Participatory Approaches to Transboundary Water Governance in Ganga-Karnali-Ghaghara River Basin

Submitted by RuralWater on Sun, 10/29/2017 - 13:18
'ट्रान्स्बाउंडरी रिवर ट्रीटिस', वाटरएड और फ्रेशवाटर एक्शन नेटवर्क साउथ एशिया (फैनसा)


Ganga-Karnali-Ghagha ra River BasinGanga-Karnali-Ghagha ra River BasinAbout 60 per cent of global freshwater flows are contained in the basins of the world’s 263 international rivers, covering nearly half of Earth’s land surface and around 40 per cent population. In South Asia, some of the major river systems such as Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra are shared between Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. These basins are home to millions of people who are low on both the economic and social indicators of sustainable development. Use of these shared rivers often gives rise to conflictsbetween neighbouring countries. Existing power disparity amongst them and the geopolitics of the region often lead to poor water relations and unilateral decisions. The treaties are often embedded in nationalist discourse without any participation of non-state actors, especially the communities that are aected by such treaties and agreements.

There is an increasing understanding that water resources, whether bound within, or shared across nations, need to be managed in an integrated manner with the participation of various stakeholders. This discussion paper about the Ganga-Karnali-Ghaghara basin, shared by ‘Nepal and India’ and ‘India and Bangladesh’, provides a pathway to make the management of the basin more equitable and participatory by including community perspective.


The Karnali (in Nepal) – Ghaghara (in India) river is the largest tributary of the Ganga, contributing about 21 per cent of the annual flow. The river enters India at Kotia Ghat and drains into the Ganga at Doriganj, Chappra in Bihar. The total length of the Karnali-Ghaghara river before its confluence with the Ganga is 1,080km.

Geographic Coverage of the Ganga-Karnali-Ghaghara River Basin across the Countries

• The population estimate for the basin areas in Nepal, India and Bangladesh is around 344 million (the entire Ganges basin is home to about half a billion people).
• The basin is predominantly rural, lacking basic facilities and poverty is very high; some of the regions rank very low on all human development indicators.
• Dams and barrages for hydropower generation and irrigation are the major infrastructural developments on the river. With Nepal being a power-shortage country, the major developmental emphasis in Nepal is on hydro power generation (for example, the plannedKarnali Hydro Electric Project), while for Bangladesh and India, the focus is on irrigation and flood control.
• The major problems are drought in the upper Nepal basin, and floods in the lower parts of Nepal and India and Bangladesh. Ghaghara in India is prone to shifting its course due to its alluvial characteristic.
• Ganga is one of the highly polluted rivers in the region. Major polluting sources include industrial euents, urban sewage and religious rituals.
• Droughts, floods, deteriorating water quality (such as increasing arsenic, increased salinity), and increasing silt deposition downstream due to deforestation and erosion in upper reaches are all contributing to water insecurity of the basin communities. All these have aected fisheries, hindered navigation, and posed a threat to water quality and public health.


Though international declarations/ treaties around transboundary rivers acknowledge the right of the riparian nations to use the waters that they are entitled to, these can be operationalised under two conditions:

1. The treaty should not jeopardize the legitimate rights of others.
2. It should not cause any ‘significant harm’ to the other.

Major Treaties and Declarations include:

Major Treaties and Declarations includeEven though these international conventions and proclamations have ample space for equitable sharing and participation in river management, they have not become rules of law and hence are not binding on the countries. Though all these principles embedded in international conventions and proclamations have great relevance to the riparian communities, neither is there an institutionalised space for communities to participate in the management of transboundary rivers, nor is there an eort to integrate community perspectives in transboundary river agreements.

Still, it is important to take note of these international principles and norms as they provide a broader framework as well as legitimacy for locally contextualised and participatory governance of transboundary rivers.


