In The News

Transparency Needed for South Asia Transboundary Water Cooperation

March 19, 2014

In 2008, Nepal and India experienced one of the worst river disasters in their modern history, when the Kosi River breached an embankment flooding vast areas of terai Nepal and northeastern parts of Bihar, India. The floods caused tremendous loss of human life and property, affecting an estimated 50,000 Nepalis and 3.5 million Indians.

Nepal River

As rapid population growth and urbanization increase demand, water is increasingly a scarce and precious resource in South Asia. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

A tributary of the Ganges and a transboundary river that flows through Tibet, Nepal, and India, the Kosi River is prone to seasonal variations in river flow and sediment discharge, resulting in frequent downstream floods. The 2008 disaster sparked political tensions, with politicians and the media in Kathmandu and Patna (the capital of Bihar) blaming the other for the disaster. Fast forward to 2013 and monsoon floods and landslides in the Mahakali River basin, another transboundary river, wreaked havoc and devastation in Nepal and the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. In both cases, the lack of accurate data and public access to information obscured the root causes of the floods, spreading myths and misinformation to the flood victims longing for an explanation.

South Asia, home to the Brahmaputra, Indus, and Ganges, has numerous bilateral treaties, agreements, and joint-commissions that regulate the use and management of shared rivers between Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Yet information on these agreements, let alone the rivers themselves, is notoriously hard to access. Hydrological data is widely regarded by governments in the region as top-secret and confidential. For instance, all of India’s northern rivers including the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra are designated as “classified” basins – such that information and data about these rivers is not publicly accessible. In this scenario, water negotiations between co-riparian states are usually conducted in secrecy, with no information on when joint-committees meet or on key decisions that have been made. Such secrecy has very real consequences on the ground, breeding mistrust and misinformation among the public and undermining efforts at transboundary cooperation.

In recent years, the proliferation of access to information or Right to Information (RTI) laws throughout South Asia has provided citizens and civil society organizations with new ways to access government data and information. These laws provide a unique opportunity to broaden understanding among the public and different stakeholder groups, and could potentially widen the scope for improved transboundary water governance decisions.

In July 2013, The Asia Foundation, with support from the Skoll Global Threats Fund and in partnership with the World Resources Institute and civil society organizations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, initiated a one-year project to promote and strengthen transparency and access to information on transboundary rivers in South Asia. Through this project, we are assessing the availability of data and information relating to select transboundary rivers in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, while building the capacities of civil society and the media to utilize transparency tools and mechanisms including RTI to push for greater access to data and information on water and climate issues. This information will be disseminated within the region. Early findings of this analysis point to the following:

  • Proactive information disclosure is quite limited: The proactive disclosure of hydrological data and information on transboundary rivers is quite limited across government agencies in each country. In most cases, information is either not proactively disclosed, is incomplete, or is not up to date. This makes it difficult to get a comprehensive picture of the rivers and their health. It is also reflective of the poor state of data and records management practices in most countries in the region.
  • Data is more easily available at the local level: In India and Nepal, researchers were able to obtain some information and data through informal interactions with officials at the local level, whereas efforts to obtain this information remotely from capital cities were largely unsuccessful. For example, in India, researchers were able to inspect the Kosi Barrage and eastern and western Kosi canals in the state of Bihar, while in Nepal, researchers were able to get access to documents, PDFs, and other data about the Sapta Koshi High Dam project, Sunsari Mirang Irrigation Canal, Kosi bridge, and information on the 2008 floods.
  • Right to Information as a tool to access water data and information: RTI requests have been filed to access hydrological data and information on rivers in each country. While responses are only just starting to come in, it appears that there is little resistance to parting with information in Bangladesh and Nepal.
  • Access to information is a tangible need on the ground: Interviews with stakeholders affected by the 2008 Kosi floods in Hanuman Nagar and Birpur, Bihar and Sunsari district in Nepal highlighted the real need for greater information-sharing and access at a local level. Stakeholders are largely unaware of on-going bilateral negotiations between India and Nepal on the Kosi and the duties and responsibilities of both governments in managing the river. Additionally, stakeholders pointed to the lack of an early warning system in the Kosi Basin, the lack of coordination and cooperation between governments on either side of the border, and the limited public sharing of information by local governments on incidents such as the 2008 floods.

Water is an evocative and politically charged issue in South Asia, and these findings suggest that poor management of information is a crucial problem. Even as countries in the region engage in bilateral negotiations, expanding public access to data and information on transboundary rivers is essential to improving decision-making, ensuring accountability of governments, and dispelling many of the misconceptions that foster political tensions. In the long term, this may be one route to expanding avenues for cooperation on transboundary water in South Asia.

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India and Sagar Prasai is the Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal. They can be reached at mandakini.surie@asiafoundation.org and sagar.prasai@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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