Water governance - a researcher's experience: reflections from the field

This blog draws from my journey and observations while writing the dissertation "Transboundary Water Governance in context of Mahakali River Basin" which was supervised by Deep Narayan Shah, PhD and co-supervised by Ramesh Raj Pant, PhD at Central Department of Environmental Science, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. It seeks to establish a conversation between lived realities on the ground and the water and sustainable development discourse on the international level. I firmly believe that to achieve sustainability of water resources and good governance in a global context. There is an urgent need to create space for the inclusion of the voice of youth in policy and decision-making processes from the local to the global level. SDGs are considered as one of the global agenda which reflect the ambitions and vision of young people[1] Target 6.5 of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 'Water and sanitation' shows the need to take recognition of integrated water resources management across levels. Indicator 6.5.1 provides insights on integrated water management while 6.5.2 draws attention to transboundary water cooperation[2]. These discourses at the international level motivated me to look at developments at the local level.

Perspective before field visit

Almost two years ago, in 2018, with the hope of contributing to examine SDGs target 6.5 and better water governance, I started to look at the Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal. The journey, however, began with great scepticism, as in South Asian Countries water issues are often distracted by political and nationalistic discourses.

Mahakali River is one of the principal tributaries of the Ganges and a border river between Nepal and India. Even though the purpose of Mahakali treaty 1996 was to solve the controversy during Tanakpur debacle and to improve the water relation between two countries by developing cooperation but the controversy started right after the conclusion of the treaty[3] and till date, the parties have not been able to enjoy mutual benefits. My primary objective was to analyze the gaps and identify the potential areas of improvement.

I gradually developed knowledge on the transboundary water governance (TWG) through extensive literature review and international legal frameworks on the transboundary water governance such as Helsinki Rules, 1966, UN Convention on International Watercourse, 1997, European Union Water Framework Directive, 2000 and Berlin Rules 2004. However, I came to find out that none of the South Asian countries are parties to these international conventions. I developed concepts regarding TWG on my reading of international conventions; it was later after the field visit, I realized that there was a significant difference in perspective regarding international norms and lived realities on the ground. I was more focused at the national level about the implementation of major transboundary principles in case of Mahakali River Basin (MRB) rather than the inclusion of riparian voices in the decision-making process.

Perspective after the field visit

Focus Group Discussions and questionnaire survey in riparian communities of the basin enabled me to think on TWG on a different perspective. I found out that old aged people have more knowledge regarding the relation between India and Nepal. Some of them had participated even in various movements such as the one against the unilateral construction of Tanakpur Barrage by India and border issues etc. but still; they didn't want to talk clearly about those issues because of their bitter memories whereas young people and women were generally unaware about this topic. However, as I spent more time in the riparian communities, I was amazed by the friendly and mutual relation existing between the riparian communities of two countries as both sides were dependent on each other for sustaining their livelihoods for example as a customer and supplier relation. But at the same time, I could sense injustice faced by them. After observing their lack of interest in water-related issues, I realized that the government should give priorities to establish their interest in the problems. And a pragmatic approach to that can be the improvement of the living standard of riparian communities by providing basic needs such as electricity, irrigation canal and as well as good roads. They were not consulted in the decision-making process related to water and river, which makes them more marginalized and trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. And this exclusionary governance practice makes me realize the need for inclusive water governance.

I also came to realize that local organizations play very important roles in inclusive water governance. Some of the institutions like NEEDS Nepal, RUWDUC, Sankalpa Darchula are continuously trying to advocate for the betterment of the livelihood of riparian communities under the TROSA project. Women Empowerment Centers (WECs) engagement in the preparation of Sand Mining Guideline at Kanchanpur district and water quality monitoring of Mahakali River as citizen science are some of the good examples and initiatives which involve youth from collecting the baseline information to decision making phase at local governance. And this initiatives and field observation made me conclude that government and local organizations of riparian communities need to encourage youth participation in each step during the collection of baseline information, planning and policymaking, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.

The way forward

In the context of South Asian Region, governance and decision-making process regarding Transboundary River is concentrated only in national level. Through field observation and review of Water Framework Directive 2000[4] adopted by European Union and Danube River Basin Management Plan, 2015[5] , I learned that for effective implementation of any bilateral/multilateral agreements, the inclusion of riparian community's voice in the decision-making process is of paramount importance. Otherwise, like the Mahakali treaty, upcoming negotiations and agreements will also remain in limbo. Increasing population and changing climate alters the water demand and water supply rate so, for the sustainable management of water resources of Mahakali river basin and also to achieve target 6.5 of SDGs, integrated river basin management plan is necessary in the context of Nepal and India involving youth and children along with other major groups of civil society recognized by Agenda 21.


[3] Upadhyay, N. S. (2009). The Mahakali Treaty: View from the Negotiating Table. Chapter in Mahakali Treaty: Pros and Cons for Nepal, Sangam Institute, Gyaneshwor, Kathmandu


[5] https://www.icpdr.org/main/sites/default/files/nodes/documents/managementplansbrochure2015.pdf


Disclaimer: The views and ideas expressed in the article are solely of the author.