Event ReportsPublished on Jun 24, 2013
The second Mekong-Ganga Dialogue, held in Laos and Thailand, effectively threw diverse and comparative insights into wide range of water issues plaguing both the regions and deliberated upon possibilities of cooperation and collective actions to sustainably manage water resources.
Mekong-Ganga Dialogue: Learning to manage river basins
If we want to be more efficient in dealing with contemporary water conflicts in the Ganga and Mekong basin, it is time to recognise that the human tragedies caused by dispute over entitlements, apportionment and competing demands for water are controlled by a complex alloy of political-sociological and economic forces. To a significant extent the nation’s failure to provide social leadership that has clear vision, political will to undertake cooperative action with riparian countries and linear calculation of river efficiency dividends can be held responsible for the water challenge that both the basins face today. Mainstreaming ’human and environment centric’ approach to river basin management, Observer Research Foundation and M-POWER embarked upon an inter-regional initiative in New Delhi-India, 2012 in pursuit of continual exchange of experiences, practices and knowledge in managing two of the major river basins of the world - Ganga and Mekong. The second meeting of this endeavour took place along the Mekong River in Laos and Thailand from 24th to 28th June, 2013. Models of Regional Cooperation Moving beyond the issues discussed in the first meeting, second Mekong-Ganga Dialogue deliberated upon a framework of political and social restructuring which accommodates the interests of all stakeholders in the two basins. Mr. Hans Guttman, Director of Mekong River Commission Secretariat, in his opening speech stressed upon the role and significance of multi-stakeholder Track II initiatives. Meaningful dialogues have the potential to circumvent complex deadlocks in case of difficulties and stalemate situations between riparian nations. While, it may be difficult to assess the effectiveness of such dialogues in reducing conflicts, they definitely have provided new platforms of interactions, illustrated best practices and influenced water-governance from narrow national security concerns to a holistic regional perspective. Mr. Guttman presented the objectives and functionality of cooperation in Mekong - a model that can be improvised in the Ganga basin. He highlighted the success of Mekong River Commission in fostering collective actions to better manage the natural resource. A parallel regional knowledge network - Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), presented an overview of issues and challenges faced by members from all the regions that encompass the territory, ecosystems, people, economies and politics of Mekong river basin. In contrast, Dr. Dwarika Dhungel, Former Water Secretary, Nepal drew attention to the lack of political will, consensus and trust-deficit in the Ganga basin. He showed extreme concern about India’s unilateral decision to implement the National Inter-linking project - an "ecological disaster" that would change the entire hydrology of the region. Given the nature of development, i.e. intense population growth, increasing demands, changing climate, he iterated the need for an informal Ganga forum to exchange hydrological data and facilitate open and transparent communication channels at different levels to understand concerns of multi-stakeholders. Water issues in silos? While contemplating on the "nature of development", it was felt that the "nature of problem" itself lacks clarity, said Dr. Rohan D’Souza, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Multi-faceted and multi-level set of challenges have begun to overwhelm the Ganges and Mekong river system. Both basins are comparably characterized by intense population density, high levels of pollution, declining fisheries, energy poverty, gender inequity, degrading biodiversity and several other socio-ecological vulnerabilities. Potential resource-led conflicts involving river flow entitlements have also come to the fore, hampering regional cooperation. However, the current development policies and processes have been downplaying relations of inequality and contradiction within the dominant economic systems. Such crisis, as was argued, raised the question of whether solutions lie in finding correct tools and mechanisms that feed into the decision making processes. To gain deeper insight into the politics of policies, programs and their implementation, Dr. Tira Foran, convinced participants to take a critical political economy approach, which addresses power and complexity of competing demands in order to first re-conceptualize water-energy-food nexus before delving into absolute solutions. Improve the tools and mechanisms of decision making It is clear that the current decision-making tools in both the basins lack capacity and understanding to optimize river-efficiency dividends. Cost-benefit analysis, an economic tool which presents the opportunity to calculate social and environmental cost of production of developmental project was disputed to be insufficient to understand the trade-off between environmental impacts and economic growth. Assessing the scope of cost-benefit analysis, Dr. D’Souza and Sonali Mittra, Observer Research Foundation, India suggested the need for different economics, co-existence models and putting communities of natural flow regime at the central focus of water policies. Bushra Nishat, hydrologist, Bangladesh shed light on advanced hydrological prediction tools and suggested integrating these into the management and decision making process, and developing expertise at the national level. She made a case for using appropriate analytical tools to better understand the implications of regionally important investments. A knowledge base for sharing data and information can be instrumental towards regional cooperation and participatory planning between riparian countries to support flood management, agreed all the experts. Democratization and social equity Besides the tools of decision-making, mechanisms for water conflict resolution were discussed at large by Dr. Jianping Wang, China. Her study on comparative case studies drawn from rural communities in Northern Thailand and Southern Yunnan, China elaborated on how local institutions adapt to challenges emerging from intensive water use, greater integration into the market economy and many socio-economic changes. She concluded that accountable, adaptive and inclusive local institutions equipped with good social capital, clear property rights and strong enforcement have great potential in effective water governance. The study particularly reiterated the focus on local communities, institutions and micro-governance mechanisms - a long time focus of Ganga researchers and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The day focussed not only on democratic institutions but also a democratic source of water - Groundwater. Dr. Paul Pevelic and others, Laos, provided