South Asia Rivers should be source of uniting people, not dividing them

The article features the workshop organised at the Jawaharlal Nehru University to address the conflict issues over shared rivers in the South Asian region.

Guest Post by Himanshu Thakkar

New Delhi: A workshop organised yesterday on the sidelines of a South Asia civil society gathering under the banner of Assembly of a Union of South Asian Peoples at Jawaharlal Nehru University came up with a set of recommendations to address the question of conflict over shared rivers in the region. The key message from the meeting, which addressed issues pertaining to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and India, was that South Asia’s rivers should be a source of uniting peoples, not dividing them. The Assembly is being organised as a civil society counter to the official SAARC meeting to be held in Thimpu from 28-29 April 2010.

The workshop organised by groups under the banner of India Climate Justice Group (ICJG) was of the view that current water technologies adopted by governments such as big dams, diversions and hydro projects have not met their stated objectives but have instead created discord in situations where harmony existed between communities across borders. Further these projects are witness to serious, long-term and widespread negative ecological and livelihood impacts. Climate change has brought further challenges such as glacial melting, flash floods, landslides, droughts, forest fires, intermittent rainfall, increased sea levels and risk of salinity ingress in absence of freshwater flows. Moreover, Governments have not shown any use of basic values like equity, transparency, accountability, sustainability and participation of the people in intra and inter governmental processes

Participants asserted that if Governments continue with their myopic and cavalier business as usual approach several flashpoints such as the Himalayan region, Indus Basin and North East region will unravel in the future with disastrous consequences.

Given the current challenges that the region faces, it was felt that we cannot confine water issues to nation states and only a regional approach that brings peoples perspectives to the centre stage can help create accord over rivers.

Ways identified to move forward include creating civil society mechanisms to share vital information about rivers. The experience of people driven flood forecasting by River Basin Friends in Assam to downstream communities in Bangladesh was especially highlighted. Others include ensuring transparency and participation in river governance. Given the vital importance and the common heritage of the Himalayan region, a regional policy should be worked out through a credible participatory process based on the needs of the people and the environment. The current race to the bottom by constructing hundreds of large hydropower projects in the region needs to be stopped. The guidelines of the World Commission on Dams Report, released by the eminent world statesman Nelson Mandela a decade back can provide a useful starting point for future water resources development in the region.

The workshop felt that the way to stop conflicts over rivers is to treat rivers as endowments, to be sustained for future generations rather than merely as short term resources to be simply harnessed and degraded  in one or two generations.

Groups that co-organised this workshop include South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP), National Forum of Forest Peoples and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) Intercultural Resources, Focus on the Global South, Delhi Platform, Delhi Forum and Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha

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