Co-Creating Solutions for Transboundary Wellbeing under Water-Climate-Human Rights Nexus

Authors: Ritu Priya, Mayuri Phukan, Sarita S Rout

“Give me a fulcrum,” Archimedes challenged his fellow Greek the citizens, “and a place to stand—and I will move the world.” The youth today is making a similarly bold but true claim- “Give me a voice and I will move the world”.

Resolution 2250, adopted by the UN Security Council in 2015 brought about a global shift in inclusive governance, by affirming the important role youth can play in sustainability, conflict resolution and peacekeeping. About 19 percent of the world’s youth population live in South Asia and constitute one third of the total population in the region. They are thus an important stakeholder in all policy matters in the region (Oxfam 2016). Their role can be particularly relevant for transboundary water governance in South Asia. Engagement between riparian communities across political borders creates locally relevant definitions of cooperation which are more sustainable in the long run (Barua 2018). Youth are a force to create such a basin-wide dialogues through their enthusiasm, and ability to use modern day technologies and tools important to various river- and water-related issues, including the rights ( Oxfam 2020a) of the riparian communities (Oxfam 2020b).

Recognising the positive multiplier effect youth representation can bring to transboundary governance, the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) program conducted a three-months long e-Winter School on Inclusive Water Governance for selected youths from South Asia in 2020. The Regional Youth Dialogues (RYDs) on Water, Climate and Human Rights by Youth Basin Ambassadors (YBAs) is a follow up action to promote regional youth collaborations on common water governance issues. Focusing on the Ganges – Brahmaputra- Meghna (GBM) basins, RYDs’ main aim is to build capacities of the next generation youth water leaders and prepare them to be part of tangible solutions to water governance issues.  

The duration of RYD is 6 months, from April to September 2021. The programme began in April 2021 with the first round of regional youth dialogue during 27th April 21 till 30th April. During the dialogue YBAs had identified areas of primary and secondary research presented. This would lead them to develop a future roadmap focusing on specific issues of water, climate, and human rights. The second and final round of dialogues in September 2021 will highlight the findings from these road maps and action plan implemented. This will be an occasion for YBAs to disseminate their future roadmaps as well as discuss post-RYD follow up action plans.

A unique endeavour

The RYD is an extraordinary platform in several aspects.  Not only does it bring together youths from GBM basins, heterogeneity in terms of skills and engagement domains of these YBAs makes this format a very interesting one. The cohort of 14 Youth Basin Ambassadors selected for the program brings in diverse capabilities and competency domains such as water resource management, environmental sciences, disaster management, social sciences, environmental law, climate studies, environmental journalism, and public health. The group includes 11 women and 3 men; they are students and young professionals, conservationists and researchers from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.  They have worked on projects related to water conservation, climate change impacts, women and community participation, flood and river erosion, wetland management, land use changes, plastic pollutions, and bilateral interactions for transboundary rivers. Their varied expertise enables cross sectoral learning and interdisciplinary approach to problem solving for the transboundary waters in the GBM basin. This platform creates scope for trans-national as well as interdisciplinary dialogue on water and human rights governance. The need for overcoming political as well as disciplinary boundaries is imperative for a subject as integrative as transboundary wellbeing of riparian communities. Secondly, the programme facilitates exposure of the YBAs to water experts across a wide spectrum ranging from technical to legal to social aspects. They have the opportunity to identify which aspects of water governance inspire them most. Thirdly, the small group of selected 14 YBAs makes it more interactive. The young water professionals have a special advantage to discuss their ideas and concerns with specialists directly. The most interesting aspect about this programme is that it promotes co-creation of solutions as well as learning by doing model. During the programme, YBAs will get practical experience while implementing a chosen road map in collaboration with team of fellows. This will strengthen the transboundary youth network irrespective of diverse identities and politics. Uniqueness of this effort lies in directly training the YBAs and providing opportunities to collaborate with youth across the border.

Reflections from the first Regional Youth Dialogue (April 2021)

The first round of the dialogue was held from 27th April to 30th April 2021. During these four days, YBAs had exposure to the views of global experts on various themes. Experts also shared their experiences from the river basins they came from. Opening remarks were made by three eminent keynote speakers. Ms. Donna McSkimming, Regional Program Manager, Oxfam Cambodia highlighted how youth bring a progressive and innovative point of view to issues of water governance. Renowned aquatic ecologist and winner of the 2019 Stockholm Water prize, Prof. Jackie King shared her experiences as an ecologist and encouraged the young water professionals to always “reach for what lay beyond the grasp”. She thrusted on ecosystem-based approaches and nature-based solutions for water sector growth.