India Nepal river water treaty
There is no comprehensive bilateral agreement on the Karnali basin between India and Nepal. The only availableinternational treaties include:

1. ‘Sarda Barrage Letter of Exchange between the British government and the government of Nepal in 1920 for the diversion of the Mahakali-Sarda water for irrigation of the United Provinces (currently known as Uttar Pradesh) in India. Sarda is a tributary of Ghaghara, the Indian part of the Karnali. This agreement was the historical precursor for all subsequent agreements, treaties and projects between India and Nepal and has been incorporated as a part of the Mahakali Treaty, 1996.

2. Mahakali Treaty, 1996: The scope of the treaty covers the Sarda Barrage, the Tanakpur Barrage and the proposed Pancheshwar project. As per this arrangement, Nepal could withdraw 28.34 m3/second in the wet season (15th May to 15th October) and 4.25 m3/second of water during the dry season (16th October to 14th May) from Sarda barrage. On Tanakpur, the treaty said that in lieu of the eastern aux bund, Nepal has a right to 28.3m3/second of water in the wet season and 8.5 m3/second in the dry season. When the Pancheshwar project comes into being and augments the availability of water in the dry season at Tanakpur, Nepal would be provided with additional water7. No specifications were given regarding what India can withdraw. After the treaty, both the left and the right banks of the river near the Sarda Barrage came under India's control. This was considered as unfairtreatment to Nepal and all the subsequent agreements carried this resentment.

3. GMR-Nepal Treaty 2014: Another treaty entered in 2014 by the Nepal Government and an Indian private corporate agency, GMR (Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao), with Karnali Transmission Company Pvt. Ltd is about the Upper Karnali Hydroelectric Project. The GMR Upper Karnali Hydropower Ltd. is developing a 900 MW Upper Karnali Hydro Electric Project (UKHEP) located on river Karnali in Dailekh, Surkhet and Achham districts of Nepal. As per this agreement, only 12 per cent of installed capacity (108 MW in monsoon season and 36 MW in winter season) have been earmarked as the power share to Nepal and that too at commercial rate. Many in Nepal consider this agreement as a sell o to an Indian company. There is also a local movement – ‘save Karnali’ – in the region.

The upper Karnali project has a long history and as many scoping studies suggest, this was supposed to be a much larger project (of 4180 MW) at much lower cost and primarily to meet domestic power needs. A large number of households in Nepal do not have electricity facility and there is a serious power shortage within Nepal. That is the reason why the overwhelming opinion in Nepal is against the project in its present form.


• Both these agreements are mired in controversy and largely perceived by a large section in Nepal as insensitive to its genuine needs and requirements.

• Many of the critical issues like water and energy security of the riparian communities, hazards (such as floods), pollution, etc., have not been part of the understanding around transboundary water sharing between India and Nepal.

• Since local communities are not involved, local knowledge and experience, issues, perceptions and aspirations never enter the transboudary water sharing arrangements.


Thus, the present agreements between Nepal and India around Karnali-Ghaghra basin have not been able to solve any of the substantive issues facing the riparian communities; instead they have only fuelled tensions and contestations between the two countries.


Sharing of Ganges water has been a subject of tension for the two countries since the time the Farakka Barrage was constructed. Commissioned in 1956, this barrage is designed to divert about 40,000 cubic metres of water per second (cusecs) in the lean season to make the Kolkata port navigable. Many eorts were made to come to an agreement around sharing the Ganges waters, such as the Friendship Treaty of 1972 and four interim agreementsbetween the two countries. However, all these eorts resulted in more uncertainty and also diculties for the Ganga-dependent communities in Bangladesh.

Ganges Teaty 1996: A thirty-year treaty was finally signed in 1996 which guarantees a minimum entitlement to Bangladesh: half of the water if the available water is less that 70,000 cusecs, and at least 35,000 cusecs if the estimated water is above 70,000 cusecs. India is ensured 40,000 cusecs if the flow is more than 75,000 cusecs.