evidence of a growing groundwater economy in Laos. A surging number of new donor sponsored research and development initiatives, if successful and harnessed correctly, should be able to address many technical and institutional challenges and constraints. Effective realization of the investments made in this sector was said to be of critical importance. The view was slightly contested by Ganga experts. Experience of Ganga basin suggested that regulation of groundwater use is extremely difficult given the easy accessibility and ownership rights. Citing examples of Haryana and Punjab, they recommended a thorough investigation of this lesser known resource and implementation of strict liability rules for its usage and conservation, in order to avoid errors made by the Ganga states. Dr. Sengamphone, Mekong River Commission illustrated her work aimed at improving the management Namxong river, Laos and livelihood of people in its catchment area by integrating gender aspects. She highlighted the role and scope of gender mainstreaming in water management for achieving equitable social development. It was suggested that inclusive participation and effective consultation can lead to maximum advantages and reduction in conflict among competing sectors. Can this be a case in Ganga which is characterised by high level of social, especially gender inequity? It was settled that gender analysis and responsiveness is essential in water management and conservation across all basins of Asia. The ’others’: Floating villages and Char land A case study presented by Dr. Le Anh Tuanh highlighted the inter-connected and interdependent nature of the problems in managing cross border river waters. It is estimated that about 3 million Cambodians live in the Tonle Sap (a river connecting the Great Lake and Mekong River in South East Asia), out of which 300,000 are Vietnamese - living in "floating villages". These communities, living literally on water of shared jurisdiction between Vietnam and Cambodia have been neglected for long leading to extreme destitution, no civil right status or basic facilities of life. A similar situation is experienced by Char people in the difficult-to-access sand banks of Ganga. Around 200,000 people inhabit the small and big islands formed by silt deposition and erosion in the middle of the river. There is a dispute over jurisdiction of these islands between Jharkhand and Bengal, leaving people astray of basic civic amenities, education and civil rights. The problem is further aggravated with Maoist incursion in Char land - influencing the already frustrated population, said the Ganga experts. Recommendations made by Dr. Tuanh in his case study would be useful to a certain extent in initiating governance reforms in such ambiguously administered land-water habitation. Water Activism Over the past years, it has been observed that the sense of environmental and social awareness has gained pace with improved media reportage. Papers from both Mekong and Ganga explored a range of media’s reporting functions at the policy-knowledge interface to create and interpret knowledge and to foster debates on water issues. Ms. Piyaporn Wongruang, Journalist, Thailand spoke of the challenges across Mekong region, including internal barriers within individual media outlets, State censorship rights, so on and so forth. Jayanta Basu, Journalist, India painted a more positive picture of media’s role in promoting awareness and supporting religious and judicial activism in the region. For instance, he mentioned that during the last Kumbha mela, media response regarding Ganga’s plight reached a new and unprecedented height when over thousand scribes from India and outside reported on the issue of Ganga pollution. It was established that media coverage and activism on Mekong and Ganga’s state of health has the scope of being far wider, vertical as well as horizontal linking it to the socio-politico- economic future of both the regions. Water education Water education in South Asia, whether at the primary, secondary or tertiary levels, still remains marginal and fragmentary. Hegemony of science over social sciences; ’developmentality’ and ’statism’ were flagged as the primary reasons by Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, Bangladesh. There are no easy answers for overcoming all this but to start the process, modifications in the curricula at both primary and tertiary levels were suggested. Mekong region has progressed to introduce a special course on sociology of hydropower. The academic content of this course is developed with the objective to look at all aspects of development and management of a scarce water resource and promote sustainability. Global Ecological Commons It is well recognized that Ganga and Mekong which serve as "global ecological commons" are faced with incremental pressure to meet human needs and are shrinking, often leading to conflicts. Lack of a progressive and uniform framework that facilitates utilization, development, conservation and management was argued to be hampering collective understanding of global resources and cooperation. Shawahiq Siddiqui, deliberated upon the prospects of 1997 United Nations Water Course Convention in the Ganga basin. He iterated that conventional notions on absolute sovereignty, reasonable and equitable utilization of shared watercourses are usually met with severe apprehensions from riparian nations. Complex domestic water law framework marked by the existence of customs, sanctions, judicial decisions and constitutional provisions have a substantial role to play in transboundary water cooperation and needs to be studied in greater detail. Conclusion The encounter with modernity and development today brings new challenges to highlands of Asia - Mekong and Ganga. Highland-lowland linkages shaped by political ideologies about water governance, land-use and property rights cantered on lowland urban areas are being re-defined to place highlands and their communities at the foci of development interventions, said Dipak Gyawali, Former Water Secretary, Nepal. Studying the impacts of development discourse (including tourism, hydropower, transportation and water infrastructures) on highland environmental change is imperative to demonstrate the diversity of governance issues along the lines of decentralization, political participation, customary institutions, livelihood opportunities, regional cooperation and interrelationship among these elements. Finally, Mekong-Ganga Dialogue 2013 successfully offered diverse and comparative insights into wide range of water issues plaguing both the regions and deliberated upon possibilities of cooperation and collective actions to sustainably manage water resources. The five day travelling workshop was attended by experts, hydrologists, young professionals, historians and lawyers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China. (This report has been prepared by Sonali Mittra and Koushiki Mukherjee, Junior Fellows, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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