whose water? The Challenge of Transboundary Rivers – Bangladesh

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Avinash Singh

What is the best way to support communities claiming water rights on rivers that flow between nations? Avinash Singh and Marieke Meeske on four lessons from South Asia for tackling the unique challenges of ‘cross-boundary river basins’

Hundreds of millions of people in South Asia depend on water from rivers that flow across national borders. But how do communities in different countries negotiate over water resources when institutions split at national borders? How do we ensure that communities in so-called “cross-border river basins” can withstand shocks to their water supply that may come from another country? How do women in river basin communities obtain an adequate right to access and control over water, especially in times of increasing water scarcity?

Our program – Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA), which has been running for five years, aims to empower the communities that depend on these rivers to claim their rights, participate in water policy decisions and build resilience, with a particular focus on women’s water rights. Together with our partners, we work to improve community access and control over river basins.

In this blog, we have shared four key findings from our recent impact assessments, which conducted over 5,500 interviews and examined the impact of our work on vulnerability to water-related shocks, access to and control over water resources, and women’s participation in water stewardship . We highlight examples where Oxfam and partners have helped communities gain greater access to and control over water resources by enabling cross-border collaboration and collaboration.

1. WE MUST BUILD BRIDGES ACROSS BORDERS

TROSA worked with river communities along the Sharda Mahakali (Nepal & India), Brahmaputra-Salbhanga-Teesta (India & Bangladesh), Meghna (Bangladesh) and Salween (Myanmar) basins. A crucial part of our work has been trying to build connections between communities, civil society and government across borders.

After five years of TROSA implementation, cross-border awareness has improved in all river basins, leading to improved cross-border collaboration and cooperation. A notable achievement has been the establishment of cross-boundary committees, which now allow early flood warnings to be shared between communities in the Sharda-Mahakali and Brahmaputra-Saralbhanga-Teesta basins. We have also conducted research that suggests governments how they could improve fisheries management across borders. In the Salween Basin, we also helped establish a civil society network that supported communities to join forces and uphold their rights together.

However, efforts to promote cooperation and cooperation between governments at the national and local levels have had more mixed results. In some basins, such as Sharda-Mahakali and Brahmaputra-Saralbhanga-Teesta, cooperation has improved, while in others the government’s lack of response to community demands remains a challenge.

2. COMMUNITIES REALLY WANT THEIR PARTICIPANTS

The project has shown how keen communities are to have a say in water management. For example, municipal water management groups are well attended in all catchment areas. Additionally, in one of the reflection sessions to validate the results of the impact evaluation, women from the Brahmaputra Basin in Assam, India, spent three to four hours reaching a place where they could get a stable internet to participate in an online reflection workshop to participate. At the workshop they listened, discussed and shared their feedback on all of the project’s outcomes. This commitment to participation also reflects how community ownership is at the heart of the TROSA initiative.

“Apart from festival shopping and some other special occasions, we didn’t leave our homes,” says one participant at a reflection workshop from the Brahmaputra river basin in India. “But now we participate in village-level meetings and also stand up for our rights and entitlements in offices – along with decisions about our children’s education and other village matters in the village-level committees.”

3. PROJECTS CAN PROVIDE USEFUL SUPPORT FOR COMMUNITY KNOWLEDGE AND AWARENESS

TROSA has helped increase knowledge and awareness in several areas. In the Salween Basin, for example, we are spreading knowledge about responsible fishing practices and how to deal with lost or restricted access to water resources. Meanwhile, communities in the Meghna and Sharda Mahakali basins learned how to reduce their vulnerability to the risks posed by flooding. In addition, we supported the people of the Meghna Basin to become more aware of their rights and entitlements to river resources, to express their opinions and to take an active role in water resource management.

4. FOR WOMEN, REPRESENTATION IS JUST THE FIRST STEP TO REAL POWER

In all catchment areas, more women are now participating in water policy meetings than before the introduction of TROSA. In the Meghna Basin for example Nodi Boothoks, or River Meeting Forums (see image below), provide a community platform to discuss and resolve water issues. Encouraging women’s participation in such gatherings resulted in a significant increase in women’s participation.

Women also play an important role in representing marginalized river basin groups, such as fishermen, boatmen and small farmers, in dialogue about water rights and access. “Women raise the voice of the voiceless,” says one participant at the assessment workshop in Nepal.

Of course, merely attending meetings does not necessarily imply meaningful participation and decision-making authority. In most catchment areas, we have found that social norms and traditional gender roles still impede meaningful participation by women.

One way the project has further strengthened the influence of women is through the Women Empowerment Centres. In the Sharda-Mahakali Basin, building women’s ability to negotiate with government bodies and help them compete for resources under government programs. The centers have shown how women can be supported to claim their rights and will also help to sustain the benefits of the TROSA initiative in the longer term.

Future projects to support women’s water rights must build on this work and promote an environment more conducive to women’s leadership. They need to place more emphasis on changing social norms and involve men in women’s empowerment activities.

INSIGHTS FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT AND IMPLEMENTATION

From raising awareness in year one, to community action and evidence-based advocacy in years two and three, to influencing national and regional levels in year four, TROSA has made important strides in its five years of implementation in South Asia. However, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go to establish community-led water management systems that can help reduce poverty and build resilience to water-related shocks. Future projects must apply and build on TROSA’s findings to support river basin communities in South Asia and around the world to claim their rights to the water that is so essential to a decent life.

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