Water has multiple uses and values for society and the environment. Photo: Mahakali River, Nepal.

Valuing water and rivers 

Today is World Water Day. This year’s theme Valuing Water aims to generate awareness about the different values of water and water resources in our lives to galvanize more actions for better protection and sustainable management.

Many of our water resources such as streams, springs, lakes, rivers and aquifers are at great risk of unregulated development and climate change impacts. Rivers, in particular, are facing unprecedented challenges and pressures linked to resource extraction such as riverbed mining (for sand) and other infrastructure development like hydro-power plants and water extraction to meet the ever-growing water needs of cities and industries. The resulting ecological and economic impacts of these human-induced changes disproportionately impact the communities who are dependent on these river systems for their water needs and livelihoods.

Unregulated riverbed extraction for sand and agglomerates are common in South Asia. Photo: PEI Nepal

Threatened livelihoods, income loss, habitat degradation, health impacts related to riverbed mining and water pollution, and lack of support for communities’ meaningful participation in decision-making exacerbate vulnerability and poverty among many of these river-dependent communities. For example, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin, which covers large parts of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal, is endowed with rich water resources but is also one of the poorest regions in the world.

There is an urgent need to improve our understanding of different ways water and rivers play a critical role in livelihood security, poverty alleviation, vulnerability reduction and climate adaptation among these communities. Advancing local, national and basin-wide dialogues on the value of water and rivers, and integrating these insights into shared waters cooperation mechanisms and regional trade and business initiatives is essential. 

Insights and learnings from some of the past and on-going regional initiatives like the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI), the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA), the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) and the Ecosystems for Life (E4L), to name a few, could be useful in developing better solutions for governing transboundary rivers in the region.

Some of the initial learnings from the on-ongoing Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) program, highlight the following four elements to guide our collective efforts to value water and rivers:

  • Recognize the diverse and multiple values of water and rivers and the interconnections with people’s lives and the ecosystem. This will help improve water and river governance initiatives by making them more inclusive by enabling safe spaces of dialogue and participation for some of the most marginalized voices who are also active water and river stewards, such as indigenous communities and women and youth and in turn will leave no one behind. The Mahakali Sambad – a civil society-led multi-stakeholder dialogue platform on water and related issues in the Mahakali transboundary basin, is one such example that is facilitating dialogues among different water user groups and stakeholders and promoting collaborative actions to address river pollution, sand mining and fisheries.
  • Analyze the ways water and rivers contribute to poverty alleviation, climate adaptation and resilience building at the local as well basin level and integrate these insights into sectoral policies of local and sub-national governments, investment decisions by the private sector and basin-wide water cooperation mechanisms. For example, these analyses could help initiative more context-specific nature-based solutions (NbS) and other benefit sharing mechanisms among different stakeholders, including at the basin level.  
  • Shift the current focus and practice of water and river management from a purely economic perspective to one that encompasses the underlying ecological and social values of water and rivers. This will help build trust among different interest groups, garner more buy-in and trigger public and political will for more cohesive governance and sustainable resource management initiatives. 
  • Advocate for the value of water and rivers action agenda at the national and regional level. The momentum generated through many of the regional initiatives mentioned earlier and some of the on-going river-focused knowledge and dialogue platforms like the Indus Basin Knowledge Platform (IBKP), the BRIDGE GBM CSOs Network, the Brahmaputra Dialogue and the upcoming Meghna Knowledge Forum (MKF, June 201) could help build an advocacy agenda on this issue. Ensuring private sector engagement and buy-in through more constructive dialogues and collaborative action will be essential as the private sector and businesses are key players and influencers in sustainability agenda and action.

The imperative to act on valuing water and rivers is now. 

(Jyotiraj Patra is Project Manager-TROSA. Views expressed are personal)