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International Conference on Highland-Lowland Interactions in the Himalayas
Tackling water challenges, transcending boundaries

Water quality and water quantity have changed: “Climate change is the most systemic threat to humankind”.

Ensuring the fair access to all natural resources and their distribution for everybody is one of the world’s greatest challenges. Water is an important example of this and a very urgent matter in South Asia. Intensive weather conditions such as floods or droughts are heavily affected by climate change. These effects become more dramatic each year, bringing distribution mechanisms and state resolves closer to their limit.

As climate change effects are transboundary, the response has to be, too. But a lack in cooperation and little water governance represents a considerable obstacle for the region’s effective response to droughts, floods, water cleaning and hydro-power. A number of national hydrological issues can be tackled through international cooperation. India’s neighbours face similar challenges and could benefit from a multi-lateral approach economically and ecologically.

To explore the scope for international cooperation and political harmonisation of national environment policies, Hanns Seidel Foundation India and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies brought together experts from Pakistan, India, China, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Participation of regional expert agencies such as ICIMOD and government representatives play an important role. From 16–17 November 2019, these representatives from national institutions, research and bureaucrats met in Dhaka and discussed the obstacles in transboundary water governance cooperation. The Hindukush Himalaya Water Conference: Highland-Lowland Interactions marked the 6th instalment of its kind and brought to light crucial differences and commonalities in a candid manner.

Need for a strong regional cooperation and partnership

To tackle the challenges such as flood and climate change, regional cooperation is the only way forward, said the German Ambassador to Bangladesh, Geord Fahrenholtz, who inaugurated the Himalaya Water conference. Europe learnt it sooner and created its European Union to promote multilateral cooperation and multilateralism for peace, security and prosperity. Water had immense potential to play as a great unifier in the South Asia region as well: It is intertwined and neatly connected through its rivers. Due to politico-administrative boundaries in the HKH region, often the water bodies – especially the rivers – stand divided, making them transboundary in nature. The discrete nature of national boundaries, these rivers’ management is neither integrated nor comprehensive, which has caused huge damage to the river’s health and its ecosystem. To prevent any further deterioration in the existing situation, transboundary water resources management (TWRM) needs to be centered on basin-wise approach, said Prof. Ainun Nishat, Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research, BRAC University. Urgent actions are needed to save the water resources in the Himalayas. In his presentation, Dr. Abu Syed, Fellow, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), highlighted six urgent actions that need to be taken up in the larger interest of the HKH region for sustainable development, resource conservation, livelihood and poverty elimination, among others—1). Cooperate at all levels across HKH, 2). Recognize and prioritize the uniqueness of HKH mountain people, 3). Achieve the SDG in the HKH, 4). Enhance ecosystem resilience, 5). Share information and knowledge and 6). Limit global warming to under 1.5 degrees.

The need for regional cooperation and river water sharing can also be understood from ecosystem perspective. Prof. Rezaur Rahman, Bangladesh University for Engineering and Technology, a unique point of view that the ecological resources in Himalayan basin are common resources for the co-riparian countries and it is possible to find out common ecological entry points for sharing water resources for protection of common resources. For example, basis for sharing water in the Brahmaputra river basin could be Gangetic dolphins, which will require protecting Brahmaputra River as dolphin habitat. Similarly, sharing of Ganges river water could be done for protecting Sundarbans, “which is home to rich bio-diversity consisting of large variety of rare species of flora and fauna, and acts as a vital protective barrier protecting the mainland from flooding, tidal waves and cyclones.” Developing deltas formed by Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna can also bring together the countries of the HKH region, underlined Dr. Khondaker Azharul Haq, Chair, Global Water Partnership (South Asia).

