Towards a Relational Approach
Water Diplomacy in South Asia

South Asia
Overview of the Kulekhani Dam, Nepal

Overview of the Kulekhani Dam, Nepal

© Manjari Mishra


This policy brief situates the discourse on water diplomacy within the framework of old and new regionalism in South Asia. Arguing that the wave of this discourse on new regionalism has been anchored to India’s Neighbourhood First Policy of connectivity diplomacy, it focuses on the ramifications this connectivity diplomacy could have for transboundary rivers in South Asia. The policy brief draws attention to certain generic and a few specific patterns related to discourses around water diplomacy. First, an attempt has been undertaken to examine the nature of the mainstream water diplomacy discourse, which has become prominent in recent years with respect to India and her neighbours. In this regard, issues which were often marginalised in existing water diplomacy discourses have been brought to the forefront. Second, a policy framework has been propounded to reconcile these tensions by engaging with the meta and micro narratives of water diplomacy. Against this backdrop, there are two specific questions that this brief attempts to highlight. First, what has been the dominant pattern of diplomatic practices and challenges for water diplomacy in South Asia and second, in what ways can we inform and accentuate such discourses with contemporary discourses on regional governance. I argue for a shift from a rational to a relational approach. Rationality has a singular focus on the volumetric allocation of water, and relationality expands the definition of water from surface water (water quantity) to water quality, preservation of wetlands and biodiversity, soil erosion, conjunctive use of ground and surface water, and nature-based solutions. Doing so may help align the enduring concerns of water diplomacy with new discourses on regionalism. The building blocks for such a relational approach are - Reinforcing Adaptation Strategies, Reframing the Negotiation Framework and Reviving the Role of Borderlands. Interventions around these themes often require multiscalar intercessions. Reinforcing Adaptation Strategies need to take cognisance of structural and non-structural factors and demand attention from national governments, civil society and community-based organisations. Reframing Negotiating Framework requires greater participation by epistemic communities to emphasise a Water-Food-Energy-Ecology composite in water negotiations. Track 1.5 and Track 2 level dialogues are essential for generating such a discourse. Reviving the Role of Borderlands requires one to shift focus towards building water communities. Transnational actors and domestic and local collectives can take the lead in this respect. Engaging with local governance institutions is key to making such partnerships sustainable in the long term. While the social and economic facets of such engagements are essential, culture can play an important role in creating water communities.

The brief argues that privileging Integrated River Basin Management in current transboundary water cooperation could be an important way forward to engage with the water sector in a multiscalar manner. Given that there are strong upstream/downstream linkages at the river basin level, any suggestion on connectivity (land, water, energy - which is a dominant contemporary discourse) needs to be sensitive to these linkages. Second, as the main objective of Integrated River Basin Management is to establish a balance between the existing natural functions of the river system and the development aspects of the system, focusing on adaptation strategies would help in the long term. Third, since IRBM takes into account the sustainable use of water and land resources, it becomes an important bridge to discuss water diplomacy and its relevance for water governance and management, a gap which has not been touched upon.

Significantly, new regionalism has introduced a constellation of actors across scales, which can be a crucial driver for such relational thinking. In South Asia, transboundary cooperation led by civil society groups has picked up pace in recent years. The formation of informal networks across the Ganges and Brahmaputra River Basins is a case in point. India’s Neighbourhood First Policy perhaps needs to be cognizant of such developments, which can help facilitate connectivity not only at the physical level but also at the ecological and social level. Thus, water diplomacy could play an important role in the new discourse on regionalism and pave the way for foregrounding a relational practice of water diplomacy and new regionalism in South Asia.

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