Water diplomacy: Bottom–up approach needed to address concerns of riparian communities


Water, the magical molecule, is so omnipresent in the atmosphere of planet earth that it is often overlooked that it is a fundamental pre-condition of human life. Only one percent of earth’s water is fit for human use and its paucity has been a permanent feature of human history. The sacred Vedas describe Indra as ‘apsujit’ – apsu is water – meaning ‘water conqueror’. In fact there is a line in the Rigved: “Not only Indra but all the peoples fight for water.” In this perspective, the present dispute and treaty between India and Pakistan about diversion of Indus River basin water has a history of more than three-thousand years.

Water famously does not know administrative boundaries and is unevenly distributed, which is why water conflicts within countries are as common as among nations. As water scarcity rises across the globe, ways of cooperation are the only way forward as more than 148 nations have international water basins within their territories. The recently concluded South Asian University workshop at New Delhi on ‘Water Governance; Stakeholder Perspectives and Riparian Communities’ grappled with some of these issues concerning the delicate matter of water in South Asia.

Dr Medha Bisht

Dr Medha Bisht, who teaches International Relations at South Asian University, and led the workshop, speaks to Hemang Desai about the workshop:

Q: What was the objective of the workshop just concluded on Water Governance; Stakeholder Perspectives and Riparian Communities?

MB: There were two objectives of the workshop. First was to flag off some problems/issues challenges that bordering states witness apropos the water sector (ground water and surface water). We had focussed on those bordering districts which have transboundary rivers flowing through them. In this case it was River Ravi, which is one of the Eastern tributaries of the Indus. The concerns and issues were based on the feedback of stakeholders—such government representatives (bureaucrats, technocrats), farmer collectives and community representatives and academics and international and national non-governmental organisations working in and around water sector. The reason for going to state level was to move beyond generalisation and identify certain specific trends which characterise challenges posed by the water sector. In other words the aim here was to identify a need based—bottom-up approach which highlights the issues which the local debates highlight.

The second objective was to generate discussion and unpack/deconstruct the notion of water diplomacy in South Asia. Given that Ravi is one of the tributaries of the Indus, we tried to flag off the problems of smaller, minor rivers. This was a difficult task as the discourse in South Asia is on larger rivers—Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus. Our purpose was to broaden the debate and make people think about the entire eco-system (through different ways) which gives an identity to the rivers and riverine communities. For this reason we not only deliberated upon minor rivers and tributaries, but also on the myths, stories, folk stories, songs associated with these rivers. We also focussed on water architectures which are a forgotten legacy of Indian cultural heritage.

Q: What are the salient central features of what is described as Hydro Diplomacy or Water Diplomacy?

Ranki Vav, Patan

MB: There are two schools which can be broadly associated with discourses around water diplomacy. The first school examines the lower-riparian /upper riparian claims around transboundary rivers. According to this view, rivers are primarily treated as property rights, where both   upper riparian and lower riparian states make a claim on the river.  In this case, the methodology is inspired from the rational choice theory of the discipline of International Relations where the focus is on material factors (trade-offs, side-benefits, issue linkages), which are an integral part of negotiation analysis. This approach focuses on physical attributes of the river, where the geographical configuration of the river is elemental in dictating negotiated outcomes in water diplomacy.

The second school primarily examines the spatial nature of water across different scales and highlights the complex interdependence that exists between the humans, the rivers and the environment. Some scholars have called this the localist perspective which highlights experiential challenges that basin communities witness given multiple uses of water. This understanding is rooted in a multi-scalar network of communities situated at different levels—at the local, national and international and focuses on highlighting the voices of trans-boundary basin communities.

If one contrasts these two perspectives, the former is a state-centric approach, while the latter goes beyond state centrism. Both these approaches are relevant to South Asia. There are multiple negotiated water agreements (even though bilateral) among South Asian countries. There are also multiple initiatives which have been taken by civil society organisations around transboundary rivers. Some of these issues got highlighted in the workshop.

Q: Water Diplomacy as a tool for developing and resolving conflicts among nations has very few real life precedents, no?