Managing Transboundary River Basins

For managing a river body, the whole basin should be considered as one single unit and an integrated approach should be used to develop and rejuvenate that river. It is very important to understand what a river is and how it works. River is manifestation of hydro-meteorological processes taking place over a basin and consequent response of the orography and geology to the water cycle, said Mr. A B Pandya, ex-Chairman, Central Water Commission of India. River is a final concentration area of the entire basin runoff, he adds. Transboundary basins are often huge and involve many stakeholders from government to people. At present, there exists a tendency to view the water resource with exclusivist policy on part of upstream nations and dictatorship of riparian principles on part of downstream names, narrates Mr. Pandya. The transboundary river basin management could be possible only through regional cooperation.

The water flow in the rain-fed transboundary rivers (such as Ganges) often dwindle considerably in the lean season, with heavy toll on water quality due to untreated effluents coupled with lack of fresh water, explains Mr. Pandya who advocates for strategic storages on the river to make more water available in the lean season. Mr. Ratna Sansar Shrestha, Chairman, Nepal Hydro & Electric Ltd. informs that Nepal contributes 70% of dry season flow and 40% of annual flow of the Ganges River (called Padma in Bangladesh). For lean season augmented flow, Nepal’s terrain affords relatively better sites for storage dams which also helps in flood control, observes Mr. Shrestha who also claims that it is not possible to build dams on the Indian part of Ganges or Bangladeshi part of Ganges (Padma) in the Indian states or Bangladesh in that magnitude However, he cautions that as Nepal lies in the seismic zone, requisite measures will have to be taken beforehand.

Harmonizing National Policies in Water Sector

Another challenge for regional cooperation is harmonizing the national policies in the water sector in the region. Each nation has its own water policy, standing aloof from other nations’ water policies. Due to lack of coordination, those policies seek to pursue different agenda. Harmonization needs to take place among various water related policies and among nations in the region. Mr. Taufiqul Islam, Director, Water Resources Planning Organization, Bangladesh, said that policies on water quality standards, effluent discharge standards, polluter pays principle etc. need to be harmonized at both national as well as regional levels. For example, to harmonize the water quality standards, a water quality index can be developed at the regional level. Talking about India’s national water policy, Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha said that it needs to be rational, practical, time-bound and achievable. The policy should not be an endless aim; it should be SMART.

Climate change: ‘The most systemic threat to humankind’

The most populated basin in the world is the HKH region’s Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin, which is highly prone to the climate change. In fact, 80% of ecological processes that form the foundation for life on Earth are impacted by climate change, said Mr. Raquibul Amin, Country Representative, IUCN Bangladesh, citing what Mr. Antonio Guterres (Secretary General UN) said in 2018 that climate change is the most systemic threat to human kind. A number of common macro-climate stresses such as rise in temperature and erratic rainfall across the four river basins—Indus, Upper Ganges, Gandaki and Teesta—have been observed, stated Dr. Dwijen Mallick, Fellow, BCAS. Climate change will also have impact on the existing treaties on transboundary rivers. Due to climate change, water quality as well as quantity has changed. Climate proofing of Indus Water Treaty is required to ensure its sustainability, said Brig (R) Fiaz Hussain Shah, Director General NIDM, NDMA Islamabad.

Multilateralism and Dialog taking first steps towards sustainable success

Mostly the nations in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region engage, deal and cooperate with each other bilaterally. However, the recent past has witnessed some shift and multilateralism in the form of sub-regional engagement is evolving and could be a new normal in the region. To cite a few examples, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal (BBIN) road connectivity project and inland waterways agreement between India and Bangladesh which is open for a third country’s entry also, are designed to usher in a new chapter in the nascent history of multilateralism in the HKH region, especially in the face of SAARC developing dysfunctionality. Growing interdependence and interplay of the issues facing the comity of eight nations in the HKH region from Afghanistan to Myanmar pushes for multilateralism and a new architecture to build and promote regional cooperation in the region which helps the nations of the HKH region to survive and flourish. For this, the governmentality that persists today in the region has to change—people to people contact be promoted and strategy for governance and management of transnational spaces be worked out and adopted.