Communities fight for greater say in river management

By forming cross border networks, civil society groups in China and South Asia hope to exert greater influence over government decisions, but will officials listen?
<p>Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, a river that winds through four countries [image by: Sumit Vij]</p>

Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, a river that winds through four countries [image by: Sumit Vij]

Sustainable water management is proving to be a challenge in much of Asia, especially in the basins of rivers that flow through more than one country. At the same time, a large number of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Asia are working on water management issues. Why can’t these CSOs play a greater role in pushing for more cooperative transboundary water management? This is especially important as the countries of this region feel the growing impacts of climate change, as glaciers recede and rainfall becomes more irregular.

See: Water dangers loom for South Asia

This was one of the questions asked as part of a survey carried out by the BRIDGE (Building River Dialogue and Governance) project, funded by The Asia Foundation and the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme of Oxfam Novib, which focuses on the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin. This river basin supports the livelihoods of over 620 million people, is the third largest freshwater outlet to the ocean, and is the third most biodiverse river basin in the world after the Amazon and the Congo. The rivers and tributaries of the basin flow through five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal. The project team also asked bureaucrats in these countries what the governments thought of the roles that CSOs could play.

map of Ganges Brahmaputra Meghna Basin

The most important finding of this survey was that “most CSOs do not have access to technical knowledge, or the capacity to effectively engage and influence decision-making,” according to the survey report published recently.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which helps the BRIDGE project in the GBM basin, has now started providing this technical knowledge to CSOs. It will concentrate on five themes – capacity-building; transboundary cooperation; communication, outreach, and advocacy; research and knowledge; and policy and legislation.

Building up capacity 

The survey found that when it comes to capacity-building, most CSOs focus on local communities, followed by local and provincial governments. They concentrate on disaster preparedness and early warning systems; food security and community livelihood improvement. International laws and bilateral treaties, river rights and social impact assessments of developmental projects come very low on the priority list.

Do the CSOs do any research? The survey found that some do, focusing on environmental and social impact analysis of projects. Specifically, some CSOs study the impacts of sand mining on riverbeds, while some others study fisheries conservation. A few study water quality and monitor pollution.

The CSOs work with the communities for the research, but far less with academic institutions. The authors of the survey recommended closer collaboration with academics.

They also recommended the development of regional and national CSOs cooperation mechanisms, which can be done by building on existing networks. They suggested that such networks should build trust with the governments of the GBM basin countries. Considering the need for regional guidelines in transboundary river basins, the authors identified early warning systems and nature-based solutions as good entry points to deal with disasters such as floods and erosion and to support sustainable management of river basins.

There is also a need to analyse the extent to which current national policies and plans are equipped to deal with future water conflicts, so that CSOs can support harmonisation of water governance policies at the regional level.

Some of the CSOs surveyed are bringing together communities who live across national boundaries but share the same river basin, especially in the Koshi, Mahakali, and Brahmaputra basins. “CSOs can build on this strength and enhance community capacity to effectively engage in transboundary water dialogues,” the authors of the survey point out.

Bureaucrats’ eye view

The BRIDGE project also asked bureaucrats in all five countries what they thought of the role of the CSOs in water management, especially in transboundary river basins.

Almost all bureaucrats felt policy formulation was the job of governments, though they were happy to get inputs from CSOs through policy dialogues. A few – especially in Bangladesh – did see CSOs as useful partners in designing more effective, inclusive and holistic policies and also in providing support to their implementation.

Interestingly, some bureaucrats also felt that CSOs had more freedom than governments in advocating closer cooperation between countries on water governance, and this was a role they could play. To a certain degree this has been borne out by the Brahmaputra Dialogue, initiated by the Hyderabad based NGO South Asian Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs). As part of these discussions, participants from academia and civil society in China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh have been able to talk of common concerns.

See: Talking with the Chinese on the Brahmaputra

Most bureaucrats see research and knowledge production as a core area of CSO engagement and find it useful, “as it enables government institutions to access data from remote areas or on specific topics,” the survey says. But some policymakers are worried about the credibility of the data. Once again, this is a capacity-building issue, the survey points out.

As far as policymakers are concerned, they see the main role of CSOs to be communicating the policies made by the government. In India, the National Mission for Clean Ganga was cited as an example where CSOs are engaged, especially at the local level, in monitoring the impact of programmes and creating community awareness.

Some bureaucrats do go beyond that, and say CSOs can open multiple channels of communication, leading to the sharing of national and international research, standards and data. Some others also say, “By sharing information with different levels of society, CSOs can help pre-empt conflict situations before they arise, if they work well.”

Limited role seen by bureaucracy

However, nearly 40% of the bureaucrats surveyed in India were not comfortable with having CSOs engage in advocacy, except at local levels.

The authors of the survey say, “The attitudes of government officers can be a barrier to the involvement of CSOs in projects, and mutual trust needs to be built so that governments can enhance their engagement with CSOs.”

The big question is the role CSOs can play in fostering transboundary cooperation across shared river basins. Some bureaucrats agree that in some instances CSOs can work more effectively beyond borders, through the use of more informal cooperation mechanisms. They can create awareness among governments about the activities of CSOs in other countries and the challenges faced by local communities. Some bureaucrats highlight the ability of CSOs to look at issues from a basin or ecosystem perspective, and to engage in transboundary research and data sharing. But in the eyes of bureaucrats, all this depends on a “joint vision between government and CSOs on an issue.” The policymakers were keen that CSOs first “discuss and harmonise” their points of view with that of the government, before starting any advocacy at a regional level.

In India, 30% of the bureaucrats interviewed were unwilling to provide even this space to CSOs, holding that “transboundary cooperation is only a mandate for government agencies and CSOs do not have a role to play.”

A number of bureaucrats still perceive CSOs as “having vested interests, taking sides without evidence or becoming too one-sided during discussions and negotiations.” Bureaucrats questioned the neutrality of some CSOs who were seen as acting “out of their mandate” when advocating against governments. Some others think CSOs do not understand government policies and legislative processes. Some say CSOs lack “realism”. Some others say they are “idealistic and sometimes disconnected from responsibilities, duties and constraints of government.”

There is often a multitude of views and opinions within the CSO community. Improved coordination among CSOs would enable them to convey a stronger and more constructive message, say the authors of the survey.

In China, the government is developing a classification system (A to AAAA levels) to evaluate CSO activities and impacts. The system aims to improve engagement between government and those CSOs that are rated the highest by the evaluation. Chinese bureaucrats felt this would also “help to ensure that CSOs work in a transparent manner and are willing to share data and information on their activities with the government.”

Way forward

The BRIDGE programme has already formed a regional network of more than 30 CSOs from across five countries. Based on the survey, its authors say this platform can act as a “coherent and harmonised pressure group to convey demands, knowledge and recommendations from the ground.” Frequent and direct communication between platforms such as this and government should be established at all levels, central, provincial and local, they recommend, but the question remains whether governments will listen.