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Transboundary Water Governance In South Asia: Transparency And Access To Information Ritwick Dutta, Lalanath De Silva And Carole Excell

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Ritwick Dutta, Lalanath de Silva, Carole Excell
Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, India1, World Resources Institute2

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 12: Transboundary river basins and shared aquifers,
AbstractIntroduction: South Asia supports more than one fifth of the world's population and yet is one of the most water scarce regions of the world. One of its major sources of water is the Himalayas which supplies the major river systems including three major transboundary basins--the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. These rivers support an estimated 700 million people. In recent decades, various factors have dramatically intensified demand for water in the region. Meanwhile, water availability per capita in South Asia has declined since 1950 (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2009). Studies on South Asia increasingly suggest that the effects of climate change will significantly reduce the availability of water in the region's river basins leading to a greater frequency of floods and droughts.

A number of countries in the region (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan) rely heavily on transboundary rivers to meet their national needs. As the demand for water in these countries grows, water is increasingly a driver of tension and potential conflict in the region. Historically, relations between countries in South Asia have been influenced by a history of postcolonial partition, armed conflict and political tension. Transboundary water disputes are inextricably linked to geopolitics in the region, as river systems are shared between riparian countries that differ in size, political power, and economic strength.

Regional cooperation on transboundary rivers remain contentious and state actions are prone to unilateral action without adequate transboundary consultation. The institutional mechanisms, where present, are extremely inadequate to address these issues. Because transboundary rivers are framed as security issues, decisions regarding transboundary rivers are largely treated with secrecy, and spaces for civil society engagement have been limited.

The existing bilateral treaties in the region (The Indus River Treaty, 1960 and others) characterize rivers as a resource for utilization, and do not provide a satisfactory framework for addressing broader issues of governance or river basin health. In addition, the lack of shared and accurate data and information on climate and water has resulted in poor decision making driven by national interests with limited consideration of broader social, ecological, or stakeholder perspectives. Better availability and sharing of hydro-meteorological data and greater transparency of institutions at the national and bilateral level can change the discourse and introduce better governance and co-operation over management of river-basins at the regional level.

The need for greater transparency and access to information around environmental issues has been internationally recognized. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development specifically advocates for greater citizen access to information on environmental issues at a national level, and greater civic participation in decision-making processes (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992). In the context of transboundary water governance in South Asia, greater citizen access to data and information has the potential to similarly enhance the space for civil society participation and engagement on water and climate issues.

Methods and Materials: This study focuses on the issue of water governance in the context of four selected rivers along the Ganga basin in Nepal, India and Bangladesh -- the Saptakoshi in Nepal; the Kosi and Sharda (also known as the Mahakali) in India; and the Padma in Bangladesh. This regional comparative report is based on the country-assessments conducted in Nepal, India and Bangladesh by the partner organizations -- the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition- Nepal (ISET) in Nepal, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) in India and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) in Bangladesh. The study was funded by the Skoll Global Threats Foundation and the Asia Foundation.

The assessment was done in four phases: first, a basin overview was compiled in terms of both the physical and natural characteristics of the river basin. Thereafter, the bilateral agreements and mechanisms for governance of the identified rivers were examined in terms of their functioning and transparency. At the national level, the laws and institutions relating to governance of rivers were identified. The proactive and reactive information practices of these institutions were assessed with reference to a common set of selected parameters. For the information gaps identified, specific requests were made under the right to information (RTI) legislations in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. The requests were then tracked and followed in terms of the number of transfers, the time taken to receive the final response and the content of the final response.

Drawing on the findings of the proactive disclosure practices and the response to the requests filed under the RTI Act in the three countries, the comparative regional report presents findings on the information regimes.

Conclusion: The study makes a number of findings and recomemndations which fall intot the following broad categories:

1. The need for better quality of data to be proactively released by responsible government agencies and treaty bodies, especially at the basin and sub-basin levels. The data currently available in the public domain is outdated, not comprehensive, poorly documented or organized, not user friendly and not digitized. This makes transboundary modelling and prediction difficult;

2. The need for undertaking joint and comprehensive social and environmental impact assessments with reliable baseline data when transboundary river projects are located in or impact more than one country;

3. The need to further strengthen and improved current websites which proactively disclose river data and the need to for governments to make river data public and remove classifications as secret or confidential;

4. Despite strong RTIs in all three countries, obtaining river data via RTI requests proved to be difficult and challenging. The study identifies the reasons for this and makes a comprehensive set of recommendations following these findings. 1. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Aquastat online database, as cited in Jaitley (2009), p. 17.

2. The Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan (1960), the treaties between India and Nepal on the Kosi (1954), Gandak (1959), Mahakali (1996), and the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (1996) between India and Bangladesh.

3. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992 http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=78&articleid=1163

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