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South Asia’s rivers must be seen as a sources for nourishing and uniting peoples, not dividing them!

by, 22 April 2010

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Workshop on 21 April 2010.

‘Rivers, people and climate change in South Asia’

Statement to the plenary meetings of Assembly towards Union of South Asian Peoples held at New Delhi on 22-23 April 2010

South Asian countries share a number of rivers with each other and with other nations beyond the region. It is evident 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.

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, we cannot confine water issues to nation states; only a regional approach that brings peoples perspectives to the centre stage can help create accord over rivers.

Ways to move forward include creating civil society mechanisms to share vital information about rivers (such as the experience of people driven flood forecasting by River Basin Friends in Assam to downstream communities in Bangladesh) and water resources projects and 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 crux of the contemporary challenege lies in creatively recovering imaginations about South Asia’s rivers as being implicated in complex relationships with regional histories, cultures and ecologies. The idea 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.

South Asia’s rivers must be seen as a sources for nourishing and uniting peoples, not dividing them.