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India’s parliamentarians make a start in understanding rivers

Many gaps remain, many discredited ideas are pushed, but a look from the river basin perspective is a step forward in the latest report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources
The Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper section of the Brahmaputra, in Tibet (Image: Ivan Vdovin / Alamy)
The Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper section of the Brahmaputra, in Tibet (Image: Ivan Vdovin / Alamy)

The Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee report on water resources released on 3 August looks at water issues from the lens of river basins as well as international treaties. The committee focussed primarily on floods, an issue of national importance highlighted by the dozens killed in Kerala as floods ravaged the state in mid-October. Nevertheless, the committee took a broader perspective, looking at two river basins beyond political borders. This is a first. The report provides a rare insight into issues uppermost in the minds of members of parliament from the Lower House (Lok Sabha) and Upper House (Rajya Sabha) across party lines, as well as the glaring omission of many issues.

The river basins that are included, and those excluded

This particular standing committee on water resources focussing on floods was set up in 2019-20 but could not deliver its report in the stipulated period. When the committee reconvened for 2020-21 it added “International Water Treaties in the field of Water Resource Management with particular reference to Treaty/Agreement entered Into with China, Pakistan and Bhutan” to its scope. The addition goes unexplained but the approach of the report is wide-angle, and looks at flooding not just as a local issue, but one impacted by changes across river basins. This is a positive sign; it indicates a broadening of approach from the local problem of floods to a wider perspective on the issues involved in dealing with rivers, including transboundary issues.

Nonetheless it is important to note how narrow this opening is. The country that India shares the most rivers with, Bangladesh, is not even mentioned. India shares 54 rivers with its downstream neighbour, and the most important river management treaty – after the Indus Waters Treaty (1960) with Pakistan – is the Ganga River Treaty (1996). While the former is discussed at length, including that it has no obvious exit clause, there is no mention of the latter, even though it is due to expire in 2026. All 54 shared rivers flow from India to Bangladesh, possibly explaining the omission. Floods in a downstream country do not directly impact Indian voters.

The two river treaties

The Indus Waters Treaty, signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 with the World Bank as guarantor is considered one of the most successful transboundary river treaties in the world. It governs how the two countries can use the rivers of the Indus basin that flow through their territories.

The Ganga River Treaty, signed between India and Bangladesh in 1996, governs the minimum amount of water that flows from India to Bangladesh in the river from 1-15 February, when the water level is usually at its lowest.

More striking is the exclusion of Nepal. This is truly odd because it is discussed in the minutes of the meetings from the Parliamentary Standing Committee. The meeting on 17 November 2020 is specifically on the subject “Flood Management in the Country including international water treaties in the field of water resource management/flood control with particular reference to treaty/agreement entered into with Nepal, China, Pakistan and Bhutan”. Given that flooding in Bihar is an annual saga, with huge loss of life and property, and the state is downstream of Nepal with which India has been cooperating on flood-control measures for decades, it is obvious that Nepal should have been included. What is unclear is why it was excluded in the title of the final report.

A dammed history of embankments

A clue to the exclusion of Nepal may lie in the causes of floods, according to the Ministry of Jal Shakti, and the solutions the bureaucrats offer.

The ministry identifies eight reasons for floods, some of them exacerbated by climate change:

  1. High intensity rainfall in short duration
  2. Poor or inadequate drainage/channel capacity
  3. High silt load in rivers
  4. Encroachment of riverine areas
  5. Deforestation/watershed degradation
  6. Loss/destruction of wetlands
  7. Unplanned reservoir regulation
  8. Snowmelt and glacial lake outbursts

It makes four main recommendations to MPs: floodplain zoning, which would include where infrastructure could be built near rivers; creation of dams and water reservoirs; embankments; and interstate cooperation including river interlinking.

The frustration of officials with the failure of state governments, particularly Bihar, in the matter of floodplain zoning is evident. This is captured most clearly by a comment by a member of the Jal Shakti ministry to the Parliamentary Standing Committee: “Floodplain zoning is a concept central to floodplain management. Whenever floods actually occur, the damage can be minimised, if not avoided. Although this approach is generally endorsed by all in principle, scant attention is given to it in actual practice, leading to increased flood damages.”

The ministry focuses on its other three recommendations. It totally ignores the failure of embankments to protect people from floods despite decades of embankment building. Bihar has 3,800 kilometres of embankments, and is still ravaged by floods. The history of cooperation with Nepal on the Kosi is one of significant failure, resentment on both sides of the border, and enduring misery for people on the ground.

To their credit, the MPs in the Parliamentary Standing Committee stressed the need for a wider ambit for dealing with floods, stating: “The Committee are of the view that it is a high time to adopt a holistic approach to tackle problem of floods which should involve a multi-pronged strategy such as regenerating and conserving the natural vegetation and soil covers in catchment areas to arrest soil erosion, encouraging those agricultural methods which make best use of floods, invigorate dry springs; recharging of the ground water table and ensure better percolation of rainwater.”

Before undertaking any ambitious project such as construction of large storage dam, a proper study to assess the impact on the environment and ecology as well as flow of the river needs to be conducted
Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee report on water resources

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the standing committee did not seek the opinion of any independent environmentalist nor of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. It only called on people from the Ministry of Jal Shakti (Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation), the Ministry of External Affairs and representatives of the state governments of Assam and Kerala. The MPs were told the main problem of dealing with floods in Kerala was the slow pace of clearances for dam projects by the environment ministry. They still did not call anyone from the ministry. But the politicians are clearly aware of the protests sparked by displacement and environmental destruction. When officials argued for creating reservoirs along with run-of-the-river hydroelectric dams in Arunachal Pradesh and claimed this would help manage floods, the committee responded with caution, stressing the need for environmental assessments.

Maybe the most striking omission on environmental assessment is the lack of assessment of dams in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The report has a section on “Flash Floods, Cloud Burst and Glacial Outburst and Landslides”. It mentions the Chamoli disaster in February 2021, when a massive rock and ice fall led to a flash flood. Most of the deaths and damage happened at unfinished hydropower projects. Given that these are seen as “force multipliers” of damage, it seems counterintuitive to offer them as solutions.

There is a striking quote by the representative of the Department of Water Resources. “Today, the way in which resettlement, rehabilitation and the rest of the cost [of hydropower projects] has increased, it is seen everywhere that there is technical feasibility, but there is no commercial viability, if we generate energy for 8-10 rupees.”

The Parliamentary Standing Committee did not discuss this, which is an issue of fundamental concern. If hydropower dams are not financially viable, why are they being built? And if the “solution” being offered is heightened costs (building reservoirs) and less profit-centric water release (keeping some volume empty as a buffer), why will they be built? Who will fund the costs? Aren’t there less costly ways to deal with floods without adding long-term lossmaking enterprises to the Indian budget?

Standing committee’s views on transboundary cooperation

The standing committee’s approach to Pakistan and China shows a significant variance in ambition, which may reflect the difference that one is downstream and the other upstream, or merely the difference that there is a treaty with Pakistan, and only a memorandum of understanding over data sharing with China. One of the recommendations of the committee is that India start talks to renegotiate the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) with Pakistan to incorporate issues of climate change and river basin management.

The Indus River (Image: Praveen Selvam)

This ignores the history of the treaty, which was conceptualised for managing the basin as a whole at first. The concept was changed to allocating the water of three rivers to each of the two countries because of political hostility. Even this agreement was reached only after the World Bank promised massive financial support. It is hard to imagine that the two countries would be willing to enter difficult negotiations, which would inevitably involve a great deal of compromise with all its attendant domestic political costs, at this time.

The standing committee’s own deliberations on the IWT display exactly why it would be difficult. Much of the discussion is devoted to why water from the rivers allotted to India’s use is “allowed to flow into Pakistan”, thus being “underutilised”. This view is incompatible with looking at the health of a river basin as a whole.

On the other hand, the issue of China is dealt with far more tentatively. “The Committee express their satisfaction over the fact that China is sharing hydrological data with regard to rivers of Brahmaputra and Sutlej, though on payment basis. The only aberration is the year 2017 when no data was supplied by it.” What the committee did not ask was whether the data being requested by the Indian government was useful.

This is part and parcel of both the committee and its experts treating rivers primarily as carriers of water, not as complex ecosystems where water intake happens at various points in a variety of ways. For all its focus on basin management, a view of rivers as mere waterpipes seems embedded in the way both questions and solutions are framed.

Resurrecting the ‘disastrous’ river interlinking plan

Possibly nothing showcases the contradiction between a river basin approach and a narrow technical view of rivers as just water moving from one place to another than the push for river interlinking. This takes up a significant section of the committee’s report. River interlinking, as addressed in the report, is reduced solely to the water-carrying capacity of a river. It completely ignores the fact that each river involves a unique ecosystem supporting specific species and that a river irrigates surrounding areas.

Parliamentary standing committee ignores women

For a report on floods, the committee is remarkably silent on women. Due to the socially restricted roles of women in the country, they are often the caretakers of homes. It is their domain that is most affected, and they are at most risk due to displacement. Flooding also adds to issues such as open air defecation and access to sanitation facilities, all of which become more difficult for women. To cite just one example, approximately 40% of Indian women – compared with 12% of men – suffer from urinary tract infections once in their lifetime.

The committee had three women, including a doctor, Heena Vijaykumar Gavit, out of 26 members present (five positions were vacant), but such questions seem to have been overlooked. It would be useful to know if any of the bureaucrats speaking to the MPs were women. But given women’s representation in water management departments in South Asia is less than 5%, this seems unlikely.