From Conflict to Cooperation

From Conflict to Cooperation

A Reflection of the Contemporary Demands for Transboundary Water Governance. 

Water is a life-sustaining resource for humans. It is crucial for long-term economic and social growth. Water consumption has grown as population and economic growth have intensified in recent decades. As a result, the gap between the availability of water and its demand has widened. This has led to a severe water crisis in the form of widespread water shortage, loss of natural aquatic ecosystems, and water quality degradation in several regions of the world. In this context, South Asia has witnessed all these problems. While several substantial efforts have been made to address water-related problems in the region, water governance has traditionally been a centralised process, which has been criticised because it fails to consider the needs of the riparian communities and the local conditions.

Such were the concerns which commanded significant attention of scholars and practitioners of water governance and related studies. Thus, to understand different stakeholders' perspectives and facilitate a constructive dialogue, the International Roundtable Conference on Shifting Lands and Flowing Waters: Transboundary Cooperation for Water and Related Issues in South Asia was organised virtually between 16 and 19 March 2021 by Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies (JTSDS), Tata Institute of Sciences (TISS), Mumbai; Oxfam India; and National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM). Over 50 professionals of disaster studies and related fields, government offices, social sciences institutes, research organizations, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) attended this Conference.

The focus of the Conference was on examining and exploring the challenges faced by vulnerable water-dependent communities in transboundary context and efforts to overcome these. A fundamental take away from the discussions at the Roundtable is that the linkages between the South Asian countries are rooted in geopolitics, demography, socio-economic and cultural ties. This suggests that the changing dynamics in one country can lead to cascading impacts in the other country. These dynamics may be linked to natural resource policies and activities and the catastrophic effects of disasters or changing climatic conditions.

The roundtable discussions encouraged us to think beyond political borders, for deeper regional cooperation and better management of transboundary water resources and related issues. This refers to collaboration and cooperation among the government authorities of the countries involved and the riparian communities' involvement.

Theoretical perspectives

Several studies focus on the transboundary issues in South Asia. However, only a few studies have highlighted the complexity of water issues from natural, political, social and economic perspectives (Babel & Wahid, 2008). On conflict and cooperation, Renner (2009) writes that the lack of trust and reluctance to cooperate between riparian nations may be less useful for collective actions on problems and may lead to water conflict. Chellaney (2013) opines that the state's hegemonic behaviour along with state-versus-state zero-sum games on water may lead to armed conflicts or war. Wars between countries have been avoided in the past owing to institutional frameworks' existence to resolve water-related disputes. However, there is now an increasing concern that the prevalence of water conflicts will increase due to new stressors such as climate change, which will place a further strain on already restricted water supplies.

On this subject, Lowi & Shaw (2000) contend that environmental change can affect water resource allocation, which can pose a threat to state security. According to Stahl (2005), the climatic and environmental changes and rising demands have increased the competition over water and made cooperation a more critical issue in management and hydro-politics. The impact of climate change on water availability is a subject of a wide array of studies across the world. India's Initial National Communication to United Nations Framework 22 Convention on Climate Change brought out the fact that the hydrological cycle, a fundamental component of climate, is likely to be altered due to climate change. It added that preliminary assessments have revealed that the severity of droughts and intensity of floods in various parts of India is likely to increase. Further, many experts believe that countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh could face a climate catastrophe soon. Climate change is to be seen as catastrophic because it impacts agricultural practices, which in turn influences poverty reduction efforts in countries like India and Pakistan (for example), the economies of which are majorly dependent on agriculture. However, a concern as big as Climate Change cannot be dealt with single-handedly. It instead requires a multilateral and cooperative effort of all the countries in the South-Asian region.

Transboundary water management is often understood under the ambit of conflict management also. This could be because of the lesser visibility of frameworks, policies, and mechanisms that deal with water resources compared to those dealing with immobile natural resources. Nevertheless, academically engaging with water conflict, Wolf (2007) noted that while acute militarised conflict has not occurred between basin states, water scarcity and water quality degradation can cause political tension between states and instability within states. In South Asia, water-related conflicts can be located in themes like equitable access to water, water quality and pollution, contending water uses, and construction of dams over rivers and the risk of displacement of riparian populations. Vaidyanath and Oudshoom (2004) contend for a 'transdisciplinary' dialogue for a 'coherent, multi-pronged action on several water-related fronts like technological, legal, institutional and economic'. While the professionals and policymakers are shifting their focus from transboundary conflict to cooperation and collaboration between co-basin countries, it is needed that a gamut of developmental issues, such as agriculture, energy, industrial development, and transportation (including navigation), are taken into consideration.

