Published on The Water Blog

Fostering a spirit of cooperation among the Brahmaputra Basin riparians

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The Brahmaputra River Basin in South Asia

The Brahmaputra River Basin originates in the Himalayas of China and flows through India and Bangladesh, with flow contribution from Bhutan. The basin is one of the largest and most complex in the world for a variety of reasons, including its challenging topography and hydrological environment.  

Development in the basin has historically been piecemeal, undertaken on a project-by-project basis at the country level. Complex geopolitics between downstream and upstream countries has been amplified by an incomplete basin knowledge base, the varying professional water resources management and technical capacities of the basin riparians, and power asymmetry among those countries. The absence of a basin-wide cooperative framework has translated into missed opportunities for regional economic growth, especially in agriculture and hydropower and through disaster risk reduction.

The Brahmaputra River Symposium, held in New Delhi in fall 2017, aimed to make a small contribution toward addressing this situation. Its objective: to unpack the development complexities and possibilities in the Brahmaputra Basin, while rallying stakeholders, from community to cabinet, in each of the four basin riparian countries to find transboundary common ground to take action.
This event marked the culmination of the latest phase of an organized dialogue process that aims to provide the means, mandate, and resources necessary to facilitate formal and informal knowledge exchange and interaction among key basin stakeholders, fostering a spirit of cooperation to develop and manage the basin optimally, holistically, and sustainably.
The South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI) has been supporting the dialogue process since January 2016, while strengthening its connections at the policy and decision-making level. In the beginning, there was only a small group of stakeholders at the track III and track II diplomacy levels, but it has since morphed into an expanded and engaged group up to the track I½ diplomacy level. During this transformation, riparian country-level workshops and meetings—supported by informal one-on-one follow-ups with key stakeholders—established the political connection, commitment, and momentum long needed for a dialogue breakthrough. The Brahmaputra River Symposium brought together 150 delegates, including, for the first time, prominent stakeholders from all four basin riparian countries , exemplifying the strides this dialogue process has made in terms of credibility and importance.
“We couldn’t have imagined a convention like this, in South Asia, ten years ago,” said professor Ainun Nishat, former Member, Joint Rivers Commission, Bangladesh, and key figure in the Brahmaputra development discourse for more than 20 years. 
The Symposium delegates identified several recommendations to combat the challenges in developing and managing the Brahmaputra Basin.  The recommendations focus on generating and sharing knowledge to close the science-policy gap and inform evidence-based decision making in the basin; strengthening institutions; and integrating investments. One of the major outcomes was consensus among the delegates that this dialogue process has the potential to navigate the geopolitical complexity hindering good governance in the basin, and it must be sustained. In full support of funding the initiative, Dr. Anamika Barau from IIT-Guwahati said, “The Brahmaputra Basin Dialogue is necessary for stakeholders to discuss issues, challenges, and opportunities for improved co-management of the complex river basin, while also allowing civil society and media to build a common vision on the Brahmaputra Basin.”
Looking to the future, SAWI is planning to continue to work closely with all Brahmaputra Basin riparian countries to build on this momentum, and support implementation of the recommendations through various World Bank-backed initiatives for lending, technical assistance, and analytical work.


Taylor W. Henshaw

Transboundary Waters Specialist, Water Global Practice and South Asia Water Initiative

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