Contested Waters, Shrinking Livelihoods: Critical Issues in Trans-boundary River Sharing in South Asia

Prashant Negi
Prashant Negi

Prashant Negi is a faculty at Dr. K. R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and Managing Trustee, Centre for Development Studies, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.


The conception that water is a critical, ever depleting and non-renewable resource is a priori. Lately, several unilateral policy initiatives (the proposal to interlink the rivers in India, construction of a hydropower station over Yalong River in Tibet by China, construction of Diamer and Bunji dams on the Indus by Pakistan etc.) across South Asia have yet again brought the debate to the center stage. Such policy initiatives have, on the one hand, generated unprecedented localized expectations and on the other, have engendered possibilities of sustained conflict. Whether the waters in South Asia can be characterized by ‘shared commonalities’ or whether transnational consensus must precede localized or unilateral policy interventions do not constitute the primary axis of the debate. The developmental discourse in this regard seems to have perpetuity, at least in terms of policy mindsets, which transcends boundaries and reduces the issue to usage of water for so-called ‘national’ purposes and considers the deleterious effects as being the sine qua non of development. Additionally, policy interventions in water are paradigmatically ‘statist’, ‘top-bottom’ and non-participatory having scant regard for complex issues such as loss of culture and livelihoods. This article discusses various thematic issues pertaining to water and development especially in context of the proposal to interlink the rivers in India and proposes the development of a people’s vision on transboundary water sharing, which should take into account coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources by maximizing economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systems.


The South Asia region is characterized by numerous river basins, which do not coincide with national boundariesi. Many of these basins are shared between countries of unequal size and power. Sharing waters of trans-boundary river systems has been a source of ongoing tensions and conflicts in the region for more than half a century particularly when countries unilaterally build large dams, hydropower projects, river diversionsii. Further, China’s growing use of the eastern Himalayan waters is a source of concerniii.

There is a plethora of studies, both scientific and social, which unequivocally demonstrate that patterns of development pertaining to adoption of water technologies have not met their intended objectives
iv. On the contrary, wide usage of such technologies have long term environmental, ecological, social, political, economic and cultural costs, which normatively cannot be quantified. Associated with the above are issues of displacement, rehabilitation and livelihood. Contextualized within a larger framework of the government’s intentions of river linking, such interventions have serious implications on the entire South Asian region and have been less understoodv. The need for people’s vision for trans-boundary water sharing therefore is immediatevi.

Lately, coupled with an academic emphasis, there has also been a widespread reportage on the deleterious effects of climate change. Issues of glacial melting, flash floods, landslides, droughts, forest fires, intermittent rainfall, increased sea levels and risk of salinity ingress in absence of freshwater flows have been more or less at the core of such debates. The widespread damage to human life, habitations, livelihoods and the environment in the Indian state of Uttrakhand in 2013 is in all probability an instance of the development discourse going wrong.

The situation is further complicated by a realm in which basic policy interventions are either individual state centric in which the project is implemented or not defined at allvii. The case in issue is of the National Displacement and Rehabilitation Policy in India, which is of a very recent origin and also the manner in which Project Affected Persons (PAPs) are designated in different ways. In India, the PAPs displaced by the Bhakra-Nangal Project and the Pong Dam (which constitute some of the first large-scale projects implemented in independent India) are yet to be properly rehabilitated.

What is the Debate All About: Is the Paradigm Lost?

The debate basically circumscribes around the development discourse and has two principal axes, which in my opinion are not contrary to each other at all. On one side of the continuum are the governments and their views on the developmental discourse and on the other are people affected by such discourses. Usually, it has been observed, as has been effectively pointed out in many of Ramaswamy Iyer writingsviii, that the developmental discourse as envisaged and implemented by the governments is rather statist and unilateral. It does not take it account issues of equity, sustainability, transparency, accountability and participatory development, which otherwise are at the core of the debate.

The proportion of population in the South Asian region (adding the Tibetan peninsula) and its concentration is perhaps the highest in the world. Issues of water therefore are critical to not just to fulfill basic human needs, but also to imagine the manner in which water as a resource is viewed by those who legislate upon it. It is therefore not surprising that water constitutes one of the most prominent social issues across the region. In the recent years, there has only been an upsurge in conflicts pertaining to water with intra-state, inter-state and regional dimensions.

Should we then be concerned with such developments? And if so, how possibly could we address them suitably is the key question.

The debate is particularly polarized at the moment. As I iterated before one of the axes of thinking on water issues is that of the state. How it views water as a resource I feel needs elaboration and it is this very thinking, which constitutes the problematique. It is important to understand that water is a critical resource necessary for the survival of the human race in general. Secondly, we need to underscore that global fresh water supplies are limited and diminishingix. The problem arises when this resource is assessed as being continuous and is further complicated when its ownership is reduced from collective to regional and from local to individual.

