Water Resources

Changing direction

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Guwahati city on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A truck loaded with paddy is transported across the Brahmaputra on ferries at Saikhowaghat, about 600 km east of Guwahati. Photo: REUTERS

The Brahmaputra basin, also known as Siang, in Arunachal Pradesh. The dramatic reduction in the slope of the Brahmaputra as it cascades down one of the world’s deepest gorges in the Himalayas before flowing into the Assam plains explains the sudden dissipation of the enormous energy locked in it and the resultant unloading of large amounts of sediments in the valley downstream. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

While disputes with China or Bhutan dominate discourse in India on the sharing of the Brahmaputra’s waters, initiatives taken by experts and institutions to continue the dialogue among the four riparian countries for co-management of the river go by and large unnoticed.

WHAT dominates discourse on the Brahmaputra in the Indian media and political circles when it pertains to the north-eastern region has been the dispute over China or Bhutan constructing dams across the river’s tributaries and the sharing of its waters with Bangladesh. But frequent news about water resource development in the Brahmaputra basin in the upper riparian areas has shaped a perception in the north-eastern States of an imagined water war between India and China. Lack of transparency in projects implemented for water resource development in the basin, and claims and counterclaims by riparian countries over such projects have only added to the suspicion.

On the other hand, initiatives aimed at removing suspicion and distrust among the four countries that share the Brahmaputra basin —India, China, Bangladesh and Bhutan—and towards building cooperation, which have given rise to hope for collaborative management of the river basin, often go unnoticed by the media and politicians. Dominance of the conflict discourse overshadows the initiatives taken by institutions and experts of the four countries for the sharing of knowledge on the transborder river.

Some of these initiatives for bilateral and multilateral cooperation to use the Brahmaputra’s waters and for collaborative studies on the shared water resources of the river and to understand the river ecosystem include China, while some recent initiatives are limited to the subregional grouping, BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal).

According to Prof. Dulal C. Goswami, a renowned environmentalist and expert on the Brahmaputra, and Dr Parth J. Das, a water and climate expert who heads the Water, Climate & Hazard Division of the Guwahati-based Aaranyak (a scientific and industrial research organisation), the Brahmaputra is one of the world’s largest rivers with a drainage area of 580,000 square kilometres (50.5 per cent in China, 33.6 per cent in India, 8.1 per cent in Bangladesh and 7.8 per cent in Bhutan). In India, its basin is shared by Arunachal Pradesh (41.9 per cent), Assam (36.3 per cent), Meghalaya (6.1 per cent), Nagaland (5.6 per cent), Sikkim (3.8 per cent) and West Bengal (6.3 per cent). Originating from the great glacier mass of Chema-Yung-Dung in the Kailas range of southern Tibet at an elevation of 5,300 metres, the river traverses 1,625 km in China and 918 km in India, before flowing for 337 km through Bangladesh and emptying into the Bay of Bengal through a joint channel with the Ganga. A unique river, it drains such diverse environments as the cold dry plateau of Tibet, the rain-drenched Himalayan slopes, the land-locked alluvial plains of Assam and the vast deltaic lowlands of Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra basin represents a unique physiographic setting vis- a -vis the eastern Himalayas: a powerful monsoon rainfall regime under wet humid conditions, a fragile geologic base and active seismicity. The dramatic reduction in the slope of the Brahmaputra as it cascades down one of the world’s deepest gorges in the Himalayas before flowing into the Assam plains explains the sudden dissipation of the enormous energy locked in it and the resultant unloading of large amounts of sediments in the valley downstream. ( The Ecologist Asia (2003): “The Brahmaputra River, India”, Vol.11, No.1, January-March).

Das informs Frontline that initiatives launched by coalitions of national, regional and global institutions are working towards knowledge-sharing, trust-building and information exchange among the basin countries at both government and civil society levels. “The Ecosystem for Life Initiative of the IUCN [International Union of Conservation of Nature], the Brahmaputra Dialogue Initiative of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies [SaciWATERs, a policy research institute based in Hyderabad], and water cooperation programmes of several civil society organisations of India, Bangladesh and Bhutan, supported by the Asia Foundation under its South Asia Water Governances Programme, the Nadi Festival of the Asian Confluence, Shillong, are examples of such important multi-stakeholder bottom-up interventions for improving knowledge, understanding and collaboration among the nations in the Brahmaputra river basin,” he adds.

The results of such initiatives are positive, says Das, and hopes that there will be more interaction, knowledge-sharing and collaboration among the countries in the near future over issues such as flood forecasting and early warning, structural measures of flood and erosion management, navigation, fisheries, irrigation, and climate change adaptation. He says: “More people are now talking about issues of the Brahmaputra and more frequently so at national, regional and international platforms in the transborder context mainly as part of track-II and track-III infinitives. Important stakeholders such as civil societies, scientists, researchers and experts as well as government officials, bureaucrats and technocrats across basin countries are interacting with more keenness, understanding and patience than ever before on bilateral and multilateral issues relating to the Brahmaputra at seminars, conferences, consultations and workshops all over the world. This is in addition to regular diplomatic track-I engagements at bilateral/multilateral platforms. The track-III processes have, to an appreciable extent, succeeded in improving communication, interaction, trust and understanding among civil society organisations across political boundaries. This has the potential to influence public opinion and policies in the respective countries in favour of bilateral and regional cooperation on water issues in the Brahmaputra basin.”