The previous agreements included provisions for dealing with cases of exceptionally low flow in the Ganges. The 1996 treaty does not include any such clauses. Instead, the treaty addressed the situation where the flow at Farakka falls below 50,000 cusecs in any ten-day period, and states that in such a situation, “the two governments will enter into immediate consultations to make adjustments on an emergency basis, in accordance with the principles of equity, fair play and no harm to either party”. Such a situation arose within two months of signing the treaty as the flow in the Ganges went below the prescribed level for a ten-day period in March 1997. An emergency meeting of the Joint River Commission (JRC) was planned for August; however the meeting was not held as the situation improved.

Various studies9 show that the barrage has negatively impacted the ecology, agriculture and other livelihoods, especially in the fertile and highly populated delta region of Bangladesh. There is an increasing perception in Bangladesh that India is secretly diverting a portion of the flow of the Ganges upstream during dry months, causing acute water stress and environmental damage in Bangladesh when the dry season flow is low. This is rejected byIndia and it says that Bangladesh gets more water than what it uses and a lot of water is ‘wasted’.

Diversion of water during the lean season could be disastrous for Bangladesh, and could result in serious drought.


The major drawbacks of the treaty are:

1. It does not contain any provisions for arbitration, unlike most other bilateral, multilateral agreements.

2. It does not deal with water quality or pollution.

3. It lacks any community involvement and does not take into account local contexts.

Bangladesh’s alleged plan to build a barrage in Bangladesh on the Ganges is becoming another contentious issue. Apparently, the project is to be completed by 2027 and the detailed project report is ready. India is concerned that this might aggravate the flood situation in India.


Ganga River


The transboundary water sharing agreements do impact the lives and livelihoods of local riparian communities in many dierent ways. It is important to recognise that communities are on the forefront of the consequences of water treaties. They are the first ones to notice the eects. Also, it is important to recognise that conflicts related to water resources tend to be at their most intense at the local level. To quote from a UNESCO-IHP document, “Within the high politics of international water negotiations, the concerns of local people and the need to involve the public in the process of arriving at basin management strategies and agreements are often overlooked. The achievement of cooperation and resolution of conflicts over the world’s international basins would bring major benefits, including stability and security, the strengthening of democracy and human rights, reduction of environmental degradation, and improving access to drinking water and sanitation. But without the participation of citizens and the involvement of civil society partners at all levels, none of these benefits will be secured on the ground”

Thus, there is a clear case for including the concerns and perspectives of the dierent riparian communities in working out water sharing arrangements and in their operationalisation.

1. Change in mindsets and frameworks around transboundary rivers

i. The mainstream mindset that every drop of water is to be utilised and any water going to the sea is a waste, needs to change. Water needs to be seen and managed as “a sustainer of life and ecology”. The concept of ‘rivers as living entities’ is also gaining recognition internationally as well as in India.

ii. The framework around transboundary treaties needs to expand to include:

a) The need to protect and conserve, and also reverse the adverse impacts including water pollution.
b) The need to see water first as a social good and only then as an economic good.
c) Right to sucient and safe water and sanitation facilities (WASH) to all in the basin.
d) Need to prioritise basic needs and equitable distribution.
e) Ecient water use, reduction of water footprint.
f) Participatory management and governance.

iii. The governance of transboundary rivers needs to be embedded in the understanding that the river is a socio-ecological entity; incorporate measures to protect the human rights of basin residents and see that there is no significant harm to the other co-riparian states.

2. Hierarchy of principles

The principles of engagement between the riparian nations should be based on a hierarchy of principles as given below:

i. Water for life: providing adequate water of acceptable quality for meeting the drinking, cooking and sanitation needs of all people, and secondly for animals in the basin.
ii. Water for the ecosystem: ensuring adequate water flows and water in the river system for aquatic life and other ecological functions.
iii. Water for sustaining livelihoods: enabling productive activities while ensuring equitable use and protecting public health.
iv. Water for adaptation to change: keeping reserves for ongoing and future demographic, economic and land use changes and climate change.