Also, literature on water polices suggests that there is a preponderance of a notion within the state that water is an engine for driving economic growth and for meeting the irrigation and energy requirements of a nationx. It is felt that the flowing waters need to be tamed before they go waste in the seas. The dominant notion that I refer to here is that of ‘taming nature’ and the very deep human urge for attempting to control it. It is also felt that development is inevitable and will encompass certain costs, which have to be necessarily borne from the very process of implementing development. The discourse therefore is ‘status quoist’ and does not from the very beginning examine issues of sustainability or participatory development. The conceptualization of major, medium or minor hydropower projects and dams as ‘temple’s of modern India’ precedes the above characterization. In India and elsewhere, power projects and dams have been equated with sine qua non for development and have seen widespread state interventionsxi. Sadly, many of these interventions are in complete contravention to current thinking on water issues. In the quest for expanding energy and irrigation needs, water is regarded as just another resource. Its intrinsic values for survival and cultural preservation are then negated.

south-asiaIn India particularly, from the 1960 onwards, there have been many policy interventions around water. These interventions range from developing water policies, formulating plans for its usage and implementing them at regional and local levels. The Himalayan states of Uttrakhand and Himachal Pradesh (which have an approximate hydropower potential of over 45,000 MWs) have been nodal areas for implementation of such policies. Besides, large-scale projects have also been designed and implemented in Gujarat (Sardar Sarovar Project and the Narmada project) and elsewhere in India. Most of such projects have been implemented sans any regard for the human costs. Another discourse, which analyzes such interventions, questions the very nature and patterns of development and asks a crucial question: Whose development? And who pays for whose development?

These questions are of vital importance as they delineate the manner in which states or government think on water issuesxii. For a very long period of time India did not have a uniform policy for PAPs or ‘oustees’ as they are also called. Issues of displacement and rehabilitation were therefore addressed selectively. In the Narmada project, it was documented that compensations and reparations received by the PAPs were differential. Secondly, there is a considerable confusion as to how the PAPs are classified; with the compensation package being applicable only to those classified as PAPs. With differential compensation packages varying from state to state, the efficacy of a rehabilitation policy was rightly questioned.

These are some of the specificities and interrelated issues that need immediate attention. In terms of larger ideological roles in democratic traditions and welfare dispensation, the governments claim to be a dispenser of distributive justice and legitimize their claims to the moral uniqueness of their development policies and superior politics; they then deviate from the very rationality of their purpose, functions and practical meaningsxiii, to drastically alter the lives of people whom they do not even bother to consult or inform (in Anjanvara, Gujarat for instance, the first information about the Narmada dam came from the surveyors of the Central Water Commission, who came to place the stone markers to indicate the reservoir levels).

Juxtaposed with the above and drawing from theoretical thinking on post-modernism are issues of ‘local cultures’. In this view, development is seen as creating homogeneity. How then would the development discourse take into account preservation of cultural symbols and their perpetuity is an issue of immense importance. Take for example, the folklore or other traditions, which usually describe a culture. In the eventuality of PAPs being displaced, there is cultural loss, which is difficult to regain.

There is also a linkage between cultural perpetuity and livelihoods, which is of importance. Many livelihood skills, capacities and capabilities are internalized over a period of time through the sociological processes of socialization, assimilation and acculturation. For instance, the human skills of ‘oustees’ from the Himalayan states are specific to the geography of the region. If the ‘oustees’ are rehabilitated in different climatic and geographical regions, they usually lack the skills required for livelihood generation and its sustainability (the Pong dam oustees were provided land in saline regions of Rajasthan). While the people from the Himalayan region may be adept at farming at higher altitudes, the fishermen of Gujarat may not find themselves adept at such an environment.

There is general acceptance in literature that implementation of ‘top-bottom’ water-based projects for the purposes of development commonly produce water transitions degrading environmental conditions and livelihood supports, where the resulting hydrologically-vulnerable situation traps people in water-related poverty. Such policies are often challenged by the presence of poor and marginalized people who typically depend on natural resource base for their livelihoods. In the case of South Asia, the situation is complicated by the presence of large-scale poverty conditions, so much so that livelihood at stake must be necessarily considered. Unfortunately, policies seldom take into account this outcomexiv. An optimal goal therefore should be to achieve desired developmental outcomes while simultaneously improving livelihoods and alleviating poverty.

It is important to accentuate that analysis of water policies and allocation indicates the dynamic character of water availability and continuous raise and diversification in its demandxv. This in principle implies that all available water resources are committed. Water quality degradation is a growing threat to human health and entails high social cost. Also, analysis indicates that water development has moved upstream to sites where river flow is generated and where options for agriculture differ from the plain where surface irrigation systems, planned and managed by government agencies dominate. During recent decades, the dependency on ground water resources has increased substantially. Local and individual initiatives are noticeable. Abstractions for drinking water supply, primarily to urban centres, also outside the basin have highest priority. Water management for agriculture must be executed in a context of high inter-annual fluctuation in water availability and threats of water quality degradation must be addressed. Farmers have to develop strategies, which look different in different parts of the country. Food production remains a basic challenge, but diversification of production, development of contacts to the market and best use of the available water will be essential characteristics of agricultural water management.

