World Water Day: Brahmaputra Riparian Countries Should Look Beyond Political Interests To Realise River's Potential

Brahmaputra is a unique river system and if managed well, it can be the engine for economic and regional development. However, it requires an integrated basin-wide approach combined with social, economic, political, cultural and legal considerations along with a scientific and technological paradigm. This is only possible if the basin countries communicate and interact with each other to foster a spirit of cooperation.

The Yarlung Tsangpo–Brahmaputra–Jamuna river basin (henceforth to be referred as Brahmaputra basin) is one the most important river systems of South Asia. Originating from a Tibetan glacier, the river links Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and India, before reaching the sea at the Bay of Bengal. The Brahmaputra basin, which supports more than 100 million people, has a huge potential for irrigation development, livelihood opportunities, and infrastructure-related operations such as navigation and hydropower (Biswas 2011) and is a vital resource base for poverty alleviation and economic advancement (Bandyopadhyay 2002). But, the development potential of the basin has been hindered by significant natural and anthropogenic challenges (Ray et al 2015).

The basin has been described as “plagued by floods and droughts” and land-reshaping sedimentation in the rivers and floodplains (Babel and Wahid 2011) that brings uncertainty and impoverishment to the lives of the basin communities. 
Currently, there is a growing consensus that the perils of the rivers can be turned into prosperity. The river has been therefore a subject of discussion between governments of the region, to formulate and implement cooperative strategies, to improve the economic condition and living standards of the basin community (Bandyopadhyay 2002; Biswas 2011; Ray et al 2015; Barua et al 2017).

Although various options are available for cooperation on the Brahmaputra basin, the discussions on regional cooperation among the political leaders have provided very little productive outcome so far, due to diverse national priorities of the basin countries (India, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh). Apart from that the historical rivalries (China–India war of 1962 and their border disputes), high political mistrust and suspicion, increasing nationalism and absence of negotiation frameworks (Biswas 2011) also act as a hurdle for productive discussion on the Brahmaputra basin.

As such, the discussions so far have been mostly behind closed doors and bilateral, and as an outcome of these discussions, a few bilateral memorandums of understanding (MoUs) have been signed between the countries, particularly related to sharing of hydrological data. The data sharing mechanism between the countries is also questionable and debatable, as it does not include any mechanism of dispute settlement related to data sharing. The overall scope of cooperation is very narrow as it limits the legal reach of the MoU to only rivers, thus excluding other bodies of water (Liu 2015). Moreover, these bilateral treaties address specific and largely localised aspects of the broad issue of integrated water management. In addition to this, there is also a lack of scientific knowledge and information about the river as the Brahmaputra basin is relatively under research compared to other river basins of South Asia. 

Rising Tension and Suspicion around the Brahmaputra Basin

Interestingly, the lack of regional framework or insufficient information about the river does not serve as an obstruction to plans for construction of a series of water infrastructure (storage projects) on the Brahmaputra basin, particularly in Bhutan, India and China. This is because the national governments of the riparian countries see such water infrastructure as tangible solutions to the most fundamental problems of poverty and natural disasters (particularly floods). But, such plans (for example, hydropower dams, river-linking projects) are closely guarded, with very limited information in the public domain. There is also restricted access to and evaluation of the social and environmental impact assessment of such plans, and the outcomes of such assessments are not shared with the effected communities. Further, as each country has its national priorities attached to the river basin, often the interests of the four countries run along diverse directions. While for China and Bhutan the river basin provides great opportunities for hydropower generation, Bangladesh’s main domestic concerns includes managing the physical impacts (for example, floods) of the river basin. India’s interest reflects a combination of all of these interests as well as a desire to promote economic development of the North East region. 

These diverse interests and priorities have not only resulted in mistrust and suspicion between the riparian countries but have also led to two groups within the basin. One group (technocrats and policy makers) who favours these water development projects, believes that the benefits foregone by each of these countries not using water as an engine for economic and regional development have been very substantial (Verghese 1990; Verghese 2007), particularly considering the extensive and abject poverty that exists in all the four basin countries (Biswas 2011). But others who contest this view, (particularly the basin communities, the civil society organisation, non-governmental organisationsand other grass-root organisations) argue that, current dominant modes of development (especially development of hydropower and river-linking projects), are risky, unsustainable and inequitable and are unjust socially, ecologically and economically (Dore 2014). 

These differences have made the Brahmaputra basin a politically sensitive subject, leading to politicisation (when shared water is on the political agenda) and securitisation (the measures taken to capture water resources through hydropower dams or river-linking projects and may not be based on actual scarcity) of the Brahmaputra basin. This has led to shift in responsibility towards managing and protecting the water resources from the nodal departments namely Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), and Ministry of Finance (MoF), to Ministry of External Affairs (MoEA) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA).

