Event Reports

Chidambaram, Y.K. Alagh release ORF study on Brahmaputra sub-basin

ORF report titled 'IRBM for Brahmaputra Sub-basin: Water Governance, Environmental Security and Human Well-being' released on 25 October.

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Photolabs@ORF
2016
Nov
11

An ORF Report on “IRBM for Brahmaputra Sub-basin: Water Governance, Environmental Security and Human Well-being,” has been released jointly by former Union ministers P. Chidambaram and Dr. Y.K. Alagh.

The Report is written by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (Visiting Distinguished Fellow, ORF), Nilanjan Ghosh (Senior Fellow, ORF), and Chandan Mahanta (Professor, IIT Guwahati).

A day after the release, a discussion on the Report was organised in Kolkata on the 25. Both the release and the discussion took place under the umbrella of the conference on “25 Years of Economic Reforms in India: Retrospect and Prospects”, organised by Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, and the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata.

The Report’s release and the discussion came at a time when the Draft National Framework Water Bill, drafted by the Mihir Shah Committee set up by the MoWRRDGR, has been placed placed in public domain for comments, along with the document titled, A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms.

Noting the uniqueness of the Brahmaputra sub-basin for undertaking the research, the authors observed that the Brahmaputra basin has the highest flow among all river basins in South Asia. At the same time, the sub-basin, that has undergone rapid transition over the last 20 years, still remains relatively unexplored. The non-existence of promotion of river basin level policies and strategies in South Asia is another reason for choosing this river for the research.

Presenting the study, the authors said the unique challenge presented by the Brahmaputra is in terms of coexistence of “ample water, ample poverty” which, by itself, is a developmental paradox. The river’s ecological uniqueness, complexity and transboundary characteristics at multiple levels only add up to the challenges. Given the same, the challenges posed by the Brahmaputra sub-basin cannot be explained by the Neo-Malthusian creed of “scarcity induces conflicts,” the Report argues.

The Report defines environmental security as a state of absence of conflicts in the complex and interconnected relations in and between the biological, social, economic and cultural processes of human societies and the natural environment. Environmental security in the river basin context has to look at multiple uses and user’s perspectives and the need to reconcile between them. The impact ushered in by the new geological epoch of anthropocene changing the earth systems and eco-hydrological cycle, also needs to be factored in. This makes the role of Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) in safeguarding life-support systems for human well-beings critical.

The authors presented said the theoretical framework is based on the modified DPSIR (Drivers, Pressures, State, Impacts and Responses) approach for studying the challenges faced by the Brahmaputra sub-basin. Lack of ecosystems perspective or river basins perspective towards sub-basin constrains human responses to the challenges.

Hydropower projects are problem-ridden. Inadequate, Environment Impact Assessment (EIAs), lack of a proper ecological economic assessment entailing valuation of the ecosystem services and consequent losses and lack of knowledge on the fluvial geomorphology and sediment are lacunae of planning hydropower projects.

Institutions are the most critical aspect of the IRBM framework. The authors said institutional response has been inadequate. The existing Brahmaputra Board or the Brahmaputra River Valley Authority cannot combat the international trans-boundary challenges.

Since a broader ecosystems approach to river basin management cannot be taken within domestic geographies, the Report suggests setting up of an alternative institution, Organisation for Governance of the Lower Brahmaputra Sub-basin (OGLOBS). This organisation will have its dominion over the lower Brahmaputra sub-basin, i.e. the area within the sub-basin that falls within the political boundaries of Bhutan, Bangladesh and India.

The importances of inter-disciplinary studies as attempted in the Report suggest ways to convert “ample water, ample poverty” paradox to “ample water, reasonable well-being” coexistence. In no way, this can be achieved through a reductionist engineering discipline. Rather, a trans-disciplinary framework combining various disciplines including new knowledge on ecological sciences, holistic engineering, ecological economics, social anthropology, hydro-meteorology, hydrology, hydrogeology, and other social and natural sciences need to be developed.

Questions and comments from the audience ranged from themes that included, the impact of floods in the sub-basin on undocumented migrants, the river navigability from Assam to West Bengal via Bangladesh, impact of China’s water diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo on the lower sub-basin, arsenic contamination in the sub-basin and the incorporating voices of stakeholders like farmers and NGOs in the IRBM framework.

In response to the question on the extent of arsenic contamination in the sub-basin, it was observed that at least 29 percent of the 67,000 public wells in the Brahmaputra valley have been contaminated by arsenic. On reviving the navigability of the rivers in the North East, it was stated by the authors that recent developments indicate good progress on this front.

On the apprehension of water diversion by China by damming the Yarlung Tsangpo, it was noted that since the hydropower project is based on “run-of river” technology, the apprehension of diversion prima facie does not exist. At the same time, while harnessing hydropower where the Yarlung Tsangpo has a 3.5 kilometres drop is a viable option for China, water diversion definitely is neither economically nor ecologically viable.

The authors also emphasised that with majority of water and sediment flows generated within the Indian boundaries (as can be made out from hydrographs and graphs on suspended sediment load and flows), there is not much for India to worry about water diversion.

Dr. Y.K. Alagh, who chaired the discussion, lauded the study, and expressed the need to carry further studies in this regard.

This report is prepared by Mihir Bhonsale, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.