Collective Action integral to Transboundary Risk Governance

Collective Action integral to Transboundary Risk Governance

Many communities in Saralbhanga River basin are extremely prone to floods. Flashfloods in 2014, 2016 -17 and 2018 are still vivid in their memories. With a lead time of less than an hour, they could not, but manage to save very little assets they had. Threats of human casualties are very real. An eight year old girl lost her life 2014 in West Manglajoda. “Search and Rescue have had been extremely challenging even for the best equipped Army in last few floods”, says Rani Basumatary. In the picture above, villagers from West Banglajoda are planning for inclusive transboundary community based early warning system. Participatory GIS mapping includes community led Hazard Vulnerability and Risk Assessment as one of the many tools being implemented currently in Saralbhanga, Gaurang and Jinjiram from Kokrajhar, Dhubri and South Salmara districts in Assam. 

The 2017 floods had a devastating impact in India. Nearly 1046 lives were lost. Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were worst affected. The deluge however also affected countries including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh with significant loss of lives and assets. Much of it could have been averted with a collective action at transboundary level. The geopolitics, demography, trade ties and even conflicts closely knit South Asian countries together. These intrinsic linkages make each country vulnerable to the trophic cascade spurred by any factor – dominant or trivial. Risks and vulnerabilities in the region are getting worsened due to the climate change impact and the resultant fragilities can engulf the whole region, be it water stress, agrarian crisis or ethnic conflicts. This points to the need for a collective action approach for transboundary risk governance. 

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India and Bhutan which comparatively share the shortest land border (after Afghanistan) in the region, has 56 transboundary rivers flowing between them in Assam itself. Some of these rivers are extremely flood-prone have caused great damages in past affecting communities across political boundaries.  This is a problem which transcends through all borders rivers including Brahmaputra, Kosi or Sharda, just to name a few.  Other disasters like droughts and famine, earthquakes and cyclones have also been constantly reminding that disaster cannot be restricted by political boundaries and therefore should be managed collectively, not only during emergency response but in all phases of disaster management. 

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Oxfam is implementing the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar to understand and address challenges related to transboundary rivers and work together to create conditions to reduce poverty of communities. It envisions that the implementation of the TROSA programme will lead to increased levels of community involvement in the equitable and sustainable water resource management at a local and regional level. Transboundary dialogues between community, Governments and other stakeholders is a key prerequisite to achieving sustainable solutions at the regional level.   
In this endeavour, we have learnt that shared waters can be a good catalyst for peace when different stakeholders consciously come together and make efforts to secure benefit for all, including the most marginalized. 

Saralbhanga is one of the transboundary rivers which flows through Sarphang district of Bhutan to Kokrajhar in Assam. The river is the lifeline to many downstream communities who depend on traditional Jamfwi system to irrigate their crops. The river is also the elixir for the flora and fauna of the Ultapani reserve forest. However, it has also led to very devastating floods in the recent past.  

In 2016, flash floods in Sarphang district had wreaked havoc in downstream areas of  Kokrajhar and Chirang districts. Later in July 2017, the town of Sarpang Bazar in Bhutan suffered massive damages by floodwaters, when the Sarpang River broke its banks again, cutting off the road to the border crossing town of Gelephu in Bhutan.  Many families were left homeless, following continuous heavy rainfall.  Flood protection measures were put in upstream Bhutan was put in place, such that the traditional Jamfwi’s by Indian Farmers from Saralpara area of Kokrajhar district of Bodoland cannot be practised. This had put the livelihoods of nearly 15000 farmers at risk. 

Oxfam India’s TROSA partner - NERSWN - started engaging with different stakeholders including the All Bodo Student’s Union (ABSU) and Bodo Women Forum for Peace and Development (BWFPD) and held series of consultation with Bhutan India Friendship Association (BIFA). The consultation led to a decision to lobby with the district level authorities of Royal Kingdom of Bhutan. Consultations with the District Administration in Sarphang led to the decisions in favour of the downstream communities in Assam. 

This was the very good example, where a transboundary network of CSOs acted as a catalyst to bring communities and Governments from across the political boundaries together to discuss and amicably arrive at solutions benefiting all, particularly in the downstream. This had a far-reaching impact where it started seeing the revival of traditional socio-cultural ties and strong people-to-people dialogue in the region apart from the revival of the traditional Jamfwi system supporting downstream farmers.  

Oxfam India and NERSWN are now investing in strengthening community-based transboundary early warning system in Saralbhanga and have started establishing community volunteer base in some of the most vulnerable locations in these regions. The role of transboundary networks like BIFA has been seen as impertinent to bringing both the Governments and communities together. A similar initiative is ongoing with the involvement of  Indo-Nepal Joint Action Forum (INJAF) which is a transboundary network partner for Oxfam in Sharda-Mahakali river basin in Uttar Pradesh. 

Oxfam has so far organized five Mahakali Dialogues since January 2018 to provide a platform to the stakeholders from the two countries to understand the risks and identify common areas of addressing some of the most pertinent issues through collective action. Interestingly, communities, CSOs and other stakeholders have time and again reaffirmed the strong socio-cultural ties both countries enjoy. In all of these platforms, transboundary early warning has emerged as a priority action area on which both the countries should engage. Communities have further discussed that sustainable solutions can be traced beyond early warning to the transboundary risk governance and cited how a collectively developed risk governance plan at Banbasa in Uttarakhand. emphasizing on synchronizing the release of 1000 cusecs of water to Nepal, with the farming cycle, monsoons and other factors can significantly avert the risks of flooding and crop loss in the downstream communities. INJAF have brought together diverse stakeholders from both countries to discuss solutions to some of these vexing problems. A beginning has been made in transboundary early warning systems, where Oxfam Nepal and ICIMOD have piloted a telemetry-based warning system in Rangoon basin in Nepal. Oxfam India has been strengthening the last mile institutions with a strong base of 650 volunteers to support early action in Sharda. 

But influencing policies are important to bring this paradigm shift in risk governance, looking at it from the regional and transboundary perspectives, bringing Governments together to ease protocols and collectively prepare to save lives of the people, irrespective of what polygon of a map they reside in. The government of India invited inputs on the draft national disaster management plan in November 2018. Oxfam India organized a series of consultations covering 11 districts and 4 states, culminating in the sharing of findings at the National Consultation in Kerala. All consultations in regions with transboundary significance such as Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have strongly recommended that the National Plan should be more articulate on the transboundary and regional risk governance. The memorandum submitted to the ministry by the CSOs included following recommendations on transboundary risk governance.   

  1. Identify Scope for Transboundary Risk Analysis and set up mechanisms for disaster management planning at basin level covering upstream and downstream stakeholders. 
  2. Transboundary Early Warning Mechanisms should be set up. 
  3. Role sharing between neighbouring countries (with action points and agencies responsible)
  4. Point to Point contact (DDMA-DDMA or similar protocols) to be established 
  5. Transboundary simulation and preparedness exercises to be conducted 
  6. Transboundary response and recovery coordination mechanism to be set up 
  7. SAARC Civil Society Network & Collaborations in the Region could be roped in for addressing Transboundary issues 
  8. Ease of bilateral and regional protocols.  

With the increased frequency and intensity of disasters and with changing climate patterns, more and more people in this region will witness stress due to the impact of disasters. Collective Action from local to regional level is the key to averting the disasters. It is time that countries and communities come together for a resilient and sustainable future. That future would be our shared future!

TROSA project has been supported by SIDA. Know more here.


(Photo: Animesh Prakash/Oxfam India) 

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