Only Together… Can We Save Our Rivers!

Only Together… Can We Save Our Rivers!

Every year, October 13 is observed as the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. Started in 1989, the day was ideated to promote a culture of global risk-awareness and disaster reduction. The key global campaign call for the 2021 event is “Only together… Can we save the planet” and the theme for this year’s edition is “international cooperation for developing countries to reduce their disaster risk and disaster losses”.

One area of cooperation which is seen as critical to reducing disaster related losses is “Early Warning” on hazards. Warnings are seen as key to risk reduction as well as climate change adaptation. Timely and accurate warnings are, then, all the more important considering the impact of climate change on the frequency and magnitude of extreme events. It is an oft-repeated fact that the history of human civilisation is intrinsically connected to rivers. Even today, the world’s most densely populated areas are flood plains/river basins. The rivers provide vital resources for subsistence and growth of people living near them. However, these rewards do not come without great risks i.e. that of floods.

Transboundary (and internal) cooperation on warning systems for floods is an integral strategy to the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project in India. We work with stakeholders in Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan to disseminate timely information to the people in our project villages in the Saralbhanga, Sharda, and Brahmaputra basins.

Through a collective action and people-centred early warning system approach using the WG-CAN portal (including Adhikar-Vaani), TROSA has been successful in promoting a culture of cooperation in warning on floods. For instance, WhatsApp messages sent by cross-border friends from Sarpang, Bhutan are being used as informal early warning systems to people living along the Aie, Saralbhanga and Manas rivers in Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) in Assam. Cooperation between the community and administration of the two districts has also resulted in maintenance of the headworks of the traditional Bodo irrigation channels, Jamphwis, by the Bhutanese authorities during border closure due to COVID-19. Interventions done under TROSA to foster cooperation such as the Kokrajhar call for action between India and Bhutan played a pivotal role in combating rumours and salvaging the situation.

Similarly, in the Sharda/Mahakali basin, a virtual transboundary flood warning simulation was carried out under the leadership of Oxfam in Nepal. As a build up to the transboundary simulation, a similar exercise was conducted at local level in India to gauge the time that the warning takes to reach to last point in the basin and the gaps that exist in current dissemination network. This is another example of cooperation in flood warning dissemination at the transboundary level. To foster this cooperation, TROSA in India has established a basin-wide network of youth volunteers along with a citizen’s forum for the river named, “Sharda Nadi Nagrik Manch”. These volunteers and forum members are the first point of contact for the warning messages. They then further disseminate the messages to the community members, completing the loop.

According to a World Bank working paper titled—“People in Harm’s Way: Flood Exposure and Poverty in 189 Countries”— South-and East Asia have the highest populations of people in harms way to flood risks. South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh, which are drained by the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin are among the most exposed. These are also countries which are seen as developing ones. International cooperation on flood (and multi-hazard) warning systems for such countries thus become a priority. Importantly, since these rivers traverse political boundaries, the warning systems also need to be transboundary in nature — catering to all riverine (and other affected) communities regardless of their nationality.

The lyrics of a Bollywood song by lyricist Javed Akhtar, Panchi, nadiya, pavan ke jhonke…, encapsulate the need for cooperation very well. The opening lines translate as, “Birds, rivers and gusts of wind know no borders”. These lines convey the disregard that rivers hold for political borders. The succeeding lines, though, convey the confinement that these borders create for humans. Considering these confinements, cooperation between riparian nations on a transboundary river’s rewards as well as its risks becomes fundamental to reduce the adverse impacts associated with floods. This cooperation then naturally extends to warning on flooding and water level rise. “Early” warning has often been a prime strategy for disaster risk reduction and resilience by various organizations like Oxfam, CDRI, and UNDP.

TROSA has also made interventions to foster regional cooperation on rivers beyond flood warning. Interventions through groundwork, discussion and consultations on Hilsa conservation, and inland waterways trade and navigation with Bangladesh have been aimed at cooperation between Indian and Bangladeshi fishers on the conservation of the much valued Hilsa, and traders and boat operators of the two nations on trade on the waterways of the Brahmaputra respectively. Similarly, we have also worked on issues of water quality in the Sharda/Mahakali basin with our counterparts in Nepal. These actions are aimed at achieving transboundary cooperation at all levels, from people-to-people to national and regional, to reduce poverty and marginalisation of the riverine people in the basins that we work through improving access to and control over water resources. Research and practice suggests that acts of cooperation among and between people of the river basins go a long way in realising benefits for the river and people.

Consequently, taking from this year’s campaign for the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction goes – Only together… can we save our rivers!

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Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA)

A programme to understand and address challenges related to transboundary rivers and communities in these river basins.

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