South Asia is witnessing unprecedented water challenges and risks. The impacts are wide-spread and intense. From receding glaciers in the Himalayas to increasing salinity in the Sundarbans, communities and economies in the region are bearing the brunt of multiple water-related stresses and shocks. Most of these risks are multi-dimensional, dynamic, complex and uncertain in nature. To better understand and address such challenges and to better govern the region’s vital water resources, South Asia needs more innovative and inclusive collaboration between people at countries in the region – at different levels and between different sectors.

Water resources, mostly as transboundary rivers, contribute to the region’s economic growth and resilience through variety of ecosystem services and goods. While disputes and disagreements over many of these shared waters remain, governments and businesses in the region now realise the need to strengthen cooperation and move away from a traditional water-centric approach to that of more integrated water-energy-food nexus and benefits sharing framework. This offers new avenues of cooperation in the region involving governments, businesses, civil society organisations, science and technology, research and think tanks, media, youth networks and communities.

In recent times there has been a resurgence in South-South Cooperation to tackle complex challenges like climate change, pollution, food security, migration and natural disasters, to name a few. South-South Cooperation (SSC) is a phrase used by development agencies and academics to describe collaboration and exchange between developing countries. Driven by commitments to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) many governments, businesses and CSOs are finding new ways of working together.

Many such new initiatives are taking shape in South Asia. While most of them are trade and business oriented, the evolving institutional mechanisms and the growing political will offer opportunities to include critical water-energy-food issues. For example, the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) initiative, which led to the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) signed on 15 June 2015 in Thimpu, could also be an effective sub-regional institutional mechanism for better water and hydropower cooperation. Other sub-regional initiatives like the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) are other potential avenues which could help strengthen and deepen regional cooperation on water-energy-food nexus and poverty alleviation issues.

Poverty alleviation tops the agenda of the Sectoral Review discussed and agreed at the recent 4th BIMSTEC Summit and the resulting Kathmandu Declaration. Poverty is multi-dimensional and livelihood and food security of vast majority of the region’s poor are water-dependent. In addition, the declaration also calls for stronger cooperation on environment and disaster management, climate change, agriculture, fisheries, tourism, mountain economy and blue economy. Water resources is central to all these sectors and hence any So cooperation among member countries would greatly benefit from mainstreaming better water governance in these initiatives.

In addition to such sub-regional initiatives, many existing bilateral mechanisms among riparian countries in South Asia such as the Joint Ministerial Commission on Water Resource (JMCWR), Joint Commission on Water Resource (JCWR) and Joint Standing Technical Committee (JSTC) between India and Nepal and the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) and the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development between India and Bangladesh (2011) are potential entry points to further strengthen cooperation on shared waters.

Building up research capacity in South Asia

Cooperation among research institutes, academia and think-tanks in the region are helping to co-produce new and policy-relevant knowledge and in the process contributing to more evidence-informed decisions. The Network of Southern Think-Tanks (NeST), established at the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) in Mexico in April 2014, is pioneering new approaches for South South Cooperation in international development. The Africa-India Initiatives on Science and Technology Cooperation is one such example. The Himalayan University Consortium (HUC), coordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), is facilitating research collaboration among its member institutes with a strong focus on capacity development of early-career and women researchers. The newly established Himalayan University Consortium Thematic Working Group on Water (Water Group) is an example of a regional initiative aimed at facilitating more collaboration and cooperation among research institutes and practice-based organisation for more evidence-informed water resources management in Himalayan region.

Other notable examples of programmes which have contributed to SSC in research are the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), the Collaborative Adaption Research in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP) and the Ecosystem for Life (E4L), to name a few. Many such research collaborations are developing capacities for more southern-led cooperation among research institutes and think tanks and leading to their collective efforts to inform policies and practice to manage complex issues of environment and climate change at various levels.

