Water wars more about information than water itself. India must prepare
Information and knowledge gaps are largely responsible for creating an environment of mistrust among riparians and the various stakeholders in the river systems.
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The river systems, being transboundary in nature, have been subjects of conflicts at various scales: Between states, sectors and nations. A large part of the conflict has arisen from the extensive information and knowledge gaps that still remain in the public domain. I use the term "Eastern Himalayan" river basins in this article to mean two river systems, namely, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.
The Farakka Barrage, an apparent point of contention for India-Bangladesh transboundary water relations, is now emerging as an inter-state water dispute with aggravated Bihar floods being attributed to the backwater flows due to excessive sedimentation in the upstream of the barrage. The barrage, located in West Bengal, roughly 16.5 km from the border with Bangladesh, was planned to enhance the flow of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly branch to resuscitate the port at Kolkata. Though the 1996 Ganges Treaty between Bangladesh and India on water release from the Farakka seems to be working well, the interstate concern arises as West Bengal seems to be an unintended beneficiary of the project: The water diversion through Hooghly channel has improved water security in large parts of non-tidal West Bengal including Kolkata. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has been demanding 50 per cent of the dry season flows of the Teesta river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Substantial low flow has affected farmers and fishermen in Bangladesh. The West Bengal CM has objected to sharing the Teesta' waters citing scarcity, though there are enough indications that the Indian and Bangladesh governments want the agreement to be worked out.
These two cases elaborate the "two-level games" in water negotiations that the Indian government has been subjected to, at the international transboundary level between nations and at domestic level between the states or between the Centre and the state. These processes are characteristic of federal structures. While the two successive Modi governments have made conscious efforts to promote "competitive federalism" and "cooperative federalism" between states and Centre, water has increasingly and organically become a subject of "conflictual federalism". Meanwhile, there is the widespread perception that China, the upstream "hydro-hegemon" over the Brahmaputra (or Yarlung-Tsangpo), has been diverting its waters to India's detriment. This perception became widespread since the publication of Water: Asia's New Battleground by Brahma Chellaney, in 2011.
However, this has been challenged by me and my colleagues using more realistic hydrological and meteorological data which reveals that around 75 per cent to 85 per cent of the water flows, and the precipitation feeding the flow over the Brahmaputra, occur downstream much after the river gets formed by the flows of Dihang, Dibang and Lohit near Sadiya in Assam. Further, potentially utilisable water of the Brahmaputra is a fraction of the total renewable water resources. Largely, sediment formation happens after flow transcends the Himalayan crest-line and moves into the southern aspects.
There is the widespread perception that China - the upstream "hydro-hegemon" over the Brahmaputra - has been diverting its waters to India's detriment. (Photo: Reuters)
The China 'threat'
It needed a huge amount of data acquisition through efforts and analysis to refute the myth that Chinese intervention (whether true or not) can cause substantial damage to India and Bangladesh. Information and knowledge gaps are largely responsible for creating an environment of mistrust among riparians and the various stakeholders in the eastern Himalayan river systems. The root cause of the problem lies in classifying information on transboundary rivers, especially by the Indian government, which prevents independent and objective analysis and knowledge creation.
Flow data classification has resulted in various sources of knowledge gaps in the following domains: eco-hydrological knowledge on surface water systems and sediments on the ecosystem services and assessment of environmental flows; groundwater systems and institutional mechanisms for their sustainable use and protection; flood management; social dimensions of water systems use, local governance and water conflicts; diverse water demands; emerging technologies and practices of water systems management; and impact of global warming and climate change on water and food.
Knowledge is power
The mechanism of cloud bursts and flash floods is yet to be understood well, which makes it difficult understanding whether flood control structures in Nepal and/or Bihar over the Ganga's tributaries will be useful or not. The problems of hydropower in the Himalayas and the problems they cause to the broader ecosystem are yet to find mention in government documents and environmental impact assessments are allegedly incomplete.
Public perception is often based on presumptive linear logic and jingoism instead of holistic water science. The lack of information hurts hydro-politics in the region. So, we must conduct objective research in the areas that are of utmost relevance, and disseminate the findings at relevant corners.
Data must precede policy-level dialogue
Information in public domain and its right use by the scientific community can lead to a new trans-disciplinary research framework to enable a holistic basin-level governance approach, leading to peaceful hydro-politics, and address an apparent paradox in development thinking prevalent in the Ganga-Brahmaputra river systems: Ample water, ample poverty!