3. Water security plans and involvement of communities:

i. Local communities have a role to play in river basin management. They not only have a right to have their voices heard, but can also play an active part in solving some of the challenges (e.g., by retention). The key to this, and based on the above hierarchy of principles, would be the development of water security plans by the local communities at appropriate units like gram panchayats/ hamlets for rural areas and municipalities/ wardsfor urban areas.

ii. All water-related policies recognise the need for developing water security plans with the involvement of local communities. These locally evolved water security plans can flow into the transboundary water sharing arrangements — and equally, the responsibilities of these can be fed back into the local plans. As such, local communities should also be involved in the implementation as well as monitoring of the water security plans. The local communities should also take the responsibility of regulating water use at local levels.

iii. Issues like floods, deforestation and increasing silt load, water pollution and inter-sectoral allocation etc., need to be tackled at a higher scale like the sub-basin. However, the local communities can also play their part. They can be involved in monitoring and can also resort to alternative practices like soil and water conservation measures, organic agriculture, water saving devices, demand side management etc.

iv. Also, water security plans need to operate within the constraints of transboundary commitments and also within the overall basin conditions. On the other hand, there should be a willingness to review existing water use and commitments in the light of locally evolved water security plans. In short, the micro and the macro should inform each other.

4. Institutional architecture

i. Overall, there is a need to move away from a state-centric to a more people-centric and participatory approach. Nested institutions at micro watersheds to sub-basin to basin level and River Basin Organisation (RBO) for the Ganga basin (Nepal, India and Bangladesh) need to be pursued as a long term goal. As an interim strategy, a Cell consisting of Nepal, India and Bangladesh could be set up within SAARC. This Cell could organise regularinteraction and dialogue amongst the various stakeholders across the three countries.

ii. These institutions at dierent scales could be developed into legally mandated multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPs) for capturing diering perceptions, knowledge, experience, needs and aspirations of dierent social sections like farmers, fishermen, artisans, women, ethnic communities, dalits and so on. Socially agreed water sharing and management plans at dierent scales, including the water security plans, can be developed based on the information collected from communities.

iii. Jal Choupals in India (or Jal Kachahari in Nepal, and Pani Somonoi Sangstha in Bangladesh) are a good example of this. They are basically groups of community members, experts, academics and individuals working on water issues. It is a concept that is being expanded by WaterAid in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar around drinking water and water quality issues. The Jal Choupals have been successfully set up at district andsub-district levels (alternatively, at hydrological units like a cluster of micro watersheds, sub-basins, etc.) for sharing experiences and discussing critical issues. These also provide technical support services to community-based organisations (CBOs), MSPs, etc.

iv. Bangladesh, India and Nepal have many years of experience with Water Users’ Associations (WUA), Watershed Development Committees (WDCs), Pani Samitis etc., that deal with water issues at the local level. There is a need to integrate the functions of all these types of CBOs at the local level (as they very often operate within sectoral boundaries) and form one integrated organisation (which could be called a WUA with an expandedmandate). This integrated organisation could be the local CBO, managing water resources at the local level, including preparation of water security plans.

v. There is a need for a credible and capable resource agency (this could be a civil society organisation or an academic/ research institution) to anchor and guide the participatory/stakeholder processes.

5. Capacity building, access to data and resource literacy

i. Capacity building of stakeholders, especially the local communities, on water resource literacy with the specific objective of understanding the river system, water politics, democratic governance of water resources and institutional issues needs to be undertaken. Often, transboundary aspects, the relation between own actions (or local interventions) and the basin are poorly understood.

ii. Agreed-upon data and its access to all stakeholders is an important precondition for the success of the stakeholder process. In fact, local communities, CBOs and the CSOs could be involved in data collection and monitoring on the basis of an agreed-upon protocol for the same. Also, steps need to be taken to create a level playing field for all stakeholders to participate, as there is a power asymmetry amongst the dierent stakeholders.

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