Water and Livelihoods: Can Development Compliment Sustainable Growth?

Livelihoods are also impacted when privileged situation of surface irrigation organized by the governments is challenged by powerful claims on the same water by urban-based interests and also by an unplanned development of water use by individuals and groups in upstream areas.

Solving issues of livelihoods are not as easy as using less water or opposing developmental projects related to water per se. Drivers of change pertaining to livelihoods can be categorized as physical, economic and social and the result of processes, policies and political decision making occurring at various levels. At the core of the debate, therefore is how to ensure coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources by maximizing economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systemsxvi.

In the precarious South Asian region, besides of course, the issue of protection of livelihoods, the concomitant issues are also to strike a balance between use of resources for livelihoods and their conservation for future use. Further, literature appends to the fact that despite efforts at international, national, regional and local levels to codify principles of sustainability, there are few reported instances of actual translations into institutions and practical applicationsxvii.

One reason for such an anomaly is the uneven distribution of costs and benefits across socioeconomic groups due to the persistently poor understanding of the relationship between water and livelihoods. Reports point out to the fact that goals of efficiency (productivity) and environmental sustainability (conservation) are confounded by project activities, which exacerbate social inequity by enacting changes that pay little attention to the role of water and other common property resources in the livelihoods of the poorxviii. Often, changes in resource management institutions to satisfy conservation or environmental objectives have a poverty trade-off by proscribing access or uses that are central to livelihood security. Therefore, understanding the relationship between water, poverty and livelihoods is emerging as a critical first stepxix.

Research and thinking on livelihoods then should be coordinated along thematic and geographical (spatial) linesxx. Thematically, our emphasis should be to focus on different aspects and scales (ecosystem, river basin, and global) of water productivity issues, ranging from locally enhancing crop and fisheries performance to understanding the role and importance of macroeconomic factors. This theme-based approachxxi can narrow our focus onto the endogenous factors behind water productivity issues. Outputs then could possibly include a variety of agricultural, environmental, institutional, and policy innovations to address the needs of the rural poor. For instance, strategies could be developed seeking higher crop yields, more income, more employment opportunities, improved livelihood quality, or some combination of these, for each cubic meter of water exploited.

Three categories of solutions to improve the livelihoods of the poor should be focused upon: economic solutions generating higher incomes for each cubic meter of water used; social solutions creating more jobs and higher food security for each cubic meter of water used; and environmental solutions obtaining greater resilience of ecosystems for each cubic meter of water present. These solutions could yield from innovations in technologies (crop varieties and irrigation systems), institutional mechanisms (payment for environmental services programs to upstream residents to alter their resource management behavior for the benefit of downstreamxxii inhabitants, the resignification of customary, cooperative institutions, and multi-stakeholder processes), and, finally, policy recommendations for national and/or trans-boundaryxxiii water-use efficiency or water-sharing agreements.

The second organizing principle is based on recognition of the multi-scalar, dynamic and interacting qualities of watersheds, meaning the basin scale is the most sensible to focus upon when compiling, synthesizing and implementing knowledge about increasing water productivity. It is important therefore to identify ‘Basin Focal Projects’ (BFPs) which could be tasked with this knowledge-integrating function. Its products are could be used in guiding development plans for the target basins.

In conclusion, I would like to submit that it is important to think on the lines of the SCALES model, which in its expanded form implies ‘Sustaining Inclusive Collective Action that links across Economic and Ecological Scales’.

Roadmap Ahead

In my opinion, before we embark on developing a people’s vision for water sharing in South Asia, we need to firstly, understand the policies of various South Asian countries pertaining to water issues and how these policies are incorporated within the larger development discoursexxiv; secondly, give due diligence to genuine concerns of various stakeholders and ratify existing treaties; thirdly, discern common threads that impede or enhance people’s participation; fourthly, highlight prominent issues of conflict, both in terms of how unilateral initiatives impact regional aspirations and whether such initiatives have differential impacts on people living in the region; fifthly, reflect upon how issues of conflict be best addressed? Given the complexity of the issue and multiplicity of authorities, what are the best practices that one could adopt?; sixthly, besides developing a draft policy, could we think about various supportive initiatives that could help in achieving the intended objectives?; seventhly, what would be the best possible ways in which consensus be built and further work initiated?; eighty, how can we ensure that thinking on water and its sharing is characterized by notions of community, commonality and commensurability; and finally, how can the above be contextualized into identifying opportunities and constraints for various stakeholders in realizing an integrated strategy to support livelihoods?

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