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Important intervention for 'positively shaping' water diplomacy in South Asian region

By Dr Ruchi Shree* 

Book Review: Venkatesh Dutta (ed.) (2022), "Water Conflicts and Resistance: Issues and Challenges in South Asia", Routledge, New Delhi
The recent arrival of this edited volume on changing nature of water conflicts in South Asia is a significant addition to the increasing literature on politics of water. I can recall two more texts namely "Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History" (Allen Lane, 2018) by Sunil Amruth and "Water Issues in Himalayan South Asia: Internal Challenges, Disputes and Transboundary Tensions" (Springer, 2020) an edited volume by Amit Ranjan.
In the last two decades, politics of water has emerged as an interdisciplinary area of study and the framework of this book also suggests the same. The contributors range from water experts, govt. professionals to civil society activists and they capture the nuances of water conflicts at local, regional and transboundary scales.
This book published by Routledge is the third text in a series titled "Social Movements and Transformative Dissent". The major focus of this text is complexities of transboundary water disputes in the South Asian region. The book underlines that the local and regional water conflicts can be resolved more easily with an understanding of socio-political dimensions of participatory institutional models. Twelve chapters of the book are divided into two parts.
The first part titled ‘Transboundary Conflicts’ has six chapters and the second part ‘Regional and Local Conflicts’ has five chapters. The introductory chapter ‘Shared Water: Contest, Conflict and Co-operation’ sets the tone of the book and provides outline of the chapters ahead. The editor argues that ‘the geography, history, and culture of South Asia have been influenced by several of its transboundary rivers for centuries’ (p. 1).
Venkatesh Dutta argues that the social systems of this region are multilayered and are integrated by ‘waterscapes.’ The term ‘waterscapes’ suggests that ‘water mediates and integrates the symbolic system, but under conflicts and contestations it causes its very disintegration’ (p. 3).
Prior to Dutta, Amita Baviskar in her edited volume "Waterscapes: Cultural Politics of a Natural Resource" (Permanent Black, 2007) engages with a diversity of concerns ranging from international aids to local initiatives. Her text underlined the need to look beyond political economy and political ecology to capture the nuances of politics of water. The fourth chapter titled ‘Shared Waterscape: The Case of River Ravi in India and Pakistan’ by Medha Bisht and Sohaib Waseem delves into the conceptual details of ‘waterscapes’ and how is it different from Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) (p. 83).
The ‘waterscape perspective’ emphasizes that rivers and hydrographic limits are not natural but as much social as political. They are often produced and reproduced through complexities of power in politics. The volume has two consecutive chapters on Koshi Basin.
While fifth chapter by Ajaya Dixit and others presents a political economy perspective on this transboundary river, the sixth chapter by Shawahique Siddiqui problematizes the issue of environmental justice for the victims of the Koshi River project. The Koshi river was named ‘Sorrow of Bihar’ by the Britishers since it caused floods in the region almost every year. It is the largest river in Nepal shared by China in the upstream and India in the downstream.
The Koshi river basin is part of the larger Ganges Basin shared by China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Despite several agreements between India and Nepal on Koshi project, the number of floods and scale of loss has only aggravated and the hydro-diplomacy seems to be merely a formality. The range of issues such as water rights in the river, navigation and fishing, hydro-power generation need a more intense interaction among people and local level institutions of the two countries on a regular basis.
In the second chapter, Enamul Choudhary interrogates the usual interchangeable use of the two terms – ‘dispute’ and ‘conflict.’ He writes, ‘disputes are issue-centered conflicts in which one can identify the common, competing and divergent interests that form the basis of solving them. This is not the case with conflicts.
Conflicts are not solvable in terms of focusing only on a specific issue, and their solution often takes generational time spans along with fundamental shifts in historical and cultural conditions’ (p. 25). With the water scarcity looming large globally, the quality and quantity of water has become so crucial for every country and also the negotiations for sharing with neighbouring countries. Global solidarity through institutional co-operation will help in transboundary water governance (TWG).
A chapter on less-known Gandak River agreement highlights the cost benefit analysis around irrigation and agriculture, floods and inundation, compensation and community participation to name a few issues. Another chapter titled ‘From Lukewarm to Meaningful’ by Gauri Noolkar-Oak' suggests the ways to understand and transform the transboundary water cooperation in Indian subcontinent.
The second part of the book contains a chapter on gender analysis of floods in South Asia. This article argues the need to overcome existing gender blindness in understanding of disasters and how it affects the women during situations of earthquakes, floods, cyclones, drought, etc.
The book advocates decentralized ways of water management amidst centralized transboundary river interventions
It highlights the interrelated issues viz. disaster-induced migrations, human trafficking, sexual and human rights violations, lack of institutional arrangements and the critical need to have a gender-sensitive disaster management policy-making.
A chapter on Surya Irrigation Project in Maharashtra by KJ Joy and others highlights the complexities of intersectoral water conflicts. How the consumptive uses vs non-consumptive uses viz. ecosystem needs (wetlands, protected areas, etc.), domestic water uses vs. agriculture, rural vs. urban, agriculture vs. industry tend to shape and policy making.
A study from Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh examines the inter-linkages between water scarcity and human security. This paper underlines the inadequate role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and does not take account of local people and civil society initiatives to reclaim the traditional knowledge systems of water conservation.
Some recent studies suggest that numerous ponds have been revived in this region and such initiative could be worth emulating. Another study on urban rivers and their riverfronts by Prerna Yadav compares the experience of two rivers namely Sabarmati (Surat, Gujarat) and Gomti (Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh).
It narrates the India’s aspiration to match the global precept of ‘world-class city’ with concepts viz. beautification and gentrification of urban set-up and its consequences on rivers (p. 236). Such a vision leads to slum demolition on the one hand and riverfront development on the other.
The book is an important intervention and likely to positively shape the water diplomacy in South Asian region with its two chapters on Indo-Nepal water/river relations and one chapter on shared water between India and Pakistan. A chapter on the Indus Water Treaty (1960), Ganga Water Sharing Treaty (1996) and Teesta draft agreement delves into India-Bangladesh relation on water.
A little more detail on the nuances of institutional challenges faced by these two countries in water sharing would have benefitted the readers since the countries share not only the Ganges but also numerous small rivers. The relationship between these two countries has undergone significant changes in the last five decades with change of leaderships on both sides and the changing global water scenario.
To sum up, one may say that the book rightly suggests that the traditional sectoral uses of water (agriculture, industry and municipal) need to give way to the needs of indigenous communities, women and the ecosystem.
Similarly, its advocacy for decentralized ways of water management and active participation of civil society organizations is a way forward to the long existing centralized and state centric transboundary river management in South Asia. The volume is useful for not only researchers but also the policy-makers and grassroot activists.
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*Assistant professor at the PG Department of Political Science, Tilka Majhi Bhagalpur University (Bihar); research fellow with School of Law, SOAS (London); her ongoing research under the British Academy Leverhulme Fellowship is titled ‘Fostering Eco-centric Community-led River Restoration & Conservation in the Ganga Basin (India)’ (2021-2023). Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

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