An integrated management can ensure tremendous opportunities for livelihood and economic emancipation of people living in the Meghna basin shared by Bangladesh and India, experts and stakeholders said at a virtual symposium.
Speaking on the final day of the three-day Meghna Knowledge Forum (MKF) 2021 on Thursday, they, however, identified a lack of political commitment, inadequate legal basis and loose cooperation between the authorities as major challenges to operating inclusive governance in basin management.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Asia and its partners organised the MKF 2021 to provide a learning exchange platform on river and inclusive water governance issues in the Meghna river basin.
"An institutional set up and political commitment can actually facilitate the process of integrated management of the Meghna or other river basins," Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, said in a session titled "Inclusive governance and integrated management of basin".
"The ongoing climate change and all other situations are pushing us to move for an integrated basin management for the benefit of both countries, but, unfortunately, the response to this call is poor. Various joint institutional mechanisms are working, but do they have political support to go forward? Do we actually have the needed legal basis that will promote an integrated approach of management?'', she added.
Shawahiq Sidiqqui, founding partner of Indian Environment Law Organisation, said, "While upstream and downstream actors have crafted policies that mean well for context specific needs, basin approach is not much elevated, especially when the national water policies in both the countries provide the mandate."
"Water cooperation and navigation remain two distinct and disconnected regimes resulting into exclusion of tremendous opportunities for livelihood and economic emancipation of basin communities. For example, 100,000 small boats can transfer goods, services and goodwill across the basin smoothly," he added.
Focusing on multi-level institutional governance, he said, "Proactive initiatives are required to include communities as basin managers. It would help to inform their needs and concerns to a complex web of formal institutions through mechanisms that feed the highest joint forums such as Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) and Joint River Commission (JRC)."
The Meghna river basin is located in the northeastern part of India and Bangladesh, and it hosts a remarkably rich cultural and natural heritage.
The basin supports the livelihoods of almost 50 million people in Bangladesh and India with a very high value in terms of ecosystem services and functions.
In Bangladesh, the Meghna basin includes the uplands of Sylhet, the Chattogram hills on the south-east; and the Madhupur tract on the west, which marks the boundary between the Brahmaputra and Meghna basins.
Speakers at symposium emphasised renewed joint aspirations mentioning about the framework agreement signed between Bangladesh and India in 2011 that complements the specific bilateral instruments but does not supersede as far as water is concerned.
"It is broad-based but remains unharnessed on ecological cooperation after 10 years. So, unique mobilisation is needed now," said Shawahiq Sidiqqui.
Policymakers who attended the event, however, said they attach high importance to joint cooperation.
"Water is central to our life. So, we do go for regional and global cooperation to protect the lives and livelihoods of the dependent people," MA Mannan, planning minister of Bangladesh, said in the valedictory session.
Donna Mcskimming, regional programme manager, Asia-Oxfam International, said, "Despite two decades of support and 3,600 joint institutions, ecosystem degradation is not being reversed, joint investments in water infrastructure are not being materialised and joint management organisations are failing to attract significant long-term support from the respective basin states."
She focused on promoting evidence-based policy making, considering the needs of the people and the planet.
Joydeep Gupta, South Asia director of The Third Pole, said, "The civil society shows the way on Brahmaputra talks. While government negotiations show halting progress even in the area of sharing water flow data, discussions between academics and NGOs in India, China and Bangladesh have shown a roadmap."
Among others, Kabir Bin Anwar, senior secretary at the Ministry of Water Resources, Bangladesh; Sampath Kumar, CEO, Meghalaya Basin Development Authority; SM Sahai, additional principal chief conservator of forests, Meghalaya; Dr Vivek Saxena, country representative of the IUCN, India spoke in various sessions.
The three-day MKF discussions were structured around three themes – geophysical and ecological diversity of the Meghna basin, cultural and socioeconomics of the Meghna basin; and, and inclusive governance of the Meghna basin.
The Business Standard was the media partner of the event.