Are rivers just cusecs and megawatts?

At the Water Futures II held in Kolkata and Dhaka by IUCN, though transboundary water sharing was the core of the discussion, various peripherals of country-wise issues were spoken as well. From environmental historians, to hydrologists, the pool of people shared their thoughts, perspectives and knowledge with a gamut of participants from different backgrounds.

A new mandate was raised- sediment sharing management and policies from both the countries. Beyond geopolitics of water, policies, treaties, water sharing, there emerged a stronger need to have a human-centric approach to water as perceived by the ‘need’. Ifteqar Iqbal, author of the book ‘Bengal Delta’ neatly elucidates the context of rural impoverishment and its link to environmental changes.

The first need is to understand the ‘need’ for water, to look at how flood water was managed by people in the right way, and what we really want when we talk about basin sharing. Do we represent the people living on the either sides of the basins or are we just lamenting about lack of action from both the countries? How are we understanding the issues from people’s end, and how do we ensure that their voices are heard when decisions are being made. This crucial question still remains a question in itself. There are no clear answers to this.

People who live on chars(river islands formed from sedimentation) might not understand the India-Bangladesh boundaries. However, they very well understand the flood patterns of the river and utilise it in the right way. So, why can’t we understand the river through local knowledge of people? An expert spoke of inundation irrigation. Sample this. Red silt is dragged to people’s fields. Along with this comes the egg and larvae of fishes, which predate on the mosquitoes. Fish, in turn, also become a source of protein for people. This has been the regime of flood dependent agrarian system in Eastern India. It worked very well.

Participatory management, which caught some space in this entire debate is a need if we are looking at solutions on a larger scale. The key stakeholders (the people living there) need to be involved to document their knowledge on water management practices, and if they can be used now and how.

The bone of contention is beyond power and politics. It is people. Water is first a need for our farmers, with a whopping 88% needed to fulfill our irrigation needs. And from what experts said, domestic water supply is well taken care of. So, what are we essentially fighting for? Some experts also said that the demand for water very well exceeds the water supply at the basins. So, what is the whole point of discussion and fighting over river basins? Everything seems lopsided and the mass, at large are the ignored majority here.

Then, when we do raise a question about transboundary water sharing, why not look at:

  1. Common cultures that bind us
  2. The endangered species we share
  3. Learning and adapting best practices for solutions

How long should we wait for the subsequent treaties to be signed? It took 20 years for the Ganges treaty and by this count, you can think about the staggering number of years needed to resolve the rest. What will people dependent on these river basins do until then?

Why not achieve self-sufficiency through decentralised approaches as we go along? As we talk politics and policies in confined doors, farmers and villagers are going back to indigenous water saving practices to save their farms and get their daily supply of water. Drip irrigation is a classic example of this. It is amazing how a technology travelled all the way from Israel and has marked a tremendous success story in India. There is a need to document such stories, to learn and adapt, as we grapple with an endless wait on treaties. We cannot wait for policies to materialise as people struggle. What can we do now is the question! And the answer clearly is looking at adaptive mitigation measures to ward off the problems and look at innovative solutions to water availability and disaster management. This could not just be an interim relief to people living on shared basins, but also be a sustainable solution in the long run.

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