MB: I would be cautious of using the word ‘resolving’ and in fact refrain from using it. I would rather use the word ‘management’—given its application to the ways through which water diplomacy has been applied in South Asia. Given the growing challenges in terms of water quality and quantity, which is redefining the notion of water scarcity, diplomacy has to be accompanied by water governance. Having said this, one need not underestimate the fact that South Asia is one of those regions, where there is a bilateral agreement between each of the countries. One might critique the nature of the negotiated agreements, but one cannot deny their existence. Water diplomacy is not an isolated tool, but is influenced by the political relations between countries and politics is very much parcelled into the package known as water diplomacy.

A glance at some examples of water diplomacy in South Asia reveals we do have examples of countries arriving at a consensual understanding among riparians on transboundary rivers. While a desirable understanding of trade-offs might be missing from these agreements, one needs to understand that water diplomacy can provide a way forward for moving from a transactional approach to a transformational approach. The key to a transformational approach is to align and synchronise our policies and cognitive frames with the eco-system that governs the rivers and the environment rather than the geo-politics of South Asia–which was a divisive tool created by colonial and cold war legacy. Rivers make artificial geographies of South Asia redundant. The ‘ecological cartography’ of South Asia, as emphasised by the great scholar Dr. Kapila Vatsayayan needs to be emphasised and endorsed.


Q: What were the major take away from the workshop just concluded?

MB: The workshop aimed to highlight the interface between water diplomacy and water governance. The link is critical to South Asia primarily because, while there are negotiated agreements, the problem lies in their implementation. In this context it was highlighted that water governance could be a mitigating mechanism for water diplomacy. The South Asian states need to look at their institutional incapacities and water laws, which seem to be a weak spot. Another critical observation that emerged from the discussions was the problematic associated with the notion of water management. Unfortunately, given the colonial imprint in South Asia, most of our efforts lie in managing infrastructures rather than aspirations of the community.


Alternative ways of looking at rivers and water also came up for discussion. We are witnessing issues of ground water contamination and there is a growing reliance on ground water rather than surface water particularly in districts around River Ravi. While these issues were highlighted in our state level workshop, an attempt was undertaken to look at some of our indigenous practices through the specific notion of water architectures, which is ecologically sensitive and aesthetically enriching. The workshop also emphasised the need to revisit smaller rivers, or as one participant termed them as the “children of the lesser Gods”.

Considering them as intangible heritage of South Asia, these rivers remind us how through time immemorial they have  a pronounced presence in the very fabric of life.One only needs to explore their stories, by looking at the literature, folk songs, and the myths all woven around them. These narratives are important because they highlight an eco-systems perspective which goes back to the forgotten memories of the South Asian space.  We also discussed the problems associated with the fragmented nature of State-Centre issues in India (which has general implications for South Asia) and the lack of an overarching law in this regard. While issues such as “creeping centralisation” did emerge, the moot point centred on the emotive nature of water, which can be divisive and has potential for mobilisation. It was highlighted that much rests on the kind of politics one plays and that the national political direction in this regard becomes an important variable.


Q: What is the future of Water Diplomacy in the coming decades in the context of water paucity in South Asia?

There is great potential for water diplomacy. However, much depends on how we define the term. Can we make water diplomacy a catalytic agent to revisit our own cognitive frames? How do we make it a function of facilitating attitudinal change and recast ways of looking at water architectures and transboundary  rivers?  If water diplomacy is restricted to the notion of propaganda and a tool of diplomatic machinery it will indeed be unfortunate. A way forward is to evolve a bottom–up approach in order to understand voices and concerns of riparian communities and feed them into the discourses around water at the national and international level. A dialectical approach between discourses at the local, national and international level is needed.

There has been some exciting research in this area and hopefully South Asian University can provide a platform to look at Rivers in South Asia from an alternative paradigm, which is policy relevant, revisits the perspectives of riparian communities and creatively challenges some of the old paradigms which are built upon a transactional rather than a transformational approach.

Pix: Puneet Mehrotra, Darshan Soni


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