Since 2013, SaciWATERs has been facilitating a transboundary dialogue, titled “Transboundary Policy Dialogue for Improved Water Governance in Brahmaputra River”. The dialogue process, currently in its third phase, is supported by the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI) programme of the World Bank. The Asia Foundation (TAF) supported phase I (2013-14) and phase II (2014-15) of this transboundary dialogue project. It began with SaciWATERs initiating a bilateral dialogue between India and Bangladesh with the collaboration of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati; the Institute of Water and Flood Management, Bangladesh; and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. On July 6 and 7, 2016, SaciWATERs organised a workshop in China in collaboration with Yunan University.

Dr Anamika Barua, associate professor of Humanities and Social Science at IIT Guwahati, who has been facilitating the dialogue project with SaciWATERs since 2014, says: “This dialogue process aims to create a platform to discuss the issues, challenges, and opportunities for improved co-management of the river basin by bringing multiple stakeholders from the four Brahmaputra riparian countries on to one platform. The dialogue forum brings together an interdisciplinary group of experts [senior members of government, academia and civil society] for exchange of concerns and ideas. The dialogue meetings are conducted mostly through workshop mode, at many levels, such as track-I/1.5-level, track-II-level and track-III-level dialogue meetings.”

“In terms of achievements, SaciWATERs has been able to create a platform/space for multi-stakeholders across the four riparian countries to meet and talk. The continuous dialogue between riparian countries has been able to generate a willingness at multiple levels to continue the dialogue by recognising the merit of such dialogue. Knowledge-sharing workshops have been able to improve the quality of dialogue by building capacity at different levels and has also enabled the participants to identify joint research themes for rigour of evidence, including socio-economic and policy research,” adds Anamika Barua.

Making a case for cooperation among Brahmaputra basin countries, at the first Brahmaputra Knowledge Exchange Programme organised by SaciWATERs in Itanagar on November 20-21, 2016, A.K. Mitra, Chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee, Water Resources Department, Assam, said that the countries sharing the Brahmaputra basin also shared common problems and therefore needed to cooperate for mutual benefit. He cited the example of the Mekong River Commission formed by Cambodia, Thailand, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam with China and Myanmar as dialogue partners after 39 years of dialogue among the countries of the Mekong basin and stressed the need for continuation of the dialogue among the Brahmaputra basin countries.

Navigational use

Parallel to the efforts to bring together all the four basin countries on a common platform, projects have been initiated for collaboration of BBIN countries for the use of the Brahmaputra for navigation. One such project, launched in Guwahati on October 24, by the Jaipur-based think tank CUTS International, is “Expanding Tradable Benefits of Transboundary Water: Promoting Navigational Usage of Inland Waterways in Ganga and Brahmaputra Basins”.

Making a presentation at the project launch meeting, Veena Vidyadharan of CUTS International stated that the goal of the year-long project (from September 2016 to September 2017) was “to contribute towards improving institutions [that is., policies, laws, and regulations] for the governance of inland waterways in the BBIN region from the point of view of transport connectivity and livelihood of those directly connected to targeted waterways.”

The country-specific objectives of the project are to “identify and analyse the functions [what they do] and governance [functioning; why and how they do] of existing policies, laws and regulations governing inland waterways in the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins in the BBIN countries taking into account their transboundary implications and livelihood aspects, especially those on women, to understand the ground realities/needs of different stakeholders, including civil society and community-based organisations, especially those working on gender issues, whose livelihoods, including business, are connected to inland waterways, and to inform and create an alternative policy discourse for enabling reform measures towards better governance of inland waterways for better transport connectivity among the BBIN group of countries and for better options of communities, especially women, dependent on these river basins for their livelihoods.”

Studies under the project will be carried out in 13 locations, which include three in Bangladesh (one each along the Ganga, the Meghna and the Yamuna), two in Bhutan (one each along the Manas and Sankosh rivers), six in India (one each in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal along the Ganga, one each in Assam along the Barak and the Brahmaputra and one in Arunachal Pradesh along the Brahmaputra), and two in Nepal (one each along the Kosi and Gandak rivers).

Unnayan Shamannay (Bangladesh), the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (Bhutan), and the South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (Nepal) will partner with CUTS International to implement the project.

Prof. Chandan Mahanta of IIT Guwahati, known for his sustained engagement in issues relating to the management and development of the Brahmaputra as a unique resource, emphasises the need for international initiatives. He says: “We need to recognise that the Brahmaputra is too complex a river to be understood with regional-level knowledge alone, particularly as far as mitigation of hydro disasters such as flood and bank erosion are concerned. We need to create robust R&D initiatives and invite experts and researchers from the rest of the world to come and engage in collaborative studies on the river towards creating a knowledge pool that will go a long way in ensuring significant convergence of political compulsions within basin countries with ecological, economic and sociological priorities.” Mahanta, however, laments that the Brahmaputra never received the attention that it deserved from the government and almost all quarters.

Except perhaps the hydropower initiative, the phenomenal possibilities of this colossal resource have remained unappreciated. “Budgetary allocation in thousands of crores of rupees has been made for cleaning the Ganga. That is fine. But, it is time conservation efforts, with a lower budget, were undertaken for the Brahmaputra to maintain this immense pool of clean fresh water.”

With India pushing for BBIN subregional initiatives for improved connectivity, collaboration of these countries for promoting the use of the Brahmaputra water for navigation is likely to get more attention from the government and other stakeholders.

However, experts working on the river feel that initiatives to continue the dialogue among the four basin countries for co-management of the river basin are expected to influence any project such as navigation along the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh and cannot be expected to produce the desired results without a comprehensive basin-level approach including China and Bhutan. About 83 million people living in the Brahmaputra basin have much to look forward to.

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