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Upside Down & Inside Out: A Look At The South Asia Water Initiative

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Paula Hanasz (Blacktown, Australia)

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 12: Transboundary river basins and shared aquifers,
The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna mega-basin (GBM) is arguably the least integrated region in the world in terms of state-to-state coordination of transboundary water issues. There is also a pervasive understanding in South Asia that water conflicts are necessarily zero-sum problems.

In recent years, significant international effort led by the World Bank (and in conjunction with the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway) has been put into developing among South Asian policy makers and water governance institutions an appreciation that water is a shared resource with the potential for positive sum outcomes. Primary among these is the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI), which focuses primarily on the facilitation of bottom-up, stakeholder-led, deliberative processes around transboundary water issues.

This paper provides an evaluation of how effective these foreign-led efforts have been, and questions the rationale of an ostensibly grassroots regime imposed from top-down and non-local sources. This paper is also a critique of the hegemonic idea, driven by western international institutions such as the World Bank, of 'benefit sharing' in transboundary water management.

This is an important study because there are not many critiques of discursive governance, and none in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. Indeed, most studies of transboundary water governance focus on regions of the world that provide more spectacular examples of outright conflict. Yet this is a really important region because it has the highest concentration of poor people in the world and it is politically and socially unstable. The GBM mega-basin is likely to face increasing water security challenges as demand for water rises with growing populations and as climate change affect monsoons and glacial melt patterns in the Himalayas, the 'third pole' of the world.

The study was conducted over a six month period, between April and October 2014 in South Asia. The author conducted over 30 face-to-face semi-structure interviews with policy makers, academics, bureaucrats, lawyers, former politicians, and civil society activists in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The primary research is complemented by two years of literature review. The analysis assumes a constructivist perspective of international relations.

Results and Discussion
The stated goal of the World Bank-led South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI) is to "increase regional cooperation in the management of the Himalayan River systems." One way that SAWI works toward this goal is by shifting the prevailing attitude that water is a zero sum proposition to an understanding that water is a shared resource that can be governed to reach positive sum outcome/benefit sharing, etc. This is based on the assumption that collaboration and interdependence is likely to mitigate conflict. The method employed by SAWI is 'track II dialogue', or simply put, getting governments talking with non-government stakeholder.

The attempt to bring stakeholders together is certainly laudable and important in developing positive-sum transboundary water interactions. It is, however, problematic. For a start, there is an irony of having a bottom-up, local-led approach imposed not only from the top down but also by external parties (certainly, sometimes a neutral outsider is necessary, but in the context of South Asia it is possible that it could be interpreted as neo-colonialism). Second, they ignore the significance of issue power and the influence of external factors in reaching positive sum outcomes.

There is also a focus within SAWI on bringing stakeholders together over scientific issues, such as river basin modelling and the sharing of meteorological data, especially on the issue of flood control. While this may be an instance of focussing on a single-issue, easy win for cooperation, it must also be asked whether this focus on engineering solutions to wicked problems of public policy is an appropriate strategy. There is already an assumption within South Asia, based on the understanding that rivers are merely pipes for carrying H2O, that water shortages and other issues are a quantitative problem and can be solved with dams and other engineering solutions that store and move water. This is arguably a back-to-front approach, as the water use priorities have to be sorted out before technology, science and engineering is used to support these policy decisions.

Moreover, there is ambivalence within the region toward SAWI. It is perceived to be India-centric, while India itself seems less committed to the SAWI process than neighbouring countries. Of course it is India's smaller, weaker neighbours that have most to gain from a regionalised, rather than a bilateral, approach to river governance. But the power dynamics between the countries do not seem to have been factored into SAWI's integrative negotiation strategy.

It is unclear yet what effect the efforts of the international community to bring GBM mega-basin stakeholders together has had on reaching positive sum outcomes or developing a shared understanding of water as a shared resource. It is, however, likely that the integrative negotiations in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring about more cooperative transboundary water interactions based on an understanding of water as a shared resource.

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