. Recognizing and acknowledging the diversity of interests and voices and finding mechanisms through which to engage them is critical to building local, national, and eventually transboundary support and cooperation for water.

Engaging with civil society

Given the diversity of actors and interests, engaging civil society in discussions about transboundary water governance is critical. Greater civil society engagement in transboundary water governance issues can be and has been shown to be vital in ensuring more comprehensive and nuanced approaches to policymaking and planning on water, particularly in terms of effectively addressing its social and ecological dimensions. Drawing on their deep experience and networks at the grassroots and community level, CSOs can bring critical local knowledge to the fore. As mediators, they can also serve to bridge the gap between state and non-state actors; highlighting key issues and concerns from a grassroots and community perspective and at the same time playing a constructive role in building local support for government policies and programs. In addition, civil society engagement is critical to include the voices of the excluded and marginalized, in particular women, girls, and indigenous communities that are not only the most vulnerable but also in the frontline of the battle against climate change-linked disasters and impacts. Today, across South Asia, many organizations are at the forefront of researching, analyzing, and reporting on the diverse impacts that climate change, for example, is having on the livelihoods of people dependent on rivers. Ensuring that the lessons from their work are appropriately channeled into the policy and planning process at a national and regional level is critical to reforming the current paradigm around transboundary water management in the region.

Localizing transboundary water issues

When we think about transboundary rivers, it is easy to get lost in their immense scale and lose track of the fact that sometimes the most impact is not on a grand scale but at a more local level. Across South Asia, there are a growing number of examples of local communities, CBOs, and NGOs working together across borders to showcase that transboundary cooperation is not always about bilateral agreements or treaties but sometimes is about very practical approaches to learning and appreciating how to share water across borders. For instance, in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam,  Aaranyak, an environmental NGO, and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have piloted an innovative community-based flood warning system that uses mobile phones to transmit critical flood-related data and information to communities upstream and downstream of the eastern Brahmaputra basin. Similarly, in the Koshi basin along the Bihar-Nepal border, The Asia Foundation and Centre for Social Research piloted a project to build the capacity of elected women representatives on both sides of the border in dialogue and leadership skills so that they will be able to play a more proactive role in flood management and dispute resolution at the local level. Across the region, there are many organizations that are piloting such innovative approaches and programs, testing, learning, and adapting to complex local situations to find lessons and approaches that can work. Valuing transboundary water is, therefore, valuing not only its immense scale but also its very local scale.  In fact, it is acted at the local level that we should be looking not just for inspiration but also for impact.

Dialogue beyond borders

When I joined The Asia Foundation, one of the first projects I had the opportunity to work on was called “Water Beyond Borders.” It was a coalition of civil society organizations that included the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) and Environics Trust in India and the Bangladesh Environment and Lawyers Association (BELA). Over many weeks and months, I had the opportunity to participate in debates and conversations on a range of issues, including ecological flows, environmental assessments, data, and information-sharing. While I certainly learned a great deal about treaties and agreements, cusecs and flows from those discussions, what stayed with me was the immense respect, camaraderie, willingness to share knowledge and information, and deep appreciation of alternative voices and perspectives across borders that I witnessed. To value transboundary water is to acknowledge and appreciate the tireless work of experts, practitioners, grassroots leaders and community champions, journalists, and artists that continues to bridge geographical divides to champion dialogue, inclusivity, cooperation, and debate in its many different forms. To value transboundary water is to work towards sustaining this culture and tradition of dialogue even as we work incrementally towards more effective, holistic, and sustainable transboundary water cooperation.

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