“Tomorrow’s problems on shared water cannot be tackled based on yesterday’s data and information. Modern day problems need modern day solutions”

– Prof. Asit Kumar Biswas, during Regional Youth Dialogue by YBAs, 27th April 2021

Prof. Asit Kumar Biswas, eminent environmental scientist, and distinguished water professional shared his insights from working with politicians and bureaucrats as a water sector expert over the decades. He suggested that the YBAs should try to adopt a holistic viewpoint towards any water governance issue. Highlighting how effective water governance can reduce poverty and generate employment opportunities always catches the attention of politicians.

Later, the YBAs presented their work undertaken in respective river basins. They also shared learning from their findings and challenges faced including deliberating upon possible solutions. On the final day YBAs presented roadmaps to be taken up over the months.

Thematic works proposed by the YBA Teams

The YBAs have formed four groups based on interest and expertise to work on the roadmap and action plan, an integral component of the series, implementations during June-September 2021. 

Team Water Policy is working with the background that South Asian nations focus on hydroelectric and water supply projects while dealing with transboundary waters, and water pollution usually takes a backseat. Their project on Industrialization and Water Pollution in the Ganga River Basin will focus on problems faced by riverine communities due to polluted water in Ganga basin across India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The resultant policy paper will suggest reforms in the existing legal framework and advocate for multilateral cooperation to reduce water pollution and its impacts.

Team Ink and Water will look at the dominant media narrative on transboundary water issues. It is recognised that newspapers play a prominent role in shaping public opinions and ultimate securitisation of water governance in South Asia. The team has identified three national level newspapers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh and will conduct an analysis of news published on transboundary water issues for a specific period, looking for evidence-based reporting and hydro-nationalistic positioning. The findings will be used to propose solutions for constructive media coverage in the GBM basin.

Team Trailblazer proposes to look at trans-national youth’s perceptions on water pollution and its management across Nepal and India. The project is expected to generate new knowledge on the perception of youth from riparian communities in the two countries for managing water pollution. Its outcome will inspire program designers to engage youth in advocating for and managing water pollution by narrating the possible pathways of youth engagement.

Team Water Warriors has taken a transboundary approach to study flood management in Brahmaputra River. They will study the hydrological setup of the river by considering a sub-basin across India and Bangladesh and review the flood management policies of both countries to identify gaps that hinders cross border collaboration. The project outcome is expected to influence good governance in the Brahmaputra River from a disaster management perspective.

Besides roadmap and action proposals, some ambassadors have volunteered to conduct activities under the Freedom Lab component of the program, solely designed and managed by the respective YBA. These activities include conducting an online training course on” Open Data and Open-Source Applications for Water Accounting and Auditing”, organization of an experience sharing session for youths from the three countries on water management and disaster action, and highlighting water, gender and caste nexus in the GBM basin through writing blogs.

With these activities, the ambassadors are not only building upon their existing capacities but also venturing into newer research dimensions on transboundary water, human rights, and climate change from a regional perspective. 

Ways Ahead

RYD is a unique experiment with tremendous potential for present and future youth leaders in transboundary water issues. Youth ambassadors from different GBM basin countries interact, share experience, and learn from one another in this program. It is expected to nurture longer-term collaboration and co-production of ideas to tackle common water governance challenges in the transboundary Ganga Brahmaputra Meghna basins.

“It has been my long-term vision to explore pathways for flood adaptation in the region as a dweller of the Brahmaputra basin. The TROSA program provides me the opportunity to understand the complex hydrological setup of the river and its critical issues, through execution of a self-driven project. The expert lectures and interaction opportunities have helped me gain insights on “nature-based solutions’’, “hydro-diplomacy” and “hydropower” aspects in transboundary river systems. I hope to network with practitioners working in the basin to fulfil my career aspirations and work for the region”.

-Mayuri Phukan, WYEP-YBA-10 (Brahmaputra Basin)

As a political geographer I am keenly interested in the various narratives built around water management. Discussions of water shortage and surplus generate a certain “waterpower”, wielded by a dominant section of society, often to the disadvantage of actual basin dwellers. The RYD programme has given me a platform to better understand the water politics in South Asia. Through networking with other YBAs across the border, interaction with water experts and hand holding by Team TROSA I hope to learn new practical skills and network with other water professionals.”

-Ritu Priya, WYEP-YBA-03 (Ganga Basin)

This Regional Youth Dialogue is inspiring hope. We will continue to learn and corelate to our visions of future leadership for riparian lives with dignity.

Authors

Ms Mayuri Phukan & Ms Ritu Priya are participating Youth Basin Ambassadors under Regional Youth Dialogue Series 2021, an initiative of TROSA.

Ms Sarita S Rout, Women and Youth Leadership Coordinator, TROSA Team, Oxfam Cambodia.

(Views expressed are personal)

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