Webinar Report: Revisiting communities and civil society roles in managing South Asia’s transboundary river basins.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the current challenges brought on by global as well as regional politics and economics has exerted substantial pressures and delays in ensuring proper coordination and opportunities to identify approaches that can provide breakthroughs for long-term solutions to governing transboundary waters. This is particularly true in the major river basins of South Asia where 1.9 billion people reside, with riverine communities and the poor suffering disproportionate impacts of the pandemic. 

To address the current challenges countries in the region are facing in moving towards achieving the SDG 6 and related targets set in the 2030 agenda - particularly in the transboundary context - Oxfam partners and representatives from major national and regional institutions including experts working in the IWRM sector in the region came together to share insights and opinion. The webinar held on 9 November was co-organized by UNECE, Water Convention, ESCAP, ICIMOD, Oxfam’s TROSA project and IELO. The day-long webinar was attended by a panel of experts as well as 155 practitioners and media representatives. 

The SDG targets 6.5.1 and 6.5.2 envisaged the successful implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) practices globally by acting as an indicator to track the enabling environment, participating institutions, management practices and financial instruments. In particular, target 6.5.2 underpins the importance of transboundary cooperation and its operational aspects at various levels. Considering the timelines to meet SDG 6, the situation in South Asia is grim. Progress has been slow with Covid-19 complicating an already difficult task. 

In the transboundary context, achieving SDG Target 6.5 on integrated water resources management requires effective transboundary cooperation since 60 per cent of the world’s freshwater flows in shared basins. The webinar discussed and identified the need for global and multilateral framework instruments tailor-made for transboundary rivers and basins, especially small ones, and stressed the importance of boosting regional and bilateral cooperation, which remains limited in scope in South Asia. 

Vis-à-vis the SDG target to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, the water-energy-food-energy (WEFE) nexus was discussed as a suitable approach to foster basin-wide cooperation. This approach takes into account the inextricable relationships and linkages between water-energy-food-energy sectors and recommends a shift towards sustainable development via strategic choices and decisions based on inter-sectoral implications. In transboundary and riparian settings, this would mean countries would need to work together to identify commonalities and arrive at coherent solutions by ensuring the inclusion of local riverine communities, especially women, in shaping local water-related policies. 

Likewise, the webinar looked at novel ways of approaching the transboundary dynamics of river basins that could stimulate regional cooperation in addressing problems related to water scarcity and erratic supply. One such transformative approach could be the ‘Riverscape approach’ which views riverine landscapes as a contiguous system. This approach highlights the interdependence of natural resources and sectors and recommends an integrated policy solution for transboundary problem-solving. This could encourage more consistent and robust research to bridge the science and policy gap in meeting transboundary challenges.

The webinar also agreed on the multi-faceted and enabling roles that the civil society can play in transboundary water dialogues and decision making, a successful example of which is the ‘Dhangadi Declaration’ from Nepal where participatory approaches can provide critical validation and feedback to draw policy roadmaps. Drawing from TROSA’s experience in working with the CSOs and riverine communities, an inclusive approach must be sought through cross-border communities-led dialogues on issues that go beyond water sharing such as those of irrigation, fisheries, water quality and inland water navigation that brings together different actors including the civil society, private sector, and local governments to build trust within and across political borders that translates to policy-level changes.

Next steps:

  • Building on these insights and learnings, the next part of the webinar in March 2021 will focus on regional cooperation opportunities for climate and disaster risk reduction in the mountain and deltas of the region and will discuss ways to address the pressing issue of plastic pollution in the region’s rivers and oceans.