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Opinion: Civil society shows the way on Brahmaputra talks

While government negotiations have got nowhere, discussions between NGOs and academics in India, China and Bangladesh have finally opened the way for greater cooperation over water
<p>Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, a river that winds through four countries [image by: Sumit Vij]</p>

Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, a river that winds through four countries [image by: Sumit Vij]

Countries sharing the Brahmaputra River have spent decades deliberating over cooperative strategies to develop the potential of the basin. Yet, little progress has been made so far at the government-to government-level negotiations (known as Track 1 diplomacy). This has led to growing tension and mistrust.

However, over the past five years, a multilateral dialogue bringing in a broader group of NGOs, academics and community groups has begun to build trust and confidence between the countries – paving a way towards transboundary cooperation.

The problem

Originating in the Tibet autonomous region of China and flowing through four countries before reaching the sea at the Bay of Bengal, the Yarlong Tsangpo – Brahmaputra – Yamuna River (henceforth the Brahmaputra), is one of the largest rivers in South Asia. The river –   shared by China, India Bhutan and Bangladesh – supports more than 100 million people and could be a vital resource to alleviate poverty and drive economic growth in remote regions. Unfortunately, the river basin is ‘plagued by floods and droughts’ and the capricious nature of the river has brought uncertainty and impoverishment for people along its banks. Nevertheless, countries hope to develop hydropower, irrigation, shipping and flood prevention infrastructure to address these problems.

Realising the full potential of the river will require cooperation between countries, but so far discussion among political leaders haven’t yielded any results. This is because of the diverse national interests of the countries in the basin and the tendency of India and China, in particular, to link water to national security concerns. This has led to low-level cooperation in every aspect including data and information sharing. Moreover, no multilateral or basin-wide institutional arrangement exists. There is also a lack of scientific knowledge related to the hydrology and socio-economic aspects of the river compared to other river basins of South Asia. However, the lack of information has not stopped plans for the construction of a series of infrastructure projects, particularly in India and China, despite potentially destructive environmental and social impacts in their own countries, as well as downstream.

Each country has different priorities and this has triggered tensions and disputes. For China, the Brahmaputra is seen as a way to provide economic growth and energy. China is building a series of hydropower projects but unilaterally and is unforthcoming in sharing information. For India, the Brahmaputra provides an opportunity to integrate its states in its North-East through hydroelectricity projects and providing flood, erosion and sediment control. India is also concerned that China’s hydropower and potential river diversion plans will reduce the flow of water downstream. For Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra is the lifeline to a large section of its population, but the country is facing multiple threats including riverbank erosion, sedimentation, annual floods, and diminished water flow and groundwater availability in the dry season. Bangladesh fears Chinese and Indian activities will make these problems worse.

See also: Brahmaputra: Towards Unity

India and Bhutan’s cooperation over the construction of hydropower projects is the only example of cooperation in the Brahmaputra Basin. Furthermore, even within the countries there are opposing views over how the river should be developed. Some people argue the river should be developed as an engine for economic and regional development. But others argue that hydropower and river linking projects are risky, unsustainable and could adversely affect the poorest in society and cause irreversible damage to the river ecosystems.

A growing community of scholars and policymakers have suggested that the river can be better harnessed through an integrated basin-wide strategy. However, there is no institutional mechanism in place to address the issue of water management at the river basin level. Development of water infrastructures such as hydropower dams, river linking projects on a river basin where there is a lack of information and scientific knowledge, creates suspicion and mistrust among stakeholders, particularly related to the feasibility and viability of such interventions.

Hence, there is a need for more informal interaction between the countries of Brahmaputra. Such multi-track diplomacy will create a space for meaningful conversation among diverse stakeholder groups. This will help countries make more informed decisions on how best to harness the full potential of the river for the benefit of people throughout the region.

In order to develop trust and confidence between the countries of Brahmaputra, there has to be long-term interaction and communication between different actors, which should include the private sector, media, funding institutions and marginalised groups, including women. Such discussion can eventually inform and help shape more formal negotiations and decision-making.

In the recent past, there have been a few Track 2 and Track 3 cooperation initiatives led by non-state actors (informal discussion among non-official participants) for the Brahmaputra Basin. These include the Ecosystem for Life initiative by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Abu Dhabi Dialogue led by the World Bank, and the Brahmaputra-Salween landscape dialogue by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. But all of these are either bilateral in their approach or do not focus fully on water cooperation.

The Brahmaputra dialogue

In 2013, SaciWATERs set up the ‘Brahmaputra Dialogue’ project, supported by the South Asian Water Initiative of the World Bank. It aims to develop positive interactions between different groups in the Brahmaputra Basin at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

‘The Brahmaputra Dialogue’ initiative is, to date, the only multi-track and multilateral initiative, which involves all the four Brahmaputra basin countries. These deliberative or discursive processes help build cooperation between the Brahmaputra countries.

The first phase [2013-14] started as a bilateral initiative with India and Bangladesh, with workshops at the country and regional level involving civil society organisations, retired officials and influential academics from both countries. As the dialogues continued, their remit expanded with more people willing to get involved. The second phase [2014-15] brought in NGOs and academics from Bhutan and China along with serving bureaucrats from India and Bangladesh.

We analysed the conversations that evolved over three years of various country and regional level workshops under the initiative. This showed how the conversation has evolved and the attitudes of participants shifted. For example, some people were initially uncomfortable sitting next to their counterparts, but this changed over the next round of workshops. The quality of participation and facilitation also improved over time and lead to a more meaningful conversation between participants.