Transboundary Rivers and Conflict Management: Complexities and Challenges

It is an unavoidable reality that water resources do not recognise political boundaries. This represents a compelling case for international cooperation for water management. To address this problem, there are global calls for water cooperation. The United Nations General Assembly, in December 2003, announced the decade 2005-2015 as the International Decade for Action- 'Water for Life’. Several policy reports and awareness-raising campaigns have contended that cooperation can bring about efficiency in water resources utilisation. Also, to abate major conflicts, cooperation over international waters can be considered an important bridge to build regional peace. Collaborative development of a shared river can escalate the resources' sustainability, thereby providing for all the countries involved.

However, it should be recalled that water problems are ‘wicked’ in nature (Moors, 2017). As much as the uncertainty of water access is stifling innovation, harming ecosystems, and restricting economic development, there is a complex chain of issues that must be addressed to solve water-related concerns. Multiple stakeholders, for example, have different principles when it comes to water resource management. This makes decision-making a valuable but complex process with differing perspectives or rationality on how water should be managed.

In light of this, international transboundary river basin management presents an intricate scenario to tackle. Such rivers are shared by two or more sovereign states, which may have different perceptions towards risk. These perceptions may be influenced by their respective confounding factors like political environment, historical experience, personal goals and other varying issues at hand. Therefore, the riparian countries' leaders may differ in their respective perceptions of risks and how ready they are to discount those risks.  The fact that the decisions made by leaders, policymakers, and academics would affect the riparian communities living in the transboundary river basin, often necessitates a high degree of attention to detail and foresight in the process.

Transboundary Cooperation on Water and Related Issues: The Way Ahead

It is not unreasonable to think that the environmental changes and anthropogenic activities create risks like floods in some cases and scarcity of water in some other cases, especially in the transboundary river basins. In several cases, the medium and small rivers are heading towards water scarcity, bound to impact the millions of people dependent on those rivers directly. Therefore, as we work towards a more efficient and systematic transboundary cooperation, the democratic involvement of the riparian communities in identifying and addressing the ground-level problems cannot be left out. This will not only pave the way for an understanding of several facets of transboundary water governance but, more importantly, it will usher in a much-needed understanding of how these communities interact with the ecosystem. It should be highlighted here that women’s participation at all levels and forms of conflict management is essential for the development and sustainability of agreements. This includes their involvement in transboundary water governance too. The gendered experience of transboundary water governance is often left understudied. Although women play significant roles in the way water is used and shared, their participation in the governance of shared waters has not received the required attention. Therefore, it is imperative to make these gendered dynamics also visible in water-related issues.

Finally, unpacking several underlying intersectional dynamics will ensure a step towards implementing the value of environmental justice alongside social justice in the context of transboundary water governance and sustainability of water-sharing practices. Transboundary water cooperation is a challenging but crucial process. It is a process that is still evolving through trials and errors; and lessons and examples.  How transboundary waters are managed impacts development practices within the country and beyond its borders. That calls for cooperation among all those sectors which are dependent heavily on water.   It is crucial to understand that there is more to gain from continuing cooperation in terms of (for example): international trade, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and economic growth. Benefits of cooperation are likely to evolve as cooperation opens up new options to address emerging challenges.


Babel, M., & Wahid, S. M. (2008). Fresh Water Under Threat: South Asia. Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources to Environmental Change. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

Chellaney, B. (2013). Water, Peace and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. Maryland, United States: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lowi, M., & Shaw, B. (2000). Environment and Security: Discoourses and Practices. UK: Palgrave Macmillian.

Moors, E. (2017). Water - Wrestling with wicked problems. Netherlands: IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.

Renner, M. (2009). Water Challenges in Central-South Asia. Norway: Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre.

Stahl, K. (2005). Influence of Hydroclimatology and Socioeconomic Conditions on Water-Related International Relations. Water International, 270-282.

Vaidyanath, A., & Oudshoom, H. (2004). Managing Water Scarcity: Experiences and Prospects. Manohar.

Wolf, A. (1998). Conflict and Cooperation Along International Waterways. Water Policy, 251-265.

Wolf, A. (2007). Shared Waters: Conflict and Cooperation. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 3.1-3.29.

The author is a Community Knowledge Building Officer (Consultant at Oxfam India)

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Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA)

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