Members of Women Empowerment Center of Darchula discussing on Community-based 'flood early warning communication channel' before the monsoon season in 2019. Darchula, Nepal. Photo: Uma Kunwar

‘Valuing water’ critical to transboundary flood management in Nepal-India shared basins.

Both Nepal and India are endowed with rich water resources, including transboundary rivers and streams that originate in Nepal and flow into India. However, many riverine communities dependent on these water resources in both countries face extreme poverty and vulnerability due to limited investment in, and support for, livelihood systems and frequent water-induced hazards such as floods and droughts.

There is an urgent need to assess the multitudes of economic, cultural and environmental values of water and rivers and integrate them in transboundary flood management initiatives between Nepal and India.

Existing transboundary flood management mechanisms in some of the shared basins are heavily focused on controlling and taming the floods through more engineered solutions, including grey infrastructures such as dykes, reservoirs and embankments. As a result, these approaches and policy measures don’t adequately assess and integrate the value of water in terms of its role in the local economy, culture and ecosystem functioning. It also often fails to address the root social-ecological drivers of flood vulnerability in these shared basins and the communities living in these basins.

A recent paper Rich water, poor people: Potential for transboundary flood management between Nepal and India, analyses the impacts of recurring floods faced by communities of Nepal and India and further outlines actions that may help in saving lives and livelihood of millions of people affected by floods.

Existing Nepal-India joint flood management practices could be potential entry points to improve further improve collaboration on water resources as a whole and could potentially resolve the paradox of water as plenty and scarce in the region (Rasul et al., 2019). Community-led dialogues and initiatives have helped increase collaboration in water resources-centric governance, including water-related disasters. Such initiatives have the potential to reduce the loss of lives and livelihoods in both countries. (INJAF, 2018).

An agenda on ‘valuing water’ could also help in better management of water resources with a focus on improving the livelihoods by enabling communities access to, and benefits from, water and river resources. Improvement in agriculture, fisheries and many small and medium enterprises can increase income levels of communities as well as improve their water and food security and in turn help build their adaptive capacity and resilience.

This could also help increase cross-border and regional trade in a cooperative atmosphere and could boost trade and commerce between the two countries. Women-led small and medium enterprises in agriculture, fisheries and tourism in the border areas between Nepal and India will gain from such trade. Many of the existing goods and services traded are agro- and fisheries-based and at risk of flooding hazards. A valuing water approach could help identify opportunities to reduce flood risks across the supply chain, risk proof the business and trade and help farmers and traders better adapt to and recover from flooding.

More importantly, a valuing water approach has the scope to improve informed participation of communities, particularly those of women and youth, and other stakeholders in flood management and flood risk reduction initiatives. The water governing institutions Water Energy Commission Secretariat and National Water Mission of Nepal and India respectively has highlighted the challenges in transboundary water governance such as the country's rising population, changing expectations due to economic growth, and climate change-related impacts. The devolution of authority and decision-making from the federal to the state level in Nepal has led to an increase in local participation in water management and it can be further enhanced in the Indian context. Such community leadership and community-centric policies are essential to increase transboundary water cooperation.

We hope that the awareness and learnings on valuing water will help to improve some of the existing transboundary flood management initiatives between Nepal and India by making them more inclusive and participatory.

(Authors work with Oxfam and are part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) program. Rajan Subedi is one of the co-authors of the paper Rich water, Poor People. Views expressed are personal)