We analysed the discussion on the sensitive issues and realized that these discussions are useful to support Track 1 diplomacy between the countries. In the absence of political participation, there is a greater consensus among the NGOs, CSOs and academicians that countries should work together to identify avenues of cooperation for better management of the river

During the initial discussion between Bangladesh and India, participants gradually shifted their focus from national and local interests to find common ground. The idea that countries can build effective cooperation, through management of water-related risks (for example through flood management) was appreciated by all. As water-related disasters in the Brahmaputra Basin are common for both India and Bangladesh, participants felt that there was ample opportunity for cooperation in managing the destructive impacts of water. Participants highlighted that “…such cooperation (disaster management) can go beyond political considerations”.

However, civil society from both countries expressed concerns that infrastructure development would negatively affect the livelihoods communities living in the basin. While highlighting the role of NGOs in transboundary water management, participants emphasized that transboundary dialogue has to be participatory and inclusive so that everyone’s concerns find a place.

When participants from China joined later workshops, they emphasised that recommendations coming out of such dialogue forums were extremely important and need to be communicated to the governments. The Chinese participants shared their experience on Lancang-Mekong long-term cooperation and emphasized the “….need to form an integrated institution at a transnational level in resolving disputes and fostering cooperation”. While mentioning the significant role played by United Nations in supporting the long-term cooperation between upstream and downstream countries of China, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia in the case of the Mekong, participants urged for similar initiatives for the Brahmaputra.

During the regional dialogue, there was an overwhelming consensus among the dialogue participants across the four riparian countries that such a dialogue/meeting platform definitely helps to ease the tension between multiple stakeholders and develops trust. Effective cooperation can range from simple information and data sharing to basin-wide cooperation on planning and management of the river.

While the latter remains an aspiration, there is increasing evidence during the dialogue meetings that countries are trying to find ways to bring in cooperation through information and data sharing. Another interesting aspect of the dialogue process was that participants built up personal relationships and stayed in touch outside the dialogue meetings too. This aspect is important because it has also helped the dialogue to slowly move towards a problem-solving approach where the stakeholders were willing to look for solutions and to sort out their differences.

A new way forward

Our analysis of the dialogues has enabled us to draw four key insights:

First, in the Brahmaputra Basin, each country has its own national interests. Since Track 1 negotiators, i.e. government officials, are constrained by national policies designed to exclusively pursue the country’s own interests, little progress has been made in government-to-government level. Further, the countries of the Brahmaputra Basin have very different socio-economic, political and technical capacities. This existing power asymmetry mediates any discussion or negotiation related to transboundary cooperation and also prevents equitable outcomes. Hence, due to such complexity, states alone cannot bring change and these negotiations need to be supplemented by other forms of diplomacy, involving NGOs and academics.

While such multi-track diplomacy cannot be seen as the substitute to state-level diplomacy, such a dialogue process provides an informal platform and allows open discussion among multiple stakeholders free from bureaucratic constraints. It also provides a space for both current and former bureaucrats to interact with technical experts and arrive at practical solutions, which – when fed into policy channels – have the potential to bring about sustainable change. Therefore, such a dialogue process can be viewed as the supplement or extension to existing state-diplomacy in the Brahmaputra Basin, which can help in fostering cooperation in the future.

Second, the multi-track nature of the dialogue brings in different views. For example, the inclusion of civil society actors has been useful for involving local stakeholders as they can play an important role in ensuring transparency and political support. The involvement of the scientific community will lead to generation of knowledge based on data, which will lead to improved management and informed decision making. Acceptance of such diverse perspectives and views is hoped to bring more integrated and sustainable outcomes. The dialogue process has therefore paved a way to recognise the need to involve multiple voices while dealing with a complex, diverse and dynamic river basin like Brahmaputra.

Third, the continuous dialogue between the countries, at multiple levels and by involving multiple stakeholders, can influence or persuade the powerful side to behave like a basin leader. This is particularly the case while dealing with India and China. The aim has been to identify common interests between these two powerful upper riparian countries and also identify factors that shape visions of basin development and ‘water cooperation’ for them.

Lastly, the process itself is as important as the outcome. While creating a multilateral institution at the regional level is important for the Brahmaputra Basin, this will take a long time. Investing in building effective communication, working relationships and a level playing field of knowledge and skills is essential to achieve such regional cooperation. The process could be long, but such a process enables the generation of the “spirit of cooperation” among the countries so that they cooperate not just to avoid conflict but because they see the benefit of such cooperation as a good in itself.

These are good lessons as we move into the next stage. The Brahmaputra Dialogue is in its fourth phase now[i] (2016 – 2020), and has moved up to track 1.5. In other words it is now officially acknowledged by the governments of all the four countries that such a dialogue platform exists.

The initiative is now institutionalised and there are four academic institutions – Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati, Yunnan University, the Bhutan Water Partnership and the Institute of Water Modelling in Bangladesh, who are facilitating the dialogue. While NGOs and civil society are very much a part of the dialogue but the facilitators are from academic institutions and all of these institutions are government institutions, with IIT Guwahati as the regional coordinator. Step by step we hope to make sustainable progress.


Anamika Barua teaches at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India. Sumit Vij is a Ph.D. candidate at the Public Administration and Policy Group, Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands. Both of them are part of the Brahmaputra Dialogue team, with Anamika Barua leading the team.

[i] We have not spoken of the third phase here, as it has just been completed and the reports are still being compiled.