The Brahmaputra River has repeatedly been the centre ground of diplomatic hostility between China, India and Bangladesh. With no transboundary treaty or common understanding between the countries sharing the river, downstream countries have repeatedly raised concerns that China, the upstream riparian country, would dam and divert the glacial meltwaters that are crucial not only for towns, cities and industry, but for the millions of farmers in the plains of India and Bangladesh downstream. Others have expressed concern about the cumulative impacts of long-standing plans to build more than 100 hydropower projects bumper-to-bumper in China and Arunachal Pradesh, a northeast border state where the river enters India.
The Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is called in the Tibet Autonomous Region, is known for the high volume of water it carries, which flows with a scouring velocity as it plunges round the great bend in Tibet and into India. During high precipitation months, the river spreads up to 30 kilometres wide as it enters the plains of India, and onwards to the Bangladesh Delta, where the river eventually flows into the Bay of Bengal. The river carries an annual sediment discharge of more than 700 million tonnes. This discharge shapes and reshapes the river landscape each year, impacting millions of people living in the basin.
Keeping these issues in mind, International Rivers, with consortium partners from the South Asia region, secured funding to complement some of the existing work in the river basin and break new ground in regional cooperation. The activities were divided into four broad components. First, to enhance collaboration to build climate resilience among communities in the Teesta basin, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra River. Second, to catalyse innovative solutions by involving basin-level experts and civil society representatives. Third, to improve the environmental governance for transboundary rivers in the basin area by taking India and Bhutan as a case study and facilitating a Track-1.5 dialogue with state and non-state actors from both countries. Finally, the project sought to enhance the knowledge of civil society organisations by issuing briefs, and publishing an online knowledge repository.
Most notably, the work on identifying the vulnerability and risk of communities in the Teesta River floodplain has progressed rapidly and gained traction beyond the initial scope of the project. During the course of the year, strategic conversations with affected villagers helped us identify advocacy solutions. Two village-level committees were formed in September 2017 and have met, along with members of the Panchayat. The village-level committees in the India side of the Teesta have assessed the issues and problems faced in their area. This has galvanized the village clusters to draw up plans to send a deputation to the Siliguri Teesta Barrage authorities, as well as hold a mass public meeting at the Teesta Barrage office advocating for the solutions identified during the course of the project.
In Bangladesh too there has been some progress. In October and December 2017, two committee meetings were held. Affected village representatives and CSO representatives, met to help strategize and plan for future movement building. Although meeting participants raised concerns about the low number of female participants, the members pointed out the difficulties for rural women engaging in such NGO or social activism. Overall, there is lack of clarity and coordination among stakeholders currently, and we hope that the formation of committees will bring the affected persons and other stakeholders to recognize the increasing human misery caused by river degradations, due to human activity and climate change.
In India, the village clusters have undertaken vetiver plantations along the embankments to prevent soil erosion. The villagers are no longer demanding a dam, embankment or dyke to adapt to climate change; for the first time, all the village representatives are coming together to address the problems with a soft engineering options to curb erosion. Approximately 40,000 vetiver saplings have been distributed in four strategic locations. The villagers, along with the consortium partners, have already planted thousands of saplings, and there are planned discussions in the next month on how to strategically stabilize the riverbanks across the vulnerable areas. If it’s a success, the village committees will seek government funding.
International Rivers also convened three workshops in Guwahati (India), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Kathmandu (Nepal), which brought together representatives of civil society organizations, NGO representativess, activists and academicians from the four river basin countries. We believe that these efforts will play an important role in initiating more transboundary conversations, which will inevitably improve river planning and management in the Brahmaputra basin. This sharing is just the beginning. Given the commitment of the participants and their long-standing work history in the region, they will use the takeaways from these meetings and the informal networks to advance the exchanges from Track 2 to Track 1.5, where civil society will interact with government.
