Insights and Analysis

Desecuritizing Transboundary Water in South Asia

September 17, 2014

By Mandakini Devasher Surie

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesSevere floods in the Kashmir region of Northern India and Pakistan over the past few weeks have taken 450 lives so far, and uprooted thousands of residents on both sides of the highly politicized border. Heavy monsoon rains caused the Chenab and Jhelum rivers (tributaries of the Indus River system) to overflow their banks, resulting in a scale of flooding that some are calling unprecedented. In an effort to stem a growing crisis, both governments have ramped up flood relief and rescue efforts, even as thousands have been rendered homeless with many more trapped by floodwaters or reported missing. With more rain expected in coming weeks, critics have pointed to government failure in both countries to effectively mitigate and manage the flood crisis.

Floods in South Asia

Floods are a frequent occurrence in South Asia, where for centuries, transboundary rivers such as the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra have served as the cradles of civilization. Worshipped, revered, and the source of livelihoods for an estimated 700 million, these rivers are the lifeline of the subcontinent but also the source of much misery and devastation. Photo/Flickr user Emma and Kunley

Floods are a frequent occurrence in South Asia, where for centuries, transboundary rivers such as the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra have served as the cradles of civilization. Worshipped, revered, and the source of livelihoods for an estimated 700 million, these rivers are the lifeline of the subcontinent but also the source of much misery and devastation. Seasonal variations in the monsoon coupled with the effects of global warming and climate change have led to a growing number of intense floods in the region including the 2008 Kosi floods in Nepal, the 2010 Indus floods in Pakistan, and the 2011 Uttarakhand floods in India.

Despite the frequency and transboundary nature of these extreme events, cooperation between countries remains limited and piecemeal at the best of times. Given the subcontinent’s complex and contentious geo-politics, all things that flow from one side of the border to the other are inextricably tied to national security. Securitization of South Asia’s water has meant that even basic information about transboundary rivers, including stream and sediment flow, water withdrawal, and usage is notoriously difficult to access within countries – let alone across borders. In India for example, all data and information on the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers is considered classified information. The Indian government’s 2013 Hydro-meteorological Data Dissemination Policy spells out a procedure to enable users (including citizens, commercial entities, and foreigners) to access this data, but requires applicants to sign a secrecy agreement that prohibits disclosure of the information publicly, and breach of the agreement invites the penalty of civil liability.

While data is not as vigorously securitized in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, accessibility remains as arduous. This is ironic given the fact that most South Asian countries, and India in particular, are at the forefront of the open data and transparency movement and have served as models for the enactment of right to information (RTI) or access to information laws in other developing countries. On water- and climate-induced disasters, South Asian countries have chosen to vault critical information rather than use it to collectively reduce the effects of the annual onslaught that repeats itself every monsoon.

To understand the nature and effects of the secrecy regime on water and climate data in the region, over the past year, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the World Resources Institute and civil society organizations in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, has implemented a project* to access data and information on three rivers in the region: the Padma River (Bangladesh), Kosi River (India and Nepal), and the Sharda or Mahakali River (India). The project conducted in-depth, country-level assessments to test the availability of data and information on selected parameters for each of these rivers. Using RTI legislation in all three countries, our partners, the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-N), and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, filed requests for data on stream flow, sediment flow, and dams and hydrological structures for the focus rivers in each country. Early findings point to the fragmented availability of information on the selected rivers and parameters, poor quality of data and records management practices, limited proactive disclosure of information, and weak capacity of governments to effectively implement the right to information.

Our research also found that while there were issues with data availability and quality in all three countries, information was far easier to access in Bangladesh and Nepal. In both countries government departments were more willing and able to provide information (where it is available) informally compared to formal requests for information. This seems to indicate two things: In general, information pertaining to transboundary rivers is not considered classified or secret in Bangladesh and Nepal, but rather this information is not collected, retained, or disseminated in a sustained manner; and the implementation of RTI laws in these countries is still at a nascent stage compared with India.

Research also found that government departments and officials in Bangladesh and Nepal lack the necessary knowledge and capacity to respond effectively to requests for information. Therefore, the efficacy of RTI as a tool to access data and information on water and climate issues cannot yet be written off. What this indicates is an opportunity to work with governments, civil society, and the media more closely in Bangladesh and Nepal to start opening up on water- and climate-related data and information in a more targeted manner. In India, on the other hand, while we were able to get some data and information, by and large efforts to use RTI to get information on the Kosi and Sharda rivers were unsuccessful. In most instances, RTI requests were denied on the grounds that the information pertained to national security and could not be shared. The government’s position of secrecy on transboundary issues is even more puzzling because information pertaining to peninsular Indian rivers – which have a long history of inter-state disputes – is relatively open and publicly accessible in comparison.

While there is nascent recognition that the disclosure of information is important (as exhibited in India’s National Water Policy 2012, Hydro-meteorological Data Dissemination Policy 2013, and Bangladesh’s Water Act 2013), the idea that water-related information is vital to public livelihood is clearly still not widespread. As incoming monsoon rains threaten an already submerged Kashmir Valley, the need for greater democratization of information on water within the region could not be more urgent in order for governments to prepare for such events more ably in the future.

*This project is funded by the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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