This shift has made water a sovereignty issue and in the absence of any international law (or a trans-boundary institution) for the Brahmaputra basin, the MoEA of upstream states like China and India insists on principle of ownership. Such a movement of responsibility from MoWR to MoEA also changes the agenda of discussion and any cooperative arrangement around the river is seen as a sovereignty bargain, thus making negotiation over Brahmaputra extremely complex leading to an enduring deadlock.

Inadequate Research on the Brahmaputra Basin 

The level of difficulty in carrying out research on trans-boundary waters is directly proportional to the intensity of contention for sharing water (Alaan and Mirumachi 2011). The politicisation and securitisation of the Brahmaputra river basin has increased the contention over the usage of the water resource although there is no acute water conflict around the basin. This has a huge impact on conducting basin level research on understanding the river system due to limited accessibility of data and information. For example, three academic institutions of the region (Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, India, Yunnan University, China and Institute of Water Modeling, Bangladesh) came together to conduct a basin-level study but has not moved much due to poor accessibility of data restrictions on sharing hydrological information like data on water discharge, lateral flow, water temperature, sediment grain size distribution, effective river width and other analytical parameters needed to gain a holistic understanding of the basin.

Being such a complex river system, information and research gaps leads to questionable results and outcomes, particularly related to any infrastructure development plan on the river basin. Further, the academic community is reluctant in sharing their research findings, as even within the country there is limited scope of water professionals and water scientists to participate in the decision-making process, as decisions are taken usually by inner groups of officials. In some instances, researchers (the academic community) have participated in public processes but the inputs provided by them have minor relevance to actual decision making. All of these factors have led to poor understanding of both hydrology and economics around the Brahmaputra basin. 

Lack of Multilateral Engagement in the Basin 

Amidst diversity, there is a need to identify how countries can come together to harness the river basin in the best possible way, which is economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable. Unfortunately, there are no focused or discursive processes yet, as a means of building cooperation, between the Brahmaputra riparian countries. There is hardly any effective communication between the riparian countries and there is no platform within or between countries where meaningful exchange of opinion can take place.

The lack of dialogue, interaction and engagement has resulted in tension and friction within as well as among co-riparian nations and mistrust at the political level. Further, a lack of scientific knowledge about the river basin has also resulted in poor cooperation, as the benefits of cooperation are not well understood by the political players. There is, therefore, an urgent need to generate a reliable, scientific and comprehensive common knowledge base for the Brahmaputra basin. The states will accept some limitation to their sovereignty and autonomy only if they see certain gains in exchange of that bargain, which is only possible when the benefits associated with the river basin can be understood better.

The research community should actively work towards developing a systematic understanding for the river at the basin scale, which will also enable the identification of the benefits that the river basin can provide to all the four countries. Although in the beginning the studies may not be comprehensive due to lack of data, such studies can push riparian governments to make data accessible to conduct further research. Such studies can also enable identification of common grounds as entry points for cooperation in the Brahmaputra basin, which could probably be disaster management, data and information sharing, inland navigation, hydropower development. 

Breaking the Ice 

The Brahmaputra Dialogue (BD) project initiated in 2013 is laudable, as probably this is the only sustained effort on the Brahmaputra basin that could bring together multiple stakeholders of the four riparian countries into one platform. It provided a space to discuss issues, challenges, and opportunities related to the basin between multiple stakeholders with very different perspectives. Since 2013, the multi-stakeholder dialogue workshops organised under the project has not only helped the civil society and media to engage more productively, but has also enabled government representatives to dilute the misconceptions of grass-root organisations and reduce the circulation of misinformation on the basin. 

One of the major outcomes of this ongoing dialogue process is the Brahmaputra River Symposium, held in New Delhi in 2017. The symposium could bring together 150 delegates for the first time, including prominent stakeholders from all the four basin countries. This event helped to facilitate formal and informal knowledge exchange and interaction among key basin stakeholders. One of the biggest achievements of the event is perhaps to get permission from MoWR, MoEA and MoHA to hold this event in India with the title “Brahmaputra” and with participation from all the basin countries at the time of Dhoklam stand-off. However, the symposium did not see participation from the MoEA and the MoHA, while the MoWR participated as an observer of the event. This is unfortunate because this could have been an ideal platform for the ministries to break the deadlock and share India’s position related to the Brahmaputra river in the presence of representatives from the riparian nations. 

The theme of World Water Day 2018, “Nature for water,” emphasises the need to protect our ecosystems, in order to provide everyone with water we need to survive and thrive. The Brahmaputra is a unique river system and if managed well, it can be the engine for economic and regional development. However, it requires an integrated basin-wide approach combined with social, economic, political, cultural and legal considerations along with scientific and technological paradigm. This is only possible if the basin countries communicate and interact with each other to foster a spirit of cooperation. But, mismanagement of the river, to fulfill the narrow political interests of each country, will only bring disaster through annual flood and drought, increasing the uncertainty and impoverishment in the lives of the largest concentration of poor people living around the basin. 

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