The Emerging Role of Youth in the Transboundary Water Governance in South Asia

Oxfam in Asia - TROSA Water Governance - River Youth Camp

Happy Roy, one of the participants of the River Camp organised by Oxfam's TROSA Programme

The South Asian youth have in them the power to significantly contribute to water resource management and protect the rights of the riparian communities over river resources. We need to support the development of a new generation of water activists. 
TROSA Programme

By Sajjad Hussein | June 2019

When Happy Roy joined the River Camp, she didn’t know much about rivers and the importance of it in her life. She was engaged in social activism and always wanted to do something meaningful and bring positive changes to the lives of the people around her. But working on issues related to river never crossed her mind before. “Rivers are an integral part of our life but I had never thought about it before I joined the River Camp,” Happy said. “Bangladesh is a riverine country and so many people depend on it for their livelihoods. The fisherfolk, small traders, farmers – they all benefit from rivers and if rivers did not exist, we would cease to exist,” she observed. Happy was one of the participants of the River Camp organized by Oxfam Bangladesh under the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme.

TROSA is an Oxfam regional water governance programme that focuses on the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basins; a resource that stretches from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, to the Salween in Myanmar. Adopting a human rights-based approach, the programme works with local partners to raise awareness about water governance and help the river basin communities, especially women and the youth, to engage with the local authorities to demand their rights and entitlements on river resources.

In 2018, TROSA organsied a 5-day River Camp in Bangladesh to strengthen the capacity of the youth, and improve their knowledge and awareness about the importance of their water resources, its management and governance structure. The initiative brought together 32 youth activists to encourage them to lead on issues related to water governance. Happy Roy and her other teammates came from the north-western town of Rangpur, one of the places where TROSA works in.

Oxfam believes in the power of youth. They have the best understanding of their own lives, but it is not often that they are given the opportunity to shape them. In Bangladesh, young people are rarely integrated into community mobilization processes. The River Camp provided opportunities to address this gap, by giving the young participants the chance to interact with leading CSOs that work on the waters of Bangladesh. Throughout the five days, they were able to learn from their experiences and understand all the complex various issues associated with water governance. The youth also became aware of their roles and responsibilities and their underlying strengths as young people when it comes to encouraging their communities to uphold their rights on water resources.

After the river camp, TROSA and its partners – Center for Natural Resources Studies (CNRS), Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK) and Riverine People – made sure that the inspired youth are able to sustain their momentum to making a positive change in their communities by supporting them in their various advocacy initiatives. When the youth expressed their desire to learn how to collect data and evidence to back up their advocacies, TROSA organised a workshop and invited 16 aspiring young researchers to develop a better understanding about research methodologies and ways to collect data. The workshop enabled them to produce research proposals, two of which were accepted by TROSA. Today, these young women and men are regularly taking part in activities being conducted by TROSA, including data collection from river communities and observing various international days of importance.

Oxfam's approach to working with youth as active citizens supports young people to openly, freely and effectively use their energy and skills to contribute and create transformational change in society. We do this by shifting our thinking and strategies about our programmes. Instead of coming up with programmes for the youth, we now work alongside young people to support them as they lead on efforts to overcome poverty and injustice. As a result of this youth-centred programme development approach, Oxfam now has a number of regional and global programmes, such as our multi-country programme Empower Youth for Work Project, Mekong Regional Water Governance Programme, and Do The Right(S) Thing!

Following the successes of the River Camp and subsequent effective engagement of young men and women in Bangladesh, a regional workshop for Youth will be held from the third week of June in Bangladesh where youth activists from Bangladesh, India and Nepal will take part. TROSA will continue to adopt a truly youth-centred approach by partnering with young people at all stages from designing the workshop programme, implementing the learning event, and monitoring and evaluating the outcome. We will also collaborate on developing a strategy for advocacy.

The Untapped Potential of South Asia's Youth

According to UN DESA Youth report, South Asia is home to 19% of the world’s youth population and regional youth unemployment stands at 11%. There is credible evidence to show the interlinkages between water scarcity, youth unemployment and inter-regional youth migration. Evidence shows that growing climatic variability has impacts on water availability and quality, which jeopardizes social stability and jobs for the youth. The increase of ‘water-scarce’ countries will affect employment opportunities, in particular for the youth. According to UN Water Development Report 2016, water is needed to create and maintain jobs as 78% of jobs globally are dependent on water. Sustainable water management, water infrastructure, access to water and sanitation improve living standards, expand local economies, lead to the creation of jobs, and ensure greater social inclusion.

The South Asian youth have in them the power to significantly contribute to water resource management and protect the rights of the riparian communities over river resources, but most of these potentials still remain untapped. To achieve the targets of the SDGs we need to attract and support the development of a new generation of water activists. That is why connecting the youth of the region is so important. We have seen that young people in South Asia are very active in promoting issues such as poverty reduction, environmental protection, human rights, gender, and community mobilization, yet they struggle because of the absence of platforms, and lack of capacity and resources to further pursue these goals. This is why Oxfam, through the TROSA Programme promotes regional collaboration among South Asia's youth groups to strengthen cooperation on water management in transboundary waters.  We need governments, civil society organizations, practitioners, specialists, and the media to work with us on supporting the youths of South Asia. There should be youth-centric policies by the governments to harness the potential of the youth population and create an environment for them so that they can engage themselves in the river resource management. It might seem difficult, but with the right policies and approaches to ensuring a conducive environment for youth participation, we can achieve it.