Event Reports

Joint management of shared South Asia waters can play critical role


A two-day international conference on “South Asia Water Dialogue: People, Power and Technological Innovation” was conducted by Observer Research Foundation, India on December 17 and 18, 2015. The conference was attended by a delegation of eminent speakers from 10 South Asian countries and the United Kingdom and Germany. Various themes around common water challenges, urgency and the benefits of water cooperation in South Asia were discussed. The deliberations were guided by the idea of reformulating and redefining common water challenges, facing the region, through multiple disciplines, voices, values and concerns. The focus of the dialogue was on four thematic areas: water resilient cities, water for food, water and climate adaptation, and regional framework for cooperation. This report summarises the key deliberations of the South Asia water dialogue 2015.

South Asia Water Dialogue 2015: People, Power and Technological Innovation

South Asian Rivers constitute some of the major river systems of the world, including the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems, which extend over six Asian countries — Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. These river are under enormous stress from its very large population, high level of poverty, rapid economic growth and climate change. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the South Asian countries has resulted in growing competing demands on water from food security, commercial farming, domestic water needs, industrial and hydropower needs. The region also witnesses conflicts over sharing water from the international rivers, especially during periods of lean flows. Institutions, laws, rights, entitlements and knowledge is central to conflict resolution.

There is a need to understand the complex inter-linkages between competing uses of water, shared challenges among riparian nations, and finding common solutions. This includes the intricate social and political dimensions of water use, local governance and water conflicts coupled with technological options with regard to water resource management in South Asia. It is important to grasp the ‘methods’ for sharing water and managing transnational rivers by reformulating the problem and breaking the hegemony of knowledge, geography and institutions. Over much of the 19th century South Asia made a huge conceptual shift in water management with increased focus on mathematical and engineering related approaches. Today, a shift towards treating water as ‘biological and cultural system’ is required to deal with the looming challenges by way of: one, establishing water as an inter-disciplinary issue, not bound by geography; two, bringing about alternative ideas and new research agenda on issues of conservation, promoting protection of water resources, sustainable use, regional cooperation and conflict resolution; three, redesigning institutions and policies that allow participation of dissent and minority voices. Fundamental issues need to be further investigated on specific themes: How much water is required to secure livelihoods? What are the trade-offs between economic growth and regional cooperation on water? How to ensure equitable justice in access to river waters within the nation and across the borders?

Water resilient cities

In the context of urban water challenges in the cities of South Asia, water availability can be mapped in two ways: first, in terms of its quantity and the energy embedded in it, and second, in terms of biodiversity index which is the closest approximation to capture water. In order to explore the designs, processes and concepts for water resilient cities, key emerging questions in the context of water have to be addressed: Who is this water for? How is it used? Who pays for it? Combining these three basic questions together essentially translates into a democratic model of participation which necessitates decision making power to be dissolved from higher levels to lower units.

Cities, mainly away from perennial water supply zones, face the challenge of water balancing and water resilience. Modernisation of urban utilities has to be based on appropriate models that take into account current and predicted resource availability and population growth. Resilient pathways can only be built if environmental constraints are factored in while drafting urban growth models, without being overridden by economic interests. In this regard, historical and traditional knowledge can be of immense use in developing water resilient cities. Eventually, the notion of resilient cities can be assessed under three scenarios: cities with abundant water availability, but faced with management inefficiencies; cities with water shortage coupled with mismanagement by agencies and misused by the consumers; and cities struck by disasters or calamities. No matter how resilience is assessed under each scenario, South Asian cities are, so far, not prepared to respond to challenges posed by each of these scenarios. This calls for drawing attention on the importance of collaboration among various government bodies, city planners and scientific community, early warning systems, rain water harvesting, and other innovative models to build water resilient cities.

Water and food

Emphasis on technology and technical innovations at field level in agriculture are among the key subjects in the dialogue on “water for food”. Poor governance, un-affordability, and small land holdings inhibit technological advances in rural parts of Indian agriculture, which in combination with other factors, results in lower agricultural productivity. Embedding of technologies is a major challenge coupled with complicated social processes associated with making technologies work. Community participation in water harvesting, managing watersheds and co-designing technologies with farmers that are suitable for local conditions can go a long way in overcoming the crisis arising from resource scarcity and abundance. Building capacities of farmers to switch to new varieties of crops that are resilient to climate change and can adapt to different needs are much required.

Besides agriculture, fisheries, an important source of food and basis of livelihood for many coastal communities in South Asia, is under tremendous threat from climatic and anthropogenic factors. Existing irrigation practices, construction of dams and navigation are some of the impending threats on the sustainability of riverine fisheries making communities dependent on this resource vulnerable to such threats. The decline in riverine fisheries of Gangetic plains, mainly in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh can be attributed to the lack of policy focus and non-availability of water in the rivers. Channelizing surplus availability of water in agriculture sector towards fishery, adopting environment friendly navigation techniques and managing rivers as a single fish based unit transcending borders and upper or lower riparian divides can go a long way in sustaining fisheries in the region. Finally, a holistic approach that is based on three inter-connected goals of equity, growth and sustainability is needed to ensure food security in the region.

Water and climate change

Along with the importance of many uses for water, water security – floods, droughts, pollution spills into water systems is of growing importance. The availability of water in both quantity and quality is being severely affected by climate variability and climate change, with more or less precipitation and more extreme weather events in different parts of the region. Coupled to this are the issues concerning the huge information gap and lack of cross-border information sharing on areas related to risks emerging from climate change in South Asia. Identifying responses to adapt to climate change is limited by lack of information about the risks and multiplication of these risks at a faster rate. This is particularly important in the case of natural disasters like flash floods where immediate action becomes pertinent. There is a strong requirement for a formal channel of communication and information so that precautionary measures can be taken in time. It is also crucial to realize that the nature of risks posed by climate related changes, which are mainly unpredictable, are different from those posed by water related issues, though climatic changes also impact water. Often national development agendas fail to adequately incorporate water related issues in their ambit and the associated implications of changes in water flows, water availability and access. Hence, a holistic approach and a long term vision needs to be infused into any conservation effort. In this regard, community efforts being undertaken across India and Bangladesh borders have produced remarkable results in the Sundarbans. Further, land use regulation and basin wide council for rivers are essential for water governance. The need for simultaneous development of water governance, water management and infrastructure to facilitate adaption to climate change is urgently felt.

Framework for regional cooperation

The joint management of shared water resources in South Asia can play a critical role in poverty alleviation, domestic water security, economic growth, prevention of pollution, mitigation of damages from floods, and droughts, and the provision of ecosystem services on which the livelihood of a large number of people depends. An effective framework for the management of trans-boundary water resources and for coping with conflicting demands will mainly require taking into account various possible definitions of “trans-boundary”. Such definitions need to consider different approaches to trans-boundary water apart from water sharing and identifying constituents of demand for water other than consumptive uses (navigation and environment being the most important). Such a framework should to be grounded on: an innovative institutional approach that reflects upon the failures and shortcomings of the existing institutional mechanisms in water management and conventions, the understanding of complex, social, scientific and political processes in the management of common resources, co-operation at both bilateral and regional levels, and water governance regime which is not dictated by national identities.

(This report is prepared by Preeti Kapuria, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata)