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Nations divide, rivers unite!
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Rivers in South Asia flow across national boundaries and therefore, neighbouring countries remain in dispute over the usage of flowing water. Absence of effective institutional mechanisms and political accord make it expedient to bind communities with common cultural threads using multiple cultural maps of South Asia, superimposed on the river basins.


Disputes over river water sharing are common among
neighbouring countries

"Ek aur darya ka saamna tha, Munir mujh ko
Main ek darya ke paar utra to maine dekha"

(I saw I had yet another river to cross, Munir; When I managed to cross this one)

One issue that literally criss-crosses divided Indian subcontinent is water: both in terms of the river systems that flow across national boundaries and the rain clouds that blow across. Yet all across the subcontinent, water has become a source of nativist suspicion, distrust and suppressed aggression. While India and Bangladesh have regularly squabbled over the waters of the Ganga, each river treaty with other neighbours, Nepal and Pakistan, have had its share of mutual distrust.

On the issue of river rights, India stands, as in so many matters of its international relations, in an in-between position that has the potential to trigger a plausible ‘water war’. On the one hand, it needs to be able to store and make use of river water that flow into Bangladesh; on the other hand it needs more transparency in its shared concerns on river waters with Nepal and Pakistan, and restraint on what China is doing to the Brahmaputra, that may drastically affect flows in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin.

Notwithstanding the multi-lateral regime of rivers in the sub-continent, the cross-boundary internal security threats have instead forced India to view the conflicting river issues from a bi-lateral lens. India’s unilateral position with respect to setting up of a Ganga River Basin Authority, to shift from the ‘current piecemeal efforts to more integrated approach for ensuring quality and quantity of flow’, has only aggravated the prevailing suspicion on its existing institutions engaged in river management.

A cursory review of the status and performance of the State-led bi-lateral agreements clearly indicate that South Asia may need an imaginative perspective on getting over the inter-state and trans-boundary water-sharing conundrum.

Not without reason though, as the Ganga Action Plan aimed at improving the quality of river water, has yet to provide credible evidence of impact and the National River Conservation Directorate, mandated to monitor the impact of anthropogenic activities in several river basins, has had a poor track record. The dire need to strengthen the environmental clearance process has manifestly weakened on account of the political-economy of garnering in-stream and off-stream monetary gains.

Curiously, however, it will be fair to conclude that this region cannot escape the fact that it is part of the world devoid of any working institutions that can coordinate and integrate choices and that can collectively confront predicaments faced by states and governments – institutions able to sustain any degree of trust between neighbouring states. In fact, in their absence, the sub-continent has remained vulnerable to the tyranny of geography.

No wonder, across borders there are joint river commissions to squabble over while provisions of the inter-state dispute redressal mechanism are enough to enrage states over their disputed share of river flows. Stressed by demand-supply inequities, the ecological entity of the river basin is held ransom by the warring factions. Be it Indus or Ganga flowing across international borders or inter-state rivers like Krishna or Godavari, each of the major rivers has been at the receiving end of such political feuds.

A cursory review of the status and performance of the State-led bi-lateral agreements clearly indicate that South Asia may need an imaginative perspective on getting over the inter-state and trans-boundary water-sharing conundrum. While the need for equal interplay between state, market and civil society cannot be over-emphasized, the interconnectivity between dominant forces like global markets, security and information media as the natural lens through which ‘liquid relations’ may offer limited resolution.

Be it Islamabad, Kathmandu or Dhaka or for that matter Delhi, Chennai or Bangalore, in all these places people have become increasingly fanatic about what for long has been ‘their’ river, its water being shared across and along the basins. Undermining its collective existence, South Asia doesn’t seem a common essence that stretches across the huge amorphous terrestrial and cultural space but has become an amalgam of many nation states which, for their own diverse interests, may not wish to come together.

Drawing new contours is as much about shaping intellectual frameworks as about producing maps that can define new conceptual order. Such contours will cut across political boundaries, creating distinct cultural spaces unified through common heritage of religion, language and social practices.

The tragic irony is that existing treaties and tribunals are unlikely to resolve the upstream-downstream predicament in the region. Unless political arrogance and public fanaticism is defused from the realm of shared rivers by replacing the hard wires with far more stable and pragmatic set of soft codes, the potential socio-ecological value of shared waters will remain grossly under-utilized. Absence of political vision and institutional innovation stand hurdle to drawing new contours on water-sharing.

Drawing new contours is as much about shaping intellectual frameworks as about producing maps that can define new conceptual order. Such contours will cut across political boundaries, creating distinct cultural spaces unified through common heritage of religion, language and social practices. Drawing some of the most powerful images of rivers, Rabindranath Tagore had argued that cultures changed a bit but continued to persist along the flow of the river.

Multiple cultural maps of South Asia, superimposed on the river basins, can bind communities with common cultural threads. While a basin map capturing the common Hindu chord along the trans-boundary rivers could infuse new hydro-solidarity amongst riparian communities in Nepal and India, a sub-basin map contoured around the Bangla speaking populace could easily build a better appreciation for upstream-downstream concerns between riverine communities of India and Bangladesh.

Much work needs to be done in drawing such maps along other cultural pockets! Indeed, it should. No longer can trans-boundary ‘environment flows’ remain the political horse that pulls the economic cart. Instead, it ought to be bubbled up from below by people who risk everything because they have nothing left to lose. The opportunity of exploring pockets of cultural homogeneity seem promising, provided there is political will to depart from the repeating the past failures.

It is undoubtedly clear that only by liberating common cultural strands from the bindings of nation-state can a new order be imagined where free flowing rivers will be without guards or fences with watchtowers. Given the enormity of challenges the region confronts, rebuilding water security for teeming millions would need imaginative insights to shape intellectual frameworks that will blur martial nationalism of the kind that is currently all-pervasive.

Not only are the problems of the region generatively complex but the future is fundamentally unfamiliar and undetermined. Under such a situation, the challenge is to search for ‘next practice’ solutions because transparently negotiated fresh water flows (if, at all) may guarantee equity and efficiency at the cost of preserving some obscure but pretty bird or fish species. More than our own immediate self interests, the river thrives for and on its diverse ecological riches.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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