Managing South Asia’s Himalayan rivers

Authors: Ben Crow and Nirvikar Singh, UCSC

The great Himalayan rivers of South Asia, particularly the Ganges and Brahmaputra, have been the subject of five decades of discussion between governments of the region.

While the discussions have continued, these rivers have contributed, through flood and drought, to the uncertainty and impoverishment of the lives of the largest concentration of poor people anywhere in the world. Their chances for prosperity can be increased by harnessing the potential of these rivers for irrigation and power, by controlling their perils (such as floods), and managing them in the face of increasing demands and threats to supplies from climate change.

A set of climatic and social changes has transformed the context for cooperation over the Himalayan rivers. Previous negotiations engaged rivers on the assumption that these waterways had stable futures, that social interaction with the rivers was guided by the demands of agrarian economies and that transboundary negotiations could be approached through traditional diplomacy. At the beginning of the 21st century, these three assumptions have changed. Glacial melting and climate change have undermined the assumption that these rivers hold a stable future. The rapid growth of industrial economies in India and China will change the predominant social demands on the rivers from those of agrarian societies to those of industrial ones, and will insert China as a possible major player in the discussion. Government diplomacy is expanding to include commercial actors and is deepening through the rise of civil-society interactions.

While in the 1990s, several international agreements, particularly between India and Nepal, established important precedents for cooperation over water, the potential for reduced conflict and greatly improved regional development has only partly been realised. One aspect of this slow progress was the lack of an institutional framework for overall evaluation and facilitating implementation. More recently, a wave of hydroelectric projects in the Himalayan valleys of India, Pakistan and Nepal has raised concerns. Foreign capital, including from China, adds to the complexity of the situation. China’s own hydroelectric projects on the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra have potentially important implications for Bangladesh and India.

One possible path to best manage the rivers would be a new regulatory body that encompasses all the nations with stakes in the Himalayan rivers. This body would incorporate a mix of expertise and interests — including a panel of technical experts, experienced diplomats from each country and representatives of key interest groups. A new water regulatory institution could serve as a knowledge clearing house and source of technical information for a range of water issues. It could also monitor the health of river basins, the progress of various projects and adherence to international agreements. Potentially, some level of enforcement authority could be assigned to this body by member nations, though issues of sovereignty will always be delicate. At the very least, violators or non-performers could be named and shamed if such an institution were to increase disclosure and transparency, and provide a centralised source of the resulting information.

From India’s perspective, China’s presence in such a body would unavoidably change the strategic balance of South Asian river discussions, reducing India’s bargaining power or ability to act relatively unilaterally as a result of its dominant position in South Asia. Yet China’s ability to drastically affect water supplies throughout South Asia, particularly as the impacts of climate change become more severe, means that its inclusion is necessary and potentially valuable to all parties. The participation of both Chinese and Indians in the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), including senior politicians and technical experts, indicates that cooperation between the two giants in this sphere is feasible.

What interests would sustain such a regulatory authority? First, a new basis for Himalayan cooperation would make possible new water and environmental management initiatives, both small and large scale. In other words, there are benefits to be gained. Second, the challenges of climate change and glacial melting generate uncertainties which will be hard to respond to without such an institution. That is, the costs of not cooperating are likely to be substantial, and this will rapidly and increasingly become apparent.

The history of managing the Mekong basin, from the control of colonial powers to a Mekong River Commission that does not include major upstream nations (China and Myanmar), indicates some of the problems with traditional nationalist approaches to multilateral cooperation, as well as the limitations of investment-oriented multilateral institutions. Of course, there is no ideal or easy solution to these trade-offs and the success of any institution depends on the specifics of design and implementation. Therefore, in addition to ICIMOD, the Mekong River Commission could also provide a starting point for thinking about the appropriate institutional design. The importance and urgency of the problem requires some institutional innovation, and design and implementation can only occur once the idea has been firmly placed on the agenda of policy makers in the countries at risk from future water shortages and crises.

Ben Crow is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Nirvikar Singh is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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