Oped

Equitable treaties

- SAROJ DHAKAL

Feb 10, 2013-

The question of fresh water supply, hydropower generation, flood control and commercial irrigation via trans-boundary water management is an issue of great concern and a source of controversy in South Asia. Particularly in this region, water issues tend to be associated with sovereignty and hegemony, but also with the security of energy, agricultural and industrial production as well as fresh water access.

On the eastern side of the Indian sub-continent one finds the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system that is commonly shared

among Nepal, Bangladesh and India. These rivers pose a huge potential for multipurpose use in terms of fresh water for both India and Nepal. However, due to lack of proper cooperation, or past agreement deemed unfair by Nepal and the political havoc it created in the internal politics of Nepal, water takes the form of disasters ever year.

In the case of Nepal and India, most of the treaties signed emphasise that “water resources of the region can be utilised on an equitable basis for mutual benefit of the people of the two countries.” The buzz word here is “equitable”. How can these countries decide what is equitable and what is not? Since there is no operational definition of the term “equitable” in their treaties, it always creates ambiguity over the basis on which water should be shared — on the basis of availability before the contention began, or on the basis previous treaties. These treaties did not, however, necessarily reflect current economical, social and environmental concerns. Perhaps, then, the water should be shared based on future projection? Each mechanism would lead to a different outcome where some criteria favour one actor over another. More importantly, if current conditions were used as a baseline for new treaties, such an arrangement would send a wrong signal to both Nepal and India, by insinuating the countries could “claim” the common resource, thus, leading to “the Tragedy of the Commons.”

Not only states, but also water scientists, economists and businessmen grapple with the difficulty of understanding “equitable” water sharing. Unlike social scientists, these groups have difficulties measuring two impediments; first, monitoring the status of variable water flows, and second, the extremely complex process required to quantify and value trans-boundary water — in constantly varying social and environmental circumstances. Apart from these crippling complexities, water scientists and economists face the challenge of communicating their hard-won, but imprecise, knowledge to politicians who are often poorly informed and make decisions under

conditions of great uncertainty. In the case of Nepal, the association of water and politics makes the water issue a political vendetta for a dissatisfied party.

In March 2011, Kofi Annan stated: “Fierce competition of fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in future.” Almost a year later he went on to state, “but the water problems of our world need not be only a cause of tension; they can also be a catalyst for cooperation. If we work together secure and sustainable water future can be ours.” International agreements are generally seen as the pinnacle of cooperation. As social scientists such as Aaron Wolf emphasise, “once cooperative water regimes are established through treaties, they turn out to be impressively resilient over time, even when between otherwise hostile riparian, and even as conflict is waged over other issues.” While there is evidence to support this theory, it is important to understand that if important components of treaties are not implemented, or perhaps may favour one actor over another, the result can be likely rated a poor deed by the actor who is not favoured or seeks a collective win. This may lead to prolonged non-cooperation. Some of the treaties as in the case of Mahakali Treaty (which focuses on water and hydro-power generation sharing) between Nepal-India has been on hold for such a long time without implementation.

The wording of the Mahakali treaty has been deemed remote from the political and socio-economic development of the signatories. Thus, it is important that the analysis of trans-boundary water-energy dynamics should be considered in the broad terms of political interaction.Water experts such as Mark Zeitoun argue that any phases of cooperation, leading to unquestioned simplistic mantras such as “any form of cooperation is good” do not suffice to capture the reality of water politics. Thus, cooperation or conflict must be questioned in the light of the political and power context in which they occur. Unquestioned support for any type of cooperation will not give space for policymakers to recognise and accept the shortcomings and detrimental effects of the negotiation arrangements. Crafting an “equitable treaty” and its timely implementation has been the biggest challenge for individuals, business or leaders to address the water-energy nexus in the Indo-Nepal relationship. Perhaps, future work of Nepal-India Joint Committee on Water Resources should be directed towards such efforts along with the capacity building of water-energy commissions under the Ministry of Energy on negotiations related to trans-boundary water-energy issues.

Dhakal is the COO of WindPower Nepal Pvt Ltd

Published: 10-02-2013 08:44

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