In addition, many civil society networks and on-the-ground development projects are testing and developing new approaches and mechanisms for more inclusive cooperation on shared waters. The Brahmaputra Dialogue, as part of the Transnational Policy Dialogue for Improved Water Governance of Brahmaputra River, was instrumental in encouraging discussion among CSOs and governments in the four riparian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and India.

Similar basin-level dialogues are taking place in other transboundary basins. For example, a series of Mahakali Samvad (dialogue) mostly involving communities and CSOs, sub-national government agencies and elected representatives from Nepal and India are being organised for co-management of the Mahakali river basin.

Many sub-national governments, who often don’t get adequate space and representation in high level policy dialogues on shared waters, are actively engaging in and taking leadership in this initiative. The Dhangadi Declaration, endorsed by the newly elected local governments in Province 7 in Nepal along the Mahakali river, spells out their commitment for cooperation towards more inclusive water governance in the basin.

Learning from elsewhere

Such efforts on shared water in South Asia should also link to and learn from other relevant initiatives in other regions. For example, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an inter-governmental river basin organisation (RBO) – facilitates and supports cross-sectoral cooperation among the lower Mekong countries of Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam. River basin authorities and other stakeholders in South Asia can learn from and collaborate with MRC on issues of transboundary fisheries management, flood forecasting and regional waterborne transport and others.

One such existing avenue is the Ganges-Mekong Cooperation (GMC) – an existing and vibrant cooperation mechanism between India and six ASEAN countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) for cooperation in tourism, culture, education, as well as transport and communications. Apart from government-to-government linkages and cooperation, GMC is taking steps to initiate co-management of shared water resources and other resource such as fisheries, forestry and hydro-power. At the recent Ninth Mekong Ganga Cooperation Ministerial Meeting in Singapore in August, the ministers agreed to further facilitate cooperation between India’s Central Water Commission (CWC) and the MRC. Other major transboundary basins in South Asia like Mahakali, Brahmaputra and Meghna and their stakeholders could gain from similar cross-basin exchange and cooperation.

Media plays an important role in shaping and informing such SSC on shared waters by facilitating exchange among journalists and media professionals and joint-reporting on critical issues of water security. This also helps raise public awareness on and support for more collaborative efforts as part of SSC. For example, the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) Bay of Bengal project is supporting organisations in India and Bangladesh to improve coverage of climate change issues and strengthen regional networks in the region.

As more SSC mechanisms and initiatives are emerging around shared waters and related issues across South Asia, such efforts need to be based on some key principles to make them more inclusive, demand-driven and results-oriented.

These should be:

  1. Evidence-informed: SSC efforts should be backed by sound evidence base on the need, scope, opportunities, and risks to be able to mobilise longer-term political commitment from different stakeholders. Potential synergies and trade-offs and a strong business case should be presented to help stakeholders arrive at an informed decision on cooperation. Quite often cooperation initiatives fail or are short-lived, as they are rushed through, adopt a blue-print approach without adequate understanding of stakeholders’ motives, priorities and interests.
  1. Partnerships-based: Partnerships should be at the heart of any such SSC on shared waters and this should ensure adequate and active participation of key stakeholders and actors. New partnerships should help drive new ways of working and learning. Water-dependent communities, including indigenous communities and women and youth groups, are often excluded or their participation is limited to few consultations and meetings. Private businesses are an important stakeholder in this, as their business practices and decisions can significantly contribute to better water stewardship at various levels.
  1. Impact-driven: Any form of cooperation requires long-term resource and leadership commitments. Clear articulation of an expected impact helps sustain the cooperation and motivates different partners and stakeholders to align purpose and commit resources. Overall management of such cooperation is quite challenging because of diverse interests, priorities and conflicts of interest. More adaptive and flexible approaches are needed to strengthen the institutional framework for cooperation.

Jyotiraj Patra works with Oxfam’s Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA). TROSA is a regional water governance program working in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) and Salween transboundary river basins. It is supported by the Government of Sweden. The views expressed are personal.

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