River basin planning deconstructed

Guest post by: Chicu

To misquote Jane Austen, it is a well established fact that a single river in possession of healthy flows must be in want of a basin planning authority. But levity aside, this need for comprehensive planning at the basin level, instead of current project-based planning is perhaps the one thing that dam proponents and opponents both agree on. Despite this, basin planning is still the exception rather than the norm. In order to discuss the reasons why, and to explore the methods by which the management of a river may be carried out at the basin level, a meeting was held in Delhi in early August.

River Basin

The Garud Basin

Photo: Chicu 

How does one react when after three days of deliberations, the conveners of a meeting organised to debate the implementation  of a measure, decide that the answer is ‘we are not sure. Let’s wait and see’?

If the measure being debated is river basin planning, then one needs to stand up and applaud the conveners and the participants for a job well done. Largely because the whole issue of river conservation faces the most danger from prejudice and certainties. 

River conservation in India, and especially the Himalayan states is beset by positional bargaining. The several groups arrive at a negotiation platform convinced of the superiority of their beliefs and determined to convince the others of the falseness of theirs. This of course, is an exercise in failure. 

The meeting on ‘Mainstreaming River Basin Planning’ called by a consortium including International Rivers, Manthan, Gomukh, and the River Research Centre tried its best to go around that stumbling block. An entire day was spent in deliberating the meaning of each word in the title- first singly, and then together. This was not a waste of time, as was evidenced by the passionate discussions that went on all day.  It was also acknowledged that it is futile, and possibly against the point of the exercise to set definitions in stone at the beginning of a basin management exercise. Rather, the understanding of terms associated with basin planning needs to be a goal of the participatory process.

The participants from Nepal and Bangladesh added an often overlooked, but crucial point of view to the discussions.  The Ganga is possibly the river that first comes to mind when one mentions ‘transboundary’. The ramifications of labelling a trans-boundary river as a ‘National river’ were discussed. It is also worth noting that the much awaited Ganga Basin Management Plan confines itself to the national boundaries rather than the basin boundaries. This is definitely not the ideal, but in the current political situation, it is difficult for even the most idealistic dreamer to conceive of a jointly-created and transparent international basin management authority in the sub-continent.

However, we need not restrict ourselves to inaction while waiting for utopian conditions. It is possible for the civil society in South Asia to come together and create a river basin plan for one of the smaller trans-boundary rivers. There are 53 such rivers that cross the Indo-Bangladesh border alone. Cooperation for the creation of a participatory basin management plan, even if restricted to civil society and academia, gives rise to exciting possibilities.  Provided all attempts begin with an agreed-upon set of assumptions, then at the least these plans will provide a framework for proceeding and an opportunity for engagement.

A topic that continually arose during the discussions was the plea for river basin planning to move away from a project-centric approach. It was also acknowledged that any plan would need to follow an iterative process. While the plan may be constantly evolving, a written set of principles would give direction to it. 

So for those of us who want a neat conclusion with all the ends wrapped up, there isn't any. This is a case where the process is as important as the product. The meeting clarified the participants' position on river basin planning. This clarification will ease the creation of a document on the topic which will create further awareness among the various players involved. It is true that it is a slow process, but it is also the only way to get everyone on board. And the goal is well worth it.

Related content:

Integrated River Basin Planning - Experience on policy and practice in Pamba river basin in Kerala

Event: Dialogue on mainstreaming River Basin Planning, River Research Center, 9-11th August 2011, New Delhi

Post By: chicu