August 08, 2013
Part of simultaneous studies taken across shared river basins in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, Blues Beyond Boundaries: Transboundary Water Commons India report captures the collective but divergent concerns of as many as 2,000 households across 80 villages in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar on the Indian side of the shared basins of the Sharda, Gandak, Kosi, Chenab, Kishan Ganga, Ganga and Teesta rivers. Similar studies on shared river basins from other countries are reportedly progressing and will be published soon.
Painstakingly conducted over a period of two years, the extensive surveys offer testimonies by river-dependent communities on the crises of both quantity and quality of flows in the rivers on account of various interventions and infringements, affecting local life and livelihoods.
Devi Raj of Pul Doda village of Doda district in J&K laments the loss of productive land on account of the Baglihar dam on the Chenab river; Maho Mandal of Nijtaraf village in West Bengal’s Cooch Bihar district talks about reduced fish catch following the tempering of flows in the Teesta river and, Rabadi Devi of Pakariya village of Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district offers a tearful testimony of the devastation caused by the Sharda river.
The report provides details of the impact of river damming, flow diversion and bank erosion on natural resources, water availability and food security. What is worse, a large section of the surveyed households has little or no preparedness for facing manmade disasters.
Caught between the vortex of popular narratives and political overtures, a majority of respondents blamed other countries for their water crises. Countries have signed bilateral water-sharing treaties on each of the rivers taken up in the study, but local people do not understand the technical details of these treaties on account of poor levels of literacy. Though local people have adequate knowledge about the river and the impact caused by construction across its natural flow, local opinions are rarely taken into account in policy discourse on river water management, leaving the river-dependent communities high and dry.
Blues Beyond Boundaries adds to the growing literature from non-governmental organisations and citizen groups that aims to influence policies towards effective transboundary water governance (these initiatives that take place outside official channels and are known as Track II diplomacy). But despite generating fresh insights, these studies have hardly been able to knock at the policy corridors.
Why do such studies remain on the margins of policy planning? Why do governments in the region remain blind to Track II initiatives? How can civic engagement contribute to better water management in a region that is fast becoming water insecure?
Sponsored by Action Aid, the study admits that search for solutions to manage contentious water-sharing issues are fraught with a set of political, emotive and divisive factors. On top of this, river water-sharing agreements based on volumetric allocation leave little room for any appreciation of the needs of local communities living along the river. Unless there is a healthy relationship and cooperation among transboundary communities, striking a mutually acceptable deal for water-sharing may remain elusive.
Despite the odds, the study succeeds in capturing voices from across the shared river basins for the first time. It highlights the need to protect the rights of the river by ensuring minimum flows; share the details of transboundary water treaties with local communities; protect women and children against human-induced disasters; and protect the tradition livelihoods of river-dependent communities.
The study converts peoples’ responses into ‘numbers’, to add credence to the findings and feed into the policy making process. However, to make this happen the study needs to take the necessary next step. A report that combines focused recommendations with actionable points, alongside oral testimonies from local communities, would make more of an impact among policy makers.
Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is director of the Ecological Foundation, New Delhi.