Moreover, these workshops, particularly those held in Dhaka and Kathmandu, brought participants from China, and has helped bridge a knowledge and trust deficit that has existed for years, and which has hindered progress in the Brahmaputra Basin. There was open interaction amongst the participants; it is not often that civil society members and NGO reps from the four countries meet to forge new partnerships and come to common understanding and vision for shared rivers. In particular, the Chinese participants were willing to engage, and were independently able to critique government policy and make important transboundary recommendations. Going forward, we foresee more open conversations at workshops and conferences from all riparian countries, including China.
The workshops culminated at a gathering in Kathmandu (November, 2017), where the participants from all four riparian countries agreed on pathways towards a shared vision for a healthy free-flowing Brahmaputra River. This also included a shared understanding on the sustainable, equitable and democratic use of the Brahmaputra Basin, how to achieve transparent and participatory governance through transboundary cooperation, as well as understanding climate change in order to build greater resilience among at-risk populations in the Brahmaputra Basin. Lastly, there was agreement to improve data and information sharing, as well as to seek new opportunities to conduct a joint baseline study of the basin, whilst calling for further cooperation of both NGOs and river basin country governments.
Participants are also sincerely confident that much of the policy-level work in the form of briefs that were envisioned as part of the project will initiate a process of long-term change. In particular, the work on environmental impact assessments will be particularly helpful to communities across the river basin and beyond, relevant to other potential vulnerable communities as well. One of the briefing papers, for instance, details the screening and scoping procedures as part of project environmental impact assessments. This also included the guidelines for holding public hearings and ensuring communities participate in the assessment process. The document also details how such projects are appraised and by which concerned authorities.
One of the workshops organized in Bangladesh also emphasised how to best engage people with the EIA process and share more information about the process. The workshop focused on how the impact assessment can be used as a planning tool for environmental protection and to achieve sustainable development both in the social and economic aspects across political boundaries. This effort showcases how such briefing papers can be helpful and shared with other vulnerable communities going forward.
An issue brief on Transboundary EIA’s was also prepared for the project summarizing how there is a need to go beyond the existing national EIA process and adopt a holistic approach to EIAs that addresses environmental and social concerns beyond the nation’s territorial boundaries. Such an approach is not only important to address environmental issues in a holistic manner, but will also serve as an effective tool to resolve conflicts over water sharing. A downloadable copy is available below.
An Internet-based mapping of hydro engineering structures in Teesta and Brahmaputra rivers was also completed during the project phase and can be found at the following website – http://www.ercindia.org/maps/dams
The environmental flows work will potentially offer long-term benefits to the region. Some of this work commenced before the project, but has been consolidated and detailed out further by the project. The paper (attached below) identifies the salient points of the UN Watercourses Convention, the Helsinki and Berlin Rules, and important case laws pertaining to transboundary rivers. The paper also makes it clear that environmental flows assessments should be a part and parcel of the comprehensive planning of a river basin and not an ad hoc means to address adverse impacts of an isolated hydropower or irrigation project. The primary focus is to take the scientific flow assessment beyond local impacts and individual projects to a transboundary level so that there are future collaborations between governments for better social, economic and ecological outcomes.
In conclusion, it’s important to note that there were many constraints in implementing the Project. It was a challenge to include women in dialogues, and in particular to have them actively participate given the social and cultural environments in which we were operating. Moreover, the prevailing mistrust amongst nations sharing the waters of the Brahmaputra was also an undeniable constraint; activities had to be designed accordingly to work around this. Strategically, the final workshop was held in Kathmandu, although geographically located outside the river basin. Nepal made it relatively easy to convene participants from Bhutan, China, India and Bangladesh. Notably, hosting sessions in-basin remains fraught with challenges. Finally, it was noted that all meetings and gatherings had limited empirical data. Having gone through these challenges, there is a firm belief that the time is ripe for a Brahmaputra River treaty, and this can only be fostered by efforts similar to this one. This project, it is hoped, will lead to future research collaborations, not just at the CSO and academic level, but subsequently at the inter-government level.
Featured image: Villagers from Gazaldoba 12 downstream from the barrage face heavy erosion for several months in the year | Photo by Samir Mehta