Access to water data: Implications for transboundary relations in the Ganges river basin

Despite the enactments of RTI laws and insistence for openness in the government, access to information regimes on transboundary rivers has not changed at a fundamental level in South Asia.
A view of the Sharada river at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (Source: Wikimedia Commons) A view of the Sharada river at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Citizens right to access information on water, climate and environmental issues

The need for greater transparency and access to information on water, climate and environmental issues has been internationally recognised in recent years. In fact, Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992, advocates for greater citizen access to information on environmental issues at a national level, and greater civic participation in decision-making processes.

The paper titled 'Water and climate data in the Ganges Basin: Assessing access to information regimes and implications for cooperation on transboundary rivers' published in the journal Water Alternatives, informs that this declaration advocates for governments to facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available.

Following this, the 1998 Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters or Aarhus Convention formally recognises the rights of the public to environmental information, to participate in environmental decision-making and to review procedures to challenge public decisions made with regard to environmental matters. The freedom of information (FOI) or Right to Information (RTI) laws have also internationally opened up new opportunities for citizens to access data and information from their governments on a range of issues.

Impacts of these developments on South Asian information regimes

This paper attempts to evaluate the impacts of these new developments on South Asian information regimes to see if the recent reforms have helped interested stakeholders access water and climate data. The paper presents the findings of a study conducted in Bangladesh, India and Nepal to assess the availability and accessibility of data and information on transboundary rivers in these three countries. The fieldwork was conducted in four transboundary river stretches of the Ganges River System namely, the Kosi River (Nepal), Kosi and Sharda rivers (India), and the Padma River (Bangladesh).

The study findings

  • The availability of data and information was fragmented. Data was not collected, maintained and/or published by governments in a systematic manner. Information was gathered in pieces by different departments at national, federal and district levels, which made it difficult to get a complete hydrological picture of the rivers under study.
  • Data and records management practices were found to be poor in all the three countries. In many instances, even when departments were willing to provide information the data/information could not be traced or was not available with the department expected to have it.
  • Even when information was available and disclosed in the three countries, it was very patchy or at times incomplete or out of date. This made it quite difficult to get a comprehensive sense of what was and was not available.
  • There was weak Implementation of the Right to Information Act.  The study found that 59 RTI requests were filed during the period of the study (12 in Bangladesh, 26 in India and 21 in Nepal). However, information was received only in the case of 9 requests.
  • In Bangladesh and Nepal, government departments appeared more willing to provide information 'informally' i.e. in response to a requests in writing or telephonic interviews rather than a 'formal' and legally binding requests for information under the RTI. In India, officials were reluctant to share information, which did not have much to do with RTI but because information and data on transboundary water issues was regarded as secret and classified.
  • It was difficult to access information on selected rivers at local levels. Much of the governance and decision-making related to the Kosi, Sharda and Padma rivers was managed at the national and state levels in all three countries, while local officials and communities had very little knowledge of the institutions that governed these rivers.

Implications for transboundary water cooperation in South Asia

The paper informs that all countries in South Asia namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan need to depend heavily on transboundary water resources to meet their domestic water and energy needs. However, there is very little regional cooperation on water. Even though a number of treaties and agreements have been made for water sharing and infrastructural development between these countries, deep mistrust and political tensions continue in the region.

This is also because all these approaches have not looked at the broader framework for overall cooperation between the countries based on principles of equity, justice, mutual benefit, and sustainable use, but seem to be adopting a fragmented/compartmentalised approach designed to address specific country concerns such as water sharing, flood control or the construction of specific dams and projects. The approaches also lack the necessary norms and mechanisms to deal with and adapt to variability in water flows and other environmental changes over time.

The paper ends by arguing that indications are that water is increasingly becoming a driver of political tension within and among countries in the region and there are serious gaps in both formal and informal domains of data-sharing. Under such conditions, open data regimes could help to make transboundary cooperation more possible under the following conditions:

  • lowering nationalistic fervour on water;
  • promoting policy contestations in agenda-framing;
  • promoting alternative imaginations in transboundary water cooperation; and
  • responding to the promise of technology.

Please download a copy of the paper below.

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