Shared Rivers across Rigid Borders

Article by Mayuri Phukan

Transboundary waters are the rivers and lakes shared between or flows through two or more countries. There are around 263 transboundary river basins across the world and about 300 transboundary aquifers, which support a large number of people and their livelihoods. The hydrological setup of these systems exists beyond political borders and any changes to the water bodies including pollution, water abstraction, construction of dams and barrages have an impact across countries.  Developmental activities to support the growing population and economic production have increased water demand and hence water abstraction. Adding to this, climate variability has brought about changes in the quantity of water flowing through rivers. These has led to many conflicts between countries with shared waters.

South and Southeast Asia have some major river systems which are shared between multiple countries, which includes rivers such as Mekong, Salween, Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra. They are the lifelines of the regions, with great socio-economic and cultural significance. These rivers have been the topic of contention between countries from time to time; and there also have been some agreements drawn for the management of these shared rivers. The Mekong River Commission is an example of a multi-State agreement on transboundary rivers from Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have been engaged in water sharing since 1957 within the framework of the Mekong River Commission. India-Pakistan (Indus Water Treaty, 1960), India-Bangladesh (Ganges Water Treaty, 1996) and India-Nepal (Kosi Agreement, 1954;  Gandak  Agreement, 1959; Mahakali Treaty, 1996) are the bilateral treaties between India and neighboring countries for water sharing. As of now, there is no treaty on sharing of waters of the Brahmaputra river between the basin countries which are Tibet, China, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh.

While studies and reports call for integrated approach and coordination between different nations for managing transboundary waters, in practice, it is a difficult proposition. Political power and relationship between the basin States dominate this governance. For example, the major conflict in the Brahmaputra basin has been about dam building and water diversion projects, leading to concerns about water scarcity and dam break induced floods in northeast India. China has completed two dams out of five proposed projects in the river and has declared its intention to create a mega dam with a capacity of up to 60 GWs. The river forms the “Great Bend of Tsangpo” around Namcha Barwa Himalayan Peak, just before entering Arunachal Pradesh which is the world’s deepest gorge, and the proposed site of the mega dam. It is feared that the natural flow of the river could be altered by China at this location, blocking the flow of the river which will cause major water crisis in the downstream regions. India responded by proposing a 10 GW multipurpose project in Arunachal Pradesh to act as a counter to China’s dam. However, the dam-for-dam approach is potentially hazardous for the earthquake prone and ecologically fragile region. Such politically tense relationships leave very little space for stakeholders other than the bureaucrats to have a say in water management regimes.

Lack of data sharing mechanisms on transboundary rivers also hinders the cooperation process. Hydrological and meteorological data sharing in shared river basins have the potential to help in disaster preparedness and the functioning of early warning systems. In 2000, a landslide dammed the Yigong river in Tibet, which later breached to cause massive flash floods in Siang river of Arunachal Pradesh. Following which, India and China signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding in 2002 which was renewed in 2018, for sharing of hyrdomet data for the Brahmaputra river during the monsoon period.

The institutional capacity of the basin countries determines the extent of success in transboundary water management. South Asia lacks a cooperative framework for managing river basins. The existing agreements are supply-centric and hence, infrastructure development for water storage and supply finds a major focus. There is a need to develop workable institutions or by considering the flow regimes, ecohydrological conditions of rivers and climate variability affecting river basins.

The spread of fake news and misinformation causes distrust between the citizen of basin countries. This stems from the absence of evidence-backed dialogues between non-State actors in the basin. Last year, the Bhutanese Government had to release a press statement to counter the fake news that it had blocked irrigation water to the Baksa and Udalguri districts of Assam. Bhutan had, in fact, repaired the irrigation channels which couldn’t be repaired by farmers on the Indian side due to COVID19 lockdowns. Such misinformation can lead to agitations and disrupt inter-State relationships.

Other contributing factors which make transboundary water management difficult are the socio-economic condition of the regions, law and order situations and level of infrastructure development occurring in the basin.

While shared waters remain a highly complex subject, certain steps can be taken by the basin countries to combat water scarcity and water related hazards and for citizen welfare. Looking at opportunities to include diverse stakeholder groups could be a step towards improving transboundary water management. Regional dialogues among the countries can bring some positive changes. Formalizing institutions for cooperation among nations will provide a framework for water management. The science-policy interface needs to be focused on such that scientific studies form the basis of policy changes. The development of information systems to help data sharing in such river basins will be a step forward towards effective planning of water resources. Discussion between countries to identify joint research opportunities, monitoring, development of commerce and trade opportunities can help improve transboundary water management.

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